Symmetric Myopia on Ukraine

[Note from almost 10yrs later — I don’t believe in deleting old posts, even if I find my old views somewhat embarrassing. I’ve definitely come around to strongly backing the Ukrainian side after Russia began its full-scale invasion in 2022. At least this blog post wasn’t entirely stupid, but in case anyone digs this up in 2024, I’ve grown up a bit in the last decade. ~Jon 1/12/2024]

I wanted to comment on an interesting case of symmetric myopia I’ve been noticing regarding the situation in Ukraine.

Basically, I’ve noticed that both pro-Western and pro-Russian partisans tend to suffer from a very similar bias. They assume that supporters of their cause in the Ukraine were 100% legitimate grassroots opposition to tyranny, while the other side is 100% bought-and-paid-for toadies of external forces. For example:

  • Pro-Russian view of the EuroMaidan protests in Kiev: most if not all of the anti-Yanukovich protest movement was a CIA-sponsored effort to overthrow the rightful government of Ukraine to replace it with a pro-western puppet government that will place a hostile military alliance (NATO) right on Russia’s doorstep. If there were any legitimate gripes, they shouldn’t have been handled by violently storming government buildings in Kiev and western Ukraine, but through the democratic process. Use of violent force against opposition protesters may have been regrettable, but they were using violence too to storm government buildings.
  • Pro-Russian view of events in East Ukraine: On the other hand, the reaction in East Ukraine, to a Pro-Russian is a organic, locally-driven grassroots protest both to the illegal actions of the EuroMaidan movement, not some sort of attempt by Russian special forces to annex the East. If their actions are a little on the militaristic side, they’re just mimicking the EuroMaidan tactics of occupying government buildings using violence, and trying to force extra-legal governmental change. If removing the president in a way that wasn’t allowed by the Ukrainian constitution is ok, holding a referendum on autonomy/secession should be ok too in their mind. If Yanukovich’s forces firing on violent protesters storming government buildings in Kiev was evil, how is using the military against violent protesters in Donetsk not also at least somewhat evil?
  • Pro-Western view of the EuroMaidan protests in Kiev: To the pro-Westerner, claims of US involvement in trying to destabilize Yanukovich and support his ouster are just crazy paranoid excuses being used by a cynical Kremlin to undermine what were almost entirely organic, locally-driven, grassroots protests against corruption and tyranny. Using force and acting outside the bounds of the Ukrainian constitution were ok, because it was a fight of liberty and western values against tyranny and corruption. Even though more extreme elements of the Maidan movement did use violence to storm and seize government buildings, they were doing so for a pro-democratic cause. The people really were yearning for a move to integrate more with the West and participate in modern society, and this whole situation shows why so many in the EuroMaidan want and need NATO militarily protecting them from Russian aggression.
  • Pro-Western views of what’s happening in Eastern Ukraine: This is Russian maskirovka plain and simple. Putin wants to annex large parts of Eastern Ukraine, and he’s using Russian agents and special forces (“little green men”) to prep the groundwork for an outright invasion and occupation. Sure, he’ll wrap himself in claims of protecting Russians, but only a small fraction of Eastern Ukrainians or Crimeans in that poll back in February wanted to outright be annexed by the Russian Federation, so obviously, this isn’t a grassroots movement, but “astroturf” acting as cover for an illegal invasion/occupation. Using military force on these “terrorists” is legitimate and good because they’re obviously either traitors or foreigners. If they wanted more autonomy, they should’ve worked through the democratic process, and not stormed government buildings and taken extralegal measures.

I may not entirely be able to pass Bryan Caplan’s “Intellectual Turing Test” with these comments, but I think they’re at least somewhat close to the mark. So, what’s my point? It’s just that both the simplistic Pro-Russian and the simplistic Pro-Western views are likely wrong. Ukraine is a strongly divided country, with a very wide range of opinion. Both the EuroMaidan and eastern separatist groups are probably both a mix of genuine grassroots opinions and foreign pot-stirring. There’s plenty of evidence that the US had some hand in supporting the overthrow of Yanukovich, but acting like this was entirely-US driven is obviously bunk. On the other hand, acting as though there’s no reason anyone could legitimately be pro-Russian without being bought and paid for is also absurd. If the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine are entirely just a Russian plot to annex the East, and reform the USSR, Russia sure is taking its sweet time following-up on things. That causus belli excuse Putin needed that was provided by the anti-Russian killings in Odessa was almost a month ago, and still no real sign of Russia having any desire of crossing the borders.

I guess my reason for bringing this up is that the naive “our enemies are pure evil and our allies white as snow” propaganda going around the internet is only likely to lead to more violence, more escalation, and a very bad ending for the people of Ukraine. That may benefit extremists, war profiteers on either side who’ve been jonesing for a Cold War 2.0 ever since 1990, and domestic politicians trying to get a good old fashion Two Minutes Hate going to distract from the screwed-up domestic politico-economic situation, but that’s not going to lead to anywhere good for the supposed objects of our sympathy (the Ukrainian people).

Acknowledging that neither side has a monopoly on good or evil, and that both sides have both legitimate gripes, and have both severely overstepped legal bounds, is IMO a key to starting to defuse the situation and find a solution that minimizes further loss of life, and gives the average person in the Ukraine the best possible deal. To be stable in a country so evenly split, that deal probably looks like less “winner takes all democracy” and more federalism/decentralization of power. But that isn’t going to happen so long as people insist on being blind to the faults of their own side, and acting like their “enemies” are entirely foreign-grown.


Filed under Foreign Policy

2 Responses to Symmetric Myopia on Ukraine

  1. Jonathan,

    umm. Since I have inlaws in east Ukraine, outside of Donetsk in one of the hot spots, I’m getting lots of updates. They were VERY anti maidan, but have since radically changed their minds. 80+% of those fighting against the Ukrainian government are foreign nationals. More than a few have confessed to being Russian soldiers.

  2. Jonathan Goff

    Interesting data. I’d definitely place more weight on data from family members who were initially anti-maidan than I would on info from internet echo chambers. When you say foreign nationals, you mean as in foreign nationals who came to Ukraine just to foment things, or foreign nationals who were already living in Ukraine at the time? Also regarding the confessions of being Russian soldiers, do they mean as in being active duty Russian soldiers there under orders? And were those confessions made while they were free, or confessions made after being captured? Just curious, trying to figure out how to weight various pieces of information in the foreign policy Kalman filter.

    I’m still somewhat skeptical that it’s all just Russian soldiers in the East though, because they don’t seem to have committed anywhere near enough resources to actually win there against the Ukrainian government, but in spite of having forces available and convenient excuses, Russia doesn’t coming to their aid directly either. Putin’s had more than enough excuses so far to intervene overtly, but hasn’t taken any of those, so I’m still not convinced that he’s actually interested in invading and occupying Ukraine.

    As I said though, thanks for sharing. Most of the news we hear coming out of Ukraine is coming from one of two official channels (the new Ukrainian government and the Russian governments) both of which have a strong interest in twisting facts to fit their narrative. So any outside data from trusted sources is useful in helping figure out what is really going on.


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