Thinking Carefully about Ukraine: Nuanced Perspectives Worth Considering
The nature of modern media makes nuance and depth impossible. These articles and videos provide more than a surface-level understanding of what’s happening.
There is a singular and simple narrative coming from D.C. and corporate media: Putin is a dictator, and Russia’s aggression is completely unjustified. As is almost always the case, the situation is much more complex. This is not at all to say that Putin is the good guy or that Russia’s invasion is justified; rather, it’s simply an acknowledgement that the situation is more complex than “Ukraine good; Russia bad.” Understanding the complexities of the situation is important not only to thinking rightly about what is happening today; it is essential to being able to act responsibly in the coming weeks, months, and even years. Indeed, seeking to understand the situation from all sides in this conflict may be the only way an enduring peace can be achieved.
The Nature of Modern Media
First, why is it nearly impossible to understand the complexities of what is happening in Ukraine? For starters, the nature of most media today renders complex debate impossible. Arguments for or against Russia’s actions in Ukraine are limited to 3-5 minute clips on cable news, followed by (or even interrupted by) advertisements for pain killers or chicken wings. See this egregious clip as one of countless examples:
Even if news segments are not interrupted, the nature of television news and other media platforms leaves little room for serious debate, as the constraints of both space and time often do not allow for lengthy discourse.
The situation on social media is not much better, as any attempts at nuance and debate are often met with assumptions that others are evil or have evil motives. As to the conflict in Ukraine, the response is often that one is an “agent of the Kremlin” or a “traitor” for sharing anything that does not perfectly align with the “Ukraine good; Russia bad” narrative. Consider the following responses to Tulsi Gabbard’sreasoned take:
Why such virulent responses to a reasoned suggestion for how war could be avoided? How are these responses so very black or white, allowing no room for dissent from the narrative that Putin is evil and Russia is to blame for everything?
The Nature of Us
These responses stem from our fallen human nature and our tendency to assume the worst of others. Moreover, we have biases that often blind us to the complex nature of human relationships (and the infinitely more complex nature of international affairs). Add to our biases and assumptions the emotions of rage and anger that arise when faced with violent conflict, and it becomes nearly impossible to think carefully or to engage in reasoned debate. Alan Jacobs explains this well in his book How to Think. Quoting T. S. Eliot, Jacobs argues that “when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute our emotions for thoughts” (How to Think, 22). This often leads to an inability to even consider that our understanding of a given situation could be incorrect, rendering meaningful conversation or debate impossible.
I’ve experienced this inability to consider that I could be wrong numerous times in my life (and probably more times than I am aware). One example relates to my master’s thesis that I wrote nearly fifteen years ago. For this project, my aim was to evaluate the ethical implementation of American foreign policy, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. But there was a major problem with my analysis: my starting point was that of course our foreign policy was ethical; I was evaluating American foreign policy, and isn’t U.S. foreign policy always by its very nature good? America exists as a “city on a hill,” a beacon of hope among the nations that has always stood for freedom and democracy. To some, what I’m writing here may seem like sarcasm; to others, it may seem like common sense (of course we are the good guys!). The point is that my presumptions were so strong, and my beliefs about American foreign policy so deeply entrenched, that I could not even entertain the thought that my presumptions were incorrect. Not many years later, I actually returned to my alma mater and apologized to one of the professors who graded my thesis. I had been wrong to make such assumptions, and he had been right to critique my work. I had simply been so committed to my belief that American foreign policy was always well-intentioned that I was unwilling and unable to see evidence to the contrary. In reality, American foreign policy has not been perfect, and we have engaged in many practices that are at the very least ethically questionable.
When it comes to the situation in Ukraine, many of us are already so emotionally invested in our defense of Ukraine that we cannot even consider that the actions of Ukraine (or of the United States) could have contributed to the present conflict. To be clear, I am not arguing at this point that the United States or Ukraine have provoked Russia or that Russia is not responsible for its actions. But what I am saying is that we can be so intellectually and emotionally committed to the position that “Russia is bad; Putin is evil” that we will be incapable of seeing any errors (strategic or otherwise) that the United States or our allies commit. Such blindness can lead to even more errors in judgment when it comes to foreign policy decisions; moreover, these assumptions can lead us to dehumanize our “enemies” before even evaluating whether they are actually our enemies. And even if they are legitimately our enemies, such assumptions can cause us to forget that they are still human beings created in God’s image—humans who should be treated with dignity despite the present conflict.
So as we seek to carefully evaluate what is happening in Ukraine, and as we consider both the reasons for the conflict as well as possible solutions, may God grant us grace to lay aside our assumptions. And as I’ve argued elsewhere on this site, may we be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if the truth conflicts with our presumptions and preunderstandings.
Referring to the nature of modern media, Noam Chomsky once said, “You can’t give evidence if you’re stuck with concision.” If we hope to have a greater understanding not only of what is happening in Ukraine but in many other areas of the world, we must seek out information that goes beyond snarky tweets and cable soundbites.
The following articles and videos provide much more nuance on the situation in Ukraine. To be clear, sharing the links below is not an endorsement of everything that is said; however, I do believe these perspectives are worth considering and may serve to temper the intense emotions we experience when we think about war in Ukraine.
(1) Glenn Greenwald: The War in Ukraine
The following video (about an hour and 20 minutes) offers a different perspective on the situation in Ukraine than the one presented by most media networks (note that the video actually starts at the 4:48 mark):
While I think the whole video is helpful, perhaps most important are the cautions given during the first few minutes about how our emotions can tend to prevent us from thinking carefully about the situation, as war evokes some of the most intense emotions that we can experience. Greenwald’s examination of the tendency to demonize our opponents is also very helpful, as is his careful explanation of the events of the past ten years that preceded the current crisis.
(2) Initial Reaction to the “Russian Invasion”
In this article, Dr. Hal Freeman (one of my former professors) offers a unique perspective as an American now living in Russia. Dr. Freeman’s explanation of the history between Ukraine and Russia, particularly the toppling of Ukraine’s democratically elected government in 2014, is extremely important. Here’s his summary of what’s happened in Ukraine over the past 10-12 years:
Many are looking at pictures or seeing reports and drawing conclusions about who the bad guys and good guys are in the conflict. This has been a long ordeal. So first, I’ll address how we got to where we are.
Of first significance is that in 2010, Ukraine elected a president – Viktor Yanukovich – whose election victory was recognised by both America and the European Union. Later, in 2013 when Yanukovich chose to pursue economic integration with Russia, instead of with the EU, the West overthrew him in a coup in 2014. The coup was supported and funded ($5 billion) by the U.S. Victoria Nuland was essentially the person on the ground calling the shots. I have covered her famous phone call with the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine in several blogs already.
After Yanukovich was overthrown, the Eastern Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (pronounced and sometimes spelled Lugansk) voted to become independent of the rest of Ukraine because of the violation of Ukrainian law. The current president had not been elected and no election was called for. These republics are predominantly Russian speaking and Russian Orthodox. Sometimes you will see the general name “Donbas” for the whole region. I will use that term for convenience sake.
The new Ukrainian government launched a war against these two republics. Estimates are that 14,000 lives were lost and most surviving residents of these republics were forced to live underground. They formed militias, but they were no match for the standing Ukrainian army. The two republics were not allowed any participation in the governing of Ukraine. Citizens there had no representation and no vote. Yet they were forced by military power to remain officially in Ukraine. The fact is they were forced to remain subservient.
Ukraine is not a democracy. That is ludicrous, although I see U.S. politicians excusing the U.S. involvement and telling its citizens they will suffer inflation and other problems, but it is because the U.S. must support democracy around the world and in Ukraine. The U.S. backed the ouster of the democratically elected president. That ain’t democracy. The U.S. continues to back a government that will not allow representation to a section of its citizenry that they know will not vote the way the leaders want them to. That ain’t democracy. President Zelensky’s opponent in the last election is now in jail. Zelensky shut down three television stations in Ukraine because they were broadcastings what he deemed “pro-Russian propaganda.” That is NOT democracy.
In light of this history, Dr. Freeman offers a perspective any fair-minded person must consider, even if we ultimately disagree on who is most at fault in the present conflict. Here’s a brief excerpt:
I will insert a caveat with my own observation. I am now seeing many on FB and other social media talk about the “Russian invasion” and the violence. I have seen posts from both my Evangelical Protestant friends as well as Orthodox folks praying for Ukraine. Several of those either imply or state openly that it is all Russia’s (particularly Putin’s) fault. I hate the violence. I am anti-war, and I’ve made that clear. But where were your prayers when the people of the Donbas were being killed and tortured? Where were your prayers when they had to live in basements? Do you pray for the children who cannot play outside? You are now seeing on the Western media sites the awful suffering of people in central Ukraine. I agree it is awful. But how long was Putin supposed to let the people of the Donbas suffer? How many was he supposed to allow to be killed? Would you say 20,000? 30,000? Do you believe there was any point at which he was justified in saying, “This will stop.” I lost count of the diplomatic meetings and video conferences with Russian and Western leaders. Yet nothing happened.
I do not believe my Western friends are heartless and don’t care about those people in Donbas. I am saying you are seeing one “snapshot” right now and have not seen the bigger picture. You are now seeing people in Ukraine suffer. You hate that. I understand. But the people in eastern Ukraine have been suffering for 8 years. You just were not allowed to see it because those suffering were not important to the political quest of the West in Ukraine. You see the suffering of those in Ukraine right now. I see videos of the joy and elation of those in Donbas taking to the streets to celebrate their freedom. They finally are not living in constant fear. They are thanking God for Putin’s intervention.
You can read the rest of his post here.
(3) “War propaganda works by making you too mad to stop and think that maybe it’s not true.”
This article links to an older video, but the point (aptly expressed in the title) is worth remembering:
(4) “Russia, Ukraine, Nato, the EU - and a Few Good Men.”
Maajid Nawaz asks insightful questions about our tendency to pick a side and to ignore the faults of the sides we pick. From the article:
I should not have to repeat the following, but we are where we are in history and so I find myself having to: I have long been a critic of Putin. I have probably opposed Putin before a wider audience than most of my critics. My animas against Putin is visible online for all to see. It started because I stood firmly with the Syrian Arab uprisingagainst the dictator Assad in Syria, who Putin supported. I stood with the Syrian people then as I stand with all of the people in Ukraine today.
Our opposition to Putin in Syria by no means meant that any of us supported ISIS in Syria either. My opposition to ISIS-style extremism is too well documented even to need hyperlinked references. Most of us were able to oppose both Assad and his ally Putin, as well as oppose ISIS. This is because most of us were able to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. This is just like in history, where most of us can see that the Soviet Union and the Third Reich were two sides of the same totalitarian coin.
So why has it become so hard for most of us to condemn both Putin’s attack on Ukraine while also condemning our and our ally Ukraine’s state-funding, training and arming of the armed Nazi battalion Azov in Ukraine?
Again, to be clear, this is not to deny Ukraine’s right to defend itself. This is also not to ignore Putin’s authoritarianism. This is a critique of the Ukrainian state’s decision to do so by raising and formally incorporating specifically neo-Nazi armed battalions into its armed forces. And the focus is on Ukraine here because they are our ally, we are sending them arms, and so we are culpable.
You can read the rest here.
(5) A Crossroads in History
It’s not just about Ukraine. Consider listening to the linked podcast via the tweet below for a bigger picture of what’s happening in our world:
Who Do We Trust?
Where do I personally stand on all of this? Do I believe the United States should intervene militarily? Should we impose harsher sanctions on Russia? Should we seek to negotiate with Putin? Should we do nothing? I honestly don’t know all the answers to these questions. What I do know is that I want to be careful not to simply parrot various narratives on the situation in Ukraine without any critical thought. I also want to consider the situation not simply from an “America is always right” perspective but with the understanding that the United States, like every other nation, is made up of imperfect human beings who can and do make mistakes.
In addition to recognizing our imperfections, I think wisdom would dictate that willingness to admit one’s wrongs and to humbly reverse course when we make mistakes would be better for everyone involved. From all I have seen and read to this point (which is admittedly still very little), I believe we should seriously consider diplomatic solutions that could end the fighting in Ukraine, even if that means we must swallow our pride and admit we were wrong. Moreover, I personally do not desire a wider war with Russia, not only for the sake of the United States but for the sake of other nations—including Ukraine. It’s also not at all clear to me how the United States becoming involved militarily would actually be good for the Ukrainian people, as much as our instincts might say we should intervene. I say this because further escalation of tensions between two nuclear powers could get out of control very quickly, and the results could be genuinely catastrophic—not only for the United States and Russia but for the entire world.
As to who we should trust for information on Ukraine, here are a few brief points to consider:
(1) For those who have followed my reporting on the covid narrative for the past two years, you’ve seen myriad inconsistencies and even outright falsehoods from many in corporate media (not to mention false and incomplete information being shared by government agencies). In light of the endless misrepresentations on covid over the past 24 months, why would we immediately trust corporate media’s representations of what is happening in Ukraine, especially without any real thought as to whether these representations are true?
(2) The prevailing narrative of “Ukraine good; Russia bad” could be true, but unless we investigate the evidence and seek to hear from all sides, we cannot say for certain what is actually happening. Even then, it is incredibly difficult (if not impossible) for any of us to know all the reasons for the conflict or for us to understand all that is taking place. But as several of the sources above make clear, it is possible for Putin to have acted unjustly and for others to have acted unjustly as well, and there is evidence to suggest that may be the case.
(3) If I’ve learned anything from the past two years, it’s that we should not automatically trust any media narrative, no matter how noble or righteous the cause seems and no matter what pre-existing beliefs we may hold.
(4) Recognizing the flaws of modern media and our own finite ability to find and understand evidence is not meant to discourage us from seeking the truth; rather, it’s simply meant to say that we must be careful in our investigations and the conclusions we draw, humbly recognizing that we can get things wrong.
(5) Finally, as to which media sources to trust, I will tend to trust networks and individuals who are willing to consider all sides and who are not intent on stifling genuine debate; moreover, I will tend to trust sources that have carefully weighed evidence over the past two years instead of outlets that have simply repeated narratives.
Whatever one thinks about the rightness or wrongness of the nations and leaders involved in this conflict, one thing is certain: war is terrible, and thousands of innocent people may suffer and die. We must not simply speak about war and conflict in terms of political decisions or international intrigue; instead, we must recognize the very real human cost of this violence. The video below captures the devastating effects war has on families, especially those with young children. Perhaps others may not be as deeply moved by this clip, but as a Dad of three young girls, I cannot imagine these goodbyes:
War rips apart families, destroys relationships and marriages, and renders children fatherless (and motherless). As gripping and hard to watch as the above video is of a Ukrainian father saying goodbye to his daughter—perhaps for the last time—we must remember that it is not only Ukrainian men and women who are leaving their families. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of Putin‘s decision to use military force in Ukraine, Russian soldiers are also leaving their families, and many of them also may not return. This means that both Russian and Ukrainian wives will grieve the loss of their husbands, and Russian and Ukrainian children will mourn the loss of their fathers. The cost of war is not only felt on the side of those being attacked but also on those who are advancing. Again, this is not to say that the actions of Russia are righteous or justified; rather, it’s simply an acknowledgement that soldiers on both sides are humans made in God’s image and that the losses sustained on the battlefield will cause incalculable harm to countless families.
It’s been said before that war is hell, and while our finite minds cannot comprehend how terrible hell actually is, there is still much truth in this statement. War is the result of broken and fallen human beings striving against one another in a broken and fallen world. It leads to suffering and death on a scale no one can understand—except for those who have experienced it. As we look on at the conflict in Ukraine, may the destruction of war and the unspeakable violence on our fellow image bearers cause us to pray for those who are suffering, including those we consider our enemies. May we also pray for an end to the fighting and for a just and stable peace. And may we pray for the permanence of what the Psalmist proclaimed:
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire. —Psalm 46:9
Finally, may we look forward in hope to the new heavens and the new earth when the words of Isaiah will become reality:
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore. —Isaiah 2:4
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More responses to Tulsi’s tweet, along with a brief analysis of the nature of modern media, can be found on this substack: