RUSSIA VS. UKRAINE: SAY NO TO WAR FEVER!

by Rich Rubenstein on April 10, 2022 · 11 comments

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Richard E. Rubenstein

Students of war psychology are familiar with a process in which public opinion moves by stages from a position of indifference or opposition to a war to one of passionate partisanship and active involvement in the military struggle.  A key element in this movement is the accusation that a hostile power is committing war crimes and atrocities against civilians – particularly women and children. 

The accusations often contain considerable truth, since most wars are far more indiscriminate than “surgical” in their effects. There is no doubt that Russian activities in Ukraine have taken too many civilian lives. But war crimes charges tend also to be exaggerated. The United States entered World War I in 1917 in part on the heels of reports that the German invaders of Belgium were butchering babies while German U-boats sank ships filled with innocent passengers.

This dynamic can now be witnessed in the West, where observers at first surprised and nonplussed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and then hoping for a peaceful settlement of the war, are now advocating escalation of the violence and rooting openly for a Ukrainian victory.  British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declares that “Ukraine must win,” a sentiment not echoed openly by the Biden administration, but perhaps motivating a huge increase in U.S. arms deliveries to the Zelensky regime.  Calls for a truce in Ukraine and immediate peace negotiations between the parties (most recently joined in by Pope Francis) now seem increasingly forlorn. 

Three factors make it difficult for peace-loving people to keep their balance in a situation like this.  The first is that the invading force – in this case, the Russians – bears a very heavy responsibility for subsequent violence.  This is no doubt true.  But In fact, the other parties, the U.S. and members of NATO, also bear significant responsibility for creating the situation that led to the Russian invasion.  The responsibility for violence is actually shared.  But the tendency, as war fever grows, is to deny this and to try to throw all the “war guilt” on the invader. 

That is why we see figures like Bill Clinton arguing over the past few days that NATO was right after the Cold War ended to expand to the Russian border and to militarize Eastern Europe.  The Russian invasion, says Clinton, proves that this expansion was justified.  Only a few critics have pointed out the absurdity of this reasoning, which implies that the Russians are aggressive by nature rather than provoked to aggress by a sense of insecurity fostered by Western actions.  The enemy is purely malicious, while we are purely benevolent:  this is the classical “evil enemy” stereotype that develops as a regime moves more openly towards active participation in a war. 

A second factor also has to do with how one characterizes the adverse party.  To begin with, we define the opponent as a regime or even as one person: in this case, the Russian man-in-charge, Vladimir Putin.  By implication, the masses who have been misled by bad leadership are exonerated or at least considered not deserving of extreme punishment.  But as war fever grows, the responsibility for the regime’s sins is extended downward.  Ordinary Russians are thought of as complicit or as robots or fanatics who blindly follow the dictator’s lead.  Sanctions that punish them as well as the elite are now said to be justified.  Soon, killing them may also be justified as an appropriate punishment for members of an “enemy nation.”  

Finally, as people get caught up in wartime passions (even if they are technically not direct parties to the conflict), they begin almost unconsciously to abandon the goal of a negotiated settlement in favor of some form of unconditional victory.  This almost always extends the war and makes it massively more lethal.  In World War II, for example, the Allies’ demand for Japan’s “unconditional surrender” was one of the factors that produced the atom-bombing of defenseless Hiroshima and Nagasaki.    

In the case of Ukraine, a negotiated settlement would clearly require that Russia’s pre-war demands be taken seriously and that some of them be satisfied. By the same token, the sanctions imposed on Russian politicians and businesses would have to be reconsidered and, to some extent at least, withdrawn.  Apparently, these possibilities have already caused intense debate among factions within the Biden administration. Those who now seek to win the war in Ukraine are not interested in “rewarding Russian aggression” by lifting sanctions or limiting Ukraine’s sovereignty in any way, much less reconsidering the security architecture of Eastern Europe.     

In a similar way, charges of war crimes against the invaders have already shifted the goal, in the minds of some Westerners, from a peace treaty to a Nuremberg-style tribunal designed to publicize and punish Russian war crimes and “genocide” in Ukraine.  These demands are being made by many of the same figures who gave us the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan! Again, this does not mean that the charges are without substance.  It may well be that if Putin’s verbal threat to eliminate Ukraine as an independent nation had been realized, this could have been considered a form of “politicide” punishable under the Genocide Convention.  But the argument at present constitutes another step toward making a political settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian dispute seem irrelevant or utopian. 

The key question, it seems to me, is whether the West should continue to pour advanced weapons and other resources into Ukraine in search of a victory over Russian forces or seek a truce and a negotiated settlement that could establish the conditions for long-range sustainable peace.  Of course, a middle-ground answer to this question is possible.  That is, the U.S. can continue to arm Ukraine in search of some sort of military stalemate that would improve Zelensky’s negotiating position in subsequent peace talks. 

I have to say that although this sounds “realistic” and probably reflects the view of a sizeable group of Biden staffers, it actually plays with fire in a wildly reckless way.  If Ukraine’s armed forces do well against the Russians in eastern Ukraine – for example, if their new weapons help to bring down Russian planes, destroy tanks, and, perhaps, sink some of their ships – the Russians will almost certainly bring more destructive weapons into play.  If this happens, the pressures on the U.S. and NATO to enter the war more directly could become overwhelming.  Already one hears morally exalted hotheads urging the West to “call Putin’s nuclear bluff.”  There are policymakers in Washington and London willing not only to fight the war against Russia to the last Ukrainian, but also to risk starting World War III. 

We must say no to this growing war fever.  Pope Francis has it exactly right.  Since the Russo-Ukrainian war must end in a negotiated settlement, the time to begin those negotiations is now.               

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Nick Ourusoff April 10, 2022 at 9:26 pm

Beautifully stated . .

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Sherif M Nasr April 11, 2022 at 1:48 am

Dear Rich

You have written a very thoughtful article

* No more new weapons to the Ukraine

* Pursueing to Humiliate the Russians, can only cause serious escalation

* Immediate negotiations

Cordially
Sherif M Nasr

Reply

Rich Rubenstein April 11, 2022 at 3:26 pm

Thanks very much, Sherif!

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Bonnie Lee Sanders/Shimkin April 11, 2022 at 3:00 am

Thank you for articulating your thoughts, Richard.
I agree with you 100%…..

With respect and admiration,
Bonnie

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Rich Rubenstein April 11, 2022 at 3:26 pm

Thanks, Bonnie. Always a pleasure to hear from you!

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Nicholas Ourusoff April 11, 2022 at 3:51 am

Well said, Dr. Rubenstein.! A calm sustained reasoned analysis, with the conclusion that escalation – seeking a “victory” – seriously risks nuclear war and that the clock is kicking as war hysteria and demonization are increasing its likelihood. What kind of a person is willing to put the world through this?

It is time – don’t you agree? – for massive active resistance, through “speech acts” – such as yours – that give voice to the “wrongness” of our America’s course of action.

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Rich Rubenstein April 11, 2022 at 3:25 pm

Yes! I wish that I had half the imagination of Code Pink when it comes to “active resistance,” but we need to discover ven more dramatic and effective ways of being heard.

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Nicholas Ourusoff April 11, 2022 at 3:56 am

Richard, well said, with calm and reasoned analysis! I am proud of you! I am disappointed that my favorite Public Television Newshour has gotten caught up in the propaganda of wartime, reporting firsthand on the Russian atrocities – but without examining the atrocities by both sides in the Civil War in the Donbass since the coup on February 22, 2014, in which 16, 000 have died; and without examining the question of America’s shared responsibility. Does anyone have the right to subject the world to the risk of a nuclear holocost?

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Rich Rubenstein April 11, 2022 at 3:24 pm

Thank you, Nick. We forget that there is such a thing as “war propaganda” until this sort of thing happens. As people interested in conflict
prevention, I think we ought to be studying how war propaganda actually starts in the pre-war environment. The New York Times, e.g., has had nothing favorable to say about either Russia or China in the past five years. Its editors seem quite unconscious of their role as a chief propagandist for the imperialist wing of the Democratic Party. They are still living in Lyndon Johnson-land!

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Elissa Feldman April 11, 2022 at 2:45 pm

Thank you for this, Rich. Your insight always helps me think about conflict(s) more clearly.

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Rich Rubenstein April 11, 2022 at 3:16 pm

Thank you, Elissa. I know we don’t always agree but I do love our conversations!

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