from the desk of H. Bowie...

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Ukrainian Lives Matter

map containing toy tanks and chess pieces
image credit: iStock / GOCMEN

We all have to work out the proper balance between short-term and long-term consequences.

  • If I eat this cookie, I will enjoy it now, but regret it when I step on the scales tomorrow.

  • If I have a few more drinks, then I’ll continue to have fun tonight, but feel rotten in the morning.

  • I can spend my bonus on a fun trip somewhere, or I can put it in savings and know I’ll have it available down the road.

  • I can skip the rest of this story and move on to something more entertaining, or I can invest five more minutes and learn something really important.

Making these sorts of trade-offs is normal: it’s just part of what it means to be a human adult. Sometimes we opt for the short-term benefit, but often judge it’s more important to think of the long-term consequences.

And what does this have to do with what’s happening in Ukraine?

Well, of all human activities, war is the one that has the most catastrophic short-term effects. As someone who knew what he was talking about once said: “War is hell.”

Which means that, when one nation goes to war against another, someone in power has judged that there are much more consequential long-term benefits to be gained.

So what will be the outcomes of this war that Russia has launched against Ukraine?

Well, death and destruction for those most immediately involved. We must never forget this.

But then, looking a little farther afield, and farther down the road, we can expect energy shortages, and increasing fuel prices. Which means that, here in the US, we can expect inflation to continue, and perhaps even worsen, for some period of time. And we can expect stock markets to continue to drop. In other words, very real economic pain affecting a lot of people, probably including you and me.

And we can expect politicians and media outlets to blame any and all of these events on our current governmental leaders, saying that this wouldn’t have happened if their man (or woman) had been in office.

But then, if we look beyond these things, what are the even longer-term effects? Why is Putin doing this? Just to inflict pain on his perceived enemies? What does he hope to gain?

I’ve heard various theories advanced concerning Putin’s motivation: he’s aging, and thinking about his legacy; he was there when the Berlin wall came down, and wants to undo some of the perceived failures of Russia that were associated with that event; he’s suffering from nostalgia for an age of imperialism that has since passed us by.

Well, all of these factors, and probably more, might be in play here.

But I’m haunted by another image.

A couple of years ago I read an excellent book, How Democracies Die, by Levitsky and Ziblatt: lots of good history and trenchant analysis. But one passage in particular has stuck with me. And it was a quotation from another author, Danielle Allen, who had been writing for the Washington Post about the Unite the Right Rally that had then recently taken place in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved. We are engaged in a fight over whether to work together to build such a world.

And what I’m haunted by is the thought that the current conflict in Ukraine is just a continuation of this same fight that Allen has so perceptively identified for us.

For what I think Putin is fighting for is a nothing less than a world order ruled by ethnic empires, with Russia sitting atop the Slavic empire, China sitting atop the Asian empire, and the United States sitting atop the white western European empire.

And so, just as the rally in Charlottesville was about keeping non-European ethnic minorities in their place here in the US, the war now being waged by Russia is about keeping Ukrainians in their place.

Now so far, in the short term, the US and its NATO allies, and many other countries, appear to be united in their opposition to the Russian aggression.

But then, of course, the 2022 midterms are just around the corner in the US. And our next presidential election is coming up in another two years. And, of course, Trump and his followers are still in control of our GOP, a party very much hoping to return to power in these upcoming elections.

And what does this party’s putative leader have to say about Russia at this juncture in history?

Trump praises Putin as being “pretty smart” in taking over a country “for $2 worth of sanctions.” And went on to describe Ukraine as a real-estate developer might, as “a vast location, a great piece of land.”

So Putin understands that he and his oligarch pals and his fellow Russians may have to endure some short-term pain as a result of sanctions imposed by the West. But his political calculation is that he can retain power for the length of this crisis, while his opponents, dependent on the whims of democratic elections, cannot.

And then, once Trump and his followers are back in power, the sanctions will ease, and it will be clear sailing.

That’s what Putin is banking on.

And if Trump and his followers regain power, they will not be likely to repeat the mistakes they made in 2020, not likely to cede power again.

And then, if that happens, the battle that Allen describes will be over, will have been lost.

We will have given in to Putin’s view, and probably China’s view, that our world order will resolve itself into one governed by a few powerful ethnic empires, ruling over minorities with an iron hand, for the benefit of those few but numerous groups supposedly proven by history to be superior.

This is the long game being played. And these are the chips that are on the board, to be won or lost.

So keep all of this in mind as you make your decisions in the coming days and years. No matter what Trump might blather on about, this fight is not about closing a real estate deal. We are in the middle moves of a long game of chess. And we are playing against a country known for its grand masters.

And the most pressing question, for all concerned, is whether a country governed by a democracy can endure short-term sacrifices in order to achieve its stated ideals over the long term.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, while surveying a vast battlefield soaked with the blood of American soldiers:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve… that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

It’s coming down to us, folks.

Our turn to take a stand in the long arc of human history.

What’s it going to be?

February 26, 2022