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home : columnists : joe steinberger
April 23, 2019

2/11/2015 5:18:00 PM
Joe Steinberger: War and Peace
by Joe Steinberger

The greatest threat to world peace today is the conflict in Ukraine. The Russians are supporting rebels in the east, we are supporting the Western-leaning government that was installed in Kiev after the overthrow of the previous Eastern-leaning president.

The fighting between government and rebel forces has become a proxy battle in a general East versus West showdown. The conflict is increasingly being portrayed in both East and West as a life-or-death struggle.

We know the threat of wider war is serious when populations on opposing sides both begin talking in purely good-versus-evil terms. In Russia the conflict is seen as a nazi-fueled Western expansion into the homeland. In the U.S., Putin is seen as the nazi who is pushing violent expansion - like Hitler before him. In both countries it is politically impossible to question the national version of truth. The real truth, however, is not what either side wants to believe.

Conflict is part of life. To keep it from evolving into violence, we try to understand the interests on both sides to the conflict and find resolutions that maximize benefit on both sides. There is a real conflict between West and East, and no resolution is going to give both sides all they want. Unless there is a spirit of compromise, war is the only resolution.

Compromise, however, is what the jingoists on both sides call tantamount to surrender. They accuse its advocates of being enemy sympathizers, or dupes of enemy propaganda.

This way of thinking is especially strong among those people who are actually involved in shooting the guns on both sides. It is these people who are keeping the violence going, and who are calling on East and West for military support.

Who are these people? Yes, there are regular troops of the Kiev government, and yes there are Russian regulars, but most of the fighters on both sides are irregulars, volunteer fighters organized around their leaders' personal ambitions and ideologies.

A recent PBS Frontline documentary interviewed the violence-addicted thugs on both sides. It was courageous reporting, and eye-opening. We are being drawn into a fight between warring factions of violent nationalist extremists. In this way the "nazi" accusations on both sides are true. The great majority of people on either side are not nazis, nor are their official leaders, but the paramilitary forces on both sides are largely led by power-seeking thugs over whom governments have little control.

The focus, here in the West, has not been on this hijacking of world order by bands of extremists, but on the evil personality of Vladimir Putin. He is certainly unscrupulous and corrupt, and I am glad to be led by a more honorable president, but the reality is that neither personality matters much in the scheme of things.

In "War and Peace," the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy made a convincing case that what drives history is not so much the personalities of leaders like the Emperors Napoleon and Alexander, but popular movements. Tolstoy argues that Napoleon did not lead an army of men into Russia, rather an army of eager men pushed Napoleon ahead of them into Russia (with disastrous consequences for both East and West).

It is easy to see here in the U.S. how popular sentiment, often poorly informed and highly emotional, drives the great decisions of state. This is true not only in democracies, but also in more authoritarian states such as Russia has become. American and Russian politicians are both driven by the need for popular support.

It is the pandering of politicians to popular nationalism that is driving us to war today, but this fact also gives us, the people, the power to change that direction by changing our way of thinking. That is the purpose of this essay: to propose a different way of looking at the conflict, one that aims not at beating the other side, but at coming to terms with it.

In the popular mythology that is currently being promoted by the war party in Congress, World War II could have been avoided if Chamberlain had stood up to Hitler and refused to compromise at Munich. The analogy is to Putin: we must not compromise with him. This concept has completely taken over the debate here, so that the only question we can ask is how we can pressure Putin to do what we want him to do.

In fact, the causes of WWII are a great deal more complex than the supposed softness of Chamberlain at Munich. The very unwise way in which Germany was treated by the victors in WWI (in contrast to the very wise Marshall Plan at the end of WWII) is a better place to lay blame. It was meanness, not softness, that created Adolf Hitler, and the same could certainly be said for the creation of Vladimir Putin. Both have thrived on popular resentment.

The idea that there is no solution to the conflict today except to force Putin to bow down to our superiority is true only if we make this our non-negotiable position. If instead we recognize that Russia has legitimate security interests on her borders, if we recognize that the people in the east of Ukraine speak Russian and are pro-Russian in sentiment, if we recognize that the government in Kiev has questionable legitimacy in light of the fact that a government elected by the whole people of Ukraine was overthrown in a violent revolution, then there is plenty of room for a compromise that respects both sides in a conflict that, if escalated, will lead to great misery in Ukraine, and potentially the whole world.

Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, March 5, 2015
Article comment by: John Sandberg

Good to have your wise words back again. From Baltimore.

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