Ukraine: The Clash of Manichean Narratives and a Way Out

03/09/2015 04:41 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2015

I recently took part in a very stimulating event entitled Saint-Petersburg Conference on World Affairs which took place in Florida on the campus of South Florida University. I had the pleasure of listening to Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian winner of the Nobel Prize for literature and Joshua Landis an expert on Syria. This conference was organized by a now retired diplomat, Douglas McElhaney, and the name of the city is, of course, of particular interest to anyone interested in Russia.

One of the panels dealt with the current Ukraine crisis, to use a somewhat neutral term. In the spirit of open dialogue it included a Russian academic who presented a Russian vision of the crisis and three other speakers who represented a somewhat muscular Western take on the issue. The panel was entitled, in a provocative way, "Russia after the Ukraine and Crimea Grabs: What's for Dessert?"

What was striking for an observer and attendee was that dialogue did not take place between the speakers. At one point a speaker responded to the views of the Russian panelist by arguing that Russians were slick and used facts but he did not respond to the facts presented by the panelist. Germany was criticized for its softness toward Russia which seemed unfair to me, considering the history of terribly murderous conflicts between Russia and Germany in the fairly recent past.

The muscular Western view argues that Ukraine should be armed, that Putin is the source of the crisis, that the West refused to listen to what Putin was saying as far back as 2007 or doing in 2008. Russian violates international law and should be opposed in a determined way. The official Russian view is that there was a coup in Ukraine last year, that Russia and Ukraine have always been close culturally, that there was a fair referendum in Crimea. Not everything can be mentioned here, of course.

Each side chooses what is known as cherry-picking: "I choose my facts and their interpretations in the most favorable way to legitimize my narrative". Thus when the Russian speaker mentioned that East Germans were never asked in a referendum if they wanted to join West Germany the point was not taken up. The panelist, of course, wanted to use this fact to defang the criticism of the legality of the referendum in Crimea. Yet he had a point: East Germans most likely would have massively voted in favor of joining the rest of Germany but were not asked. Crimeans would probably also vote massively in a free referendum to join Russia (except the Tatar minority, probably) but the referendum took place under strong pressure.

When citizens are exposed to propaganda they must use means of intellectual self-defense in order to deconstruct it. It is usually much easier to deconstruct the propaganda of the Other, of the enemy or the rival but often what happens is not deconstruction. Belief in one's own propaganda, usually called "our values", creates a frame in which we interpret discourses. What the panel showed was that dialogue did not take place between "true believers" of different views which had ossified into ideologies or quasi-religions.

It is possible though to transcend the clash of religions, not only in the real world of religious beliefs but also in the political realm. Thus there is no incompatibility between the critique of Putin the autocrat and the critique of Western moves in Ukraine which fed the crisis. Focusing on either Putin's personality or his quirks does not explain much in geopolitical terms, not does Obama's standoffishness professorial attitude play a big part.

Gorbachev who was legitimately hailed in the West for easing the democratic transition in Eastern Europe and avoiding bloodshed has become a critic of Western moves to deploy NATO closer and closer to Russia. The promise made to him that NATO would not expand east of Germany is not a myth, as one speaker argued, but a reality which proved to have disastrous consequences when the promise was not kept.

In order to understand what is going on in Ukraine, history matters and the narrative of the other as well. Putin is a brutal leader yet his popularity rose as a result of the crisis. Not necessarily because he is a new Hitler as many argue but because he managed to inscribe his narrative in a Russian narrative with deep historical roots.

The event in Maidan cannot be reduced to a fascist intervention as Putin does for a significant part of the Ukrainian population wanted a change. Yet anti-Semitic and historically fascist groups were active in Kiev (Right sector, Svoboda). The divisions within Ukraine cannot be swept away as the results of the elections in 2010 clearly show.

There is massive Russian support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine and also very problematic military actions on the part of the Ukrainian forces (Odessa). The separatists may be responsible for downing a plane last year (MH 17 flight). The situation is messy and it is impossible to have neat, black and white narratives. But geopolitics is not about morals and should not be Manichean but as objective and complex as possible.

When the US went to war in Iraq in 2003 on the basis of a big lie about weapons of mass destruction, the Iraqi leader was a tyrant, no doubt about it. A tyrant the West had supported massively for geopolitical reasons but who had stepped out of line by invading Kuwait, a non democratic regime. The war against this tyrant was still wrong ethically and geopolitically. We are all paying the price of this misguided decision today for ISIS is a product of this war and of our close alliance with Saudi Arabia. By the same token, whether Putin is a tyrant or not is not the real issue.

A few analysts in the West do not accept the Manichean clash of narratives over the Ukraine crisis. Walt and Mearsheimer the two well-known realists are explicit about Western responsibilities in the crisis. This does not make them Putin acolytes or dupes. The Poles and the people in the Baltic states have an understandable dim view of Russia based upon their history of conflict with Russia or the Soviet Union. In Ukraine things are far more complex for there is no national unity nor common history vis-à-vis Russia. And the Russian fear of being surrounded or encircled by NATO bases or forces is not without any foundations.

One analyst who was an active participant in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, William Polk, argues that the "Ukraine War" is a "Reverse Cuban Missile Crisis". The US could not tolerate missile launchers so close to its borders and forced the USSR to withdraw them. This is how big powers behave. Kennedy and Khrushchev proved smart enough to resist the hotheads in their respective administrations and to avoid a nuclear war.

In the New Cold War we need to be as smart as this and the narratives of competing moralities or the cherry-picking of true believers are not helpful. The West should not aim for victory in Ukraine nor for a change of Putin's personality but it can cooperate with Russia, whose régime is not worse than that of our ally Saudi Arabia or pre-2003 Iraq, in order to make Ukraine a more prosperous buffer state. Cool geopolitical heads are more productive than macho posturing which could hasten the coming of a nuclear war.