What I Got Wrong About the Invasion of Ukraine
There are legions of people online who will inevitably throb with rage if any discussion of the newly commenced war doesn’t begin with a full-throated condemnation of Vladimir Putin. So right off the bat, I’ll repeat in full what I said in my very first comment after the invasion was launched last night: “Horrifying, maddening. I stand by previous skepticism and criticism of US Government policy/rhetoric, as well as the US media’s unabashed war fervor. But this is insane aggression from Putin, and of course needs to be condemned unreservedly. A grotesque crime and tragedy.”
And I’m not even saying this as some perfunctory PR exercise: what Putin has done is an act of aggressive war, and should genuinely be condemned. It will have dire consequences, many yet unforeseen. A division of US soldiers is stationed less than four miles from the Ukraine border in Poland; further escalation on a scale that few would have dared to fathom is now a harrowingly distinct possibility. This owes in significant part to Putin’s apparent madness. I’m always leery of playing armchair psychologist, which tends to be the dumbest form of political analysis — but I will say that in my layman’s observation of his recent public statements, Putin comes across as increasingly bitter, vengeful, and even deluded.
I also want to acknowledge the obvious: that the main theme of my reporting and commentary on this issue has been major skepticism toward the US Government and media, particularly in their prognostications of an “imminent” invasion. I still maintain there’s much to criticize — it strikes me as very conceivable that this constant barrage of maximalist predictions could have perversely influenced Putin’s calculations. Premature statements of fact by politicians and pundits that an invasion had already occurred, when it had not yet occurred, were reckless in such fraught circumstances. Journalists who abused their access to “official” anonymous sources did the opposite of inspiring confidence in the stark warnings they were pumping out. And so on and so forth. But yes, it has to be said: the official prophecies have in fact been tragically borne out.
I’ll need to reflect more on the implications of this outcome. All I can promise you is transparency, honesty, and a willingness to correct for any blindspots. One potential blindspot here was placing too much emphasis on the repeated and vehement criticism by actual Ukrainian officials of what they decried as alarmist US rhetoric. Just last week, I interviewed a sitting member of the Ukraine parliament who straight-up told me that externally-generated “panic” was a far greater threat to Ukraine’s security than any forthcoming Russian invasion. Ukraine’s president, over and over again, was even more searing in his own repudiations of US government and media behavior. I don’t have a great explanation for this dynamic yet, but it’s possible what they were telling me tracked too closely with my pre-existing disdain for official US claims vis-a-vis Russia — which in the very recent past have been wildly wrong and destructive. As you’ll remember if you lived through Russiagate.
I did try to qualify much of what I said on this topic to allow for the possibility that an invasion could in fact take place. In a February 10 article here on Substack, I wrote that a Russian escalation was “ominously plausible.” And I still think the formulation in this tweet from January 23 is very much legitimate:
Still, I can understand why people who only caught snippets of certain tweets thought I was a 100% incorrigible “invasion denier.” I never denied the possibility of an invasion — again, I always made a point to explicitly allow for that very possibility. But the reality of online “content production” is that observers will impressionistically pick up on broad themes you seem to be projecting, and if real-world events appear to contradict the impression of you they’ve developed, they will conclude you’ve been proven disastrously wrong. Especially if they already don’t like you anyway. It's not an entirely unreasonable instinct — I’ve probably been guilty of it myself at times. They also weren’t crazy to develop the impression that I was highly skeptical of what was being claimed about the imminence of an invasion, notwithstanding the many caveats I tried to append.
I’m not sure what the solution is. It can’t be to declare that Joe Biden is Nostradamus, or that everyone should now get together and sing kumbaya with anonymous US intelligence officials. And it can’t be that the over-eager war provocations rampant in US media are suddenly just swell. Whatever else happens with Ukraine, a presumption of incredulity toward these government/media factions still has to remain broadly in place — albeit with new Russia-specific adjustments given the crazed actions of Putin. I’ll have more to say soon on a substantive level about the nightmare that’s unfolding, including the culpability of US policy and political culture in setting the stage for this insane attack. Because it’s more vital than ever to not be cowed into ignoring the typically disastrous role of US intervention. But first I thought I owed at least a partial accounting of my own record. Consider it a work in progress.