Answering the Ukraine Question
What you think depends on where you sit (and what your government wants)
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about the politics of the foreign policy intelligentsia in Europe and the United States as they address the Ukraine question.
Answering the Ukraine Question
In The Age of Questions, historian Holly Case explores the genealogy of “questions”, those great, pressing, and subjectively defined issues that preoccupied the statesmen and scribblers of the long nineteenth century. The Jewish question, the Polish question, the Eastern question—such shorthands encompassed a problem that simply everyone recognized as requiring an answer. Yet the entire point of such a question was that the question itself would never be formulated precisely. They were implicit in the structures of thinking about the world and would have to be resolved using concepts that existed without being themselves specified, often against the will of those upon whom the answer would fall.
Europe is now preoccupied, as it has intermittently been since at least the Euromaidan protests of 2013 (although I remember briefly taking part in pro-Yushchenko protests in Prague in 2004), by the Ukrainian Question. The tensions implicated in the unstated question involve myriad dimensions:
Is Ukraine to tilt toward the “East” or the “West”?
Is Ukraine to decide which way it tilts, or will others decide for it?
Which “others” have the superior right to decide Ukraine’s tilt, or to decide whether to permit Ukraine to decide how it tilts?
Is Ukraine a real or a synthetic country? By what standards can such a question be answered? If it is real, what is its real extent? If it is synthetic, by whose diktat may it be revised?
Is there one Ukrainian nation with a right to political primacy, or are there several nations in one territory with coequal rights?
Who is responsible for the urgency of the current Ukraine crisis: external actors or Ukrainians? If it is external actors, is it the Americans, the Europeans, or the Russians who are at fault?
How will the Ukraine question be finally answered?
Pretty much any commentary and analysis about Ukraine, and the impending Russian invasion, implies a series of answers for these specific questions that inform—and limit—how they will be answered. Yet it’s rare to see anyone explicitly state their assumptions about more than one, or perhaps two, of these points.
For folks following along at home, as it were, it can often seem like different writers and thinkers are speaking at cross-purposes. Contending arguments sometimes clash directly, but more often they pass through each other. At times, especially on Twitter, I’ve certainly felt like I was watching six or seven different debates play out among people who shared the same keywords but none of the same facts.
It turns out that this is absolutely right. There are several different debates playing out, and they don’t have much in common with each other. The Ukraine Question turns out to be a lot more complex than any individual narrative wants you to think. Worse, it turns out that because everyone is talking past each other once their narratives cross national borders, it’s reasonable to think that a lasting, or peaceful, resolution will require a lot more than some simple assurances or bargains.
I’m basing this assessment on a recent scholarly article in the journal Problems of Post-Communism in which a team of Ukrainian researchers reported an analysis seven Western countries’ discourses about the Ukraine question. They concluded that, in fact, there are several distinct narratives circulating—and that few share assumptions, or even types of assumptions, with each other. Moreover, every country’s intelligentsia chooses The team concludes that there is an obvious congruence between the political preferences of their respective governments and the sorts of narratives that circulate within each country.
Each country’s intelligentsia debates the Ukraine Question among itself, in other words. Yet the debates in each country are different. The authors observe that the narratives that shape those debate are built on assumptions (like the answers to the questions I posed above) that are “contestable” (academic speak for not to be taken for granted). For each narrative, different elements are taken to be at the core of the analysis that produce the narrative, while other concepts are useful only to support those core assumptions or to be used to attack other narratives.
The research team examined academic journal articles, think tank reports, and media commentaries about Ukraine after the 2014 Russian invasion in the United States (and before the current crisis), the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Poland, Italy, and Greece. (Somewhat to my surprise, English is so hegemonic that even in this highly international sample, many articles in non-Anglophone countries were written in English—in Greece, for example, 18 texts were written in Greek and 26 in English.)
The researchers identified six narratives:
that the crisis was driven by unprovoked Russian aggression and must be met by force (or deterrence)
that Russian aggression requires dialogue
that Russia’s legitimate grievances require concessions
that a Ukrainian civil war calls for Western normalization of relations with Russia
that the Ukrainian civil war has been provoked by East-West tensions
that the conflict simply exists and what matters most are the details of the humanitarian response
Someone who believes the first narrative, then, will argue that what matters most is the need to resist Russian aggression using deterrence and sanctions—and if this is not achieved, international order will crumble. Parts of the Biden administration and many hawks have hewed to this line. Someone arguing for the second narrative will instead center Russia’s strength and point to the need for sustained dialogue to avoid direct conflict. In the US, this is the general restrainer argument.
Anyone who has spent time on American foreign policy twitter in the past month has seen the first two narratives duking it out. The conflict between “hawks” and “restrainers” has been fierce and folks who have been friendly have been pointed, if not yet fully insulting. The third narrative, about giving way to Russia because Russia has suffered at the hands of Ukraine or history (as with the admittedly bizarre transfer of Crimea during Soviet times), is less prominent, but check certain quarters of the Internet (and replies to the debate among the the first two) and you will see it. The others, however, may be less familiar.
And, in fact, they are less familiar. The fourth (civil war) is most prevalent in Greece (and slightly less so in Italy). This narrative argues that the solution to the Question is normalizing relations between Ukraine and Russia (in part by offering concessions to Russia) in order to overcome the putatively irreconciliable differences within Ukraine. The fifth (East-West tensions) is similarly a theme dominant in Greco-Italian. It argues that the fault begins with Russian-Western rivalries and as such needs to be addressed by fundamental changes to world order. (The sixth, befitting the generally (and unfairly, even wickedly) marginalization of humanitarian concerns in the Discourse, is scattered among every country surveyed without being dominant in any.)
What’s most striking about this isn’t that there are different opinions or interpretations. It’s that these narratives begin from such incompatible assumptions about everything from the responsibility for the crisis to the factors that matter for its resolution.
Those irreconciliable assumptions stem in part from the differing perspectives—and interests—of countries. The first, hawkish narrative is most prominent in Poland, practically to the point of hegemony (all the other narratives are nonexistent in Polish discourse). American and British discourse falls into the first and second narratives, with a vocal minority subscribing to the third. France and Germany, by contrasty, have only a vocal minority subscribing to the first narrative, but the second is prominent in those countries.
Such narratives conveniently map on to the different way that major countries have approached the current crisis, from French diffidence and German appetites for seeming appeasement to the American-British harder line to the squishy NATO response overall because of internal divisions. To be sure, there are variations within these narratives. The authors note that in German texts in the second narrative “the main idea is the EU and Germany should keep the door open for dialogue” while in the U.S. versions what is more important is the “thesis of the low importance of Ukraine to American interests, which does not merit wasting scarce resources or endangering higher priorities.”
What this demonstrates, then, is that it’s quite possible that ideas guide foreign policy. But ideas in turn find more or less favorable terrain depending on the interests and capabilities of national governments. It’s no surprise that the American debate focuses on those discourses that center American agency, either as savior or aggressor, while the Greco-Italian discourses view the debate as largely structural, whether the fault lines are internal or external to Ukraine, and therefore one in which neither Rome nor Athens particularly matters.
National discourses aren’t monolithic. The authors note
In the United Kingdom, the think-tank experts almost overwhelmingly support narrative 1, fully in line with the deterrence position of the British political establishment … But scholarly journals present more versatile views of the conflict … .
The popularity of ideas, then, can be influenced not only by the interests of each country and its position in the international system, but also by the interests of specific analysts within their society. (Having said that, I feel like making clear that you can trust me: I write only for you folks.) What you think depends on where you sit.
There are three big takeaways from this:
First, if you’re interested in discerning truth from propaganda, commentary may be even less useful with respect to Ukraine than useful. As the (again, Ukrainian) authors note, I think correctly, Russian perspectives are so much better understood in the West that it is easy to slight or entirely overlook Ukrainian voices and factors. Lacking any local context, and naturally biased toward big power stories, American discourse has gotten badly warped away from the actual existing events.
Second, it seems possible that everyone involved at the highest levels is acting out their own narrative rather than engaging with the other side. Forget trying to puzzle out Putin: in this telling, it’s a question of everyone trying to puzzle out everyone else in a welter of disagreements. And although fundamental disagreements can contribute to peaceful dispute resolution, I think there’s a pretty intuitive reason to think that international understanding promotes accord more generally.
Third, I don’t think there’s any reason to think that Ukraine is exceptional as a case of misunderstanding Questions. You can see how similar arguments could be constructed about the other Questions of our time, from Taiwan to Israel to Western Sahara (hey! remember that?), and how countries may be engaging with the same Question but different questions. Continually reminding ourselves not to be locked into narrow perspectives has a real value—but so does reminding ourselves that we are locked into different worldviews.
By the way, if you’re interested, here’s the full citation:
Nadiia Koval, Volodymyr Kulyk, Mykola Riabchuk, Kateryna Zarembo & Marianna Fakhurdinova (2022) “Morphological Analysis of Narratives of the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict in Western Academia and Think-Tank Community”, Problems of Post-Communism, DOI: 10.1080/10758216.2021.2009348
I hope you enjoyed this. It’s a little different than last week’s (welcome, new subscribers!) but it’s a taste of one of the different types of newsletter content I’m looking forward to providing you folks. As a reminder, you can support this by subscribing to the paid version, or you can not do that.
Informative and excellent. This did a good job grounding me on the current crisis. The fifth question listed — whether Ukraine is one nation or several — is particularly interesting to me. Are we to believe that Putin wants Ukraine divided into three republics? What would he gain by this?