Cato, Tacitus, and Ukraine

This weekend I concluded, in tandem with various neighbors in the twittersphere, that Ukraine has very probably thwarted Russian ambitions to impose vassalage. It looks like Putin’s government is, instead, increasingly focused on simply reducing Ukraine to a desert.

The invasion has been taking on such a character for some time. Russian activity has gradually looked less and less like an invasion for conquest or regime change, and more like a punitive expedition. I have thought repeatedly of Tacitus’s remark that “they make a desolation and call it peace.”

Tacitus aside, I’m not sure that history includes many major, really close parallels with what’s unfolding in Ukraine. Armies destroying what they can’t hold is by means new, as a tactic. But the scale, here, is eye-opening. A large nation so rotten that it launches an unjustifiable invasion, without achieving any really credible pretext, then fails badly to impose its will upon a smaller neighbor, but has and is using automated destructive tools so extensive that it can level the neighbor even though the invading troops lose. The potential for that has existed for generations, at least, but I think examples of such a revolting spite campaign at this scale are few.

There are seemingly ample good reasons for such campaigns to be few. It looks monstrous, and it looks weak in important ways when such a maximalist punitive campaign is obviously resorted to as a Plan J or something, after every hope for imposing control or influence has failed or stalled. Much of the world will react to this, harshly, despite shrugging off lots of “ordinary” atrocities. Despite which, in this case, deterrence seems ineffective.

I’m not sure how many people are really processing that, yet, but if the upper levels of Russian government are set on leveling Ukraine out of spite, regardless of cost, it is in their power to do so. We need to think more about how to respond.

For some people, this topic shears off into the weeds of technical arguments; I don’t really have the expertise to follow very far in that direction. It makes sense to me for nuclear-armed states to hold back from electing direct military engagement with another nuclear-armed state, and it makes sense to pursue basically any and every other intervention. Even this gets complicated with the prospect of direct engagement by non-nuclear states which are NATO allies of nuclear-armed states, but there is at least a basic concept which I can make sense of and which I support. I can only guess when it comes to the particulars of jets or iron domes or how much of Ukraine Russia can level at what pace and what defensive measures might alter those figures by how much.

I concern myself more with a bigger picture, that Putin and his henchmen can basically press buttons and make a lot of Ukraine into a desert, and no one outside the country can really just make them stop short of launching a holocaust which would make much more of the world into a desert. Which does not mean that there is nothing to be done. It certainly does not mean that the only alternative is to “be weak,” in the head-smacking language of today’s The Morning email.

Ukraine seems full of fight, and even weeks after the invasion, other states can still get arms and other supplies to Ukraine. (Contrary to expectations which seemed very reasonable, given that Russia had encircled much of Ukraine before even crossing the border.) I fully support doing so, and dispensing with chickenshit games about who will deliver whose planes bearing whose flag or whatever. The Biden administration seems generally onboard, even though it makes no difference to screaming online to “do something.” I’ll come back to that.

Ultimately I believe that options to “save Ukraine” are at best significantly limited, though, and we need more attention for “who pays for the destruction of Ukraine and how.”

In broad outline, Russia should become an untouchable pariah state so long as the government responsible for this atrocity remains. This, at best, is not ideal, but it’s something other nations can and should do. It’s also complicated, but I think important challenges are both visible in broad outlines and possible to address. One challenge is fundamentally economic, to adapt to a world where cutting Russia out of commerce and supply chains is a lasting reality not just a temporary measure. This as well as most of the other challenges are in practical terms political. The two big themes of the political challenges might be corruption, and resolve.

The challenge of corruption is, really, just about everything I write about here. Corrupt people, corrupt finance, bad corroded systems and rules; the web of Russian money throughout Western politics is only a limited part of that, but an important one. We ought to examine how such a completely toxic gangster government has been enabled to reach this point, and dismantle the enabling systems.

All of this takes, among other things, steady resolve and it’s difficult for me to believe in that when I see the online screaming, every day. Account or image of cruelty, followed by long reply threads mostly of emoji.

I’m reminded of the “Deepwater Horizon” fiasco a dozen years ago, which feels like another era. It’s amazing to recall that an offshore oil spill was such a sustained national crisis—yet I’m not sure how much America has really changed. Then as now, a kind of informal consortium of storytellers aligns at times to cover our screens with the same story, all day day after day, and essentially creates urgency or even “reality” for millions. Most people neither know nor, in any practical sense, really care about reality beyond the screens and stories; in a real sense they just react with something of a learned infantilism, anguished at the unhappy scenes on their screens and demanding a comforting turn to the story. (I imagine that I’m different mainly in awareness that I’m witnessing shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, and in regularly tracking and evaluating what I see in pursuit of deeper understanding.)

While a lot has happened since 2010 and the world seems changed in ways, I’m not sure that America is really much different in this regard.

Which is not to say that America cannot sustain projects; in fact America can sustain even at-best futile projects like propping up a government in Afghanistan for 20 years. But America can also lose interest in very important projects, quickly, see e.g. the current defunding of efforts against covid.

Can modern America even conceive of, let alone articulate or build, a project like sustained “derussification” of our economic and political systems over years? When there is neither immediate nor even guaranteed result? (Most of the above is from a US or Eurocentric perspective; if states outside of the new Allied coalition decide for one reason or other that the real villains of the story are NATO and Euro-American hegemony, well, I guess we just have to lump that too.)

In a really really big picture, I feel like the lesson here with which most people—most Americans certainly—will always struggle is that there is so much awful and evil in the world and that was the case when you were born and it will remain the case when you die. The narrative of fast and steady progress we learn in school and from broader culture is false on multiple levels. If we can do any good at all, some and perhaps a lot of that relies on committing to some goal almost as a religion, and honoring that commitment year after year even when the goal seems to get no nearer. Responding effectively to the problem of a barbaric rogue state like Putin’s Russia seems like it calls for Cato the Elder commitment, plus the imagination to take on a new commitment rather than just plodding along with the culture we inherited, and the honesty to evaluate on an ongoing basis what’s working and what isn’t.

It is very very difficult—especially when you were raised on a naive myth of progress which was probably as wildly misleading for my generation as for any—to accept that we will come and go with only limited if any improvement to a world with unfairness, corruption and outright barbarism.

2 Thoughts on “Cato, Tacitus, and Ukraine

  1. The only solace I’ve been really able to take regarding the myth of progress has been that the people most responsible/influential for selling me that myth in the first place genuinely believed (and, in most cases, still believe) it. Their earnestness was/is sincere, so I can’t fault their intentions. Who better to sell you on the shadows in Plato’s cave than someone who’s never known anything but?

    Also applies to The American Dream™, meritocracy, American exceptionalism, etc.

    • Oh 100%. When I was a in school there was even, relatively, a lot of excuse for that. From the 80s and 90s, looking back over the past two or three generations it sure seemed like progress had achieved “escape velocity.” Rights movements, decolonization, victory in World War II, and then the Cold War, technology, environmentalism, space exploration… I can’t assume that had I been born a generation earlier, I would have been any less dazzled by it or more able to see where the busy Disrupters’ activities would lead. Maybe but maybe not.

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