The blame game | CEPA
The origins of today’s catastrophe lie in the Western mental landscape.
The immediate blame for the disaster engulfing Ukraine lies with the criminal Kremlin regime and its deceived and vengeful leader, Vladimir Putin. But the deeper responsibility lies with countries that are many times bigger, richer and more powerful than Russia. They could have coerced and dissuaded him. They failed to do so. Had Western leaders understood Russia’s designs on its neighbors, tens of millions of Ukrainians would now be continuing the free, safe and happy lives they enjoyed before February 24.and.
This deadly oversight is a puzzle. Decision makers in Berlin, Brussels, London, Paris and Washington DC are not stupid. They have access to the best information in the world. Yet, in plain sight, Russia has for decades pursued intolerable goals through murderous crimes coupled with outrageous lies. Why did Western leaders ignore this?
Mainly because they were ignorant. “Eastern Europe” never really entered the mind maps of these Western politicians and officials. They weren’t on vacation there. They had no friends from those places. They had rarely read literature. The scientific genius was appropriated by other countries (Marie Curie lost the second half of her surname, Skłodowska, and counted as French, not Polish). It was only among classical music lovers that the captive nations even formed a beachhead in Western minds, thanks to composers such as Fryderyk Chopin, Béla Bartók, Leoš Janáček and Arvo Pärt. The enormous, even suffocating, influence of Russia, a cultural superpower, has helped to make the small intermediate countries seem, quite literally, marginal.
This mental wasteland is a product of the last 100 years. It started with Stalin’s isolationist policies in the interwar period and was rooted in the Iron Curtain. In previous centuries, this would have seemed as bizarre as northern European ignorance of the southern half of the continent, or vice versa. But for postwar generations in Western Europe, “Eastern Europe” was – quite literally – a gray area: backward and remote.
It was an unpleasant shock to the people who emerged from their decades of torture-abduction after 1989. Their family and neighbors in the free world had largely forgotten about them. Many viewed their reappearance as a costly and potentially risky nuisance. The strange parents, with their bad teeth, strange clothes, heavy accents and old-fashioned manners, were to be calm and grateful, not to express vigorous and well-informed opinions about the future security of the continent. Only Václav Havel of Czechoslovakia, with his extraordinary literary gifts and philosophical insights, briefly broke through the cloud of ignorance.
Russia, on the other hand, was pampered. Maintaining a safe “pro-Western” leadership in the Kremlin was far more important than anything else.
Ignorance breeds arrogance. Locals who have warned the West against, for example, the Kremlin’s use of ill-defined “Russian speakers” as geopolitical leverage have been patronized, belittled or told to solve the problem by giving this mythical political category of additional rights.
Arrogance breeds complacency. When Russia began to wreak havoc in Western countries, it responded by dismissing the problem as a mere irritant.
Greed compounded the problem. As Mark Twain noted, it is difficult to argue otherwise from someone whose livelihood depends on believing otherwise. The “Caviar Express” criss-crossed the western electric corridors, offering passengers juicy fresh air and luxurious sinecures. Murders, cyberattacks, energy blackmail, corruption, gangsterism and above all full-fledged revanchism have gone largely unpunished, while wishful thinking has drowned out decision-making.
With the Ukrainian flag now a fashion accessory and President Volodymyr Zelensky taking over Havel’s brief stint in the spotlight as the moral leader of the free world, the once bare mental maps of the West are painted vividly.
But especially in shades of blood red. Because the invoice is due. And the innocent, not the ignorant, pay.