Here now is a classic moment of why I started this website. Americans, apparently, have stereotypically fuzzy knowledge of where Ukraine is. If they can’t even figure out where the fuck the place is, how can they decide if it’s worth starting World War III over? (Interestingly, the more ignorant, the more likely to support war. Go figure).
So here we go. A simple guide to all the Americans out there that may lack some of the most basic info on Ukraine.
It’s in Europe.
Specifically, Eastern Europe. It was once part of the Soviet Union, which you may or may not be old enough to remember. On the most basic of levels, the fact that it’s close to Russia makes it important to Russia. Just as Canada is important to the U.S., Russia cares about who is in charge of Ukraine. That’s common sense; you want to know thy neighbor.
It’s a medium-sized but poor country. It’s corrupt, and its politicians have a nasty record of stealing taxes. That’s made the people of Ukraine understandably pissed at government. Some of them blame Russia for this corruption; others blame people within Ukraine.
So if it’s in Europe and its close to Russia, why then should you care? You don’t give a shit about a weekend in Kiev.
Fair enough. Ukraine is far away from your country and you most likely won’t have much interaction with products from there, people from there, or even pornography from there. Why should you bother getting your head filled up with facts about such a place?
The most basic reason: no other country on Earth should be more powerful than yours. We’ll get to why later. But power is pretty easy to understand: it’s measured in land, population, size and equipment of militaries, and wealth. But you can’t be the richest country on Earth and be the most powerful. Just ask Qatar. Nor can you have the biggest military and think you can do whatever you want. You have to have all four in place to be considered Top Dawg.
By grabbing little Crimea, Russia has increased its land, population, and wealth. By itself, that doesn’t matter. Crimea is tiny. So again, why care?
Because nobody knows if Russia is done. Russia under Vladamir Putin wants to bring Russia closer to its old Soviet status of #2 most powerful country in the world. To do that, he must increase all four measurements. And he’s just bumped the rankings up a little.
Yeah, and? Why should you bother being afraid of the Russians?
You shouldn’t be afraid. There’s a big difference between FREAKING OUT OH MY GOD LET’S GET THAT SHELTER GOING AND MAYBE I’LL FINALLY ASK THAT HOT GIRL DOWN THE STREET OUT SINCE WE’RE ALL ABOUT TO DIE and “Oh, hey, that’s not good. Perhaps we should send some F-22s to a Baltic republic?”
Russia should be slowed or even stopped from increasing its power as much as possible short of going to war. Sometimes, that means acting like your country will go to war. That sounds dumb because it is, and it’s a result of people in general being dumb by having created nation-states to begin with. Like much in life, however, the alternative to our bad system is worse. I dare you to think it’s a good idea to bring our previous system of kings and emperors.
There’s a lot of reasons for nation-states being dumb, but the general rule is this: as soon you organize people in groups, they compete with one another. Eventually, on a long enough timeline, they’ll fight each other, especially when they think they can get away with it.
But what’s so bad about letting Russia have a go as superpower? Isn’t America a horrible place full of fat people?
It’s a fun stereotype, but a world under Russian domination would be considerably worse than the current one under America’s. Life is not about perfect places doing perfect things; it’s about flawed places doing as little harm as possible.
A world under Russia would be poorer, more corrupt, more violent, and generally rougher than the current one under U.S. domination. (For a general take, see A World Without America.) This really has nothing to do with culture or morality, the two things we focus on most when we try to slag off a country. Rather, it has everything to do with ability.
Because it’s #1 in the four pillars of power, America can maintain an expensive military system that has helped prevent World War III or a return to imperialism. I think we can agree those things were bad. Remove America from the system, and the likelihood of one or the other happening goes up. This is the natural result of people being organized into nation-states. Nation-states compete; sometimes, they compete violently. And every there and again, a nation-state comes along that thinks it can end this competition for all time by having a massive throw down of violence in a world-shattering war.
What peace does America keep?
People slag off the U.S. as the “world’s policeman” quite often. But just as saying “Fuck da police” doesn’t mean your neighborhood would be safer sans Da Police, neither too does saying “Death to America” mean that America has served no useful role in the world. Thanks to American military might, both Germany and Japan have exited the world stage as dangerous powers. That’s a huge deal; typically in human history, states dealt with threats by killing as many people as possible. America may have dropped the bomb on Japan – twice – but then had the sense to rebuild it once the war was over. That’s leaps and bounds ahead of what other hegemons have done. Again – not exactly ideal to nuke people to make them into your allies. But preferential over what the Romans did to the Gauls, the British (and later Americans) to the Native Americans, or the Russians to the Germans of Prussia. When your options for permanent peace are limited nuclear war or outright genocide, you choose limited nuclear war. It’s fucked up, but it has worked.
Okay, so just let Russia (and maybe China) run the show while those dogs in Washington whimper on home
This comes back to ability. If America voluntarily gave up and withdrew worldwide, neither China nor Russia within the next decade could fill the gap. China lacks military power; Russia lacks the right sized population and economy. (China’s huge population is if anything a drain on its military spending, since more and more resources need to go towards modernizing its 1.1 billion+ people). Neither could effectively lead a peacekeeping mission in Africa, or set up Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, or prevent Iran and Saudi Arabia from divying up the Persian Gulf states, simply because they don’t have the power to do so. (China may someday, but that has yet to be seen).
If they could do this, they would be. The fact that they’re not trying to do much more than complain about the U.S. is proof in the pudding that they aren’t up to the job of keeping the nastiest, most horrible wars under wraps.
This would also translate to trade. Prices for just about everything would go up if America decided to stop interfering with planet Earth. America’s navy keeps trade lanes open, ensures vital resources are as freely traded as possible, and organizes relief efforts for disaster-struck regions. When the 2004 Asian tsunami hit, it was American warships that were a big part of the relief effort. Take those ships away and more people would have died that year. The irony of a ship built to kill saving lives shouldn’t be lost on you; but the world is not black nor white.
But it just doesn’t feel right
Much of that is the natural result of people wishing they had complete control over their lives. We all wish that. But it’s not the case. I challenge you to find one thing in the room you’re sitting in that you had complete control over as it was produced and sold. You make compromises all the time; you trade off on price vs. quality with nearly every decision you make.
The U.S. is the best deal right now. That doesn’t make it moral. It doesn’t mean it’s infallible. But like a third generation smart phone you buy second hand, sometimes it’s acceptable to have something that does the job.
Which brings us back to caring about Ukraine
In and of itself, if Russia swallows the whole of Ukraine back into its borders, the system won’t change much because there’s not enough land, people, and resources to change the balance. Russia would still need to rebuild all the borders of the Soviet Union to get itself competitive. But Ukraine is a massive first step because of all the ex-Soviet republics, it’s the biggest and most complicated. From Ukraine, Putin could siphon up Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia comparatively easily. By the end of the decade, a much larger and more assertive Russia would be busy causing trouble in many more places.
The best way to ensure peace is to nip what can be nipped now. Nobody should be calling for war; Russia has nukes and that will kill us all. But everything short of that needs to be used to make Russia’s conquest as painful as possible. If Russians can get the sense to throw Putin out in the next election, all the better. But to sit back and not care at all is not a responsible thing to do.
As the citizens, soldiers, and voters of the only nation on Earth that can be responsible for a problem like Ukraine, it falls to Americans specifically to be best informed – and not to do something dumb, like ride an atomic bomb into a Russian airbase. Use the Internet; listen to some of the media and ask questions. Find those answers on your own, and write to your leaders to support actions that keep Russia from further growth.
Someday, as cultures grow and generations mature, we can have a brotherly discussion with a new Russian government about what we can cooperate on. But such a government is not in power in Moscow today. Letting it get away with things will only make our world more dangerous.