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Thoughts on the Precipice

February 23, 2022 7:10 p.m.
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I’ve written relatively little over recent days on the unfolding Ukraine Crisis. It’s one of those stories that is not only moving quickly but in many ways speaks for itself. I recommend reading Josh Kovensky’s latest report on events. Josh worked in Ukraine as a journalist for two or three years before coming to TPM, so he brings an area knowledge and access to the language that we’re lucky to have. As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’ve been using this Twitter list to navigate the rush of events. I recommend it. I also shared some thoughts on what’s happening in the edition of the podcast that comes out today.

I wanted to share with you this evening that we should understand what’s happening as part of the larger contest between civic democracy and authoritarianism. That doesn’t mean everyone on one side of this is a pure white hat and everyone on the other wears a black one — though in the immediate sense that’s pretty close to the case. There’s a reason why Ukraine keeps jumping to the center of our national politics. We see almost everyone from the Trump-centered wing of the GOP either bothsidesing the current crisis or in many cases affirmatively taking Russia’s side. Some of that is situational. For them it’s an extension of push back against the “Russia hoax” or payback for Trump’s first impeachment. In part, Trump likes Putin. So they like him too. Because he is their guy. But it’s not just that. They also like Putin because he’s one of the avatars of modern day ethnic chauvinism and strongman authoritarianism. It’s all of a piece.

As I noted a few days ago, there’s a complex and complicated history that got us to this place. There is an argument — though I think at best an incomplete one — that the U.S. set the stage for this cataclysm by rapidly enrolling the Warsaw Pact into NATO in the 1990s. But right here and now, as we saw in Putin’s speech earlier this week, this is about a Great Power wanting to gobble up another country and using the most transparent sorts of pretexts and manufactured provocations that remind us of some of the darkest moments of the 20th century. And here, again, we come back to that contest between civic democracies and authoritarianism. We should look carefully at what many of our own countrymen are telling us when they watch Putin’s actions and see it as an example of a way of organizing the world they embrace.

When I say that this crisis is part of the larger contest between civic democracy and authoritarianism, that’s not quite saying that the U.S. is on one side and Putin and all he represents is on the other. That battle is afoot in the U.S. as well and who will come out on top isn’t clear in that case either. Until little more than a year ago, the U.S. was in many ways on that side.

There are reports that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could start as soon as tonight. We have no way of knowing whether this is true or not. But they seem to be assuming it’s true in Ukraine. The government of Ukraine has repeatedly said over recent days and weeks that nothing is imminent. But tonight they’re locking down their capital city and President Zelensky’s speech this evening seemed to say clearly that it’s happening. He told his country’s citizens that he tried to call President Putin today and he was refused. He appealed to Russians in their own language to stop Putin. It did not sound like an appeal he thought would be answered.

It looks like this contest is about to become violent and bloody in Ukraine and there’s no guarantee it will stay within Ukraine. But the bigger story, the context and prism through which we should see and understand what is happening is one that we are also a part of, one which our actions and political choices inside the United States will help decide.

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