Sunday, March 27, 2022

Why is Ukraine Different?

Why has the Russian invasion of Ukraine grabbed and held international attention? It is not, sad to say, the only example of armed conflict right now or in recent years. And Americans, in particular, are not known for being gripped by foreign affairs. So what makes Ukraine different from other conflicts? Here are a few (non-exclusive) potential explanations.

First, Ukraine is a European country being invaded by another (coded-as) European country. That, for better or for worse, makes a difference, though I don't have much more to add to it.

Second, it's a (relatively) evenly matched hot war conflict between two (relatively) modern and modernized military powers. Most of the major military confrontations involving modern militaries in recent years have been cases where one party is far more powerful in conventional terms than the other (e.g., either of the Gulf Wars). The traditional "war" part of the conflict was pretty much a walkover; any difficulties came later in reconstruction and/or insurgency. Here, neither side has the ability to decisively demolish the forces of the other in the short run even as we remain in a phase of traditional battlefield confrontation as opposed to guerilla resistance and insurgency/counterinsurgency.

Third, the war here involves a relatively stable, relatively liberal democracy on the defensive, being invaded in an existential threat to its existence. That is quite rare in my lifetime. Cases where, say, America has been attacked by illiberal forces tend to be sporadic and asymmetrical terrorist events; America certainly hasn't experienced nor has been at any substantial risk of an invasion in decades, or any other assault that poses a genuine existential risk of seeing the country dissolved. That's been true of most of our European allies as well; ditto countries like Japan or Australia. To see the liberal democratic camp on the defensive like that is, I think, quite shocking.

Other factors I might be missing?


Lisa said...

American cemeteries are filled with the graves of men who fought, some who died, for the principle that national borders in Europe will not be changed by force.

WWII looms disproportionately large in our national memory as "the good war."

Against this backdrop, the invasion of Ukraine hits home.

Matthew Saroff said...

You left off that this involves white people being shot.

Also, this is a direct challenge to American empire.

Putin is a bad dude, and THIS invasion at THIS but this would have been inevitable if Pope Francis were in the Kremlin.

The actions of the US and NATO were considered provocative and aggressively hostile by both Yeltsin and Gorbachev as well.

In fact, most of the Russian polity, not just the knuckle draggers, see it that way.

US attempts at rapprochement have consisted in saying some nice things with no consideration of legitimate Russian concerns.

Erl said...


Not "inevitable", never inevitable. The US encountered almost exactly the same dynamic in Cuba in the 50s and 60s; we even started down the same road with the Bay of Pigs invasion. But Kennedy pulled out, negotiated a deal that left an unfriendly regime in exchange for a guarantee against its weaponization (which Biden put on the table for Russia this year!), and we haven't invaded since. Whereas Russia chose to escalate in 2014, and chose again to escalate today. If the Russian polity frames its interests as including the right to determine the allegiance of another country, then war is hard to avoid—but it's not because those interests are legitimate.


I think the other thing that's different this time is an obvious answer to "who started it". This war started because Putin announced his intention to achieve regime change; then tanks began to roll and missiles began to fly. Contrast that with the scenarios in Syria, Yemen, or Libya, each of which seemed to snowball out of protest movements or rebellions, and feature a wide array of belligerent groups, claimed governments, etc. The existence of an obvious belligerent creates moral clarity; hence narrative clarity.

The last major war which had such an obvious villain that I can recall was, of course, the US invasion of Iraq. Which, for that matter, Americans did find quite compelling—though not in the same way they do here.