Ukraine and the expat experts
Living in a country does not give you some kind of expertise on whether it should be blown to smithereens.
A lot of readers have been asking me to weigh in on the recently escalating hostilities between Ukraine and the Russian Federation — presumably because they remember that I’ve lived in both countries. I have given this some thought, and having spent more time in Moscow and Kiev than 99% of the people you’ll hear talking about this, the most important thing I can say is that living in those countries does not itself confer any kind of special insight on questions of war and peace.
This point is going to get a lot of “experts” mad (which is why I am saying it), but it’s perfectly obvious if you think about it for two seconds. There are people in Russia and Ukraine who are chomping at the bit for war, but there are also people in both countries who want no part of it. Living in the region does not imbue you with some kind of profound local knowledge that inevitably compels one conclusion or the other. Anyone who pretends that is true is plainly contradicted by the millions of Russians and Ukrainians who demonstrably disagree with them, and if they are leaning on this kind of patently flimsy claim to authority it’s worth asking yourself why.
It’s a running source of comedy on Twitter that every time the US government starts talking about war or intervention, a mysterious surge of newly registered accounts claiming to be target country locals pop up begging the US to take action. At the same time, of course, we also get a parade of journalists, NGO professionals, and academics saying the same thing, and for very similar reasons: they know that the government has launched a PR campaign, and that it will be helpful for their careers if they participate.1 As a rule, these people usually have two moves:
You try to legitimize flimsy arguments by peppering them with all kinds of irrelevant topical trivia. Hillary Clinton was a particularly egregious offender with this: as I noted at the time, she loved nothing more than to impress journalists with terrible arguments for intervention by tacking on lines like “from Raqqa to Ramadi.” Yes, it turns out that our intervention in Raqqa was absolutely disastrous — but I’m sure a lot of people were plenty impressed that she was acquainted with the name!
You claim expertise by pointing out that you’ve lived in the target country, or that you are voicing the opinion of people who live in the target country.
The first move is always difficult to grapple with because it always has to be addressed on the merits — but the second you can just laugh out of the room.
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My personal take on this, for what it’s worth — very little, but as much as anyone else’s — is that this conflict would best be resolved by abolishing all borders and placing the entire world under the governance of a single socialist state. I am not even remotely joking here. I do not have romantic ideas about “national sovereignty” and think that it is an ultimately destructive legal institution, so I am not going to defend Ukraine on those grounds. But for that exact same reason, I am not going to endorse any new claims that Russia or various breakaway regions want to make on national sovereignty, either.
That basic conflict is in any case beside the point because if you are in the United States and you do not want to see war between Russia and Ukraine, the imperative is simple: stop encouraging it. Stop talking about NATO expansion and stop providing military aid. And if you see someone arguing that escalating our military posture is the only way to prevent war, a simple task: ask them, if their strategy fails, if they think we should withdraw. I think you’ll see just how seriously about avoiding war they really are.
Or to put the same point another way: they participate in the US government’s PR campaigns, and that’s why they have the careers they have today.