“Where did we go wrong? Is it our fault?”
A moving story by the Financial Times Berlin Bureau Chief, Guy Chazan, allows us to see a hidden kind of individual tragedies resulting from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: its cost to ordinary Russians (“A message from Moscow: ‘It’s like I’m in a nightmare. And I can’t wake up,’” March 11, 2022):
A week earlier, Russia had invaded Ukraine, unleashing the largest military assault on a European country since the second world war. The west responded with a fusillade of sanctions to isolate Russia and cripple its economy. Lena and her friends, a band of liberal intellectuals, found their lives turned upside down. …
“I grew up in the Soviet Union and only ever wanted to live a normal life—to work . . . travel, drink delicious wine,” Lena wrote, in the 150-word message, bashed out on Facebook. “God knows, these weren’t exactly wild aspirations. But even they have now been taken from me . . . I watch, rigid with fear and shame, as my world collapses and rockets land on Kyiv . . . Where did we go wrong? Is it our fault? I just don’t know.” …
She travelled widely, expanding her world, which now seems to be narrowing again to a vanishing point. “It’s pure Orwell,” she wrote.
The journalist also writes about another Russian friend of his, Dima, who fled to Western Europe but whose Moscow business is now likely to go bankrupt:
“I’ve lost everything and have to start my life here from scratch,” he wrote to me. Dima says he’s in favour of sanctions and is prepared to pay a personal price to see Putin punished. But he adds that they’re a double-edged sword, causing the most hurt for the 20 per cent of Russians who were always against Putin.
One lesson is indeed that economic sanctions—Western governments prohibiting their own citizens from trading, directly or indirectly, with Russians—are a double-edge sword.
A second lesson, lies in Lena’s question, “Where did we go wrong? Is it our fault?” Assigning any fault or blame to powerless ordinary individuals is not warranted, but we can answer the question of where “we” went wrong. “We,” in both Russia and the West, went wrong in not taking seriously enough the danger of unlimited political power as it stands in Russia and as it has been growing in the West for more than a century. Such a classical-liberal and individualist approach helps us focus on individuals behind the collectives such as “Russia” or “the West.”
The individualist approach may also help answer the question: Isn’t the threat of admitting Ukraine in NATO or establishing closer relations between Ukraine and the West the main cause of Putin’s invasion? University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer defends this argument in The Economist. It is a strange thesis that organizing the defense of a group of individuals can be viewed as an aggressive activity. It makes some sense in a world paved with powerful Leviathans or Leviathans-to-be—powerful enough, for example, to tightly control with whom their subjects exchange and how they spend their money. If the free world was populated by humble classical-liberal states, even assuming they enter into military alliances, defensive activities could not so easily be viewed as aggressions.
We have to somehow escape the logic of state power and war, but it is not easy to go there from here.