Putin thinks he is teaching the West a lesson: I am doing the same as you, look, I’m just your mirror.
He is obsessed with the idea of the hypocrisy of the West. This is what Ivan Krastev commented in the podcast “The Ezra Klein Show”. Klein is an American journalist, political analyst, and columnist for the New York Times, which also publishes conversations from his podcast. – This is the first part of the conversation, the emphasis is on the editors.
Ezra Klein: In the preliminary conversation you mentioned that we are all so obsessed with the question of what will happen and we miss the question of what happened. So please start from there – what happened?
Change is happening so fast now that people are missing out on some obvious things. For example, the fact that in the last 10 years Europe has been shaken by at least three major crises. The first was the financial crisis, which brought economic problems, fears of impoverishment, and fears for the future. Then came the crisis with Russia – first the annexation of Crimea, then the war in Donbas. And then the 2015 refugee crisis
The first thing we do not notice is that all these crises have returned. If we look at the economy, we are talking about inflation again. We will probably start talking about a decline in GDP. This is a parallel to what happened in 2008 and 2009. If we turn to the refugee crisis, it has also returned, and today we are witnessing more refugees from the Russian-Ukrainian war than from the war in the Middle East.
By the way, this will be the largest movement of people in Europe since World War II. Finally, if we go back to the first Russian-Ukrainian war, today we are witnessing another war on a completely different scale. Therefore, suddenly these three crises returned, but they returned in a completely different way. They have returned in such a different way than we do not even notice that these are the same crises. This one impresses me.
Second, I was surprised at how quickly some of the things we took for granted changed completely. Only a year ago, for example, Europeans were convinced that a major war in Europe was impossible. If we use the title of the book by the famous historian Tony Judd about Europe after the Second World War, this is the period “after the war”, “after the war” was the definition of what Europe is today. Europe was a project for the European Union, born after the Second World War, but also a project based on the idea that a great war is no longer possible.
And now that has changed completely. Even before the Russian invasion, the European Council on Foreign Relations conducted a survey in several EU countries, which showed that the majority of people are convinced that there will be a war by the end of the year.
Or take the idea of neutrality – it was talked about all the time. And it has been said for two months now that Sweden and Finland, two countries for which neutrality is part of identity, are likely to give it up. Or take Germany, a country that has never had a drone before because it considered it unethical. The Germans had never bought a drone before. And now in that same country, the investment of one hundred billion euros in rearmament is being discussed.
These are extremely big changes, but because everything happens extremely fast, we don’t understand how dramatic it is. That is why we are only talking about what lies ahead.
Ezra Klein: Let me go back to these three crises, in fact, the first and the second, the economic and the refugee crisis, because I was thinking in the same direction. One of the things that strike me is how differently people react to stress depending on the history of the crisis. When it comes to the financial crisis caused by the bankers, or according to some Europeans – by the Greeks, then people are angry with the leaders or some EU member states. This causes great internal irritation.
Refugees coming from Syria, a place that few Europeans feel connected to, is another kind of crisis – they called it an invasion, right? This has become a huge political issue. And now the attitude towards Ukrainian refugees is completely different. How I suppose, people perceive economic difficulties is also different. Significantly, Vladimir Putin now has a unifying external enemy, while many have attributed past crises to the consequences of poor liberal governance.
Exactly. The narrative is key because when people don’t see who is responsible for what’s happening, conspiracy theories emerge. In the case of Syria, it was clear that there was a big war there. But people can’t identify with it because they don’t understand it. There were a lot of vicious comments at the time that these were economic migrants, that they were not refugees at all.
And now we see a war that we understand, especially in a country like Poland, which has already accepted three million people. That is the paradox. During the first refugee crisis, Poland was one of the countries that completely closed itself off to refugees. And now we suddenly see three million volunteers in this same Poland, private individuals, going to the borders with their cars. Why? Because they understand this war. They can identify with her.
I believe that the pandemic also played a role. Before that, people in Europe felt protected from any major disaster. We complained, of course, that we were dissatisfied with this or that. But we had the feeling that we lived in a world where nothing dramatic could happen. And then came the pandemic. And then this war that we can identify with.
Thirdly, it seems to me that it is not only the suffering of Ukrainians that matters. They suffer, but they fight. This kind of heroism, especially in societies like Europe’s, where heroism is seen as a thing of the past, is extremely important. Bertolt Brecht had once said that he felt sorry for nations that needed heroes. But in a sense, we must also pity nations that do not need heroes.
From this point of view, the Ukrainians – the very fact that they did something that no one expected of them – caused respect. So at the border, you are now meeting not just suffering people, refugees, but you are trying to help people who have self-esteem and are victors in their resistance. I think this is also very important for understanding the situation. This is not just a narrative, but a narrative of heroic resistance.
Ezra Klein: How unifying is this narrative? Because there is also the view that this is just what is said in the news. Germany is spending heavily on defense. People in Poland accept refugees. But there are also countries where democratic accountability seems to be diminishing. In France, Le Pen challenged Macron.
And in Hungary, Orbán was easily re-elected. He has already built a system in which it is very difficult to do anything other than being easily re-elected. In both the countries I mention, Hungary and the French elections, we are not seeing pro-Putin politicians coming off the stage, as many might expect.
You are right, but the reason for this is even deeper. The problem is not only how strong this unity is, but also how long it can last because you can accept refugees to live in your home for three months, four months, six months, but how much longer – the question before governments are what will happen after that. I think this is a momentary impulse and this impulse is also divisive.
In the case of France, as you know, in the first round Macron won. The second is due on Sunday (ed. Note – the conversation took place before the second round of elections, won by Macron). If we believe the polls, he will win. Indeed, this will not be the glorious victory he expected.
Part of the explanation for France is that while Macron was focusing on the war, Le Pen’s main message was: now everyone is interested in the Ukrainians, and who cares about you, the French. This marked the beginning of something like an Olympics of suffering in Europe. Who suffers more, does the forgotten French farmer not suffer more than the Ukrainians, because his suffering is invisible?
It is also true that there is unity, but behind this unity, there are also strong nationalist sentiments. Of course, both Le Pen and Orban made it clear that they did not support the invasion, that they were against the war. Their main message was: we don’t like what Putin is doing, but the most important thing for us is to take care of our people.
Here is something they find a big change compared to, for example, the late 1990s. There are a lot of talks now about the war in Kosovo and the NATO bombing of Belgrade, how it has affected Russia, and the self-understanding of the Russians. But the interesting thing about the war in Kosovo was that, at least from a Western point of view, its message was: we care about those who are not like us, who are Muslims, we are ready to die or at least kill for a country where there is no petrol. In a sense, this war was perceived as a classic humanitarian war.
The idea was that when we talk about rights, we usually talk about the rights of minorities, the most vulnerable group, not just people like us. I remember in 1999, during the military campaign, Tony Blair visited Sofia and gave a speech. And he said: what we are doing now for the Kosovars is the same thing that Gladstone did for the Bulgarians in 1876, which led to the liberation from the Ottoman Empire. And he was wrong because then Gladstone intervened. After all, Bulgarians are Christians like him. And here the main message was that these people are different from us.
What I think is changing now is the fact that people are starting to focus on those like them again. We identify in a certain way, for example, Poles identify with Ukrainians because they think they have a common enemy. But this does not apply to Syria, even though it was the Russians who bombed Aleppo. At that time, however, this type of identification was not possible.
Now we don’t just have a common enemy, now we see that one of us maybe next. At such a time, people feel solidarity, but it is solidarity with their group.
Ezra Klein: Yes, the story of the Ukrainian refugees may be inspiring. But the more difficult and, I think, just the true explanation of why this story is so inspiring is how different it is from other refugee stories. The question of why, for whom, and how we care, which is on the front pages of the newspapers, is correct because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is something really important, but from life or geopolitical point of view, the famine in Afghanistan and the war in Yemen are also great. problems, as well as many other conflicts or catastrophes that we would list.
So, on the one hand, the solidarity of the West with the Ukrainians today is something wonderful. But it is also a great relief because of all the other cases in which we have not offered this solidarity or even turned to the other side.
Yes, I completely agree. But here lies a fundamental problem, which in its most radical form can be described as such. Can a man love all the children of the world as much as he loves his children? To what extent are certain preferences so strong in our country that when it comes to solidarity, a certain type of community suddenly turns out to be more important? I note this because, on the one hand, what you have said is quite true.
But on the other hand, the fact that this is happening in Europe, that Russia is attacking Ukraine, not Syria, may explain why many countries outside Europe and the United States are not particularly interested in this war. Most of the countries invited by President Biden, for example, to the democracy summit, did not impose sanctions on Russia. And some of these countries are important.
An example of this is India, but also countries with strong symbolic significance such as South Africa. They do not approve of what the Russians are doing. But for them it is not so important because it does not affect them and because they are afraid of other things, they make other calculations.
In my opinion, this is one of the interesting stories we are witnessing today when globalization is in crisis. Now that the world is globalizing, universalism has suddenly found itself in crisis. In a sense, we were more willing to identify with different people who are not like us when they were much more part of our imagination than our personal experience. So it is no coincidence that Immanuel Kant, the man who created this universal ethic and idea, is known for never leaving his city. This seems very interesting to me.
Ezra Klein: Yes, there is something very true about that. But when we talk about these countries, it is also impressive that although they see America and Europe uniting global public opinion against Russia, and even if they do not support what Russia is doing, they do not see much difference between what it has done and what it is doing. which we did.
It seems to me that there is a deep weakness here that we do not always acknowledge, and that is related to the fact that America has violated international law too often in the last 20 or 30 years, that it has been an expansionist force and behaved like a global policeman. I think there is a reason not to believe us, because there are countries that say, yes, well, I hear what you say to me, but I also see what you are doing.
Yes, you are right. The main accusation of all these countries towards the West is hypocrisy. And the most important thing Putin thinks he’s doing is teaching the West a lesson. I do the same as you. Look, I’m just your mirror. He is obsessed with the idea of the hypocrisy of the West.
And yet there is one major difference that I think is important, at least when I try to decide for myself how true or false what we are talking about is. I’m not just talking about torture and atrocities. It’s not just the Russians who are doing this. Let’s remember what happened in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
But there is a significant difference. When this happened, there was a moral outrage. There was a Senate inquiry that raised the issue of the chain of command. Who knew about these things? This is completely absent in the Russian-Ukrainian case. The Russian president has decided to declare people accused of committing crimes against civilians as heroes, this is the main difference.
So the difference is not in what the military does. The main difference is to what extent are societies willing to face the evils they have committed? A famous Italian historian says something that I find particularly convincing in this regard. He says that if one wants to know which nation he belongs to, he must know that he does not belong to the nation he loves the most, but to the one, he is most ashamed of.
The fact that you are uncomfortable today with the things America has done around the world is just proof that you are an American.
And the reason why Russians lose much of the moral respect they gained for what their parents and grandparents did during World War II is precisely that. Because they do not apologize. They do not acknowledge any wrongdoing. They try to deny any suffering they have caused others. In my opinion, this is becoming a problem because it deprives nations of moral grounds.
Ezra Klein: I want to use these words of yours as a bridge to another question about the projection of Europe, about what Europe is internally and what other countries look at from the point of view of Europe. Let’s start with the second part of the question. You wrote that Europeans made a mistake in trying to universalize their post-World War II experience with countries like Russia. Explain this thought.
Yes, this is a really interesting story. If you go back to the 1990s, not the beginning – 1991, 1992, when there was a lot of uncertainty and fears of chaos and disorder, there was no sense of triumph immediately after the end of the Cold War. But at the very end of the 1990s and the beginning of the first decade after 2000, we suddenly decided, because something unexpected had happened, I mean the collapse of the Soviet Union, that we know what will happen in the future. Our main mistake, this observation was made by a German colleague of mine. The failure to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union has made the West confident that it knows what will happen next.
Then came the conviction that Russia would follow Germany’s development after World War II. But three things happened. First, you think you are a winner and your economy is collapsing. I always give this example – if you come from another planet and you know nothing about what happened after 1990, 1991, you will look at the movement of countries’ GDP and how they develop in the first five or six years. If you look at the Soviet Union, it is as if it is a country that has lost a great war. They lost a third of their GDP. That in the first place.
Secondly, the Russians were happy that communism was over, and I am convinced that the majority of them were satisfied, but for them, the end of communism did not mean the end of the Soviet Union. For many people in the republics, this was understandable, it was quite natural for the West, but for the Russians, it was a surprise.
And third, is the mystery of defeat. Can you imagine it? Even now, I think that if we repeat the events, we will feel again how strong the shock was. You have a nuclear power that, in principle, cannot be defeated militarily, because the moment you defeat them, they will destroy the world. They survived the Gulag, World War II, and great poverty.
And suddenly it all fell apart overnight. And no one wanted to defend the communist system. No one wanted to die for the Soviet Union, not even the intelligence officer sent to the GDR at the time, I mean Putin. Nobody did it. I say this because of the great sense of guilt and misunderstanding – the misunderstanding of what happened – and this has greatly strengthened the conspiratorial thinking about politics.
One of the things that is astonishing, not so much for Putin as for the whole of Russia’s political debate, is the extent to which they have taken a conspiratorial view of the way the world works. When 5,000 people take to the streets, the question is not why they are there. The question is who sent them, who paid them. And so a situation arose in which our expectations that Russia would simply repeat Germany’s experience after World War II turned out to be wrong. Or rather, it was a repetition of what happened to Germany, not to Germany after World War II, but to Germany after World War I.
Ezra Klein: I like the statement that the West has accepted the collapse of the Soviet Union, an unexpected event, as proof of the predictability of human affairs, as a sign of the end of history, or at least as an acceptable hypothesis. One of the important things that I think has been misunderstood in recent decades is that the story of the collapse of the Soviet Union is economic, that the economy is destiny, and that communism was a bad economic system.
And that its internal contradictions, caused by the inability to provide a better life for its citizens, maintain economic growth, to have efficient production compared to democratic and capitalist systems, that only this made the collapse of this system predictable. If so, then knowing these forces allows you to anticipate everything.
I think that explains the way the United States and Europe treat China and of course Russia. Elsewhere, you write: “Capitalism is not enough to tame authoritarianism. Trade with dictators does not make your country safer. And keeping the money of corrupt leaders in your banks does not make them more civilized. It corrupts you. “. Do you want to talk a little more about this, about the assumption that I think has dominated Europe that you can civilize other countries by trading with them?
This was largely the European experience. As German diplomat Thomas Bagger puts it: “The end of history was an American book, but a German reality.” Europeans were attracted by the idea that the only explanation was economic. The only thing that matters is the gross domestic product, the well-being of the people. And everything else that concerns identity, pride, resentment, humiliation – it does not matter.
Again, look at the extent to which we are trying to explain everything we cannot explain otherwise with corruption. In all these years of trying to figure out what’s wrong with countries like Russia, China, and Hungary, we’ve always turned to corruption. Corruption exists, it is part of the system.
But the most important thing that people miss is that you can’t just find out through corruption what President Putin will do, because it’s very naive and ridiculous to believe that the president of nuclear power is obsessed with history and engaged to write an article on why Russians and Ukrainians are the same people will follow this or that policy, guided only by their economic interests, especially their private economic interests.
The idea that Russian oligarchs can prevent war only because they want to keep their bank accounts shows that we have completely rejected all motives other than economic when it comes to the actions of states and politicians, and human nature in general. As a result, we reduce human nature to economic activity.
And then we reduced the economy to GDP and the standard of living, while we see with our own eyes that people’s actions are motivated by completely different things. Most of the great protests we have witnessed over the last decade in the world cannot be explained simply by economic reasons. We like to talk about dignity, but dignity cannot be explained by economic factors alone. This is something different.
In this respect, frankly, Fukuyama was more interesting than some of his critics because, following Hegel, he did emphasize that recognition and the struggle for recognition are crucial to understanding what is happening to the world.
By the way, his article, not so much the book, is particularly interesting, but it is often misread because people read this Fukuyama text as if it were written in 1990.
Ezra Klein: The article “The End of History”?
Yes “The end of the story?” – with a question mark. It was written in the spring of 1989. Fukuyama did not expect the Soviet Union to disintegrate. For him, the end of the story was that it was the communist leaders who stopped believing in communism. Suddenly and suddenly they accepted the idea that their basic utopia, justifying their political order, was dead.
And then what happened after the end of communism was the collapse of the last European empire. Suddenly, almost 20 new countries were born in Europe after the end of communism. From this point of view, Europe in the 1990s was like Africa in the 1960s. A place where new nations are born.
And here is an important absence.
One of the things I think we did wrong was that we completely erased the experience of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. It turned out that many of the problems we saw during the break-up of Yugoslavia were no problems caused by the past. These were problems caused by the future. In my opinion, we have misunderstood the impulse to sovereignty as an impulse to democracy.
Ezra Klein: Explain that.
We went on to talk about the post-Cold War period in terms of the Cold War. But to a large extent, decolonization, which essentially began at the end of the First World War and continued after World War II, may turn out to be a much more important narrative for the rest of the world. But the Cold War silenced this narrative. What happened with the end of the Cold War was the emergence of new states seeking their own identity.
From this point of view, Europe is a wonderful history, because the European Union was created by former empires.
While Eastern Europeans, and this is very interesting, largely share the sentiments of African nations, because they see themselves as a result of the collapse of the Habsburg, Ottoman, or Russian empires. Hence the change in narratives in which we continue to describe what happened in terms of the Cold War, the clash between democracy and authoritarianism – which was largely true.
But more importantly, what does sovereignty mean in an interdependent world? And that can explain the rise of people like Orban, the rise of people like Le Pen, obsessed with what it means to have sovereignty in an interdependent world. Naturally, in the European Union, this is much more important because of the nature of the European project.
Ezra Klein: Is this the way to think about these issues – I think on the move – is it about democracy against sovereignty or liberalism against sovereignty? Because we often unite liberalism and democracy in liberal democracy. But as many have pointed out, including Yasha Monk, they may be in a tense relationship. Often the demos do not want to be as cosmopolitan, as respectful of rights, as neutral in relations as the ideals and rules of liberalism requires.
When I think of Le Pen or Orbán, it seems to me that what they have learned is that democracy is relatively easy to co-opt. It can be changed, right? It can be shaped and corrupted in the way Orban does. But it’s possible to just win, right? I hope that Le Pen will not succeed. When this conversation is published, we will already know the answer, but it may happen.
Like Donald Trump, who is a big figure, he also won in America. So it seems to me that one of our mistakes was believing that liberalism is something that has already won, that can be taken for granted, while others see it as an increasingly weak target against which you can fight.
You are very right. Two things are critical to understanding this. The first is that after the end of the Cold War, the West assumed that everything would change, but the West would remain the same. In a sense, Western democracies were blind to the extent to which their existence, their political and social system were conditioned by the Cold War and the existence of the Soviet Union.
Ezra Klein: I don’t think this is a much-discussed issue.
Yes. But this is extremely important. When the Soviet Union stands on your other side, claiming to represent the proletariat, you think very carefully about how your workers view events. Your workers must be on your side. That is why the welfare state was not just an economic project. The welfare state was a security project.
But secondly – and this is something that the West can be blamed for, but it can also be apologized for because in the 1990s we witnessed that if asked, our Eastern European societies said they wanted to be like the West. Imitation of the West has become our understanding of what it means to have a good society, to be a liberal democracy.
And then we started imitating. First, we started writing constitutions. To invite advisors. But the problem with imitation is that if I imitate you, then I accept that you are better than me. And what happens to my identity then?
And here comes the idea of sovereignty. I want to be different. I like being like you, but I also want you to admit that I’m different. From this point of view, if you look at some of Europe’s populist regimes, for example in Hungary or Poland, you will notice the same psychological trajectory that is observed in the second generation of migrants. The first generation comes with a great desire to accept and integrate into the host society because it is their choice.
But the second generation, which was born there and in a sense internalizes the problems much more, is beginning to feel the glass lid. He feels the walls in front of his authenticity and identity. This is very difficult because you live in a cultural environment where the message is to be unique. To be yourself.
On the other hand, the political imperative is – to be like us. If you want to join, meet all the obligations and criteria of the European Union. In my opinion, this created this clash between liberalism and the idea of sovereignty, between liberalism and the idea of the will of the people, which was used very well.
One of the main messages that emerged during the first years of the transition was that we want justice and therefore we must have the rule of law. But then people like Kaczynski came and asked if you needed an independent court. Do you need an independent central bank? How can I make a revolution if someone limits my power all the time?
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