Russia/Ukraine: My Attempt At a Balanced Perspective

by Elliot Benjamin, Ph.D., Ph.D. April, 2022

When it comes to the Russia/Ukraine crisis, an attempt at a balanced perspective is no simple undertaking. George Packer, staff writer at The Atlantic, in his 2021 book Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal [1], conveyed his distress about the current polarization and partisanship of the media:

“Media organizations of all kinds have been sucked into the vortex of polarization, and in many cases they do all they can to further it. They’re under pressures that are political, financial, and technological, all pushing media to be faster, louder, simpler, and more partisan. . . . Nationalization of all politics and news, partisanship in forgotten places, polarization of fact in the Internet echo chamber — were revelations to me in 2008. . . . Over the past decade, especially the past five years or so, leading news outlets have moved toward one partisan corner or another just to survive.”

Packer then warned us against the temptation of writers to censure what they really think:

“In an atmosphere of stifling conformism, — a desire for the crowd’s affirmation or a fear of the sound of your own voice — honest, clear, original work is not going to flourish, and without it, the politicians and tech moguls and TV demagogues have less to worry about. Fear breeds self-censorship, and self-censorship is more insidious than the state-imposed kind, because it’s a surer way of killing the impulse to think, which requires an unfettered mind. A writer can still write while hiding from the thought police. But a writer who carries the thought police around in his head, who always feels compelled to ask: Can I say this? Do I have a right? Is my terminology correct? Will my allies get angry? Will it help my enemies? Will it get me ratioed on Twitter? — that writer’s work will soon become lifeless. Any writer who is afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong profession.”

I think that Integral World [2] is one of the few places left where it is feasible to at least make the attempt to convey a balanced perspective on a controversial issue. This is my goal in this essay in regard to the Russia/Ukraine disaster, and I will borrow generously from the work of world renown political philosopher Noam Chomsky [3] to try to do this. My attempt at a balanced perspective has been greatly stimulated by the three Russia/Ukraine Integral World essays by Joseph Dillard [4]. I had extended interaction with Dillard in the Comments section of his second essay [4], but it is his third essay, which is his most recent essay at the time of this writing, which has stimulated me to make my current effort at a balanced perspective on the Russia/Ukraine crisis.

First off, I must acknowledge that Dillard is a courageous writer who most definitely has resisted the temptation to censor what he really thinks out of society pressure to conform, and Packer would certainly commend Dillard’s continuous demonstration of saying what he really thinks. Furthermore, Dillard is obviously a highly intelligent writer who furnishes sources for his claims in support of Putin and Russia, although his claims and his Russia/Ukraine essays have resulted in heated criticism from a number of Integral World writers and readers, myself included [4]. But I must agree with Dillard that exchanges of views in regard to his essays on Putin and Russia should not devolve into ad hominem attacks, which unfortunately has occurred in the Integral World Comments to his essays [4]. Furthermore, I have experienced these kind of ad hominem attacks myself on Integral World, though to a much smaller degree than Dillard, as a response from one Integral World writer in particular, who accused me of being in the Russia/Putin camp because I promoted the perspective of Katrina Vanden Heuvel, the editorial director and publisher of the influential progressive magazine The Nation [5]. I was shocked at being viewed in this way by anyone on Integral World, as I made it clear in my essay how horrified I was about the killing of innocent Ukrainian civilians, which I attributed to Russia, and my dominant focus was on a negotiated peace settlement to end the war [5]. However, I also conveyed that Vanden Heuvel’s views made sense to me, which included an acknowledgment that our change of course of action in regard to promoting Ukraine’s request to be part of NATO was a legitimate reason for Russia’s increased security concerns, and I also said that I thought Dillard’s various claims should be objectively investigated [5]. I must admit that this demeaning response which I received on Integral World made me initially hesitant to publish my second Russia/Ukraine essay in which I conveyed my appreciation of the United States in regard to the destruction of democracy currently happening in Russia with its arrest and imprisonment of anti-war demonstrators and its threat of giving 15 year prison sentences to anyone who writes anything against Putin or the Russian government or military [6]. But reading Packer’s book, and in particular the passage that I quoted above about writers not “self-censoring” themselves, was a shot in the arm to me that I must not succumb to this kind of society pressure, or in this case Integral World pressure from one particular writer, to suppress what I really think and want to write.

The Russia/Ukraine Crisis Issues

I’m procrastinating here, avoiding getting into the nuts and bolts of Dillard’s arguments in support of Putin and Russia that he conveyed in his most recent Russia/Ukraine essay [4]. I’m avoiding this because it is not a pleasant task, but I also feel compelled to at least make a preliminary attempt at some kind of balanced perspective.

Russia’s Increased Security Concerns Related to Ukraine Joining NATO

To begin with, I still think that the change of course of action of the United States in regard to promoting Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO is a legitimate reason that can at least partially explain Russia’s increase in their security concerns. This viewpoint is explained with an intelligent and informed historical analysis by Noam Chomsky [7], and I think that Dillard has given a reasonable affirmation for this perspective in his Russia/Ukraine essays [4]. Furthermore, Frank Visser, in his own attempt to give a balanced perspective on the Russia/Ukraine crisis, portrayed how the conclusion of Russia having increased security concerns as a function of the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO has mixed views from political experts on the situation [8]. Thus in my opinion, it is certainly not at all unreasonable for Dillard to conclude that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was at least partially motivated by their security fears based upon the prospect of Ukraine being included in NATO.

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

But assuming for the sake of argument that Russia had legitimate security concerns based upon the prospect of Ukraine being included in NATO, and further assuming that Ukraine was not willing to give up their intention of joining NATO, does this excuse Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Chomsky compared the situation to the idea of China installing military operations in Mexico on the border of the United States, and how the United States would respond [7]. But leaving aside the military and political deliberations about the Russia/Ukraine/NATO enmeshment, what I take issue with Dillard about the most involves the bombing of schools, hospitals, theaters, apartment buildings, etc. in Ukraine, needlessly killing hordes of innocent civilians, including many children [5], [6], [9]. Russia claims that they did not target civilians, and that these attacks were either fake or perpetrated by Ukraine as false flag operations, but I think the evidence, as well as Putin’s previous history of bombing civilians, strongly points to Russia being the perpetrator of these horrendous attacks [5], [6], [9]. From Dillard’s essays, as well as my exchange of comments with him, apparently he wants to leave this as an open question of who was responsible for the bulk of the attacks on civilians [4], and this is one point that I have a strong disagreement with him about. But aside from the bombing attacks on Ukrainian civilians, we more recently have learned about the unspeakable tortures and killings of Ukrainian civilians, with evidence pointing to Russian mercenary soldiers being responsible [6]. Once again, Dillard wants to keep an open mind about who was responsible for this, and I have a strong disagreement with him about this tragic horrendous issue [4].

Neo-Nazi Controversy and Putin Being “Restrained”

However, let’s leave this horrific issue aside for now, and take a look at the whole neo-nazi controversy. According to Dillard, Putin has legitimate concerns about the alarming and destructive neo-nazi element in Ukraine and this was one of his main reasons for his invasion [4]. Dillard painted Putin’s concerns from a very (Putin) personal perspective based upon Putin’s personal life, and I do not have sufficient knowledge to contradict anything that Dillard is saying here. Similarly, Dillard greatly honored Putin for his world class accomplishment with judo, and claimed that Putin is extremely intelligent and rational, and patiently deliberates upon all his decisions while taking advice very seriously from various experts that he consults with. Once again, I do not have sufficient knowledge to contradict what Dillard is saying here, although I am surprised to hear that Putin listens seriously to advice from those he consults with — but I am willing to accept that this is the case unless I see concrete evidence otherwise. But what I most definitely take issue with is Dillard’s portrayal of Putin as being “restrained” and making “minimal” responses in regard to his massive bombing of Ukraine. Dillard made a lot of association to Putin’s mastery of the “gentle” practice of judo, but this does not work for me when I see the horrific killing of civilians that I believe Putin is responsible for as he escalates his war in Ukraine. I understand that Dillard views Putin’s “restraint” in the context that he has not bombed Ukraine citizens in as densely populated areas that he could have, and has not “yet” unleashed nuclear weapons, or chemical weapons at least to any significant degree. But I do not think that Putin has any degree of compassion for the people of Ukraine, based upon his actions that I view as murderous [5], [6], [9], since I think of “restraint” as, at the very minimum, restraining oneself from bombing children. Along these lines, it is instructive to take a look at some of Putin’s earlier horrific activities in killing civilians in previous wars, as described by Janine di Giovannis, who is the director of a U.S. aid-sponsored project recording war crimes in Ukraine [9]:

“Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless, indiscriminate bombing — a standard part of his playbook — in Ukraine has startling parallels to other Putin wars I have witnessed in my time as a reporter. . . . Many of the casualties in Ukraine are caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems and airstrikes. Chechnya had a similar fate with artillery, helicopter gunships, and airstrikes; Aleppo [in Syria] was destroyed by Putin’s screeching war planes. In all cases, Putin and his generals (he has just tasked the “Butcher of Syria,” Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov, to be his ground commander in Ukraine) employed indiscriminate use of air power, leading to civilian casualties. Both times, they targeted heavily residential civilian areas with hospitals and schools, forcing civilians to flee from danger. He has created columns of refugees and destroyed the fabric of society. The people I have seen killed or injured in Putin’s wars weren’t on the battlefield. The ones I remember the clearest were children with missing limbs or shrapnel embedded in their brains, women carrying toddlers, confused older adults, and people with disabilities — people who did not deserve to be targeted and were supposed to be protected under international human rights law. Putin has aided the most ruthless of dictators, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who waged a war against his own people and punished them for seeking freedom. . . . Putin helped by sending Russian warplanes to systematically target hospitals and first responders. . . . The attacks killed newborn babies, doctors, and students. These were clear-cut war crimes. . . . Now, Putin has shifted to Ukraine and is using the very same playbook I personally saw him use to catastrophic effect in Syria and Chechnya. . . . Putin’s killing machine will continue. Much of it won’t be known for months, perhaps years, to come. There will be more mass graves, more bombings. He will continue to violate humanitarian law with impunity.”

Thus I strongly disagree with Dillard in regard to Putin using “restraint,” in the context of the meaning that I attribute to restraint.

But getting back to the neo-nazi issue, from what I have researched the situation is far more complicated than Dillard has portrayed. Yes I think Dillard is correct that the destructive neo-nazi element in Ukraine is a factor that needs to be considered, and I have found a number of accounts in the literature that are very concerning in this regard, though most of which go back to the 2014 war [10]. However, I also have found accounts that describe how the Ukraine neo-nazi element is much less severe than it was in 2014, and what is particularly troublesome for me about Dillard’s perspective is the fact that Russia itself employs a neo-nazi element in its mercenary military forces [11]. Thus it is a complicated scenario, and I don’t understand how one can conclude that Ukraine’s neo-nazi element was a dominant reason for Russia’s invasion when Russia utilizes a neo-nazi element in its own military.

How Putin Has Dealt With Criticism In Russia Over His Invasion Of Ukraine

Finally, in regard to how Putin has dealt with criticism within Russia over his invasion of Ukraine, I take great issue with Dillard’s portrayal of Putin as having a “strong sense of justice and gaining an “advantage through yielding.” I have described Putin’s repression in Russia in detail in my previous Russia/Ukraine essay [6], as Putin’s actions of repression are indicators to me of a brutal dictator, in fact to so much of an extent that it induced me to entitle my previous essay Appreciating the United States in the Context of Russia [6]. Now this in no way excuses the United States for what has been described as all its past and present violent incursions into the governments of countries all over the world [7], and I think Dillard has given a fair portrayal that this should not be overlooked when people are putting blame on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. In fact, according to Chomsky, the United States has frequently overcome democracies to support dictators, and has committed war crimes and facilitated genocide on a scale much greater than what Putin is currently doing in Ukraine [7]. While Chomsky doesn’t excuse Putin and Russia for their horrific murders of Ukrainian civilians, he also does not want to excuse the United States for what he considers to be their own extensive “war crime” activities that he says should cause more “moral outrage” than what Putin and Russia is currently doing in Ukraine [7]. In this regard, Chomsky is reinforcing at least part of Dillard’s perspective, and this makes sense to me. But in a course of over 22 years as the President of Russia, Putin has acquired the nickname “Putin the Poisoner” and it may be instructive to take a look at an informed perspective from the authors of an account of murders and biowar by Stalin, Putin, and Xi Jinping, that may shed some light upon Putin’s nickname [12]:

“In a 2012 presidential debate, Putin bragged of Russia’s ‘genetic’ weapons (the successors to the USSR’s notorious Project Enzyme Biowar Project). Later, in a 2017 speech to Russian security operatives, he singled out the famous poison leader Yakov Serebryansky as the greatest of all Soviet agents. Putin has not only heralded Russia’s ‘special’ weapons — he has used them over and over again. . . . In a parade of convenient deaths, more than 20 opposition journalists and political opponents died from unsolved shootings, poisonings, car bombings and ‘natural deaths,’ which, like so many in Stalin’s day, were anything but natural. . . . Putin has earned his nickname of Putin the Poisoner, escalating from retail poisoning of political opponents to wholesale murder of many thousands in the ruins of Ukraine. His biowar facilities at Saratov and in the Urals are the most sophisticated on Earth and controlled by a man who fancies himself a second Stalin. . . . Putin. . . strives to be a fearsome creature under the microscope of his possession of poisons, bioweapons and nuclear weapons.”

Conclusion

The bottom line here is that while once again I think Dillard has made some points that should be seriously considered, I also think that he has made a number of arguments and statements that I believe are very much contradicted by the series of events that have happened and are happening in Russia/Ukraine, and for which I have serious disagreements with Dillard about. For example, according to Dillard, the accounts of Putin being personally corrupt, much less murderous of his rivals, are lacking in evidence, and Dillard believes that Putin bases his actions on patient deliberateness instead of reactivity, through the “gentle” philosophy of judo and consideration of others [4]:

“While charges that Putin is personally corrupt are common in the West, where is the evidence? Do allegations by ‘government sources’ or hearsay from this or that Russian constitute evidence?. . . . The name ‘Judo’ means ‘gentle way,’ to resist, to give way, to be compliant. At its foundation, Judo assumes a perspective that is typically dismissed by the Graco-Roman approach as a form of weakness. . . . The fundamental principles of Judo specifically, and Eastern martial arts in general, translate into an advocacy to live a gentle life, in a very efficient manner, with thought and consideration for all. . . . This is a fundamental ethical principle at the foundation of Putin’s years of practice as a student of Judo. Westerners tend to focus on and disparage Putin’s ‘maximum efficiency’ (if they recognize it at all) while ignoring the coexisting ‘mutual benefit’ component of his character and actions. . . . We see Putin’s deliberativeness in his consistent minimal under-reaction to Western sanctions. Putin rarely retaliates with reciprocal responses. This may be reflected in the failure of Putin and Russia to destroy Ukrainian cities like the US and its allies did in Falluja, Mosul, and long before that, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Tokyo, Hamburg, and Dresden. A confidence of minimal responses makes belligerence less likely while increasing tolerance.”

I have described above how I disagree with the core of Dillard’s conclusions in his most recent Russia/Ukraine essay, while acknowledging that he has made some points that I think are fair and should be taken into serious consideration, inclusive of Russia’s increased security concerns due to Ukraine seeking to join NATO, the destructive presence of the neo-nazi element in Ukraine, and the accumulated destructive violence of the United States and its allies in their actions to overthrow governments all over the world through “regime change,” as described in historical detail by Noam Chomsky [7]. However, painting Putin as a gentle Eastern “wu-wei” philosopher who demonstrates “restraint” and a “consideration for all” is akin to me to completely dismissing and/or excusing the multitude of allegations against Donald Trump, ranging from multiple sexual abuse accusations to poisoning the country through his propagation of election fraud to instigating the capitol insurrection; i.e., it is akin to me to painting Donald Trump as an “ethical human being.”

But perhaps what is most important is that although I can certainly understand the emotional reactivity and ethical affront that some Integral World readers, including myself, feel from reading Dillard’s Russia/Ukraine essays, and especially his most recent essay that I have discussed here, I don’t think that Dillard, or Chomsky or myself for that matter, should be subjected to ad hominem attacks for our perspectives. I have conveyed some places where I think that Dillard has made reasonable arguments, and a number of places where I think he is way off the mark. Let’s have respectful and continued dialogue about this urgent issue and crisis, and pay tribute to Integral World for offering us the opportunity to engage in the kind of free, open-minded, and respectful communications that George Packer has advocated for.

Afterword

A few seconds after I submitted this essay to Frank Visser, I decided to check the Integral World website and sure enough, Visser had already posted his own latest Russia/Ukraine essay in response to Dillard [13]. Suffice it to say that Visser has introduced an interesting adult education perspective to assist us in understanding Putin, and from this perspective it was concluded that Putin is operating on a relatively low level of adult development, which is consistent with the crux of my arguments in this present essay.

Notes/References

1) See George Packer (2021), Last Best Hope: American in Crisis and Renewal, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; the quotes from Packer in this essay can be found on pages 204–208.

2) See the Integral World website at www.integralworld.net

3) Noem Chomsky has been described on Wikipedia as “an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historical essayist, social critic, and political activist.” See the full Wikipedia description of Chomsky at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noam_Chomsky

4) See Joseph Dillard’s (2022) first essay: Is Putin Red and the West Green? www.integralworld.net/dillarld64.html; his second (2022) essay: The Ukraine Crisis: An Opportunity to Wake Up Out of Groupthink, www.integralworld.net/dillard65.html; and his third (2022)essay: Why are Russian and Putin Winning the Economic and Military Wars? www.integralworld.net/dillard66.html; note that the contents of this present essay are predominantly in response to Dillard’s third essay, from which the quote in the Conclusion is taken.

5) See Elliot Benjamin (2022), Ukraine, Russia, and Peace: A Response to Dillard Through the Perspective of Vanden Heuvel, www.integralworld.net/benjamin131.html

6) See Elliot Benjamin (2022), Appreciating The United States in the Context of Russia, www.integralworld.net/benjamin132.html

7) See the following two Chomsky videos at
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Fb7AD49WIlY and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Z5sNAr8qI; see a transcripted version of a third Chomsky interview at https://theintercept.com/2022/04/14/russia-ukraine-noam-chomsky-jeremy-scahill/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=The%20Intercept%20Newsletter

8) See Frank Visser (2022), Putin’s Dark Ideology of a “Sacred Greater Russia,” www.integralworld.net/visser218.html

9) See Janione di Giovanni (2022), Putin’s Gruesome Playbook: Russia’s Indiscriminate Bombing in Ukraine Looks Startlingly Familiar, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/04/18/ukraine-war-russia-syria-chechnya-grozny/
10) See Magistr Teologii (2022), I’m Russian From Ukraine, https://medium.com/@magistr.teologii/im-russian-from-ukraine-8ea437ad921d; Shaun Walker (2014), Azov Fighters Are Ukraine’s Greatest Weapon and May Be Its Greatest Threat, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/10/azov-far-right-fighters-ukraine-neo-nazis; Sudarsan Raghavan, Loveday Morris, Claire Parker, & David L. Stern (2022), Right-Wing Azov Battalion Emerges as a Controversial Defender of Ukraine, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/06/ukraine-military-right-wing-militias/; and Amnesty International Briefing (2014), Ukraine: Abuses and War Crimes by the Aidar Volunteer Battalion in the North Luhansk Region, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur50/040/2014/en/

11) See Rachel Treisman (2022), Putin’s Claim of Fighting Against Ukraine “Neo-Nazis” Distorts History, Scholars Say, https://www.npr.org/2022/03/01/1083677765/putin-denazify-ukraine-russia-history; David Neiwert (2022), Russian Neofascists and Their Presence in Putin’s Invading Army Expose His lies About Ukraine, https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2022/4/14/2092019/-Russian-neofascists-and-their-presence-in-Putin-s-invading-army-expose-his-lies-about-Ukraine; David Neiwert (2020), Russian Fascist Paramilitary Group Earns United States’ International Terrorist Designation, https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/4/7/1934956/-Russian-fascist-paramilitary-group-earns-United-States-international-terrorist-designation; and Brendan Cole (2022), Russia’s Wagner Group Soldiers Behind Bucha Killings, German Intel Claims, https://www.newsweek.com/der-spiegel-russia-ukraine-troops-bucha-wagner-putin-1695974

12) See John O’Neill & Sarah Wynne (2022), Putin the Poisoner Strikes Again, https://thehill.com/opinion/international/3255920-putin-the-poisoner-strikes-again/
13) See Frank Visser (2022), Putin’s Politics Viewed Through an Integral Lens: A Perspective From the Field of Adult Development. www.integralworld.net/visser220.html

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Elliot Benjamin

Elliot Benjamin

Elliot Benjamin is a philosopher, psychologist, mathematician, musician, and writer, with Ph.Ds in math and psychology. 4 published books, and over 200 articles