US public not blameless in Russia-Ukraine conflict
This is a hard column to write. Today Russia hived off part of Ukraine as if it were its garden with apple trees to pick off. Ukraine is an independent country; it is not Chechnya.
As a journalist and foreign policy practitioner, I am used to blaming governments, including my own, for global messes.
But in the case of Ukraine, I find myself realizing that the source of many of the problems besetting this fragile democracy is not only Russia or its president, Vladimir Putin. Part of the blame lies with us — the American people.
We allowed this escalating scenario to unfold. Despite what I read from pundits and scholars about where to point fingers for the disaster, I find myself looking in the mirror. We must face up to our own responsibility in enabling Putin and his cronies to manipulate the West.
The history bears repeating: Let’s go back to 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea. The United States and Europe failed to stop Putin from hiving off part of a country in our sphere of influence. Despite whatever punitive actions NATO and America took, the message to Russia became clear: Have at it. All our speeches, protests, sanctions and summits did nothing to change the situation on the ground. A piece of Ukraine was stolen from them.
For eight years, the people of Ukraine have lived with hostility and conflict while the West stood idly by. According to the United Nations, more than 14,000 have died in the Russia-Ukraine war — 3,000 of them civilians. This is an active war that has continued unabated while Americans and Europeans went on with their own lives.
Then there is the story of Russian interference in elections — not just in America but throughout Europe too. In 2016 the United Kingdom was engaged in a difficult debate over Brexit. The Russians allegedly hacked systems, sowed debate and division, and threw the British political situation into chaos. People on both sides of Brexit later claimed they didn’t even have full facts. A “Russia report” by British intelligence and security committees found that Russia had not hacked voting systems during Brexit. Instead, it relied on misinformation, disinformation and social media to confound and confuse the British public.
Other parts of Europe were held hostage by Moscow. In 2017 a French presidential election saw interference from Moscow with reported hacking of Emmanuel Macron’s campaign. That year Spain was the target of supposed Russian meddling in a debate over the separation of the Catalonia region. From Germany to the Netherlands, Putin was charged with getting in the way of electoral systems. Europe’s response was to upgrade its security systems — essentially protecting itself but not punishing Putin.
Russian interference in American elections is considered fact due to multiple investigations and reports. Throughout the 2020 presidential campaign and the presidential election, hacking by Russia was routinely charged. Even if you don’t want to believe it happened, there is no disagreement that America was deeply divided and vulnerable to polarization. That is the Russian playbook for dividing societies. The goal is to sow discord and dissension. The outcome is weakness and disorder.
Remember that the goal is to stretch opinions into extremes and pit people against one another, creating an environment of distrust and partisanship. The Mueller Report is memorable less for what it concluded than for the partisanship surrounding its release. It said that Russia interfered with our elections but that there was no evidence of a conspiracy by the Trump administration to coordinate with the Russians.
On every issue, from guns to immigration, we the American people allowed ourselves to be pulled apart and diminished in collective security. We fell prey to algorithms and social media that led to a complete lack of confidence in our public institutions. Despite at times not even knowing the sources of information, we traded in gossip and innuendo. We tweeted, posted and circulated “news” that was popular but often inaccurate. In short, we fell right into Putin’s arms in allowing ourselves to be weakened.
Unconcerned about domestic opinion, Putin continued to hack his way into Ukraine while building up a major troop presence right under our noses. And despite sanctions, financial pressure, intense diplomacy and public shaming, Ukraine is about to fall into Russia’s grip.
None of this is to suggest that Putin isn’t a dictator bent on rewriting the end of the Cold War. But we are not blameless. We are guilty of passivity. At some point, we must turn to each other and ask: “How do we get out of this futile cycle of internal hatred and distraction?”
How do we go from internal weakness to global strength? Can we respond to the situation in Ukraine by paying full attention and getting our own house in order? That is our charge.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs.
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