There is something unpleasant about discussing Putin’s motives for invading Ukraine. On the one hand, there are the people who find “explanations” for it, who tend to point to NATO’s expansion to the east, albeit a debatable theory. Other people say that Putin is crazy, or think in geopolitical terms and conclude that he made a miscalculation. I read this with interest, though not convincing: what if we’re trying to rationalize something that only makes sense under ideas other than our own?
It is an argument that I heard Timothy Snyder in a conversation with Ezra Klein. Snyder is a Yale historian, known for his manifesto “On Tyranny,” which was successful under Trump, but he is an expert on Ukraine.
What Snyder is saying is that Putin doesn’t care about the things we think people should care about. “He doesn’t care about the Russian economy. I think he doesn’t even care about Russian interests, maybe not even about the survival of the Russian state,” he explains. The Russian leader cares about other things and has been very clear about those things, says Snyder. “She cares how he will be remembered after his death. He cares about the image of an eternal Russia. He cares about things that are out of our field of vision.”
My readings of these weeks fit better from that point of view. Putin would not be moved by geopolitical or economic rationality, but by old and dangerous ideas. Which? Without wishing to make a complete list, I think of nationalism, race and empire. Snyder has called it a form of fascism.
- “Putin may be the most dangerous man who ever lived. He is dedicated to restoring the lost empire of Russia, indifferent to the fate of his own people and, above all, owner of a vast nuclear force”, says Martin Wolf. It does not matter if the Russian economy is today smaller than the Polish one.
- “Putin apparently believed that Ukraine is not a real country, and that the Ukrainian people are not a real people, that they are one people with the Russians,” Stephen Kotkin says.
- Just listen to Putin himself, this Wednesday, speaking of Russians protesting against the war: “The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a fly that accidentally flew into their mouths.[.]. “I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country.”
Ezra Klein believes that a blind spot of Europeans and Americans is that we think ideas don’t matter. Many of us, like him, tend to think that things happen due to structural factors, due to incentives, due to solid questions such as how much steel you can produce. But we humans are also moved by ideas, be they true or false, good or bad. It is a debate that I have with my father, an analytical man whom I have imitated since I was a child. But I am engineer and historian. I look for mechanistic explanations, I tend towards optimism and I believe that the world is progressing; he knows the past, respects his ideas and is less enthusiastic about the present. Does the war in Ukraine prove you right?
For Snyder, our failure is not to think about values, about what we want to achieve, be they freer lives, more egalitarian societies, more virtue or greater greatness. Without them, it is absurd to speak of means-ends rationality. An action is rational if it brings you closer to a goal, but what goal? We have forgotten that there are many different values, and that these, moreover, “can be contested.” That’s why we have to talk about them; not because of relativism, but on the contrary: to defend that some ideas are better than others.
🗺 1. War Maps
We continue to tell the day to day of the Russian attack on Ukraine. This week the invasion seems stalled, although the Russians have continued their artillery attacks on civilians.
📊 2. The Tezanos CIS has no salvation
This week the center renewed its methods, which is something to celebrate, but without being naive: it is late. The CIS of José Félix Tezanos needs more changes than a change of methodology. I tell it here with data.
📚 3. What effect did the covid school closure have?
The stoppage of schools during the pandemic meant a learning loss equivalent to 13% of a school year. The loss was worst in math, where he lost 25%. They are the results of A study with data from the Basque Country and conducted by Cotec and EsadeEcPol (Note: I am on their advisory board). The study uses a natural experiment, like the ones I talked about after the Nobel Prize.
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