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  • Ryan Lee

Why the Ukraine war is understandable: A response to a response to Dan Sillett

By RYAN LEE


As a mere Perspectives writer sitting on the sidelines of the crossfire between our two lovely editors, brothers turned belligerents, I couldn’t help but take a stand in what I’m sure will be the most exciting battle of wills since Fischer vs Kasparov.

In this civil war that divides our Perspectives editors, I’m just here to say that I’m on Team Dan. Though that isn’t to say I’m also by extension on Team Russia, and that is precisely the crux of my argument here. Being on Team Dan, and agreeing that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is understandable doesn’t mean that the invasion was justifiable in any way.


Now, how can it be that I both agree that the invasion is understandable and not justifiable? Well, the important thing to understand is that these two notions aren’t the same and shouldn’t be conflated. If a serial killer faced a history of bullying and developed psychopathic tendencies, it is certainly understandable why he kills, though it clearly isn’t morally justified for him to murder. To sympathise and empathise with someone isn’t to accept that something is morally acceptable and it is plainly incorrect to paint Dan’s position as “justifying” the invasion.


And now for all those who moan and groan about my quibbling over a semantics issue, let me explain why this seemingly pedantic difference between understandable and justifiable is relevant in this case.


Russia is a nuclear power. We have to remember that as much as we find Russia’s actions abhorrent, and how much we silently (or not so silently) wish for Russia to lose, if they do lose, the entire world loses by virtue of nuclear apocalypse. The only way the conflict is going to end is in some sort of quasi-peaceful arrangement that makes both sides happy.


And how do we make Russia happy? The only way is to understand them as an opponent. In the almost too cliché, overly quoted line, “Know thy enemy and know thyself, and you will avoid a nuclear apocalypse” (adapted by myself, of course). And the only way to truly understand someone is to take a nice long walk in their shoes and truly consider how they look at the world around them. In Russia’s case, we might need to spend a little extra time searching for those Russian boots amid Russian military supply shortages.


Just as we may find great difficulty finding those Russian boots to fit into, it is also surely hard trying to think as a Russian would, especially since we’re stepping into the mind of Public Enemy Number 1. Dan has made an incredibly valiant attempt and I absolutely commend him for that, given that he thinks hard, psychologically, about why Putin does what he does. Especially in cases where we consider the perspectives of someone with quite so different beliefs, values and worldview to us, we’re often left with a huge amount of cognitive dissonance that leaves us unable to truly appreciate their position.


That is not to say that James is wrong, though. I just feel that he may be approaching this from a bird’s-eye view that we often adopt when we can’t relate to someone’s mentality. Of course, when you look at the war from an outsider, western-centric position, it all seems absolutely ridiculous and morally abhorrent. But that is precisely the rabbit hole we must leap into for us to truly understand the madness that is Putin’s mind and his worldview that led him to “justifying” this war.


James may be right in pointing out that Billy No-Mates Russia certainly had chances to make friends. But from Putin’s view, coloured by culture, history and personal biases, this may not have been an option at all. James’s critique was extremely effective at challenging Dan’s arguments, pulling at the loopholes in his various analogies and highlighting some nuanced ways to better understand the historical events brought to light in Dan’s case. These are valid critiques of Dan’s view, but it ultimately misses the forest for the trees.


Dan’s argument focuses on Putin’s beliefs, which is a completely separate matter from whether the war is justified. Perhaps his title was a little clickbaity and it belies the actual content of the article. But Dan’s point is certainly valid and contributes an interesting perspective that, if more people were able to accept, may actually help us bring an end to the conflict.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was certainly unjustified, but to understand Putin’s megamind is to take steps that may feasibly bring about a lasting peace. Taking a step in Putin’s shoes is perhaps the only way to understand him, which doesn’t also require you to agree that invading Ukraine is somehow morally permissible.


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