The Rise of Whataboutism

Whenever I look at the comment section under an article or video about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, whether in CZ or EN, there is a visible presence of people who either outright say that Russia is right to this or who say that it is not wrong to do it because… Whatabout Iraq? Whatabout Afghanistan? Whatabout Grenada? Whatabout Whatever?

This is a classic Soviet-era propaganda tool, trying to divert the attention from an injustice being done by the USSR to similar injustices being done by the USA. The old adage that two wrongs do not make a right applies. There is no moral difference between the USA invading another country and/or sending in mercenaries trying to overthrow a democratically elected government because it threatens US financial interests and/or egos of its leaders and Russia invading another country and/or sending in mercenaries to overthrow a democratically elected government because it threatens its financial interests and/or egos of its leaders. They are both bad.

Then there is also a not insignificant number of people who engage in what I would call ifonlysm. Ifonly Ukraine did not try to join the EU. Ifonly Ukraine did not have right-wing extremists. Ifonly Ukraine did not have a “coup” against Yanukovich. Ifonly Russia got an iron-clad guarantee that NATO won’t expand no more even if a country’s people wish to do so.

As someone living in Central Europe in a country that was very often right at the center of any big conflict in Europe from  The Thirty Years’ War through Napoleonic wars, WWI, and WWII right up to The Cold War, I very much do not appreciate this rhetoric. Because if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that this is not how any of this works. Appeasing Putin would not stop this invasion, it would only change the timescale and the pretext under which it is done.

Autocrats do not try to gain power for rational reasons and the reasons they say are not the real reasons. The truth is that autocrats want power for power’s sake. Some go the way of amassing useless billions in wealth, some go the way of hijacking the state apparatus to become dictators, some do both. But just as there is no billionaire who cannot be corrupt because “he has amassed enough wealth”, there is no dictator who does not want to expand their area of influence because the “empire is big enough”. The billionaires hoard wealth until the economy collapses and goes into recession, the autocrats hoard power until the state apparatus collapses and a revolution happens. The only limits on what an autocrat can achieve are those imposed on them from the outside.

Putin has now made it clear that he wants to restore the former USSR sphere of influence. And although he did not use such words, it essentially means he wants to build a Russian Empire with him being its Tzar for life. He does not need it. His country does not need it. There is no rational reason to try to pursue such a goal except an insatiable lust for power. And the keyword here is insatiable.


  1. says

    @chigau, he has a daughter. But it is irrelevant. It would only be relevant if people like him were deciding rationally about reasonable goals.

  2. Gelaos says

    I saw an interview with a historian Alexej Kelin yesterday on Czech TV. He said roughly something along these lines (IIRC): “I met Putin two times and each time he was a completely different man. The European leaders are making a mistake when they try to understand and reason with Putin in the same manner we’re used to in the West. His mentality and worldview diiferes from ours and his behaviour doesn’t fit into the schemes that we’d expect from other (western) leaders.”

    He also also said that there could be potential for Russia to have great people in lead, but the “infection” (current regime) has spread so far and so deep that he doesn’t think that Russia’s situation would improve anytime soon.

  3. Artor says

    If Putin were to drop dead tonight, I would hope that the invasion would end and Russian troops would withdraw, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Everyone in position to take power after him is not noticeably better.

  4. says

    Whatabout Iraq?

    Well, that was fucking wrong, too, wasn’t it? I remember protesting it, I was there. (More than once, actually. I lost count of the number of times Iraq was bombed in my lifetime and I’m not that old yet.)
    Actually, Putin is playing the US playbook to a T. His claims of “denazification” and “demilitarisation” closely resemble the “weapons of mass destruction” and the “war on terror”. But that doesn’t magically make him right. It just means that those lamenting the “break of international law” are of course hypocrites, demonstrating that wonderful phrase I heard that “conservatism is the idea on an in group that is protected by the law, but not bound by it, and an out group that is bound by the law, but not protected by it”. Putin is clearly supposed to be in the out group and play by the rules, while Turkey gets to invade Syria. But guess what, I can hate all imperialists. My enemy’s enemy can still be my enemy, and the people of Ukraine don’t have to be virtuous damsels in distress to have my support.
    This also means that there are no honest actors left who could actually reliably mediate. It also means that by the end of the day, the people of Ukraine don’t really matter to any of the parties involved except in what they gain from them, and they’re the ones paying the price.
    But while we in Europe are justifiably alarmed, it does show once again that not all lives matter equally. It’s great that countries are welcoming refugees from Ukraine, but those same countries set the dogs on brown babies a few weeks ago, those same countries kill people in the Mediterranean with the help of Frontex.
    What Putin wants? An empire and a crown to go with it. Honestly, I think he lost his grasp. While I always considered him a brutal autocrat, I always thought that opposed to Trump, for example, he was at least smart and cunning. This, i don’t know what he thinks it will achieve. His country has become an economic dwarf. He may try to “save” his economy via a war, given that his military is his only asset. But while the west has been sluggish to implement real economic sanctions (Italy was moaning that please, don’t ban Gucci bags, Belgium was weeping for diamonds, please, remember how much revenue they’re making from the oligarchs that bleed the Russian people dry), I think they will follow and while China will make the best of it, it will also play both sides and Putin won’t stand becoming a vassal to China. But again, if you spend decades curating a captive audience, making sure that everybody in the room always praises you, then nobody will dare to say “I don’t think this is a good idea. Generals will rather send soldiers to kill and die than risk offending the great leader.

  5. says

    Giliell, I do hope you understand that the OP is not about people like you, who object to both the Iraq war and the current invasion of Ukraine. So do I.

    I object to people who try to use the failings of the USA to give Russia a pass on their atrocities.

  6. StevoR says

    Agreed and something I’m seeing in various places on social media and general conversation here in Oz too.

    @ 1 & 2, chigau (違う) & Charly :

    Not sure about Putin’s political heirs but FWIW just looked up my usual starting place for research here and found :

    On 28 July 1983, Putin married Lyudmila Shkrebneva, and they lived together in East Germany from 1985 to 1990. They have two daughters, Mariya Putina, born 28 April 1985 in Leningrad, and Yekaterina Putina, born 31 August 1986 in Dresden, East Germany.[520] An investigation by Proekt Media published in November 2020 alleged that Putin has another daughter, Elizaveta (known as Luiza Rozova[521]), born March 2003,[522] with Svetlana Krivonogikh.[4][523] In April 2008, the Moskovsky Korrespondent reported that Putin had divorced Lyudmila and was engaged to marry Olympic gold medalist Alina Kabaeva, a former rhythmic gymnast and Russian politician.[2] The story was denied[2] and the newspaper was shut down shortly thereafter.[3] Putin and Lyudmila continued to make public appearances together as spouses, while the status of his relationship with Kabaeva became a topic of speculation.[524][525][526][527] In the subsequent years, there were frequent unsubstantiated reports that Putin and Kabaeva had multiple children together, although these reports were denied.[528] On 6 June 2013, Putin and Lyudmila announced that their marriage was over, and, on 1 April 2014, the Kremlin confirmed that the divorce had been finalised.[529][530][531] In 2015, Kabaeva reportedly gave birth to a daughter; Putin is alleged to be the father.[528][525][5] In 2019, Kabaeva reportedly gave birth to twin sons by Putin.

    I have the very likely mistaken impression that Dmitry Medvedev ( ) is or rather maybe was Putin’s number 2 and possible successor?

    I’ve also seen it argued by various people online that Putin may be invading Ukraine because he’s sick or feeling like he wants to leave a legacy with folks speculating about his health and future. If so, I think he’s ruined and permanently stained his historical reputation rather than enhanced it and destroyed much of what he’s built up.Whether Putin understands that or not and whether that’s correct or not, I don’t know.

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