February 16, 2022 | Reading Time: 7 minutes

‘Do we want to live in a world where Putin calls the shots?’

Patriots say no. Rightwingers say maybe.


Share this article

Americans used to worry about communists. We thought they were under and behind every bush and tree. Our anxiety came in two waves. Red Scare 1 (the early 1920s) and Red Scare 2 (the early 1950s). Eventually, the Soviet Union became everything the United States was not.

The average American, however, could not tell a communist from their elbow. How, then, did Americans get so worked up their collective anxiety justified the government violating civil rights or ruining lives? 

That’s easy. The news media and the US government talked about communism very frequently in the context of existential threat. 

That much talk equals that much worry.

You’ll have noticed something. 

“Donald Trump gave Ukraine a bad name in the eyes of the American public. I think Joe Biden may have been hesitant to seem too enthusiastic about aiding Ukraine.”

The news media does not talk about Russia, which still has warheads, the way it once talked about the Soviet Union. It does not talk about the growing alliance between American rightwingers and Russia the way it once talked about American communists and the Evil Empire.

Why? Again, easy. 

The people who own the most lucrative media properties (Comcast, Facebook, Time-Warner) are America’s very obscenely rich. The same class of people existed during the Red Scares. They had obvious reasons for fearing communism. It was appealing to anyone cheated, abused or murdered by the representatives of the very obscenely rich. 

They do not fear and have never feared violent rightwingers, white supremacists, neo-confederates and homegrown fascists. They don’t and never did because their discord and chaos, which divides the majority of people, almost always benefits the very obscenely rich.

Yet the alliance, mature or nascent, between the American right and the Kremlin is threatening to undermine or overturn democracy at home. It’s threatening the global order as we know it, too. If the Russians invade Ukraine, any country can invade any country. A lot rides on trusting the United States to be the world’s good guy.

We need to talk about these enemies, foreign and domestic. So I got in touch with Professor Emily Channell-Justice. She’s the director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at Harvard and a specialist on Ukraine. Ultimately, Dr. Channell-Justice told me, we have to ask, “do we want to live in a world where Vladimir Putin calls the shots?”

Hell no.

Americans over a certain age remember the Cold War. They remember the Soviet Union. What can they draw from their memories to help them understand current tensions over Ukraine?

I wouldn’t want to make too precise of a comparison, because things have changed so much since that time period, and because the 1990s (the early post-Soviet period) is extremely important for understanding what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine right now. 

But in general, I think the most important things are the intangible: the idea of Russia as a great power, as influencing how the rest of the world works, as a country that garners the respect of the world. 

I think one of Putin’s goals is not rebuilding the Soviet Union per se, but rebuilding a “Great Russia” [the time of the Tsars] that had an extensive geographical and ideological footprint. That’s something I think would resonate with anyone who remembers the USSR.

Tell us about Ukraine’s view of “Great Russia.” Chris Murphy, my senator, said the Ukrainians would fight to the last man (my words) due to their opposition. Murphy said such opposition made Putin panic in 2013 after the Maiden uprising and panic now.

The Russian Empire spanned from present-day Poland to the Far East and through Central Asia and the Caucasus. I’m not sure the modern vision of “Great Russia” can be that geographically expansive (though I’m sure Putin would pursue that if he thought he could succeed!). 

Ukraine was so essential to the Russian Empire, and to the Soviet Union, that it was considered the “Second Soviet Republic” (historian Yaroslav Bilinsky wrote a book about Ukraine with this as its title). 

So in Putin’s mind, any truly “Great Russia” has to include Ukraine. 

Ukraine was turning away before 2013, but the Maidan protests solidified it. Ukrainians showed they didn’t want to be part of Russia.

I don’t know if I’d call it “panicking,” but Putin certainly started changing his tactics in response to that clearly democratic decision making in Ukraine–not only would it take Ukraine away from Russia, but it would show Russians that democracy is a viable option for them. 

That’s something he’s been fighting since the color revolutions.

“While it’s unlikely that Putin had this goal in mind – it probably turned out to be a fringe benefit – I wouldn’t discount the possibility that it was intentional on Putin’s part to make sure he could threaten Ukraine without too much of a response from the president.”

Murphy said Putin “gambled” by amassing troops and materiel on the eastern border in hopes of pressing the Zelensky government into collapse. He said Putin expected the west to agree to his demands. Murphy is great, but he’s still a politician. Is he right?

I’m not sure what it is Putin wants, but he’s either going to get exactly what he wants or he’s going to get something that he can spin within Russia as a win against NATO, the “West” and the United States. 

Personally, I think Zelensky and his administration are stronger than Putin thinks they are. My guess?Zelensky isn’t a politician. Therefore, Putin thinks Zelensky will be easy to manipulate. So far, however, he has shown a good amount of strength in the face of a big threat.

I think Putin knows that Zelensky’s approval ratings are at the moment lower than they had been throughout his term. It’s possible that Putin thinks that by backing a coup and installing a new government, Ukrainians will support it. After all, they are not very supportive of Zelensky. I think that’s a miscalculation if he thinks that’ll work.

That’s, I dunno, kinda stupid, right?


But that’s not the world Putin lives in.

He thinks he’s done such a good job consolidating power in Russia that he can’t imagine that Ukrainians would rather live in a democracy.

Can we dwell on this a little? This seems like a vital distinction between a values-based system of government (ie, democracy) and a purely transactional system of government (ie corrupt oligarchy).

This is why the election of Zelensky matters so much. 

The previous president, Petro Poroshenko, was an oligarch. Maybe “better” oligarchs than others (Rinat Akhmetov, Victor Pinchuk, Ihor Kolomoyskyi), but the guy privatized Soviet industries. He built a localized power structure from there and took it to the presidency. 

Zelensky was elected. People wanted to vote for him. They wanted to vote against Poroshenko. That’s far more reflective of Ukraine being an actual democracy than arguably any previous presidential election.

On the other hand, Putin has built up this increasingly small echo chamber in which everyone who helps him benefits and everyone who challenges him ends up dead, jailed, deathly ill or exiled. 

It does seem to me that the differences in governing in Ukraine and Russia are more different now than they have been before.

Can we loop Donald Trump into this? Aided by Russian interference in the 2016 election, he then blackmailed Zelensky into finding “dirt” on Joe Biden in exchange for funds to continue repelling Russian forces in the east. All of that was stupid, too. Thoughts?

Yes, that was definitely stupid.

Though the worst fallout had more to do with giving Ukraine a bad name in the eyes of the American public. I think Biden may have been hesitant to seem too enthusiastic about aiding Ukraine because of the fallout of the [phony] Burisma scandal and Trump’s first impeachment.

While it’s unlikely that Putin had this goal in mind – it probably turned out to be a fringe benefit – I wouldn’t discount the possibility that it was intentional on Putin’s part to make sure he could threaten Ukraine without too much of a response from the president.

Have the US and its allies contained Putin? The Biden administration seems to be betting that public exposure of Putin’s intentions — ie, attacking imminently, installing a puppet — will work. Is that right?

This is an interesting tactic I haven’t seen before. 

The idea is to get all the information out there so that Putin can’t effectively use a “false flag” tactic to justify invasion. In this way, Biden and his allies are getting the American public to engage in a new way, because it’s harder to be convinced of the Russian version of the story. 

This has definitely been effective. 

Will it stop Putin? That I can’t say. There hasn’t been an attack or a coup yet, which is a good thing. But it could still be coming.

It really has gotten Americans’ attention, perhaps enough to overcome whatever worry Biden might have had about Ukraine’s bad name. Fox’s Maria Bartiromo said this morning the crisis is being hyped up to distract Americans from blah blah blah. Novel tactic but good, too?

This is a massive international crisis. It doesn’t matter what’s going on domestically. The president has to deal with both things at the same time. That’s his job. I’m extremely concerned about how well the Russian state perspective has infiltrated the far right in the US.

“It’s possible that Putin thinks that by backing a coup and installing a new government, Ukrainians will support it. After all, they are not very supportive of Zelensky. I think that’s a miscalculation.”

They are parroting the Russian narrative. That’s what is so scary. It’s all this whataboutism, “NATO is the aggressor,” etc. That’s what Russian media is saying, because that justifies Putin’s aggressive response.

During the Red Scares 1 and 2, Americans worried about communists hiding behind every bush. Worries were overblown, but they had grounding. Lots of Americans sympathized with the Soviet cause.

Things have flipped around. 

Instead of communists, we have white supremacists and rightwingers openly aping the Kremlin’s line. Yet we are not nearly as worried as we were during the Red Scares. Am I onto something?

Very interesting. 

I am certainly worried about it, and I think a lot of people are worried not just about the existence of this far right, neo-Nazi element, but about how far it has infiltrated America’s actual power structure. 

I think this has everything to do with how the media landscape has transformed since the Red Scares. The narrative of “hidden communists” worked because we didn’t have all this media. 

Now, there’s no hiding. People are overtly saying racist, fascist things and parroting the Russian line. That’s alarming some, but not enough. 

I don’t know if that’s because we’re more divided or if it’s because people just don’t care, or, worst case, because more people are sympathetic to the Russia-Fox views than I want to admit.

Hate to say it, but the very obscenely rich, who own the lucrative media properties (Comcast, Facebook, etc), do not fear an alliance between US rightwingers and Russia as their counterparts feared an alliance between US communists and the USSR. The former advances their interests. The latter threatens them. 

Sorry to be a bummer.

That’s very true.

These media are built to benefit from exactly what’s happening now. 

This goes back to your first question – why we can’t make a direct comparison between the communist period and now. 

These overlapping interests are a perfect illustration of what didn’t exist during the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example.

Russia figured out how to best take advantage of social media and disinformation. They got out so far ahead it’s hard to catch up. We’re just trying to do damage control, while they come up with new tactics. 

In a country without the rule of law, you decide the landscape of malicious uses of media, and everyone else is reacting defensively.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.