May 5, 2023

Stop holding Ukraine to ridiculous standards

Stop holding Ukraine to ridiculous standards
Rescuers carry the body of a civilian at a site of an apartment building destroyed by Russian shelling in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 18, 2022. AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko/ Mannhai/Flickr

An alleged Putin assassination attempt has laid bare the hypocrisy of how people discuss this war.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then "my take."

You're reading a special Friday edition.

On Wednesday, some rather jarring news broke about the war in Ukraine.

Russia claimed that Ukraine had tried to assassinate President Vladimir Putin in an overnight drone attack on the Kremlin. Russia later tied the U.S. in, too, claiming it had helped coordinate the purported attempt. Ukrainian and U.S. officials denied the report, and aside from some grainy footage (which some observers found very unconvincing) there wasn't much evidence for Russia's claims.

The video of the purported "assassination attempt" shows a drone crashing into, or possibly shooting at, a flagpole atop the Kremlin. All in all, the footage doesn't make the drone attack claim seem convincing. If someone were trying to kill a world leader, with the United States' help, this is probably not how it would go down (the historical record shows we are actually quite effective at assassinating world leaders when we want to).

Nevertheless, basically every news outlet in the world picked up the story, with most of the U.S corporate media casting doubt on the accusations. For example, anonymous U.S. officials told NBC news that they had no notice of any such plans and "expressed skepticism" that a drone could get that close to the Kremlin given all of its air defenses.

This kind of coverage has been typical of the war. Anytime a story breaks that might be damaging to the public's view of the Ukrainian government — whether it's a bombing in a Russian city or a drone falling out of the sky in Russia — many in the press have published coverage that leans heavily on Ukraine's version of events. At times, the press has probably lacked the necessary skepticism of Ukraine’s government talking points, much the same way they often lack proper skepticism of the U.S. government talking points.

But this is also to be expected. Ukraine is an ally and Russia is a foe. More importantly, Ukraine's government has traditionally been a much more reliable narrator than Russia's. While Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has not always been honest (like claiming Ukraine only fights on its own territory, which is not true), the evidence for a legitimate attempt on Putin's life here is scant. The debate on whether this was a real assassination attempt or a “false flag,” though, is not really what interests me.

Instead, it was the reaction from many folks who assumed the assassination attempt was legitimate. It was a reaction I found both frustrating and backward, and one that continues to permeate factions on both the right and the left in America.

Carl Zha, the host of Silk and Steel — a podcast that covers China — said, "We're entering a [no-holds-barred] stage of the war. This will not end well for Ukraine or the West."

The reporter Michael Tracey tweeted, “An organized troll movement has spent day after day since February 2022 ferociously attacking anyone who raised ‘escalation’ as a legitimate concern in Ukraine. Now it's May 2023 and the literal Kremlin was just bombed. Man, those ‘escalation’ guys were really a bunch of kooks!”

Rod Dreher, a writer from the Spectator, said "America's Ukraine proxies tried to kill Putin last night. While it's def ballsy to attack the Kremlin itself, it's a major escalation."

Former GOP nominee for Senate Lauren Witzke said, "Russia says Ukraine tried to hit the Kremlin with drones overnight in an assassination attempt on Putin. Just a few months ago, Lindsey Graham and other US.-Elected officials were recklessly and dangerously calling for the assassination of Putin."

Comments like this permeated the political space all week. All of them fall into a larger theme of commentary about Ukraine that I've seen over and over from folks who don't want us supporting Ukraine financially, or don't want to see this war escalate any further, or simply think Russia is not as culpable as the Western media claims. Many of these commentators seem to think of themselves as considerate, heterodox thinkers who aren’t big enough rubes to swallow the mainstream talking points from the U.S. government and corporate media.

But they aren’t clear-eyed non-conformists; they just hold Ukraine to a much higher moral and ethical standard than Russia, and they use that standard to attack Ukraine over what it might do while never using it to address what Russia is actually doing.

Take Dreher, who called this incident a "major escalation." Dreher is a smart guy and I’m sure we agree on a lot. I've actually invited him to come on my podcast (he never answered) and I read his writing over at the Spectator a good bit. Which is why comments like this are so confounding to me. This is an escalation?

Vladimir Putin and Russia's army have been trying to assassinate Zelensky for an entire year. Literally. In March of 2022, more than a year ago, Ukraine had already documented over a dozen assassination attempts on Zelensky. Over a year ago. Maybe Ukrainian officials are exaggerating, but we have very good reporting that mercenaries were after his head — and if you don't believe that just look at the Ukrainian capital, where Russia has been dropping bombs for a year. Or just take them at their word. Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia's security council, said two days ago that Russia has no choice but the “physical elimination of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.” They’re not exactly hiding it.

If a foreign power were hiring mercenaries to kill President Joe Biden and dropping bombs on Washington D.C., I think we could all accept the statement they were trying to assassinate Joe Biden.

Which is what is so frustrating about the responses from the people who try to walk some heterodox anti-war stance on what is happening in Ukraine. I understand their gripes — truly. Nobody wants to see the U.S. dragged into another war. We're all exhausted by the imperialistic military industrial complex, and it's admittedly nauseating to watch the same companies get richer and richer as more and more people die. Some have made compelling arguments that our money would be better spent here at home. Others have made the case that we provoked Russia by surrounding it with NATO allies, or building military bases throughout eastern Europe, or courting Ukraine into our favor. The U.S.’s role in the war in Ukraine is not black and white.

But there is very little nuance to the war’s premise: