As the Russo-Ukrainian war has shown, Russian elites perceive reality differently from their Western and Ukrainian counterparts. Where the former see a "fascist coup" in Kyiv, the latter see a democratic revolution on the Maidan. Where the former see Viktor Yanukovych as a legitimate president, the latter see a corrupt and illegitimate dictator. Where the former see a belligerent NATO on the march, the latter see a weak alliance in crisis. Where the former see a civil war in eastern Ukraine, the latter see a Russian intervention.
Russia and the West do not just see things differently. Their perceptions of reality are diametrically opposed; they negate each other. If the Russians are right, the West is wrong--and vice versa. Both sides cannot be right, and the two sets of views cannot be reconciled with each other. Calls for "understanding" the Russians and giving their views a "fair hearing" are thus little more than calls for abandoning one's own views. That would be justifiable, indeed right, if one's views were wrong. But it's manifestly absurd if one's views are right.
There is deeper issue here. We can determine whether perceptions of reality are correct or not. Despite the insistence of radical post-modernists that all truth claims are equally invalid, reasonable people the world over know that there is a simple test of the veracity of some perception: does it actually correspond to things as they are?
Did Yanukovych flee as a result of a coup by a small cabal of fascists or was he forced from power by the sustained exertions of thousands of democratically-inclined Ukrainians? The evidence overwhelmingly supports the latter view. Was Yanukovych a legitimate ruler or had his corruption and abuse of power undermined his legitimacy in the eyes of a majority of Ukrainians? Once again, the latter proposition can be easily proven. Has NATO ever expressed openly anti-Russian views or undertaken openly anti-Russian actions since the collapse of the USSR or is it an alliance without purpose, whose member states cannot imagine deploying their troops to a conflict in Europe? There is no evidence for the former claim. Are there or are there not Russian agents, soldiers, and volunteers and massive amounts of Russian military equipment in eastern Ukraine? Obviously there are.
In sum, Russian perceptions of the reality are wrong. We can easily explain Russian inability to see "straight." Putin has embraced and propagated, almost since coming to power, an ideology of hyper-nationalism, revanchism, and neo-imperialism that builds on deep-seated Russian resentment at having lost their position of greatness in the world, promotes a paranoid worldview, and deliberately constructs enemies in order to lend his regime legitimacy.
Should the West therefore try to understand Russian perceptions even if it knows that they are completely wrong? Obviously, understanding Russian delusions can help the West and Ukraine craft a better response to Putin's expansionism. But it makes little sense to say that the West and Ukraine should try to accommodate these delusions in their search for peace in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea.
Should the democratic world have accommodated Hitler's perceptions of Jews? Or of Germany's need for Lebensraum? Or of the innate superiority of the Aryan race? The questions are rhetorical, but they are exactly the ones we should be asking about Russian perceptions.
The implications for policy are clear. Finding a compromise under such conditions may be impossible. And agreeing to disagree may be the best one can possibly achieve. Russia currently controls the Crimea and one third of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Let it continue to do so. The West has imposed sanctions on the Russian economy and supports Ukraine. Let it also continue to do so. Finally, Ukraine has adopted a defensive position and appears intent on preventing further Russian incursions into its territory. It, too, should continue to do so.
There is no practical solution to the Russo-Ukrainian war. The most one can hope for is to "freeze" it and thereby transform hot war into cold war between Russia and Ukraine and between Russia and the West. That cold war will continue as long as Putin remains in power and continues to promote his delusional views of the world. Cold war may not be the West's optimal solution, but, while inconvenient for everyone, it will be infinitely preferable to a hot war.
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