We Could Have Known
In social psychology, fundamental attribution error (FAE), also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational and environmental explanations for an individual's observed behavior while over-emphasizing dispositional and personality-based explanations. This effect has been described as "the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are", that is, to overattribute their behaviors to their personality and underattribute them to the situation or context. The error is in seeing someone's actions as solely reflective of their personality rather than somewhat reflective of it and also largely prompted by circumstances. (Wikipedia, 2022)
There is no way to discount the atrocity of war, no way to apologize or justify for it. Tragedy, however, does burden society with a duty to make sense, to really understand what happened in hopes of making it less likely it will happen again. Consider the Texas Freeze of 2021, consider the Surfside Condominium collapse in Florida, consider even the election of Donald Trump to US presidency in 2016. Tragedies, by way of happening, exhibit flaws in our ways of handling developing situations, flaws that allowed them to transcend into mass loss of life, property, and dignity.
Five days into the tragedy of Ukraine, the world seems unified in condemnation for Vladimir Putin. At the political level, there's a cascade of economic sanctions falling on Russian politicians and institutions. At the media level, there's no shortage of profiles accounting for the situation in terms of Mr. Putin's psychology. But if there's any reaction we should be paying real attention to is that of everyday people, who have desperately looked for ways to dissipate emotions after being blanketed in charged statements by the news media.
There's an outpouring of emotions by everyone everywhere: The artists have naturally taken to their craft. Many have taken it to social media to dissipate in form of thoughtful analysis or more emotional pronouncements. And yet many others have found relief on the streets, protesting the invasion directly on the square.
There seems to be universal agreement amongst people that Mr. Putin's character is to blame for this whole situation, a view that falls in lockstep with official and media rhetoric coming from the West. Meanwhile, journalists and commentators advocating fuller narratives, that is, narratives that bring situational elements into the picture, are being labeled apologists and Russian assets, making it hard to add color to the version of events that holds Mr. Putin as the cause.
You will see, however, that adopting the narrative of Putin-as-cause is problematic because it deprives us from all agency, it ties our hands by considering the Russian leader an "act of God", as unavoidable as a hurricane or volcano eruption. Therein lies its appeal: It's self-exonerating, it contains the message that we cannot be blamed in any way for what happened. By placing blame squarely on Mr. Putin's hands, Western leaders come out vindicated, excused altogether of provocation or inaction.
Ukraine: A Balancing Act
It should be evident now that existing as an independent Ukraine is walking a tight rope. Nestled at the nexus of Europe and Russia, Ukraine's leadership bears the cross of engaging in careful balance to harmonize with both. Any self-governing entity is liable to harmonize with its immediate surroundings, something that is equally valid in a residential neighborhood as is in the metaphysical world of sovereign States. Harmonizing too much in either direction without proportional harmonization in the other is bound to generate conflict.
Self-determination is a construction of the concept of freedom applicable to Peoples and States acting on the global arena. A Nation-State in exercise of self-determination has sovereign handling and oversight of its affairs. It is only a hard truth however, that the exercise of self-determination by any Nation or State happens at the mercy of global powers, who by way of deterrent force hold a hard veto and editorial voice over global developments.
Caught between Russia and the Political West, Ukraine's independence and self-determination exists as if between walls, barriers exerting pressures that must be proactively matched, appeased, and counterbalanced. One could say it is only a failure mode of Ukraine's independent existence to be invaded by Russia, as it is for a town to be flooded by a breaching dam.
A Natural Case for Appeasement
The wall breached in December 2021. Notice came in the form of a solemn pronouncement from the Russian State seeking immediate adjustments to the "European security order", that web of agreements and alliances holding everything together in peaceful place. Through Vladimir Putin, the Russian Federation sought assurances from the West, that Ukraine remain militarily ambivalent in the face of the late expansion of the North Atlantic Alliance.
The state of alarm was tangible in the media but nowhere else. The year turned and yet, somehow, everything on the ground remained business as usual. Come February 2022, high level talks between Russia and Western powers had already taken place. There were no signs of tensions wearing off... not surprisingly as any accommodation from the West would be quickly construed as appeasement of a reviled power.
One would hope, however, that the case for appeasement had been established, when demands were put forward by a power with the will, means, and resolve to carry forward with a solemn threat. It is clear in retrospect, that this particular situational configuration asked for meaningful concession and accommodation from the West vía NATO, as painful to the Alliance’s pride as it may have been.
A policy of Western-led de-escalation, by way of appeasement and mutual compromise, with clear measures and mechanisms of enforcement, and entered for the sake of the Ukrainian People in abandonment of ulterior foreign policy motives, could've defused tensions before hitting the point of no return.
A Fundamental Error in Attribution
It is to be understood from the prevailing narrative, that the war developing in Ukraine wouldn't have happened were Mr. Putin not in charge. A closer inspection, however, reveals that little to nothing changes in the configuration of the situation presented above.
With or without Putin, Ukraine is still beholden to its precarious role bridging tensions between Russia and the Atlantic States. Surely, Mr. Putin can't be blamed for the vulnerability of the new Russian State to fall in autocratic rule. There's indeed no counter-factual to assert a different Russian leader would've behaved otherwise; however, we can agree with certain confidence that any Russian leader would've been in a similar situation with a similar incentive structure as Mr. Putin. In other words, the context where the actions of the Russian head of State develop stay the same, regardless of Mr. Putin himself. The context doesn’t emanate from him, his personality or his character.
It can be emotionally counterintuitive, but truly making sense of the events now unfolding in Europe requires non-conflationary analysis of Mr. Putin's role. It's the classical fundamental attribution error described by Western psychology, whereby other people's mistakes are attributed to flaws in attitude and character, with little or no regard to the situational factors at play.
It's a failure mode of human sense-making, that happens because we're unable to see the total situation weighing over them. As it’s often the case, affairs between State actors are full of nuance, much of which isn't available to us common folk. To blame is also Mr. Putin’s divisiveness, product of his criminal displays of high cruelty and statesmanship.
How Couldn't We See?
If you don’t know what to believe, at least believe the situation was tragically mishandled.
It's only telling, that the very day the Russian demands came out they were rapidly shot down by US media as “non-starters”, i.e., not worthy of consideration in anglophone negotiation jargon… as if so labeling them afforded the people of Ukraine some level of protection. Meanwhile, Russian troops continued to mass at the Ukrainian border, in tangible sign this was no bluff.
How couldn't we see? The severity and gravity of this call wasn't recognized. It should've been taken as a call to freeze, to tell oneself:
The walls are breaching, of this European order we prize so much, that cost so much.
Most definitely, a sign to stop and reflect course of action. Led by America, the West's confusion was seeing this as an opportunity to prove itself right all along, to raise the chest in pride and defy a formidable threat in the pretended name of Freedom. Because the West may say there is no working with tyrants or despots with little regard for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law but at the same time cooperates with them when it sees fit, no names needed.
What makes Mr. Putin different? Nothing, the United States is merely following a logic of State. Given an adversarial relationship, a lack of legitimacy in the government of either State is the first thing to get called out in efforts to delegitimize the opponent. And it's the first thing the United States calls out when it wants to build leverage against adversaries in the global stage. The issue isn't autocratic rule, but willingness to cooperate with American foreign policy.
A Lesson for the Political West
In light of the total situation, it becomes hard to not see this as a case of America’s unwillingness to concede a victory to Russia on the global stage, fruit of the latter's growing influence over Europe’s energy security. There is no doubt the world would’ve remained a safer place had Russian aggression not occurred, had Ukraine managed to stay ambivalent, had America taken one for the team and helped Ukraine walk the tight rope.
Instead of acknowledging the authoritarian nature of the Russian Federation and negotiating in good faith, the West spent time and energy denouncing Putin's rule and intentions instead of moving towards proactive de-escalation. Consider any loss of pride the cost of securing the life of an independent Ukrainian people. Because you can't do it in good faith... allowing a deadly war to proceed while having a clear way to stop it.
This was an opportunity to engage in good-faith diplomacy, to decisively curb Russia's future influence over Europe at the cost of granting Mr. Putin increased short-term influence. Instead, Washington saw it as an opportunity to finally curb the Kremlin's grip... not over Europe but over global affairs.
Let us hope that Ukraine wasn’t the price our leaders were willing to pay to finally isolate Mr. Putin. Because as laudable as it may be, the cause to remove him from the global stage remains a political goal, secondary to the protection of life and well-being of the Ukrainian people. How might things have played, had America recommended Ukraine to solemnly renounce aspirations to NATO membership? In the face of tragic loss, it's painful to learn you could've done something about it.
"We couldn't have known!"
The interests of the Russian Federation over Ukraine were matters of State, only exacerbated by a logic of personal power applicable to Mr. Putin, a deadly combination that should've been well understood given over a decade's worth of Western intelligence on his propensity to lethal means. Still, Washington wouldn't budge at the thought of war in Ukraine, it held firm dismissing Russian claims in fear of weakening America's influence.
Beware the simplified narrative, the easiest way to narrativize an incident is seldom the holiest, bound to perpetuate negative outcomes. To blame is our underestimation of the causal power of the overall situation. To blame is the inability of for-profit media to produce a fuller narrative. To blame is the unwillingness of public officials to admit responsibility, wary it may damage the aura of efficacy and cool preparedness they wish to project. To blame are beltway elites, for keeping the quiet part quiet.
Let's blame those pulling the trigger today, without letting the people who set the stage for it off the hook. The latter are protected in plausible deniability. For Europe, this is equally a shameful attack by Russia as it is a failure of US leadership. True leaders roll with the punches, they play the long game to keep people safe. Instead we wrapped ourselves in a flag, posturing in arrogance at the expense of the situation. Next time we see a madman holding a child at gunpoint, don't let him pull the trigger. Let us remember this, for the sake of everyone.
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