Et tu quoque, Putin?

Violating the territorial integrity of a sovereign nation is one form of villainy. Shamelessly engaging in blunt and blatant logical fallacy is quite another.

[note: this post has no referencing, mainly because it is a rant written on the fly, based on facts as I understand them at the time.]

“Miss! Miss! Johnny hasn’t done his homework Miss! That means its OK if I haven’t done mine!

As a ten year old I could see the flaws in this line of reasoning. It strikes me as rather unlikely that a 61 year old man (whose past KGB career presumably called for some pretty cold level-headed reasoning) is unable to do so.

The “Tu quoque” fallacy (defined here by one of our favourite sites) literally means “you to”. It is the appeal to hypocrisy – the idea that one person’s inability to hold a moral position renders them incapable of criticising another person on their inability to hold said position. A more specific ad hominum, its intention is generally to divert attention from the initial criticism. It is a fallacy because the second person’s hypocrisy has no factual bearing on the validity of their criticism.

Responding to any and all western criticism of his actions in Ukraine, Putin has made tu quoque one of the biggest weapons in his arsenal – third only to a massive conscript army and nuclear stockpile. “The west did it worse”, or “the west does it too” have been his go-to sound-bites whenever he has been accused of breaching international law. If we were to leave aside any context for a moment – treating all “interventions” as equal – he could seem to have a point. Doesn’t “the West”’s past action in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in Libya rob them of any moral high ground to criticise his actions in Crimea? No. No, it doesn’t. At most – if we presume total equivalence between an international-led coalition supporting local rebels in removing their dictator, and a nationalistic armed land grab – it makes “the West” hypocritical.

To which the inevitable retort is “so what”? The criticism still holds. If anything, while it seeks to distract, tu quoque effectively concedes the initial point. “Yes I’m having an affair, but so are you” still leaves party A guilty as charged.

The West

You may note that I’ve stuck to inverted commas in all of my references to “the West”. Why? Well because this is another perpetually irritating part of Putin’s rhetorical bluster. “The West”. As if all criticisms come from some monolithic anti-Russian entity. “The West”, presented so, is a shameless attempt to conflate governments with private citizens, with independent journalists and agencies, and with charities and international bodies. Putin’s goal: to consolidate this myriad spectrum of dissenting opinion into one easily dismissed geopolitical bogeyman.

“The West” includes national governments, certainly. After all, heaven forbid that the broadly democratically-elected leaders of sovereign independent states should speak out when the sovereignty of another independent state is threatened. It’s not as if sovereignty itself has been an uncontested principle in international law since Westphalia (1648) – or further that violations of that sovereignty by military action has increasingly been disfavoured and forbidden in a series of international treaties dating from the Hague Conventions (1899, 1907). Naturally all those governments will do is talk, but even then Putin is determined to silence them.

A more sizeable component of “The West” includes private citizens such as myself. It may be hard for a citizen of Putin’s Russia to believe, but in “the West” we are not answerable to our governments and we are not compelled to take their line. The moral hypocrisy our governments are responsible for – if any – has even less bearing on our right to critique or on the validity of our criticisms. Like many UK citizens I opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq – not that it should really be relevant. As a private individual what I see with regards to Crimea is a larger country invading and annexing the territory of a smaller country, principally because it wants to do so. If it was Birmingham under occupation and not Simferopol I don’t think I’d be too happy about it – empathy alone carries me from there.

Lastly, there’s the other major component of “the West” – the media. To this I could add charities and other such organisations – Russian rhetoric tends to lump them together anyway – but it is principally the media. The general line taken against the media (specifically “western media”) is that it has a virulent anti-Russian agenda. Everything the “western media” says and does is designed to attack and undermine Russia – so the paranoid pre-emptive defence goes. There are a lot of worthy grounds on which to attack our media – it’s corporate, unaccountable, politically biased, and it has nearly always been drawn towards frivolous titillation and “click-bait” content over hard investigative journalism. Yet one thing our media has over that of Russia is freedom. Certainly it is a freedom abused, in the ways listed above, but it remains even so. Our press can attack our governments whenever and however they like. These attacks may be on the weakest of grounds – anti-democratic, anti-science, anti-humanity – but no matter how many anti-Wind Farm editorials Paul Dacre publishes, he’ll never end up in a Lincolnshire gulag for it. Our media are not government shills like the Russian state media are – their criticisms of Russian foreign-policy cannot just be dismissed as “Western propaganda”.

On the other hand, for those who would post links to the coverage of Russia Today by way of counter-argument, you may as well be posting extracts from Der Stümer. Seriously, climb off the edgy contrarian “my enemy’s enemy” bandwagon and recognise totalitarianism when it’s staring you in the eye. This goes doubly so for anyone who considers themselves to be on “the left” – no matter how much we may detest our own plutocratic austerity-obsessed neoliberal civil liberty-infringing bastards, they’re still better than the dominant political figures in the Kremlin and in the Duma.

Ultimately, the whole use of “the West” as a rhetorical device is a big geopolitical ad hominum. “The West” hates Russia. “The West” wants to make Russia look bad. “The West” criticises Russia. Therefore those criticisms are exclusively driven by an anti-Russia agenda. Therefore those criticisms are invalid. It is diversion at its most dishonest.


Like this, but in reverse.

Like this, but in reverse.

If there’s one overarching subtext in all of Putin’s “the West” rhetoric, it is Russian paranoia. At the risk of sounding like an armchair geopolitical analyst, Russian foreign policy since 1945 has been driven by a fear of western encroachment into her territory. In the context of 1941, with folk memories of 1914, 1853 and 1812 that seemed a reasonable fear. It was on that basis that the Soviet gains from Molotov-Ribbentrop were legitimised, that Poland was literally moved across the map, and that eastern Europe was condemned to a half century of occupation and vassalhood.

Now the Russia of 2014 clings to this mindset. Worse, since the dissolution of the USSR it clings to an even older notion – that of the “sphere of influence”, an idea whose heyday was 1815 Vienna and which should died in 1992 if not in 1918. According to what it sees as its “sphere of influence” Russia is entitled to some levels of control over its former-Soviet neighbours. Where this idea has caused the most friction has been in Georgia, more quietly in the Baltic states, and now in Ukraine. This adherence to a 19th Century idea arrogantly ignores not only the will of independent nations, but also the idea of popular sovereignty and of self-determination. It is crude nationalistic naiveté at best, remnant imperialism at worst.

Russian paranoia latches onto the eastern expansions of NATO and of the EU. Estonian accession to both organisations extends “the West”’s influence to the door of St. Petersburg. Yet both organisations are formed of voluntary members. It is for the governments of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and potentially of Ukraine to decide if their nations are to join them. Bluntly it is none of Moscow’s business. The EU is principally an economic bloc not a military one, though its political scope has of course broadened in 60 years. To construe a Ukrainian ascension to the EU as the prelude for a Brussels-led march to the Urals is almost self-evidently absurd

NATO is a military alliance, albeit a defensive one. Yes Russia might have a more legitimate fear here. Decades of political doublespeak have euphemised the term “defensive” to the point of meaninglessness when connected with anything military. A military bloc proximal to sections of your western and southern border would be concerning. Of course “The West” – be it Estonia, Europe, or the US – has nothing to gain from a war with Russia. A global war would be devastating to civilisation and perhaps to life itself, and with a nuclear-armed power the size of Russia there would be no such thing as a localised war. Russia is worth far more to the rest of the world as a trade partner and source of raw materials than it would ever be beaten, war-damaged, and occupied; even if such an eventuality were possible.

The “globalisation prevents war” argument generally holds true*. War is expensive. It is destructive in terms of human and actual capital. The only profiteers are those who sit on the sidelines, and even then they often get dragged down too. A century ago a mere four years of total war were enough to turn the world’s largest creditor nation – with the accumulated spoils of three centuries of imperialism – into a debtor. Now, with nuclear arms, aerial bombardment, missile technology, satellite reconnaissance, drones, and all the other horrors of modern warfare, that same level of ruin could be achieved in days, if not hours. No one benefits from a war between NATO and Russia, and nobody wants one – not citizens, not investors, not even pragmatic Russian politicians like Putin, content though he is to use realpolitik when it suits.

With no American tanks lying hidden under tarpaulin in Tallinn, and without the motive or intention for NATO to be anything other than genuinely defensive – what more concern should there be in Moscow? In fact, shouldn’t they be looking at these post-USSR nations – nations that took the first available opportunity to break from Moscow – and wondering exactly why it is that three of them have already joined a defensive bloc under the patronage of the US. Could it be that Russia’s own actions in other successor states have spooked the people of the Baltic states sufficiently that they’ve started looking around for insurance policies? When your neighbours will join any organisation (even one as flawed as the EU) to get away from you – maybe its time to look in the national mirror?


“Ah!” I hear you say for the purposes of narrative flow, “but what about self-determination? Yeah, that’s right! You’re so keen on long-established principles of international law – well how about one established in Versailles in 1919 – bitches!”

My fictitious opposition has a point, don’t they? Well yes, in principle. In practice it’s rather more grey. Firstly the principle of self-determination: generally its fine and a sound enough way to determine borders – people democratically choosing to be part of the state that governs them. Of course it has flaws, predominantly because it is majoritarian. Further, if you believe in ethno-nationalism, it can be problematic when populations aren’t completely homogenous, resulting in enclaves if taken to an extreme local resolution. What happens to a loyalist minority who form a local majority in a larger majority separatist territory? On certain occasions (i.e. the Sudetenland, 1938) an outcome which follows strict self-determination may not be the best outcome overall**.

Most of the world accepts self-determination in principle (though nations like China and Argentina have issues with it in practice). Doesn’t it apply to Crimea following the recent referendum? In principle the Crimean population have every right to determine their future democratically. It is the context of the Ukraine crisis that muddies the water significantly.

Lets look at two very different referenda to illustrate this. First the Scottish Independence referendum, due to be held in September this year. Devolution and the potential for Scottish independence have been subjects of political discussion since the 1960’s – becoming political mainstream in the late ’70s, and again since the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. This referendum has been in the pipeline since the Scottish Nationalist Party formed a minority government in 2007, and more seriously since they won a majority in 2011. There have been long-standing discussions, debate is ongoing, attempts at education are being made. When Scottish people go to the polls in September they will hopefully – and despite efforts at scaremongering – be fully aware of the implications of their vote. The ballot paper includes both a “Yes” and a “No” option to independence. When the referendum is held it will be as free and fair as any.

Contrast that with an example from history – the Austrian Anschluss referendum of 1938. This was held a month after the German army had marched into and occupied Austria, by which point the German annexation of Austria was de facto. The ballot question was leading. The “yes” to annexation tick box was twice the size of the “no” tick box. Turnout was reported at 99.71%, with a yes vote of 99.73%.

Anschluss Ballot

1938 Austrian Anschluss Referendum Ballot.

Which of these two referenda does the Crimean referendum most resemble? In the Crimea the referendum was hastily organised after the Russian occupation, in the space of around a week. Any debate or discussion about Crimea’s future would have been held under occupation, at a time of high local tension. The ballot paper only included options for complete independence, or for joining with Russia. There was no option for maintaining the status quo i.e. remaining part of Ukraine. Cynics may wish to question exactly how far Russia would have respected Crimea’s independence, any more than they respected Ukraine’s, had complete independence been voted for. As it was, with no real ballot options open to them, opponents of secession and Russian annexation had no way to make their voices heard. Turnout for the referendum was reported at over 80%, with 97% reportedly voting in favour. While these numbers aren’t necessarily suspect, I personally have a hard time believing that you could get 97% of people to agree on anything, let alone the long term future of their country. The result is also massively out of line with pre-occupation polling data. Of course it is entirely possible that the next “Yes to Fairer Votes” campaign should be head-hunting in Crimea for their next campaign manager.

In the context of a referendum of dubious at best legitimacy, I’d argue that the principle of self-determination is impossible to implement. Reasonable doubt exists that the Crimean referendum result doesn’t represent the true will of the Crimean people. In this instance, an appeal to self-determination is being used as a dishonest fig-leaf to cover naked imperialism.


For my own selfish ends I’m embarrassingly glad that “the West” in practice won’t lift a finger for Ukraine. As shit as lives of underemployment, of mental illness, and of relative poverty are; I’d rather have that on its own than have it alongside a great big thermonuclear war resulting from escalation. Overdone comparisons to 1914, or to a hypothetical WWIII, are mistaken and part of our understandable human trait to find patterns where none exist. That said, my own selfishness makes me wonder if this is the new appeasement. At the risk of invoking the “slippery slope” fallacy (because sometimes there are genuine positive feedback loops where responses to actions incentivise further actions) what if in a few years time it’s not Crimea, but the rest of “Russian” Ukraine? Or the Baltic states?

Five years ago my personal contender for “the next Nazi Germany” was China – on the basis of their human rights record, their imminent need for new raw materials, and the colonial occupation of Tibet. Since then, while China has satisfied themselves with extending an informal economic empire through Africa and in buying up US debt; Russia has began to catch up in the “global villain” chart, most recently prior to the Ukraine crisis with increasingly homophobic legislation and the incarceration of protesters.

The crumb of comfort to all of this? That 90% of foreign policy is just posturing for domestic audiences. The Argentine Junta never cared for the Falklands for their own sake. Regaining Gibraltar won’t solve Spain’s economic woes. American red-necks couldn’t find Benghazi on a map, but that didn’t stop them getting frothed up in a jingoistic lather. Our leaders know this. Russian leaders know this. The result is that we get brinkmanship, games of chicken, while no man is prepared to “lose face”. The real world isn’t like a game of Risk – more often leaders are bargaining over chips of no real worth to them. So long as Putin goes back to Moscow proclaiming “victory” over the Perfidious West he’ll keep his “Strong Man” image and further guarantee his 2018 re-election. For a man who started his career in the KGB and who now leads a centre-right national-populist party, I’d say its safe to assume that Vladimir Putin isn’t too rigid an ideologue. His own power comes above any other goal. Annexing Crimea is relatively risk-free, and furthers his own position – otherwise he wouldn’t be bothering. He certainly isn’t the sort of all-or-nothing absolutist who plunges the world into Armageddon in a Hitlerian crusade. He’s far too dishonest to do that.

This started as an impromptu rant about the specific logical fallacies, irritating doublespeak, and outright lies of the Ukraine crisis – most of which are being perpetuated by the Russian leadership, their mouthpieces, and useful idiots abroad. Obviously in the spirit of self-love for my own florid prose I got a bit carried away. Some of this is opinion; a personal view. Much of it is “the facts” as I understand them, from the best sources I have read over recent weeks. I welcome points of clarification, of correction, or of further information. I’m less interested in blatant “flaming” or in attempts to prove or disprove that which, as I say, is my own personal view.

There is more I could have touched on, for instance how Russia’s pretext for occupation is part founded on allegations that Ukraine’s interim government is composed predominantly of “fascists”. I could have touched on how invading a country because a previous friendly leader has been toppled by a popular uprising is disturbingly reminiscent of US “banana republics” in South and Central America. I could have alluded to my fear for minority groups, especially LGBT persons, in soon to be Russian Crimea. I figured that at 3500 words with footnotes I’d probably better wind it in. Thanks for reading if you got this far. Comments on style greatly appreciated.


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One Response to Et tu quoque, Putin?

  1. Nash says:


    * The standard counter-argument to this is to point to the then unprecedented levels of economic development and globalisation that existed in the world of July 1914. Yes a war still occurred, despite globalisation, but this was still something leaders had to factor into their plans. Britain’s decision to enter the war partly hinged on the war’s potential impacts to its position as a trader nation. In Germany it was only the recent development of the Haber process for synthesising ammonia for munitions that gave them the freedom to wage war once isolated from global trade. Finally it was the war’s direct impact on neutral merchant shipping which brought the US in and potentially changed the endgame. – an example of globalisation creating the conditions for escalation and thereby disincentivising notions of “limited” war to begin with.

    While the global economy of 1914 was globally integrated to an extent, this interdependency was severely undermined by most of the “Great Powers” possessing an empire or frontier to act as an economic hinterland and sizeable internal market. The remainder were of course willing to go to war to acquire one (see: Mitteleuropa). The aggressors judged that they had more to gain through war, and with war upon them the defenders were drawn in through their own interests.

    In 1914, Britain and Germany had only recently switched their battleships from being fueled by home-produced coal to foreign-sourced oil. In other areas of war production there were economies or substitutions which could be made to allow for self-sufficiency for a number of years at most. After only four years economies and food supplies were collapsing in the most developed nations, and even the victors were deeply indebted. Modern militaries are dependent not only on foreign oil, but also on far more complex supply chains than those of a century ago. The web of global trade is infinitely more interconnected than it was in 1914.

    **Not that this discredits self-determination itself – more that the context of 1938 meant that strict interpretation of the principle wasn’t really in the best interests of Czechoslovakia, or of Europe, or of the World, or of Germany ultimately, or even of the Sudentendeutsch who would have voted for it (see Benes Laws).

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