The emotional manipulation never ends

Has anybody else noticed that now that the pandemic is winding down, suddenly there is a new crisis — a bloody war in the Ukraine — that is meant to create panic?

Perpetual presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had an unintentionally hilarious piece in the Atlantic this morning claiming that the Ukraine conflict is caused by Republicans who hate democracy just like Vladimar Putin hates democracy. Meanwhile, the same people who just a month ago were telling you to “mask up” and “get triple vaxxed” are now calling anybody not banging the war drum a traitor. More claims of treason here.

Former Democratic presidential candidate and military veteran Tulsi Gabbard called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis and was met with hundreds of Twitter followers who said things like this:

Meanwhile, those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear should understand that the constant emotional manipulation is part of a pattern. The forces of evil in this world want us to hate each other and to see the world in simple, jingoistic terms. If you are against U.S. military involvement in Ukraine, you must love Putin. If you pray for Putin, you are a traitor. If you promote peace, you must be destroyed.

In this Manichean worldview, you must see Putin as Evil and Ukraine as Good. But as followers of the Prince of Peace, we must avoid being emotionally manipulated on this and every other issue. The truth is that there are many people and forces to blame for the current war in Ukraine, and the history of this conflict is much more complex than the corporate media would have us believe.

The Ukraine, which borders Russia, has been linked to the larger country for more than 10 centuries.  The two countries have similar Orthodox religions and similar languages.  Nearly half of the people in Ukraine are pro-Russian and see the country’s future as linked to Russia’s future.  

So, if you have this image of Ukraine as one people heroically opposed to Russia, you would be wrong. In fact, Ukraine is at least two kinds of people, and many of them want to be part of Russia.

My first point would be: avoid simplistic depictions of Ukraine as good guys united in fighting the Russian bullies.

Is Ukraine a democracy? Well, partly, but the claims that Ukraine is a people’s republic fighting the dictatorship in Russia are also wrong. Yes, there are elections in Ukraine, but there are also elections in Venezuela, and nobody claims those elections are free. In fact, Ukraine’s elections are fraught with problems, and the Economist Intelligence Unit decided in 2021 that Ukraine was only partially a democracy. Ukraine ranks 86th in the world in terms of democratic norms, not far ahead of Russia. Meanwhile Ukraine is considered one of the least free countries in Europe, with about the same level of freedom as Russia.

I find it difficult to defend the proposition that defending Ukraine is somehow defending democracy.

So, who is to blame for the current crisis in Ukraine? Well, obviously Russia is the primary aggressor today, and that cannot be excused. I believe in peaceful resolution of problems, and Russia is not acting peacefully. So please do not misunderstand the point of this post: I am not excusing the Russian invasion.

But it is important to understand the history. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and its independence was not accepted by all Ukrainians, as I have already shown. There are Soviet nuclear weapons sites in Ukraine, and when Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union in the 1990s it included the primary Russian naval ports in the Crimea. The Russians agreed to limited Ukrainian political independence, but they never agreed to military independence. And in fact one Russian leader after another since the 1990s has stipulated that Ukraine would never be allowed to be a military force aligned against Russia.

If we are honest, we must say that the current war is linked to the push to make Ukraine part of NATO. NATO’s charter is that an attack on Ukraine would be an attack on all NATO countries, which means that the United States and Europe would be aligned with Ukraine deliberately against Russia.

If we are to be true Christians, we must have empathy for all people, including our enemies. How could we possibly expect the Russians to sit by and allow their neighbor to become aligned against Russia without acting? How would Americans react to Canada and/or Mexico becoming aligned with military enemies? Well, we know exactly how we would act, because the U.S. involvement in World War 1 was directly linked to a leaked German campaign to turn Mexico against the U.S. It is understandable that the United States, for security reasons, could not allow Mexico to join a military alliance against the United States. How is it not understandable that the Russians would not allow Ukraine to join a military alliance against Russia?

None other than George Kennan, the primary architect of U.S. cold war strategy, warned in the 1990s that the push to have Eastern European countries join NATO would end in tragedy.

In 1998 Kennan, who was one of the primary founders of NATO said the following:

“I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” said Mr. Kennan from his Princeton home. ”I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.”

“What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was,” added Mr. Kennan, who was present at the creation of NATO and whose anonymous 1947 article in the journal Foreign Affairs, signed ”X,” defined America’s cold-war containment policy for 40 years. ”I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.

“And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia,” said Mr. Kennan, who joined the State Department in 1926 and was U.S. Ambassador to Moscow in 1952. “It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are – but this is just wrong.”

So, to reiterate, the current war can be blamed, at least in part, on bad diplomatic decisions from 25 years ago. We can imagine an alternate time line in which we had followed Kennan’s advice in the 1990s and embraced Russia as an ally rather than an adversary. In such a scenario, the Ukrainian war would have been avoided.

(To be clear, counter-factuals are always problematic. I am not saying Russia definitely would have embraced the West in return. I am saying that there might have been another way. The key word here is “might.”)

My last point is that the wise course of action is to see the world through the eyes of Realpolitik. Embracing reality means understanding that all countries will pursue their national interests, and it actually increases the chances for peace to recognize this. Ukraine will always be in the Russian sphere of influence, just like Canada and Mexico will always be in the U.S. sphere of influence. Any meddling in Ukraine will provoke Russia, just as any meddling in our neighbors will provoke a U.S. response.

There are no realistic long-term U.S. interests in Ukraine, beyond the normal humanitarian concerns for all of God’s children. The war should not involve the U.S., except of course as a neutral promoter of peace and good will.

And in fact, there is actually a quick solution that would end the war. The United States could recognize the obvious fact that Ukraine is not a candidate for NATO, and the Russian invasion would stop. The United States could recognize Russian claims to the Crimea in exchange for Ukrainian political independence. Here is how one writer put it:

At multiple points leading up to the current crisis, there were ways for the United States and Europe to create off-ramps for both Moscow and Kyiv, to shepherd a negotiated settlement so that both sides got a minimum of what they needed, and some of what they wanted.

What might that have looked like? For Moscow, a recognition of its strategic claim on Crimea and the port of Sevastopol as the home of its Black Sea Fleet. For Kyiv, the promise of political independence and greater integration with Europe in exchange for territorial concessions.

The West should have also considered the folly and recklessness of floating the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine, something no serious person ever thought Russia would accept without going to war to prevent it. And yet as far back as 2008, the United States openly discussed the possibility of Ukraine’s membership in NATO, even as Kyiv still claimed sovereignty over Russia’s most important naval base in Sevastopol. Under these conditions, the idea of Ukraine joining NATO was preposterous.

Instead, for years now the West has encouraged Ukraine to take a hard line on Russia, with false promises that the U.S. and NATO would stand up to Moscow and defend Ukraine when it came down to it, or that Ukraine would become a NATO member and thus secure its untenable borders.

There is a way for this war to end. Part of it depends on people in the United States avoiding being emotionally manipulated by the constant claims of “good guy Ukrainians” vs “bad guy Russians.” Can we move out of this latest phase of our new reality of constant crisis? I hope so.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

10 thoughts on “The emotional manipulation never ends

  1. What is most bothersome is that, regardless of how one feels about sending troops to Ukraine, we are slowly heading in that direction. Already there are stories that Russia attacked or destroyed a NATO vessel or something. The Ukraine’s leader is calling for military intervention. The UK is, and possibly other NATO nations, sending military equipment. There are bold claims that Russia is losing the war from heavy casualties, even though they took possession of key places. Russia is not a “good guy” in all this for sure, but if this goes on for a year or two then it is a sure thing that U.S. Troops will hit the ground. What people don’t realize is China will most likely get into the act if it comes to that.

  2. A couple of thoughts on this post…

    First, I do agree that Crimea was handled poorly. And the potential of Ukraine in NATO is certainly an issue for Russia.

    However, I think that comparing Ukraine in NATO to Mexico supporting Germany in WW1 is a stretch. Germany was actively recruiting Mexico with the promise of getting Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, etc. NATO has never said that they would help Ukraine take any parts of Russia. They would only prevent Russia from taking more of Ukraine (in theory).

    Yes, there are many ethnic Russians in Ukraine. However, the history of why that is should be considered. Stalin proclaimed the nationalistic tendencies of the Ukrainians to be a threat to the Soviet Union. He deported Ukrainians to East Russia, and then murdered millions through a forced famine. Then he back-filled with ethnic Russians. Yes, there will always be a mix of ethnicity in countries through normal migration, but this was an active effort to change demographics. Even the level of ethnic Russians in Crimea is higher because the Crimean Tartars there were deported and Russians and Ukrainians back-filled.

    I am not interested in US boots on the ground in The Ukraine. But, I think that many more efforts could have been made to help The Ukraine better prepare to defend themselves against this upcoming Sudentenland (if the ask ends up only being the ethnic Russian regions). Not because Ukraine is strategically important to the US, but simply because of their right to self determination (however poor that right may be under the current government) and to avoid the ongoing and upcoming loss of lives. A stronger preventative stance that could have convinced Putin that this was not worth starting would have been beneficial in my opinion.

    Then there is China. Now that Putin has opened the door, they are going to be watching very carefully as to how the world reacts. Sorry Taiwan, it was nice knowing you. There are all other kinds of dominoes teetering. (Spratly Islands anyone?)

    I would be happy to be wrong. I hope that there is a negotiated peace soon.

  3. Back to a key point in the OP, if someone does not immediately call for military intervention in Ukraine, that does not mean that they side with Putin. There is a real attempt in the world to have only two sides to every issue. Perhaps it is because we are lazy and would rather be spoon fed binary choices rather than do critical thinking. And it is certainly being seen surrounding this conflict. But this is a reflection of our society, media, and politics.

    I do think that for many of us that were adolescents and teenagers in the 70-80’s (or older), the cold war is not just some nebulous concept. So I can see how many in our generation might have a knee jerk reaction to what Putin is doing. I know I feel some of that, as well.

    Hopefully there will be a peaceful resolution soon. But I wish it had never gotten this far in the first place.

  4. The presentation of all issues as two-sided, and that everyone must choose a side, is a tactic of Satan, to distract people from what really matters – and what the choice really is (his way or God’s). Hugh Nibley taught:

    ‘Satan’s masterpiece of counterfeiting is the doctrine that there are only two choices, and he will show us what they are. It is true that there are only two ways [(in the larger sense of God’s way or not)], but by pointing us the way he wants us to take and then showing us a fork in that road, he convinces us that we are making the vital choice, when actually we are choosing between the branches in his road. Which one we take makes little difference to him, for both lead to destruction. This is the polarization we find in our world today.’
    (From his talk, ‘Gifts’, 1979)


    “So one must choose between patriarchy and matriarchy until the Zion of God is established upon the earth. It is that old Devil’s dilemma, in which we are asked to take sides with Gog or Magog as his means of decoying us away from our true dedication to that celestial order established in the beginning.” (From ‘Patriarchy and Matriarchy’, in ‘Old Testament and Related Studies’).

  5. I am honestly surprised this war and others haven’t come sooner. It will get worse before it gets better.

    There is no way we can have the massive disruptions across the globe as a result of the various authoritarian responses to covid and not end up with more conflict. Shutdowns, curfews, lockdowns, mandates, inflation, shortages, increased energy prices, etc. etc. all create pressures that have to push individuals to the breaking point.

    We are way too quick to assume just because we mandate a mask to cover droplets or 6ft spacing to reduce spread that all we’re suffering is a minor inconvenience. Tamper with liberty at all of our peril.

  6. Not that this will happen, but it seems Russia has set themselves up to be cut off. They invaded in part via Belarus. Nato borders Belarus. That draws Belarus into the conflict.

    Forces can move across Belarus, into northern Ukraine and cut Russia supply lines in half without engaging the bulk of the force. Mass surrender of Russia forces would result within a few days of no fuel.

    While Russia would no doubt bluster, as long Russia wasn’t invaded no wmd would be used. We expelled Sadam from Kuwait without wmd use.

    We might say its too risky… well what are we doing then giving weapons to kill Russians? If it’s effective enough do we not think the Russians will place blame on us anyway?

    If it’s not effective, all it does is cause needless deaths on both sides as we seek to slowly bleed the Russians while Ukrainians pay the price.

    I realize we don’t want to be involved in foreign wars, but the direct unprovoked invasion of a major country like this is unacceptable. This is much more clear cut than the mess in the middle East. Ukraine needs help from their neighbors and we’re talking like it’s a foregone conclusion there’s little we can do.

    That being said, I do agree that violence seems to beget violence, and I’m not sure what I’m saying is the right decision. But what we’re currently doing isn’t necessity better.

    I’m not sure cripling the Russian economy and bleeding out their military is better than cutting off supply lines forcing a surrender.

  7. Geoff,

    This is a superb post. The geopolitical conflict between Russia, Ukraine & Europe & United States is multifaceted and involves a long history of deception, duplicity and extortion from all involved.

    You are so correct to point out that the politicians and media who lied to us the past two years have a new story to tell. And we are going to believe them now? I don’t trust them and have every reason to think they are lying again. That said, I don’t know the facts of the current conflict. There are a thousand stories a day being told about the war. Which are true? Which are propaganda?

    We are told the wise will take the Holy Spirit as a guide. Why? One reason may be because in this day of constant lies and deceptions it is impossible to know the truth by what is reported in the moment.

    The spirit guides us to not be enraged – to not allow our emotions to overwhelm our senses. In particular, the spirit guides us to judge people as individuals. Stereotyping Russians as evil and the others as Good is wrong. A Russian is no more responsible for the conflict than you or I am. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan.

    We can judge the situation as less than desirable. We can appeal for a peaceful resolution. We can and should defend the right of individuals to live free and to have self-determination. We can furthermore argue for the good of our country and its citizens, which in this case is to not be in the business of warmongering. No matter who we think is in the right or wrong, we should be careful to not make the matter worse by enciting greater anger and enmity. Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what are media and politicians are doing..

    On the matter of emotional manipulation, this essay by Gato Malo is a must read.

    “in an age of moral relativism, objective virtue is rendered impossible and subjective virtue derives from a consensus that is an inherently inconstant function of tribalism”

  8. Disciple, I read the Bad Kat every day, so thanks for reminding me of that post.

    As you point out, it is in wartime where the propagandists turn the enemy into un-persons who need to be destroyed. This happens in every war, and the corporate media in the U.S. (with some exceptions) is ramping up the hatred against the Russians right now. How does God see the Russians? Well, it may or may not matter to any people reading this, but most Russians these days are Christians, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints operates in Russia. Setting aside their particular religion, God does not hate the Russians and does not want us to hate them. They are our brothers. Many Russians, perhaps even a majority, do not agree with the Ukrainian invasion.

    There are three things that we as American Latter-day Saints need to do, in my opinion: 1)avoid hatred and negative feelings towards any of these people 2)recognize the propaganda taking place and 3)speak out against U.S. involvement in this conflict, which will only make things worse and will cost more lives and perhaps will even risk a nuclear war. If there is anything we should have learned from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and all of our fruitless battles in the Middle East, it is that the U.S. should not go abroad looking for demons to slay. Let’s concentrate on solving our problems at home and, if necessary, built up defenses in North America. Defensive war is morally justified — our adventures abroad are not.

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