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Observations from abroad: It’s not all about us

Timothy Snyder is one of the most knowledgeable voices on authoritarianism writing today. His slim 2017 volume On Tyranny is a must-read for everyone in this day and age.

Recently, his Substack newsletter Thinking About has been focused on the Russo-Ukrainian War, and I’ve been catching up on it while traveling abroad this week. Snyder just posted a new article on how the war might end that is clear-eyed and highly plausible. It is also somewhat comforting, if those of us in the US can get past the notion that the war, and the threat of nuclear weapons, is all about us.

I’m only going to quote three short sections, because you should read the entire piece. His post begins with this:

War is ultimately about politics.  That Ukraine is winning on the battlefield matters because Ukraine is exerting pressure on Russian politics.  Tyrants such as Putin exert a certain fascination, because they give the impression that they can do what they like.  This is not true, of course; and their regimes are deceptively brittle.  The war ends when Ukrainian military victories alter Russian political realities, a process which I believe has begun….

After a few more paragraphs, Snyder turns to an overarching question that I believe is spot on about how our narrow thinking or frame of reference gets in our way.

Before I lay this out, we will first have to clear away the nuclear static.  Speaking of nuclear war in a broad, general way, we imagine that the Russo-Ukrainian War is all about us.  We feel like the victims.  We talk about our fears and anxieties.  We write click-bait headlines about the end of the world.  But this war is almost certainly not going to end with an exchange of nuclear weapons.  States with nuclear weapons have been fighting and losing wars since 1945, without using them.  Nuclear powers lose humiliating wars in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan and do not use nuclear weapons.

Near the end of his analysis, Snyder points out that what we think is ultimately much less important than what Putin is thinking.

If this is what is coming, Putin will need no excuse to pull out from Ukraine, since he will be doing so for his own political survival.  For all of his personal attachment to his odd ideas about Ukraine, I take it that he is more attached to power.  If the scenario I describe here unfolds, we don’t have to worry about the kinds of things we tend to worry about, like how Putin is feeling about the war, and whether Russians will be upset about losing.  During an internal struggle for power in Russia, Putin and other Russians will have other things on their minds, and the war will give way to those more pressing concerns.  Sometimes you change the subject, and sometimes the subject changes you.

Read the entire piece. It is long, but worth it.

More to come…


Image of field of sunflowers by Claire Holsey Brown


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


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