The trust that’s not there to be had on Ukraine


Fig. 1. “Destroyed Russian military vehicles located on the main street Khreshchatyk are seen as part of the celebration of the Independence Day of Ukraine in Kyiv, August 24.” Photograph by Gleb Garanich for Reuters, August 24, 2022,[1] fair use.

In one oft-heard narrative, the Russia’s war on Ukraine is bound for a years-long bloody stalemate. Vladimir Putin’s approach itself remains fundamentally unchanged, believing he can exploit divisions in the west to undermine support for Ukraine and that Russia can, even if at high cost, prevail. Fiona Hill and Angela Stent further argue that Russia’s notions of spheres of influence and empire are themselves unchanged even from the Soviet Union’s. The one thing that does seem different is Putin’s seeming immunity to internal challenge, which is to say we can’t much hope for a change of leadership:[2]

The war has revealed the full extent of [Vladimir] Putin’s personalized political system. After what is now 23 years at the helm of the Russian state, there are no obvious checks on his power. Institutions beyond the Kremlin count for little. “I would never have imagined that I would miss the Politburo,” said Rene Nyberg, the former Finnish ambassador to Moscow. “There is no political organization in Russia that has the power to hold the president and commander in chief accountable.” Diplomats, policymakers, and analysts are stuck in a doom loop—an endless back-and-forth argument among themselves—to figure out what Putin wants and how the West can shape his behavior.[3]

And of course the most, if at all likely replacement for Putin, namely Evgeny Prigozhin, would hardly be an improvement.[4] But that’s not the only thing that hasn’t changed:

The tepid political response and the limited application of sanctions after that first Russian invasion [seizing and annexing Crimea] convinced Moscow that its actions were not, in fact, a serious breach of post–World War II international norms. It made the Kremlin believe it could likely go further in taking Ukrainian territory. Western debates about the need to weaken Russia, the importance of overthrowing Putin to achieve peace, whether democracies should line up against autocracies, and whether other countries must choose sides have muddied what should be a clear message: Russia has violated the territorial integrity of an independent state that has been recognized by the entire international community, including Moscow, for more than 30 years. Russia has also violated the UN Charter and fundamental principles of international law. If it were to succeed in this invasion, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states, be they in the West or the global South, will be imperiled.

Yet the Western debate about the war has shifted little in a year. U.S. and European views still tend to be defined by how individual commentators see the United States and its global role rather than by Russian actions. Antiwar perspectives often reflect cynicism about the United States’ motivation and deep skepticism about Ukraine’s sovereign rights rather than a clear understanding or objective assessment of Russian actions toward Ukraine and what Putin wants in the neighboring region.[5]

Of course, we could say this about Hill and Stent’s article. It breaks little if any new ground; it rather summarizes what many (including me) have been saying from the outset. Hill and Stent point to ways western messaging could be improved, suggesting more broadly (as I have[6]) that Putin’s ambitions are not limited to Ukraine. But if we also acknowledge that he cares little what anyone in the west thinks of him,[7] then it is likely as well that gains to be won from improved public relations will be limited. Indeed the international illiberal and U.S. white Christian nationalist and ‘tankie’[8] support for Ukraine includes a disdain for anything the west or western media says, often even on matters unrelated to Putin’s ambitions.[9]

It’s something I’ve said before a few times, that if you want to be trusted, you have to be worthy of that trust. The western elite, corrupted by money and power, have not been worthy. Now, it is with Ukraine as it was with COVID-19, that there is too little trust to be had.

Fiona Hill and Angela Stent, “The Kremlin’s Grand Delusions,” Foreign Affairs, February 15, 2023,


Right-wing militias

Police White supremacist gangs

Fig. 1. Photograph by Lorie Shaull, April 1, 2021, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Keri Blakinger, “L.A. County sheriff creates new office to ‘eradicate all deputy gangs,’” Los Angeles Times, February 15, 2023,

  1. [1]Reuters, “Ukraine puts destroyed Russian tanks on display in Kyiv,” August 25, 2022,
  2. [2]Fiona Hill and Angela Stent, “The Kremlin’s Grand Delusions,” Foreign Affairs, February 15, 2023,
  3. [3]Fiona Hill and Angela Stent, “The Kremlin’s Grand Delusions,” Foreign Affairs, February 15, 2023,
  4. [4]Fiona Hill and Angela Stent, “The Kremlin’s Grand Delusions,” Foreign Affairs, February 15, 2023,; Julia Ioffe, “‘Putin’s Chef’: The Man Behind Russia’s Shadow Army,” Puck, December 13, 2022,
  5. [5]Fiona Hill and Angela Stent, “The Kremlin’s Grand Delusions,” Foreign Affairs, February 15, 2023,
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Where does Vladimir Putin stop?” Not Housebroken, November 16, 2022,
  7. [7]Fiona Hill and Angela Stent, “The Kremlin’s Grand Delusions,” Foreign Affairs, February 15, 2023,
  8. [8]Roane Carey, “Don’t Be a Tankie: How the Left Should Respond to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” Intercept, March 1, 2022,
  9. [9]David Benfell, “Information, information cynicism, disinformation, and misinformation,” Not Housebroken, November 26, 2022,

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