In the past nine years, and especially since 2022, the world has become awash with experts on Ukraine. Politicians, professors, think-tankers, TV talking heads, journalists, and combinations thereof, have been vying with each other in democratic capitals, far from the missiles, to influence policy and public opinion.
At this point – admittedly at the risk of gross oversimplification – the best of these Ukraine experts can be lumped into one of two categories: those who have studied Ukraine through books and interacted with Ukrainian elites; and those who have spent a fair amount of time in Ukraine with ordinary folks.
Virtual experts vs. raw elbow experts
In general, the first category – we’ll call them “virtual experts” – have been wildly off the mark from the beginning. These were the people who in January 2022 assumed Ukraine would be overrun by Russian forces “in days”.
They look at studies, numbers, analyses. They focus on “objective facts” and their commonplaces. They lift their noses from their papers and say, “No way.” These are those who insisted that Zelensky should set up a government in exile, negotiate some sort of face-saving modus vivendi with Moscow.
You find a lot these people in Washington DC where, in order carve out a career, one needs to jump through a series of hoops that include advanced degrees from prestigious universities, interning with the “right people,” and schmoozing the necessary contacts in order to climb up the corporate pyramid of government or university bureaucracy.
Then there’s the second category of “Ukraine expert.” For better or worse, these types tend not to consider themselves experts. They are the ones who have spent time in Ukraine, among Ukrainians. Many of them have married into Ukrainian families. Some have come to Ukraine to work, others to train or fight with Ukrainian soldiers. Many have been volunteers seduced by that unquantifiable Ukrainian spirit you hear foreigners talking about throughout the country.
We’ll call these people “raw elbow experts” because they have done their fair share of rubbing elbows with ordinary Ukrainians. Through osmosis, they have come to understand and appreciate the contradictions and peculiarities of Ukraine.
Most importantly, when they learn about the blood-soaked history of the land, it sheds light on their intuitive appreciation for the people, it explains what they have already come to feel.
This is in stark contrast to the virtual experts, who have already expatiated on the history and geopolitical configurations of the land. These people tend to meet with intellectual and political elites at conferences and to gravitate toward those who have already staked out a similar position to their own.
Such virtual experts try not to feel anything that doesn’t give added value to their already formulated theses – lest it skew their objectivity.
To make matters worse, they tend to have studied Ukraine from within thoroughly Russo-centric Slavic departments within universities, which is a whole other problem that won’t be addressed here.
Ideally, the raw elbow expert is the type of person a competent intelligence agency should hire – someone who speaks four or five languages and has backpacked across the planet in his youth.
Unfortunately, at least in the case of the US intelligence communities, such people would be hard pressed to gain security clearance. Much better to have A-students who spent their youth studying in graduate schools and interning with all the “right people.”
Let us now name illustrious names
So which Ukraine experts should we listen to?
It goes without saying that Ukrainians themselves know their country better than foreigners. But for those wary of indigenous bias, there are any number of non-Ukrainian public figures who understand Ukraine, Ukrainians, their history, and its struggle for independence from Moscow – an existential struggle with clear genocidal overtones.
There are, however, a few cases of overlap: virtual experts who have rubbed plenty of elbows, people with intellectual credentials and contacts with elites, in addition to a broad understanding of Ukrainian culture, language and people.
Among public intellectuals, Timothy Snyder towers above his peers. For anyone who has not seen his publicly available history course at Yale University, “The Making of Modern Ukraine,” it is available on YouTube; and it is worthwhile not only for those unfamiliar with the complexities of Ukrainian history, but even for knowledgeable scholars who want to look at certain developments from an original perspective.
Another overlapping intellectual is Snyder’s former professor at Oxford, Timothy Garton Ash, who regularly visits Ukraine and met with dissidents against Communist regimes well before the Soviet Union collapsed.
Among military analysts who double as TV talking heads, one needs to refer to those who have trained with Ukrainian and/or Russian militaries. Retired Generals Ben Hodges and Mark Hertling both understood from the outset that Ukrainians would fight hard and with surprising success. That’s because they had long been interacting with Ukrainian or Russian officers and soldiers. They saw firsthand the defense preparations made over the years since the invasion of Crimea in 2014.
Dr. Phillip Karber, a military scholar and former US Marine, has also spent a lot of time at the front over the past nine years and offers the kind of insight that comes from rubbing elbows.
As for the virtual specialists, there is one group that has reportedly been tasked by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan – the consummate A-student with stellar resume – to engage in back-channel negotiations with the Kremlin. The trio consists of Richard Haass, Thomas Graham, and Charles Kupchan, all former US government advisors and think-tank denizens who tend toward the “grand bargains forged by great powers” school of political science.
Suffice it to say that Kupchan has been consistently wrong about Ukraine since the full-scale invasion and has gone to great efforts to intellectually hedge his utter lack of knowledge with respect to Ukrainians by couching it in the language of academic realpolitik.
Another figure is William Burns, the director of the CIA. Burns is actually one of those rare Americans who is supposed to understand Russia, speak Russian, and know his way through the shark-infested waters of Kremlin power struggles in Moscow, where he had served as ambassador from 2005 to 2008.
But Burns’ view of Ukraine has long been filtered through his deep contacts with Russian elites. In order for him to understand Ukrainians at this stage of his career, he would need to “unlearn” everything and renounce the Kissingerian pose that brought him to his current illustrious position as one of the world’s most powerful men. It won’t happen.
And then there’s the pesky moral question
Largely ignored among the experts is the basic question of what’s the right thing to do – as if it had no bearing on the pragmatic outcome.
Understandably, political advisors in powerful countries work on the assumption that they must serve the interests of their own governments and people. Yet the intellectual and epistemological process that enables their rise to the status of advisor often obviates their ability to feel reality on a more subjective level. Worse, the process tends to disregard moral factors that might complicate their pragmatic procedural flow charts.
In other words: “Let’s not introduce the question of what’s right and wrong and just focus on what’s doable and in our interest.”
But that’s exactly why they have been so wildly off the mark. Anyone now in Ukraine and anyone who has been there and participated in the process of its three-decades-long (some would argue three centuries) independence movement knows. It’s a knowledge that in many ways supersedes what you can glean from graduate school or think-tank conferences, or even experience as a cog in the wheel of some foreign ministry bureaucracy.
What’s happening in Ukraine is real, not virtual. It affects the entire world. You can feel it from the Carpathian Mountains to the Sea of Azov. Just talk to those who know what it is they’re feeling: namely, that Ukrainians will not retreat on their path after 32 years of progress as an independent nation.
The simple reason is because Ukrainians know that the only way Vladimir Putin, or any other Russian potentate, can stop their resistance is to go into full-Stalin mode – kill as many Ukrainians as possible to crush the Ukrainian spirit. In other words, genocide. Therefore, Ukrainians have no choice but to fight.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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