The Perils of an Itchy Twitter Finger

Trying to cram a nuanced view on the tragedy in Ukraine into 140 characters was a mistake. Taking a closer look at the West's role is not.


I had a valuable learning experience last week, prompted by a hasty tweet I sent out on the subject of Ukraine.

When I heard the news about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, my first thought was that this was another case where our failure to understand the risks of the situation and to move swiftly to resolve a simmering crisis had contributed to a tragic outcome. The people who shot down the plane were responsible for what happened, of course, but the tragedy might never have occurred had the EU and the United States been less eager to pull Ukraine into the Western orbit and less reluctant to cut a deal with Moscow that would have guaranteed Ukrainian neutrality. So I took to my Twitter feed and tried to make this point, writing, "Airliner tragedy in #Ukraine shows US & EU erred by not pushing to keep Ukr. as neutral buffer state, not potential EU/NATO member."

It provoked a firestorm of outraged comments, some of them quite vehement, even by the fiery standards of the Internet. A number of critics suggested Harvard ought to fire me, and one commenter suggested it was unfortunate that I was not one of the passengers on the plane.

I’ve been criticized before — it comes with the territory if you write about controversial topics — but the level of venom in this case was especially impressive. I asked myself: What explains the (many) angry responses, and was I wrong to have said what I did?

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear my original tweet was insensitive, which I regret. Mea culpa. My point was not to excuse the act itself or to defend the responsible parties (e.g., the Ukrainian separatists and possibly the Russian government). Rather, my aim was to remind people that the United States and the European Union had helped cause the broader crisis in the first place, mostly by failing to recognize that their policies toward Ukraine were threatening Russia’s vital interests and that a harsh Russian response was to be expected. Furthermore, because the West had done little to resolve the increasingly volatile crisis, an event like the downing of the plane was more and more likely.

But even if this point was correct, it was surely not the most important thing to highlight right after we received the shocking news. Thus, I don’t blame readers for reacting as harshly as they did. My error reminded me that Twitter and other forms of social media are not good platforms for trying to make a subtle, nuanced, and contrarian point, especially when emotions are running high. These platforms are terrific for sharing links, offering wry or witty comments on events, and even posting the occasional bit of acerbic snark. But unless you can link to a larger exposition of your position, it’s not a good place to try to present a layered view of any subject, and certainly not a controversial one.

Second, this experience also reminded me how hard it is to keep a cool head when tragic mistakes or evil acts occur. When innocent people die pointless deaths, our natural instinct is to seek out the perpetrators and hold them accountable. I suspect the people who brought down the plane did not realize they were targeting a civilian airliner — because killing innocent civilians could only harm their cause — but we still want to punish whoever pulled the trigger and maybe whoever gave them the weapons.

That’s appropriate, I think, provided that we don’t stop there, and provided that we are willing to ask ourselves what might have been done earlier to avoid this tragic event.

We need to ask such questions because the situation in Ukraine remains unresolved, and we cannot rule out additional calamities until a settlement is reached.

And here I still find most commentary on Ukraine to be unsophisticated and wrong-headed. Instead of trying to understand Russia’s actions over the past five months, Western officials and numerous pundits have from the start blamed the entire mess on Russian "aggression" and accused Putin of wanting to recreate the old Soviet empire. In particular, we seem unable to recognize that Putin might be reacting to what he sees as a genuine threat to Russia’s vital interests, and that he might be willing to play hardball to defend his position.

Trying to understand what Russia or its separatist allies in Ukraine are doing does not require us to agree with their views or approve of their conduct, especially not now. But unless we make some effort to understand how Russia’s leaders see the situation, and what their real motivations are, we are unlikely to formulate an effective policy to address the present crisis.

Moreover, understanding Russia’s motives should not be so difficult. No great power is indifferent to potential threats in its immediate neighborhood, and all the more so when it has valid historical reasons to be concerned about particular areas. Furthermore, great powers are usually willing to do pretty nasty things when vital interests are at stake. Consider what the United States has done to prevent rivals from gaining a significant foothold in the Western hemisphere. Among other things, Washington imposed a 50-year embargo on Cuba, which still stands, and tried to overthrow or assassinate Fidel Castro more than once. It supported brutal dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador, turned a blind eye to right-wing death squads in several other countries, and backed the contras in the Nicaraguan civil war, at a cost of more than 30,000 dead.

Were these actions — undertaken by both Republicans and Democrats — all that different from what Putin is doing today?

Which brings us back to the complex issue of culpability. In all likelihood it was Ukrainian separatists who brought down the plane — possibly with Russian assistance — and blame rests first and foremost with them. But the United States and the EU are not blameless. Not because they deliberately sought to foment instability in Ukraine, but because they have pursued idealistic goals in a naïve and unrealistic manner. U.S. policy may have been inspired by a sincere desire to help pro-Western Ukrainians achieve greater prosperity and more effective government, but noble aims count for little when pursuing them does more harm than good.

U.S. officials should keep another lesson in mind as well. They can be cavalier about trying to spread democratic values because the negative fallout from these efforts tends to happen to other people far, far away. The United States did lose 4,500 soldiers and several trillion dollars in Iraq, but Iraqis suffered hundreds of thousands killed and wounded and face an increasingly bleak future today. If the crisis in Ukraine continues to drag on — or, God forbid, gets worse — it is Ukrainians who will suffer the most, along with innocent victims like the passengers on MH17.

I want to emphasize that I am not trying to absolve those who fired the missile of responsibility for the 298 lost lives. Nor am I attempting to absolve Russia for providing them the weaponry, if that proves to be the case. The blood of the victims is on their hands. But the harsh reality is this: States play hardball when perceived vital interests are at stake, and the United States is no exception in this regard. Any country that threatens a great power’s core strategic interests should not be surprised when it reacts in ways that run counter to the Marquis of Queensbury rules. We don’t have to like such behavior — indeed, there are good reasons to condemn it — but there’s no excuse for failing to anticipate it.

If Americans want to minimize such risks in the future, we should try to do more to prevent conflicts before they start, and to shut them down quickly when they do occur. And we should not forget that when our diplomats dally or miscalculate, others are likely to suffer, and sometimes greatly. As for those of us who write about such matters, thinking first and tweeting later is a good idea, too.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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