13 March, Downing Street. A protester holding a placard calling for a no-fly zone to prevent nuclear war. But could such measures make nuclear exchanges more likely? Picture credit: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Moral panic over Ukraine risks nuclear war

Putin is not Hitler, but if we lose perspective we risk pushing him to reckless extremes

Artillery Row

Since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Western governments have imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Moscow, expelling Russian banks from the SWIFT international payments system, banning a wide range of exports to Russia, stripping the country of its most-favoured-nation status, and ending imports of Russian oil and gas, to name but a few. 

Simultaneously, hundreds of companies, from Apple to Zoom, have either suspended or terminated operations in Russia or ceased trading with the country. And more than 30 sports federations have blocked Russian athletes from participating in international competitions. Vladimir Putin himself has even been suspended as honorary president of the International Judo Federation. 

To many, the breathtaking scale and scope of the reaction to Russia’s invasion is viewed as a perfectly rational response to a glaringly obvious threat to international peace and security. Russia invaded Ukraine in violation of one of the most fundamental norms in international society and such an egregious violation of that norm deserves a firm, full-spectrum punitive response.

Russia was cast as an eternal and now re-born threat to the civilized West

 Failing to respond forcefully now will not only leave this specific norm violation unpunished, but it will also encourage Putin to violate the norm again — the next time against Poland or Finland or one of the Baltic states. The sweeping official and private sanctions that continue to be rolled out are thus viewed as wholly appropriate and entirely justified responses to a clear and present danger. They are viewed simply as a rational response to an objective threat

But, in fact, they are no such thing.

Viewed dispassionately and by the normal standards of reason and proportionality, the effective “cancellation” of Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine is quite the opposite. It is a wildly disproportionate, uncontrolled, irrational, and emotional response to a danger that, while real, has been inflated and exaggerated beyond what a sober, realistic appraisal is able to sustain.

This is not to say that the Russian invasion wasn’t a violation of a long-settled global norm. Nor is it to say that this violation shouldn’t have elicited a robust response. Rather it is to make the case that no rational cost-benefit analysis of the situation would have yielded the kind of over-the-top response we have seen.

And while it’s easy to attribute this response to the pervasiveness of a kind of Harry Potter Manicheanism, such a simplistic moral framing cannot fully account for the sanctions tsunami that has been unleashed by what many now insist on calling “Putin’s War.” For that, we need a theory capable of explaining collective overreaction on the scale we’ve seen. And as tempting as it is to fall back on simple binaries, a more satisfying theoretical explanation is to be found elsewhere — specifically, in the sociological theory of moral panic.

According to that theory, a moral panic is an “outbreak of moral concern over a supposed threat… that is out of proportion to its actual danger or potential harm.” While the threats that trigger such a panic may be real, the initially rational response (moral concern) quickly morphs into an irrational sense of terrible danger. This, in turn, generates disproportionate and widespread feelings of fear, which are then converted into a powerful social sense of moral outrage. 

This outrage is then directed at a single easily identified target, the “folk devils” who are said to be the source of the threat and danger. The net political result is typically a set of policies and practices designed to punish, isolate or otherwise deal with the folk devils — policies and practices that are both wildly disproportionate to the threat posed and disproportionately harmful to those on the receiving end. Examples of past moral panics include the Salem witch hunts, the Red Scare of the early twentieth century and the satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s.

That the still-unfolding response to the Russian invasion is but the latest in a long line of moral panics ought to be obvious. To begin with, the cultural framing of “Putin’s War” is entirely consistent with those of past panics. A folk-devil — variously, Putin or Russia — inflicted some harm on international society. The initial wave of rational moral concern quickly gave way to a disproportionate fear that Putin was another Hitler, and that if he wasn’t stopped in Ukraine his troops would soon be in Warsaw or Berlin. This fear then quickly morphed into a sense of moral outrage. 

Putin’s incentive to gamble is being amplified and compounded

Putin was characterized as the biggest threat to peace and security since Hitler in the late-1930s (yes, the air was and is thick with Hitler analogies), Russia was cast as an eternal and now re-born threat to the civilized West, and the very fate of Europe/the West/civilization was said to hang in the balance. And because of all this, the Russian invasion demanded a massive response: government and private sanctions, demonization of all things Russian, military support for Ukraine, and even intervention in the form of no-fly zones and the use of NATO forces to carve out humanitarian sanctuaries in western Ukraine. 

In both tone and substance, from the exaggeration of threat to the disproportionate response, this was the stuff of a classic moral panic.

And, consistent with the theory of moral panic, the West’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had, and will continue to have, precisely the kind of dangerous consequences the theory predicts. This fevered, orgiastic, uncontrolled, yet morally gratifying wave of sanctions will not pressure Putin to reverse course in Ukraine. But history’s largest “flash mob” may well have the unintended consequence of crushing the Russian economy — destroying the economic foundations not only of Russian society but of Russian national power as well. 

While some might welcome this — the desire to punish the folk-devil is symptomatic of all moral panics – consider the geopolitical consequences of the radical sanctions-induced de-globalization Russia is currently experiencing. Putin sees a future in which Russian national power — already revealed to be less than advertised on the battlefields of Ukraine – is evaporating. 

Like similarly situated German leaders in 1914 and Japanese ones in 1941, he now faces a choice: does he meekly accept this fate, or does he roll the dice in the hope of changing the dynamic and somehow avoiding that fate. Caveat lector and all that when it comes to historical analogies. But in the mid-twentieth century, German and Japanese leaders chose to roll the dice, presumably believing that the gamble, however reckless, might just pay off, whereas doing nothing would almost certainly result in their destruction.

Both ultimately lost their bets — but not before plunging the world into catastrophic global wars. Is it such a stretch to believe that Putin might also prefer to gamble — perhaps by using a tactical nuke or two — rather than watch his country crumble under the weight of this sanctions tsunami?

And if the inevitable demotion of Russia from great power status to failed state were not enough, Putin’s incentive to gamble is being amplified and compounded by a parallel train of moral-panic-driven strategic responses to his invasion. These, too, started off being reasonably measured and proportional: supplying the Ukrainian military with weapons and ammunition, sending a few thousand U.S. troops to NATO Europe to reassure the Allies, issuing stern warnings not to attack NATO and so on. 

But the drumbeat for more military intervention has been building relentlessly. Calls for a no-fly-zone continue to echo through the halls of power in the West, as do demands for some sort of armed intervention to secure the still-unoccupied part of Ukraine. The tone in which both demands are voiced is manic. But imagine what would happen if either of these two disproportional steps were taken. 

Faced with a deteriorating situation on the battlefield, the prospect of inevitable sanctions-induced economic collapse, and the old enemy entering the fray in a direct and menacing way, what would Putin do? Would he passively accept defeat — or worse? Or would he then be even more inclined to roll the nuclear dice, hoping that the prospect of escalation would force the West to back down and accept a negotiated settlement that he would find acceptable? 

And what if, still in the grip of moral panic, the West did not back down, but decided to inflict the ultimate punishment on the Russian folk-devil?

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