Calling the Russian invasion a counter-insurgency isn’t just inaccurate; it’s also immoral, as it suggests that the Russians were, alas, compelled to engage in atrocities.


By Alexander Motyl

May 17, 2023



The irony is just too delicious. Anatol Lieven, a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft engages in an irresponsible and crude polemic with two distinguished scholars – Anne Applebaum and Jeff Goldberg – who dared to disagree with him.

To Call It a Lie

The title of Lieven’s essay immediately conveys its unfortunate tone: “Applebaum & Goldberg: Truth attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Not mistakes, not exaggerations, mind you, but lies, or intentional claims of falsehood.

Worse, his opening paragraph proceeds to insult Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic: “The recent essay by Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, calling for unlimited U.S. support for the reconquest of Crimea by Ukraine, merits a response, not for its intellectual quality, but because it presents in a conveniently distilled form most of the arguments that have been advanced in support of complete Ukrainian victory including the reconquest of Crimea, as opposed to the search for a ceasefire and peace negotiations.” Lieven goes on to criticize the “three parts” of which their article consists. “The first, wearisomely familiar from every conflict in which America has been directly or indirectly involved, is that this is not a war for territory or geopolitical power, but of absolute good against absolute evil.” Now, no one paints the Russo-Ukrainian War as a battle between absolute good and absolute evil, but since Lieven raised the issue, let’s examine it more closely.

The Putin regime has destroyed Russia’s proto-democratic institutions and civil society; it has killed or defenestrated scores of political or economic opponents and imprisoned thousands of Russians for expressing their opinions publicly; it has created a crony capitalist economy that enables Putin and his pals to purloin billions; it glorifies Putin in a sexist personality cult and equates him with Russia; it invaded Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine; it committed genocide in Chechnya and is committing genocide in Ukraine; it’s waging a brutal war in eastern and southern Ukraine; and it periodically threatens to employ nuclear weapons.  It’s possible that this long list of morally questionable behaviors doesn’t qualify the Putin regime as absolutely evil, but it surely qualifies it as a form of near-absolute evil. By the same token, Ukraine is anything but absolutely good, but, as an innocent victim of Russian aggression, it surely qualifies as representing “good.”

Overlooking War Crimes in Ukraine

After engaging in such conceptual obfuscation, Lieven switches his focus to the authority he supposedly has after having visited Ukraine a few weeks ago: “I can confirm from my own researches in Bucha and other towns north of Kyiv that extra-judicial killings and looting by

Russian troops took place on a large scale, together with some individual rapes. I heard nothing however to confirm Ukrainian claims of massacres or organized campaigns of mass rape. Nor have international investigators found independent (i.e., not from Ukrainian official sources) evidence to support these claims. On the alleged deportation of children I cannot comment on the basis of my own research.”

Clearly, Lieven needs to do a bit more homework. Reports of massacres and mass rapes are commonplace, both in Western and Ukrainian media. The New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights recently published “An Independent Legal Analysis of the Russian Federation’s Breaches of the Genocide Convention in Ukraine and the Duty to Prevent.” As to the “alleged [sic!] deportation of children,” Lieven might have consulted the International Criminal Court’s recent decision to issue an arrest warrant for Putin for the war crime of deporting Ukrainian children to Russia.

Lieven’s next paragraph takes the cake: “Moreover, this region [Ukraine or the Bucha area north of Kyiv?] saw what was in effect a civilian insurgency against the Russian occupation, including civilians reporting directly to Ukrainian artillery units on the location of Russian troops. Such behavior is an admirable and morally justified response to the Russian invasion, but troops involved in counter-insurgency have a strong and universal tendency to brutality against civilians whom they suspect of helping their enemies to kill them. American troops have hardly been perfect in such conflicts.” Is Lieven serious? Thousands of Russian troops invade Ukraine from three sides. They employ artillery, missiles, and infantry. Ukrainians desperately resist this savage barrage. This is what people often do in wars. Calling the Russian invasion a counter-insurgency isn’t just inaccurate; it’s also immoral, as it suggests that the Russians were, alas, compelled to engage in atrocities.

Is He Justifying An Unprovoked and Unwarranted War?

Lieven’s final line gets to the core of his problem with the Applebaum-Goldberg piece. The Americans have been brutal; therefore, the Russians may be brutal. Alas, no, especially as the objects of Russian brutality, the Ukrainians, suddenly disappear from Lieven’s analysis.  Not surprisingly, Lieven can’t resist a bit of nastiness: “And as a former Israeli guard in a prison camp for Palestinians, Goldberg himself should certainly know that when it comes to counter-insurgency, the lines between democracies and dictatorships can be very blurred indeed.” So, it’s not just the Americans who’ve done wrong. It’s also the Israelis. So, why shouldn’t the Russians do the same?

Lieven also takes issue with the second part of the Applebaum-Goldberg analysis: “The second wearisomely familiar trope is the latest version of the Domino Theory, whereby a given conflict is not really about where it is happening, but is part of a much wider plan for conquest … Russia desires influence over its neighbors, but there is no evidence at all of a plan to ‘take back’ the Baltic States, Moldova, the Caucasus or Central Asian republics.”  Now wait a second. Russia is already in the process of absorbing Belarus, and it invaded Ukraine. It has troops in Moldova and Georgia. The Kremlin’s chief propagandists, Duma deputies, and highly placed policymakers regularly threaten the Baltic states, Poland, and the West with destruction.

Does that constitute what Lieven so desperately wants—a plan? No, but it does constitute a very good case for the presence within high Russian policymaking circles of intent. Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Poles may be forgiven for lacking Lieven’s blithe willingness to expect the very best behavior from a mass murderer like Putin and a fascist state like Russia.

After all, unlike the lucky Lieven, they were conquered by Russian soldiers several times in the last few centuries.  Finally, Lieven takes on Applebaum and Goldberg’s claim that “[Ukrainian] success can support and sustain a civilizational change. Russia, as it is currently governed, is a source of instability not just in Ukraine but around the world. The investments of Russian companies keep dictators in power in Minsk, in Caracas, in Tehran. A Ukrainian victory would immediately inspire people fighting for human rights and the rule of law, wherever they are.” “Oh really?” Lieven asks. “In Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Azerbaijan, Kashmir? The hypocrisy here is transparent. What Applebaum and Goldberg mean is that the overthrow of the Putin regime and the destruction of Russia as a great power (or even as a united state) will weaken opponents of the United States and Israel and strengthen U.S. global hegemony.”

Applebaum and Goldberg may or may not be right about Ukraine’s success as being a beacon of hope for others, but they are surely not hypocritical. Nor do they “mean” what Lieven accuses them of meaning: that it’s all about America and, naturally, everyone’s favorite evil-doer, Israel.  Lieven’s willingness to assume the best about a murderous fascist regime and the worst about America and Israel is irresponsible and immoral. Condemn them all or apologize for them all. But don’t pick and choose, while ignoring the obvious. Putin’s genocidal war is not about America or Israel. It’s about Ukraine and Ukrainians.


Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.” Motyl is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.