Folks rarely tell you why they are fighting with you. They nearly always tell you something, but not the truth. Why is that? Sometimes it is because they don’t know themselves. They may have blundered into the conflict out of confusion. And once they are in it, they are stuck maintaining their position. Seeking the truth is not an option most people will take at that point. Other times they want to keep their motives secret. Why? For strategic reasons. For this reason, one should be cautious about what you hear in the midst of a dispute.
We have two colossal examples of the latter type going on now. Mr. Putin is clearly involved in the conflict that festers in Ukraine. Is he telling the world why? The gist of his public comments are that he has nothing to do with the fighting. He is just “ready” to protect Russian people from nasty Ukrainians. Few believe what he is saying. For example, where did all those troops suddenly come from in Crimea? And the heavy weapons? We might discount what Mr. Putin has said. But that leaves us in a not so enviable position of having to speculate about what is going on. For example, does Mr. Putin care what people think? Apparently not, but again, we can only make our best guess in light of what is happening.
A second example — why did Hamas shoot off over a thousand of rockets into Israel and then refuse an Egyptian cease fire deal? They say they wanted a better deal. Really? Few believe that getting a better deal was the real motive. Yet we have to speculate what is really going on.
What do you do in these situations as the listener? You follow the trail of speculation from what you do know. We know that Hamas fired 1,600 missiles into Israel. Why so many? It was not likely to have been an accident. Someone decided that this was the right thing to do. Why? Some speculate that they wanted to provoke Israel to invade. Why would Hamas want that? Surely they know that this will lead to destruction and loss of life. What could they gain? Well, perhaps it is the potential for world condemnation of Israel. If so, then Hamas actually wants the Israelis to do terrible things. They want to get press attention for each and every one of them. And they want to prolong the invasion as long as they can. BTW, if this is true, it tells you something about how little the leaders of Hamas care for the people under their rule. Back to our trail – if events play out this way, you might grow more confident about your speculations. Finally, one might ask, if gaining world condemnation of Israel is so important, is Hamas ever likely to want peace with Israel? One cannot be overly confident that they do or will.
Back to Mr. Putin. His statements are obviously not in tune with what we know. Doesn’t he care? Apparently not. Why not? Perhaps he is betting that it doesn’t matter. Indeed, it may not matter if no states take action about Russian meddling in Ukraine. And Europe has been reluctant to impose tough sanctions.
This may change after the downing of the Malaysian civilian airliner killing up to 300 innocent people. But notice that after the tragedy, Mr. Putin did not say the obvious, that an investigation is needed to get to the bottom of what happened. Instead he immediately blamed the Ukrainians – with no evidence to support his accusation. So it appears once again that he really doesn’t care whether anyone believes him. What does this tell us about him? If the above is true, it tells us that he still does not believe that anyone will stand up to him. Not now and not in the future, beyond Ukraine. That is a bit unsettling. It suggests that he may continue disrupting neighbors until he achieves his greater objectives. And what are they? Well, he is not saying. But one might surmise that they are not to strengthen NATO. More likely, the opposite.
These examples are useful because the lack of transparency is fairly obvious. But the lack of transparency is not always so obvious. It is, however, rather common in disputes. So in disputes, one must be careful to use what you know in order to understand what is behind what folks say and do. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is probably a duck (even if someone claims it is Santa Claus).
FOLLOW UP – A second theory behind Mr. Putin’s apparent lack of concern about what folks in the west think of his remarks – they may not be intended for them at all. His primary audience may be in Russia. He may believe it is important to speak this way to them. Why? Perhaps he is more afraid of appearing weak than appears on the surface. Why? Perhaps he fears what happened in Kiev could be replayed in Moscow. Could it? Good question. And if true, would this change our assessment of Putin’s larger aims? That would depend on the nature of the weakness. If a weak Putin is being pushed to act tough to prevent discontent, he may not be able to stop. Some say that was Napoleon’s problem. He had to invade Russia so that his army could win spoils of war.