Putin, Ukraine, and the “glory” trap

As Russia, under the determined leadership of Vladimir Putin, shocks the world with its invasion of Ukraine, Americans find ourselves wondering: Why????

Here’s what the New York Times says about Putin’s position.

“Mr. Putin has described the Soviet disintegration as a catastrophe that robbed Russia of its rightful place among the world’s great powers and put it at the mercy of a predatory West.”

and, “Mr. Putin has also insisted that Ukraine and Belarus are fundamentally parts of Russia, culturally and historically,” that is, that “Ukrainians are ‘one people’ with Russians, living in a failing state controlled by Western forces determined to divide and conquer the post-Soviet world.”

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had been closely allied with Russia, just as Belarus is, but in 2014 they shifted toward the West and had been aspiring to eventually join NATO and perhaps the European Union.

So, in essence, the problem comes down to two motivations, which Putin has apparently decided are worth a huge investment in Russian lives and Russian economic well-being.

The first motivation is a strong desire to shift where Russians are on what we might call a fear-trust axis. Fear and trust are mutually exclusive, and Ukraine has had generations of reasons to mistrust Russia – some Ukrainian grandparents still living can probably remember the famine imposed on them in the early 1930s. Known as the Holodomor or the Terror-Famine, almost 4 million Ukrainians starved to death in a man-made catastrophe orchestrated by Stalin.

Now Russia finds itself threatened by Ukrainian aspirations toward alliance with the West.

It’s as if Canada had been brutally treated by the United States and had finally turned to, say, China in an effort to get us to leave them alone. The U.S. might feel threatened and mistrusting, too, even if it were all our fault in the first place – or at least it would be easy for leaders to tell us that Canada was a problem, after that history.

Of course, trust is a two-way street, and if Russia really wanted a peaceful neighbor, it would certainly not have chosen to invade.

That brings us to the second motivation, which we could describe as Russia’s desire to shift where they are on a humiliation-glory axis. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia has been experiencing the same kind of “loss of empire” already familiar to Britain, France, and other colonial powers, but in Russia’s case, it’s not that they had gone out and colonized other lands which have now become independent, it’s that ethnic nations within what had recently been their own borders are insisting on their own sovereignty.

Imagine that instead of 400,000 Navajo, there were 110 million Navajo, and they wanted out, taking all their land and its natural resources with them.

But that analogy is misleading, because Americans of European descent can’t possibly convince themselves that the Navajo are just another variant of themselves. And that’s what’s going on in Russia – they’ve been convinced that the Ukrainian language is basically just a dialect of Russian, and the Ukrainian people are essentially Russian too. Even Putin’s political rival, Alexei Navalny, has said that “I don’t see any difference between Russians and Ukrainians, none at all.” (He’s the one who almost died when an assassin poisoned his underpants.)

And Ukraine has been under others’ control for a very long time – the Russians, the Austrians, the medieval power known as Poland-Lithuania (two countries under one ruler), all the way back to the era of “Kievan Rus,” when Ukraine and western Russia were ruled by Vikings from Sweden, starting in 879 A.D. Even with their own language, they haven’t had much chance to establish themselves as separate and sovereign.

So, imagine we’re Russians. If we define “us” as including some other group of people, who decide to leave “us,” we may feel shamed and humiliated. If we can’t convince them to rejoin “us” by peaceful means, one answer would be to reclaim them by force. The other answer, of course, is to respect their decision and their right to decide for themselves whether they are part of “us” or something else, but that’s not the answer Putin has chosen.

Putin, apparently, is motivated by glory. Expanding Russia’s control back to something much closer to its imperial and Soviet borders – making Russia great again – would give him that, he thinks. Glory for Putin and glory for Russia, through a classic Restoration meta-narrative.

I just spent 16 months writing a paper on all the categories of ways that people can try to infuse concepts with emotional resonance, making them more exciting, interesting, or alarming. The idea of “glory” is a combination of two of those techniques – “awe” (the emotion we experience when something is far beyond the ordinary) and the stamp of approval of an authority, in this case posterity. It’s something that’s not only amazing, but collectively valued, and permanently so.

We associate glory with military victory and with God – “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” as in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Earlier, glory was a big deal for the ancient Romans and before them, the Greeks. Much of the background for the Odyssey was Telemachus’s worry that his father, Odysseus, might have died a shameful and humiliating death at sea, rather than a properly glorious one in battle. (Of course, he was still alive, slowly making his way back home again.)

In other words, glory is a form of immortality, giving one’s life an ultimate meaning. If Putin’s successfully infected the Russian public with his own thirst for glory, they may not rest until Ukraine is fully within Russia’s borders again. And unless they can convince themselves that they can get a stronger sense of meaning from pursuing a different path, there’s little incentive for them to do otherwise.

That’s a sobering thought.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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10 Responses to Putin, Ukraine, and the “glory” trap

  1. Steve Woodward says:

    “Imagine that instead of 400,000 Navajo, there were 110 million Navajo, and they wanted out, taking all their land and its natural resources with them.”

    Perhaps a closer analogy would be imagining that 6 million southerners wanted out of the USA in 1861. Was Lincoln a Putin prototype?

    • If the South had democratically decided to go – and by democratically I mean properly including the input of all the disenfranchised people living there – then maybe the North should have let them. Did you know that more than half of Oregon (land-wise, certainly not people-wise) is considering joining Idaho?

  2. Steve Woodward says:

    While I hardly qualify as a Lincoln scholar, I’m fairly confident that opposition to voter suppression was mentioned nowhere in his rationale for putting down the Confederate insurrection by force of arms. Disenfranchisement was routine in Lincoln’s day. Please consider that it took more than half a century after the Civil War for the 19th Amendment to be ratified and 50% of the US population granted the right to vote.

    Jefferson Davis’s election by 95+% of the CSA popular vote and 100% of the Electoral was about as democratic as 19th century democracy got.

    • I admit that I have never understood why the South wasn’t allowed to go. It’s always seemed reasonable to me that if they wanted to be their own country, why not let them?

      The same goes for Scotland, Wales, Catalonia, etc. But my education on the Civil War is limited to what I’ve read as an adult and my strong feelings in favor of the enslaved.

      • Steve Woodward says:

        I think Lincoln does a pretty good job of encapsulating the Union rationale in the Gettysburg Address. I doubt Putin would subscribe.

      • Fractal says:

        Probably a matter of people who derive part of their self-worth through the “success” and glory of their country? Losing territory, people, etc. diminishes their country and therefore themselves. I don’t think of myself as particularly nationalistic, and it would still bother me some if, say, Texas seceded – I imagine there are a lot of people who would take it very personally. That applies doubly to the people in charge – not having the country literally fall apart is kind of their job.

        Of course, none of that is quite the same as letting Ukraine go, promising their independence, and then later invading them.

      • And that’s understandable, even without the glory component. We all have a strong need for some sort of fundamental stability in our understanding of how the world works. It probably wouldn’t bother me if Texas left the U.S., but if the eastern half of Oregon joins Idaho, it would take me a while to get used to it, and I’ve only been there once and didn’t care for it.

  3. As for the Lincoln/Putin analogy – if the South had declared its independence 28 years previously and had it acknowledged in a treaty with the United States, and then Lincoln decided to get it back, that would have been more like Putin. I was interested to read about the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Russia (and the US and UK) agreed to respect the independent borders and sovereignty of Ukraine (and Belarus and Kazakhstan) and never to invade or threaten them, in exchange for those places giving up their huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budapest_Memorandum_on_Security_Assurances

  4. Steve Woodward says:

    “…it would still bother me some if, say, Texas seceded…”

    Me too, but mostly for a different reason. The US Constitution and federal law derived from it, guarantee and enforce many rights, liberties, and protections to citizens of the US, including (heaven help them) US citizens who happen to reside in TX.

    If TX could arbitrarily and unilaterally leave the Union, declaring itself a sovereign nation therefore no longer subject to federal law, what practical meaning and legal force would those guarantees then have — not just for Texans but for all Americans?


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