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.