Psychology of the Russo-Ukrainian War
By Femi Olugbile
Vladimir Putin is an easy man to caricature. He walks with a left to right swagger of his upper body. Perhaps he believes it conveys a sense of power and authority. To any practiced eye, it gives him the aspect of a street bully. There are other aggressively masculine attitudes he proudly displays. He rides a horse, he shoots rifles, he fights judo. He has been pictured immersing himself in ice cold water. His bare torso has been splashed on the front pages of newspapers and magazines across the world. The image of ‘lean, mean, and ready to fight‘ is one that he proudly proclaims for himself, and for the Russian ‘Fatherland’.
The world is currently in the grip of a bizarre and unnecessary war between two nations that used to be the flagship components of the Soviet Union. The optics do not look good for Russia, and for its President, who are painted as evil minded and wicked. The Russians themselves earlier on describe the conflict as a ‘Security Operation’ to save ethnic Russians in the north of Ukraine from ‘genocide’. It was a clearly bogus description. More lately, as their original expectation of a quick victory has faded and retreat without something to show for it seems out of the question, they have doubled down, and the talk is now that the Ukrainians are their cousins who have been brain-washed by Americans, and who need to be saved from themselves, no matter what. It is an even more bogus script, but there it is.
Thousands of people, including non-combatant women and children, but also including two thousand Russian soldiers, have died or sustained serious injuries. If the calculation on the Russian side was that they could carry out a short, sharp, and quick incursion into their troublesome neighour, effect a regime-change, removing a ‘Pro-West’ president and replacing him with a pro-Russian one, the drama has gone awry. Ukrainians are resisting stoutly, despite the Russians’ preliminary shock and awe display of one of the most deadly military machines in the world rattling its sabres for several weeks on their neighbour’s borders.
It is necessary to go beyond the optics to get an understanding of the psychology underpinning a conflict that has brought the world precariously close to an expanded war between ‘West’ and East’ – in reality a Third World War, and even the apocalyptic scenario of a thermonuclear conflagration.
A little over three decades ago, two major events occurred which represented the managed implosion of the ‘Iron Curtain’ and the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall, for long the line of demarcation between ‘East’ and ‘West’, was torn down. The second event was that under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, who introduced the Russian words ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ into the lexicon of world diplomacy, the Soviet Union, an agglomeration of nation-states centred around Russia and held together supposedly by the force of a common ideology – Communism, effectively collapsed.
It is said that despite the giddy euphoria they felt at the ‘victory’ of ‘Capitalism’ over ‘Communism’, the leaders of the Western World acknowledged a quid pro quo that the Russian bear, which still owned most of the wealth and armamentarium of the Soviet Union, including the largest stockpile of offensive nuclear weapons in the world, would be given a respectful ‘zone of influence’ around itself. This would guarantee not only its security but also its national pride as a ‘big’ power, even if it was no longer a ‘World Power’.
In the context of History, it was only reasonable that Russians be somewhat paranoid concerning their safety. From Napoleon to Hitler, powerful leaders from the ‘West’ have responded to an almost maniacal obsession to invade and try to conquer the Russian mainland at the peak of their powers. That they failed spectacularly on every occasion is no guarantee it cannot happen again. At the most recent try, by Hitler in the Second World War, twenty million Russians died defending their homeland, or from starvation and disease as they resisted a prolonged siege. The experience remains permanently seared into the national consciousness of all Russians.
This display of emotional intelligence by the Western leaders of the time, as well as the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ resulting from it, has been jettisoned in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as more and more of the new East European nations, fearful of the Russian behemoth, sought closer alliances with Western Europe, in many cases becoming members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Western nations subtly aided this process of ‘Westernisation’ by influencing local politics in these countries.
In the specific case of Ukraine, whose links with Russia are the deepest of all, an elected pro-Russian president, Victor Yanukovych was hounded out of power by a relentless string of violent street protests supported by Western governments and such notable politicians as the late American Senator John McCain, who even travelled to Kiev to appear at the demonstrations, urging on the armed protesters. Eventually President Yanukovych had to flee from the so-called ‘Revolutionaries’ and find refuge in Russia.
These were the antecedents to the present crisis that are not mentioned in the narratives of CNN or BBC.
Nowadays a pro-Western government under a youthful President Zelenskyy is talking of deepening relations with the West, obviously to the detriment of Ukraine’s Russian cousins. The possibility of NATO membership down the line is receiving active consideration.
If Russia is paranoid, it is not entirely without cause.
The war between Russia and Ukraine may have a certain David versus Goliath aspect to it, but it cannot in all honesty be described as purely a battle between Right and Wrong, or between Good People and Bad People, as it has tended to be portrayed in the press.
And the notion that no powerful nation should interfere in the affairs of its neighbours is ‘ideal’, but it is laughable in the realpolitik of the modern world. Americans interfere in the affairs of not only their neighbours but even people in far-flung places all the time. In places such as Iraq and Libya, they have gone in with boots on the ground or air strikes, or both. More commonly they have used the CIA to carry out assassinations, regime change, military coups and other initiatives, often against the popular will of the people in those places. From Patrice Lumumba to Salvador Allende, American power has been projected far and wide, purportedly in the service of ‘democracy’, but really in the service of what was perceived as America’s ‘national interests’. It sees South America as its ‘zone of influence’, and not only has it been prepared to do all its power to bring down ‘leftist’ regimes in Nicaragua and Venezuela, it was ready to go to nuclear war with the USSR to prevent missiles being domiciled in Cuba, the equivalent of Ukraine becoming a ‘NATO’ nation.
It requires little emotional intelligence to realise that other powerful countries such as China and Russia would also feel a need to try to ‘sanitise’ their neighbourhoods. A continuous failure to reflect all these dimensions in the public narrative, and a continued demonisation of not only the leadership but also the citizenry of Russia may help to make heroes out of Ukrainians, who are suffering some of the most horrendous deprivation and dislocation the world has seen in this century, but it will not help to bring the war to a quick end or win a sustainable peace, all of which would require discussion and negotiation.
From an African perspective, there is another side to the story and character of the region of war which has come out in the conflict. Ukraine, as well as other former Soviet Republics in Eastern Europe, including Russia itself, is in a region which is probably more racist than any other region on earth. Racial discrimination is deeply entrenched in their history and tradition. Some people were shocked to hear of several incidents of Nigerian students and other Africans being mistreated by officials and ordinary Ukrainians during the ongoing crisis. It is not new. It goes with the territory.
We have on our hands a war of minds, as well as a war of guns and missiles. It is also a war in the topsy-turvy mind of a certain Vladimir Putin, who may well have been traumatized by the prolonged isolation and uncertainty of the COVID19 experience as some psychologists have opined. He has boxed himself into a corner. Having gone so far, he can only extricate himself if he has something to show for his Russian dead and the opprobrium he has caused his nation. To end the conflict on any other terms would be political, and possibly physical, suicide for him.
Everybody is playing this game with a less than honest hand. There are no heroes and demons here, only people navigating their way through some of the more dangerous and unsavoury realities of power politics in the twentieth century world. None of Ukraine’s vociferous supporters can put boots on the ground in Kiev or put fighter jets in the air over the stricken conflict area for fear of precipitating a World War.
If the mind war, along with the shooting war is to end soon, everybody, Ukraine, Russia and NATO -and principally the USA, would need to come off their ‘moral’ high horses and think themselves into the minds of the other parties, putting all their cards on the table and shunning the temptation to further stoke the unbalanced narrative and disinformation dominating the news media. That way, a livable, sustainable compromise, probably equally disliked by all – for different reasons, may open the door to peace and save the world from Armageddon.