• Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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Psychology of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict

Psychology of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict

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, he shoots, he fights judo. He has been pictured immersing himself in ice cold water. His bare-chested 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 cultivates 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.

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.

The Russians themselves describe the conflict as a ‘Security Operation’ to save ethnic Russians in the north of Ukraine from ‘genocide.’ It is a clearly bogus description. Hundreds of people, including non-combatant women and children, but also including significant numbers of Russian soldiers, have died or sustained life-altering injuries.

If the calculation on the Russian side was that they could carry out a short, sharp, and quick incursion into their troublesome neighbour, effect a regime-change, by removing a ‘Pro-West’ president and replacing him with a pro-Russian one, the proceedings would not have gone according to script.

The 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’ Germany, 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 in the giddy triumphalism of ‘Capitalism’ over ‘Communism,’ the leaders of the West 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 that would guarantee not only its security but its pride.

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’ had responded to an almost magical obsession to invade the Russian mainland at the peak of their powers. They failed spectacularly on every occasion, the last one leading to twenty million deaths, mostly of Russians during the Second World War.

Read also: Why Russia-Ukraine crisis will not lead to World War 3

This gentleman’s agreement, it is said, has been breached over and over 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 Organisation (NATO).

The Western nations subtly aided this process by influencing local politics. 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 John McCain, who even travelled to Kiev to appear at the demonstrations, urging on the armed protesters.

These were the antecedents to the present crisis, where a pro-Western government under a youthful President Zelenskyy has been talking of deepening relations with the West, obviously to the detriment of Ukraine’s Russian cousins.

If Russia is paranoid, it is not entirely without a 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.

From an African perspective, the societies of Eastern Europe, including Russia itself, are 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. It is also a war in the topsy-turvy mind of a certain Vladimir Putin, who may well have been traumatised by the prolonged isolation and uncertainty of the COVID19 experience. He has boxed himself into a corner from which he can only extricate himself if he has a trophy to show for his Russian dead.

The reality is that everybody is playing this game with a flawed hand. If the mind war is to end soon, everybody, Ukraine, Russia and NATO, would need to come off their high ‘moral’ horses and think themselves into the minds of the other parties. That way, a liveable, sustainable compromise, probably equally disliked by all – for different reasons, may open the door to peace and save the world from Armageddon.