Russia’s President Putin has given two speeches on the Ukraine war. In these speeches, he did more than state the reasons for his country’s “special military operation”. He also described some of Russia’s subjective sentiments from its long-term dealings with NATO. These feelings may be summarised into four points.
First, Western countries have refused to accept Russia into their fold and declined Russia’s suggestion of joining NATO. Second, Russia is inexplicably regarded by the West as an enemy state. As Putin put it: “As for our country, after the disintegration of the USSR, given the entirely unprecedented openness of the new, modern Russia, its readiness to work honestly with the United States and other Western partners, and its practically unilateral disarmament, they immediately tried to put the final squeeze on us, finish us off, and utterly destroy us. … Those who aspire to global dominance have publicly designated Russia as their enemy. They did so with impunity. Make no mistake, they had no reason to act this way.”
The third point relates to national dignity. Putin asked: “Where did this [NATO’s] insolent manner of talking down from the height of their exceptionalism, infallibility and all-permissiveness come from? What is the explanation for this contemptuous and disdainful attitude to our interests and absolutely legitimate demands?”
The last point has to do with a sense of existential crisis. Putin declared that what for the US and its allies is “a policy of containing Russia, with obvious geopolitical dividends” is for Russia “a matter of life and death” He added, “This is not an exaggeration; this is a fact. It is not only a very real threat to our interests but also to the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty.”
These four points played a big part in Putin’s decision-making for the war. They are all linked to essential human nature, or social psychology rooted in our cerebral structure. We may say that, to a very great extent, some of the patterns in international relations are determined by structures in the human brain.
With such flat, expansive terrain that is easy to attack but difficult to defend, Russia is forced to constantly expand to increase its strategic depth and secure natural barriers.
Human nature in international relations
As they are in the case of all social animals, territoriality and the concern for safety are part of instincts for humans. The security dilemma is a perennial conundrum for tribes and countries that exist in spatial proximity to one another.
The Russian nation, as we know, has its roots in the Great Steppe of Eastern Europe. With such flat, expansive terrain that is easy to attack but difficult to defend, Russia is forced to constantly expand to increase its strategic depth and secure natural barriers. The US, in contrast, is blessed with a superior geographical position. This advantage paradoxically causes it to pursue absolute security, to seek out hidden security threats in every corner of the world, and thus become involved in all sorts of conflicts and disputes. As a result, both powers give people the impression of being aggressive. Their histories are marked by incessant wars.
Social animals have a strong need for belonging. In the evolutionary history of humans, banding together has been a norm and a requirement for the survival of the individual. Out of the need for belonging arise a series of psychological states and codes of conduct. For example, loyalty is regarded as one of the highest virtues, while betrayal is the vilest act, and ostracisation the harshest punishment.Numerous mechanisms are developed to harmonise relations within their group and bolster their internal solidarity, including morals, laws, religions, proprieties, customs, hierarchies of statuses, states, nationalism etc. In dealing with social relations, one mainly relies on the prefrontal cortex, which is the last part of the brain to have evolved into being.
Treating Russia or China as the enemy without rhyme or reason is in line with such an instinct. The framework of the workings of our brain is supported by a them-vs-us consciousness.
Competition among primitive tribes over territories and resources has given rise to bloody conflicts and wars, as well as the instinct to differentiate between the in-group and the out-group. That instinct is alive and well today, regardless of how shallow the basis for such dichotomisation may be in modern society.
The competition between groups for survival naturally engenders a “them versus us” consciousness and the myth of pure evil, which is the demonisation of the enemy or the opposing group. Differentiating between friend and foe, the “good guys” and the “bad guys”, good and evil, is a fixed way of thinking that we are born with. Self-righteous people often treat their opponent with contempt and antipathy as a matter of course.
Treating Russia or China as the enemy without rhyme or reason is in line with such an instinct. The framework of the workings of our brain is supported by a them-vs-us consciousness. As part of the will of a country, national defence is unsustainable without an imaginary enemy, and a country without national defence is devoid of soul. It is this psychological structure that allows the military-industrial complex to exist.
But “national defence” is about preparing for war. Bloodlust is thus part of human nature. In modern times, it is often under the banner of the good and just that it wreaks havoc, as demonstrated by the violence that informed the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
One prominent manifestation in our time of the undercurrents discussed above is the prevalence of identity politics, which is an oft-neglected facet of international relations.
According to ancient Greek philosophers, the structure of human psychological needs consists of three parts. The first is known as thymos, that which desires recognition and respect from others, such as the pride of Russia that Putin speaks of. The second part is known as isothymia, that which demands equality. The third part, megalothymia, seeks a sense of superiority — either as a superior race or having the moral high ground.
Hegel believed that the struggle for recognition is the main driving force in human history. Every one of us carries a “status radar”, so to speak, constantly probing to see what others think of us. This is why hurt pride is one of the main causes of conflicts and violence in everyday life.
When a great power like Russia has not been treated with respect for a long time, lashing out against Ukraine is thus not so incomprehensible.
The same is true for the dynamics between states. The rise of liberalism has turned the pursuit of recognition into the pursuit of equality. That was the origin of democratic politics, and also of the principle of the equality of the sovereignty of states (regardless of their sizes) in international relations. However, the pursuit of equality easily slips into the pursuit of superiority. That is an important reason for the de facto inequality between countries.
People with stronger pride are often more prone to violence. When a great power like Russia has not been treated with respect for a long time, lashing out against Ukraine is thus not so incomprehensible. Research has shown that in the brains of liberals, the cingulate cortex tends to contain more grey matter, whereas the amygdala in conservatives tends to be larger. The oxytocin produced in the brain makes people not only friendlier to their in-group, but also more hostile to outsiders.
The two-tier game of international politics
All this has been amply illustrated in the Ukraine war as unfolding at two levels. On the surface, it is a struggle between good and evil, as predominantly framed within the liberalist discursive system. Global opinion has been leaning heavily against Russia ever since the beginning of the war. The denunciation of the Russian invasion feeds right into the epic narrative of good versus evil, democracy versus authoritarianism, freedom versus oppression. The overwhelming indignation generated from this has drowned out Putin’s two eloquent addresses, leaving Russia isolated and helpless.
The prevailing righteousness not only defines Russia as a force of evil, but is also extending its frowning upon China, who is constantly being asked why it is not denouncing Russia, or whether it is going to aid Russia. The underlying them-vs-us consciousness is very obvious, and a new Cold War is right around the corner. Now that Putin has been branded the “villain”, whatever he says is not worth listening to, and his views are not worth refuting. To sympathise with his views is to be politically incorrect, to risk banishment.
As always, the Western media dictates the narrative of the Ukraine war. The courageous resistance of the Ukrainian civilians and soldiers, the bombing of residential districts, the displacement and exodus of innocent civilians, the shelling of maternity wards and a nuclear power station, babies getting hurt and so on — it is human nature that is at work behind all such images and reports. Images of scenes like these are very effective in influencing public sentiments and opinions, which often are powerful enough to influence policy-making. For that reason, they are often deployed in a selective manner in the wars fought after the Cold War. Professionals and organisations for orchestrated photo shoots have emerged.
As Putin concludes, NATO breaks its promise only because it cannot tolerate the existence of a strong and independent Russia — “The answer is simple. Everything is clear and obvious.”
Liberalism’s public opinion warfare is mainly fought on the plane of the general public, whereas at the level of the political elite is a different game, one of realism. Public opinion warfare, on the surface, is but an instrument wielded by politicians.
When commenting on NATO’s 1999 decision to expand eastward, George F. Kennan, the “architect of the Cold War”, had lamented: “And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove [the] Soviet regime.” Here, the high-sounding rhetoric of liberalism is nowhere to be heard. Only the cold calculus of realism remains. As Putin concludes, NATO breaks its promise only because it cannot tolerate the existence of a strong and independent Russia — “The answer is simple. Everything is clear and obvious.”
As a realist, Putin sees the whole picture very clearly. He calls the West an “empire of lies” whose game of liberalism on the surface is but a smokescreen. What is truly going on is the underlying game of realism. On this level, strength means everything. In his later speech, he said, “The ‘empire of lies’ … proceeds in its policy primarily from rough, direct force.”
He listed a series of wars ignited by the West after the Cold War — in Serbia, Iraq, Syria, Libya and so on, none of which had any basis in international law, nor authorisation from the United Nations. Amid liberalism’s noble slogans, every one of these conflicts led to massive fluxes of refugees and humanitarian catastrophes, causing the countries to degenerate into hotbeds for international terrorism and sink into the abyss of endless civil war.
The West does not even have to dirty its own hands. All it has to do is capitalise on the Ukrainians’ courage to fight to the death for their country, and provide them with lots of weapons.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the two-tier game of the West a few years ago in these words: “In a nutshell, ‘we are liberals, and we can do anything’. … [And the whole idea is] to proclaim the West and only the West as an indisputable source of legitimacy.”
From the realists’ point of view, the Ukraine war is a great opportunity for bringing Russia to ruin. The West does not even have to dirty its own hands. All it has to do is capitalise on the Ukrainians’ courage to fight to the death for their country, and provide them with lots of weapons.
Just as the Vietnam War and the war in Afghanistan had dragged down the US and the Soviet Union respectively, the Ukraine war can also do the same to Russia. However, America’s true strategic opponent is China. In order to prevent the Ukraine war from diverting its attention like the conflicts in the Middle East did, the US must do everything it can to strap China and Russia together, so that at least some of the “public anger” towards Russia would be vented on China too.
Like Russia, China is playing the surface game poorly, almost defenceless on that level. And because of this, both states have always been on the receiving end of the realist game, as illustrated by Russia’s predicament in the Ukraine war. With the disruption of liberalism, Russia may quite possibly mess up its own gameplay spectacularly despite the good cards it has got.
Rebuilding the liberal international order?
With the two-tier game being played, it is obvious that the liberal international order is defective. As Putin stated clearly that one of his main objectives of waging war against Ukraine is to change the rules of the game. In his speech on 24 February, he emphasised: “What I am saying now does not concern only Russia … This has to do with the entire system of international relations, and sometimes even US allies.” Had the West not previously promised (out of realist logic) that NATO would never expand eastward, and then gone on to drive the organisation’s five rounds of eastward expansion to satisfy the clamouring demands of liberalism, the Ukraine war of today would not have happened.
The high energy released by the solidarity of the West is also a warning for China to take heed. Neither Russia nor China is strong enough yet to change the rules of the international game.
China has always stressed that the West should take Russia’s “reasonable demands for security” seriously. Both China and Russia underscore the so-called “rules-based international order”, with the proviso that it should be grounded in the spirit and institutions of the Charter of the United Nations, not rules set by the West on its own.
France’s President Macron, for one, seems to have come to some awakening on this matter. Amid the clamour of the demonisation of Russia, he pointed out the need to “ensure that no country, no one is humiliated”. As he put it: “Russia and the Russian people should also be respected, and if Russia is not [part of] our continent's grand peace structure, there will be no lasting peace.”
But at least in the short term, the Ukraine war is a shot in the arm for liberalism, seemingly allowing this waning ideology to find a turning point, and its basic values to be affirmed once again. The shift in Germany’s new administration is particularly striking, as it declares that it will pivot away from Angela Merkel’s pragmatism and practise a “values-oriented foreign policy” instead, especially with regard to China.
The Ukraine war has united the Western countries, which now stand together to impose harsh sanctions on Russia like never seen before. This is probably a situation that Putin had not expected. The high energy released by the solidarity of the West is also a warning for China to take heed. Neither Russia nor China is strong enough yet to change the rules of the international game.
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