Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine has untold impact on countless lives and on the future security and stability of human civilisation. What to say?
Let’s start with the nature of decision-making. Much has been made of Putin’s shift from cool-headed strategist to Napoleonic visionary, and I confess that I saw nothing in the evolution of Putin’s behaviour that suggested anything other than a rational actor. A brutal, ruthless one, yes, but a man with Realpolitik at the service of what he perceived to be the Russian national interest.
No longer, it seems. Putin’s 2018 comment, ‘Why do we need a world without Russia in it?’ has a lot of people thinking that he’s shifted his country’s Overton window so far that it’s looking out on to a nuclear wasteland. All leaders are rational actors within their own frame of reference, but if the norms against which that is measured are rooted solely within an individual’s distorted intuition and not in a wider standard, then we’re into very dangerous territory.
There’s little to be done to shift the irrational actor from their course, but let’s hope that Putin still has the capacity to recalibrate. If so, then the first problem is that he’s up to his neck in groupthink.
A leader taking bad decisions needs a team of advisors empowered to offer ‘truth to power’, ‘loyal dissent’, ‘reasonable challenge‘. Otherwise, groupthink beds down, runs on rails and leads, in all likelihood, to the worst possible outcomes. Look at the cowed nature of the bizarre Russian National Security Council meeting on 21 February, and how a unitary public narrative has percolated the credulousness of a population that knows no different.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on the majority of Russians who have been force fed the government’s narrative and believe it. It’s not unusual for people to believe half-a-dozen incredible (in the literal meaning of the word) things before breakfast. Add in a few authority figures, state-controlled media channels and the criminalisation of dissenting views, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that people take the path of least resistance and believe what they want to hear.
We should also be honest and reflective in recognising that NATO enlargement did little to assuage Russian suspicion of the West; and that the appalling experience of the 1990s cemented in the minds of many Russians the image of Vladimir Putin as the man who restored the country’s stability and dignity. But while not all of the Russian public is Z-supporting – and we’ve seen some extraordinary displays of defiance – there is still a degree of complicity that licences Putin to do his worst in Ukraine.
It is remarkable, though, that anyone would believe Russia’s de-Nazification narrative – arguably the most egregious manifestation of Godwin’s Law yet recorded. But if lying is the norm, why not lie big? And so, Sergei Lavrov: ‘The goal of Russia’s special military operation is to stop any war that could take place on Ukrainian territory or that could start from there’; and ‘We do not plan to attack other countries; we did not attack Ukraine either’.
Groupthink, the natural mindset of autocrats, leads them to make mistakes, which in turn can lead to failure. We’ve seen some signs of that in Ukraine. Do we want dictators to let in diverse views which could lead to success? In the case of Ukraine, we would perhaps have been spared the current tragedy if Putin had done so. But even if he were now to listen to other, dissenting voices, ‘success’ (from a Russian perspective) has become a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Success, from everybody else’s perspective, is a peaceful, independent, free and democratic Ukraine.
Importantly, Putin’s personal worldview seems to centre on monoculturalism. He sees Russian culture – or at least his particular perspective on what that comprises – as something exclusive. He scorns Western ideas of diversity and inclusion. He has no concept of the immense strength of bringing everyone to the table and benefiting from their skills and strengths. It’s a vision that guarantees a kind of national groupthink, in perpetuity. Ironically, the one area in which he wishes to be inclusive – bringing Ukraine into the current Russian model – is repudiated by those at whom it is aimed.
One of the great tragedies of this situation is that Russia is a great culture, and a great people, traduced by its poor leadership. A while back, I asked someone from another, similarly benighted country about its failure to meet its immense potential. ‘Great country,’ she said. ‘Terrible leaders’.
The title for this blog comes from Sir Michael Tippett’s oratorio, A Child of our Time, concerning another monstrous event in human history, Kristallnacht. Tippett quotes TS Elliot in his score: ‘The darkness declares the glory of light’. It’s as true today as ever it was. But current events put me in mind of another choral masterpiece, Dmitri Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, which sets five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The first, and the one that gives the symphony its name, is Babi Yar, concerning the Second World War massacres in the ravine of that name on the edge of Kyiv, and the horrors of anti-semitism.
There is much from the poem that I could quote here, but the following, referring to the darker side of Russian history, probably suffices:
‘O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in the name of hatred.’
Among the many who were murdered in Babi Yar were the Dynamo Kyiv footballers who refused to throw results when told to do so by the occupying Nazis. This story tells us that the Ukrainians are a people accustomed to resisting tyranny, based on immense reserves of moral courage (Anatoly Kuznetsov’s classic documentary novel on the events at Babi Yar offers a more complete account).
Over and above the horrors on the ground, the Ukraine crisis has yielded one major change, perhaps for the better. We now see Vladimir Putin. We know what he’s really about.
And that in turn means that we must remind ourselves what we – those of us who live in liberal democracies – are about.
Whatever the flaws in our own system – and there are many – it’s better to live in a society where you can criticise your leaders, where we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and where we prize diversity over monoculture. We must look to what is good in our model, rekindle it where it has faded, build afresh where we have more to do, replace self-interest with generosity of spirit. Most of the global response to the Ukraine crisis suggests that this is possible.
To preserve all the things that we value, though, a certain toughness is required. We have not only to be clear on our values, but also able to defend them. Not only should we go high when they go low; we have also to speak softly, and carry a big stick.
7 thoughts on “The World Turns on its Dark Side”
Thank you Roger. You say “speak softly and carry a big stick” but don’t mention what actions might be appropriate. Is that your next blog?
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Maybe it should be, though I’ve planned something else. But in short, it was great to get a peace dividend at the end of the Cold War, but we need to look afresh at how to keep our way of life safe from authoritarian competitors and devote appropriate resources to that effort. That doesn’t necessarily mean a massive uptick in military capability, but it certainly means more pessimism rather than optimism, and some pain from lessening energy dependency on others.
And maybe more decentralisation of finance in order for the West to leverage to maximum advantage the diversity associated with democratic societies?
Remember our crypto/blockchain conversation ?
Outside my area of expertise, I’m afraid, so bow to your superior knowledge!
Interesting and well-put.
There are two concepts which resonate powerfully in Russia, particularly amongst the older generation. The idea of Great Russia, dating back to well before Soviet times. Many older Russians genuinely didn’t understand why the SSRs wanted to become independent, or believed that they should be allowed to. And then there is the lingering belief in the strong leader. This was perhaps fed by the chaos of the Yeltsin years, but I do remember one Russian in particular who, when she wanted to denigrate an opposition politician (there were some, when I lived in Moscow) would say, “Oh, he’s just another Gorbachev.” That was not meant as a complement.
Someone wrote recently that Russia and the UK were startlingly similar in one way. They are both former world powers that have lost their empires, and find it difficult to accept their military weakness and loss of influence in the world. You may counter that with its nuclear arsenal, Russia is hardly militarily weak, but I’d point to an affinity between the Russian nuclear arsenal and the UK strategic deterrent. They are in practice both fig leaves disguising the fact that beneath them there is no real muscle – either in terms of hard or soft power.
Quite where that leaves us I don’t know. It’s pretty clear that Putin has miscalculated in Ukraine, although that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t prevail in the end. But what will happen if he doesn’t? He’s not a man who can afford to be seen to lose.
Thanks, Richard. Very helpful insights. I became more and more aware of the UK/Russia parallel as I wrote the piece, and while Brexit is an act of self-harm rather than a foreign adventure, it’s still a reflex reaction to Britain’s post-imperial loss of status in the world. But I was also conscious that I was supposed to be writing about Russia/Ukraine, so stopped myself going down that track. Maybe a future blog.
And totally understand the Gorbachev story. Though he’s seen in a positive light in the West, he certainly isn’t in Russia!
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