What the West Will Never Understand About Putin’s Ukraine Obsession

The way Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin propaganda talk about the countries Russia threatens—with Ukraine front and center—to invade, occupy, coerce and control tells the story of perhaps the unhappiest family in the world.

Reading Putin’s mind is in many ways a mug’s game, but can we parse something more fundamental about the deeper drives compelling the Kremlin’s behaviour from its language and social dynamics? What do they tell us about its motivations—and how to deal with them? It’s tempting to think about Moscow’s foreign policy as reducible to rational self-interest, a demand for “spheres of influence” articulated in the sober logic of security and realist international relations, but its language also hints at something more intermingled with the intimacies of family dynamics.
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Firstly, there’s the obsessive stalking of Kyiv, which is deified as the “mother of all Russian cities,” and then castigated either as a prostitute who has sold out to the West, or a sort of zombie-mummy, manipulated by “dark forces” who have turned her into a tool against Russia.

Then there’s the oft repeated definition of Ukrainians and Belarussians as Russians’ “younger Brothers,” a definition at once patronising and suffocating, with the insistence that all these different countries are actually “one people,” one mass destined to be locked forever in the communal apartment of the Russian state (of mind).

Thus to justify his annexation of Crimea and invasion of East Ukraine, Putin argued in 2014 that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people. Kiev is the Mother of Russian Cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other,” and then earlier this year described Ukraine as being turned into the “anti-Russia” by the West. As you fall into the sham world of Russian state media talks shows and trolling farms, memes and language become less sophisticated.

Though the references to ‘younger brothers’ and ‘mother Kyiv’ are age-old tropes embedded in Russian culture, a more recent innovation is the Russian Foreign Ministry’s depiction of countries who used to be in the USSR and Warsaw Pact as ‘orphaned’ by the end of the Cold War: as if Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic were lost urchins somehow pining for the return of Big Daddy Moscow.

These constant reference to family relationships make me wonder if there are other motives. Could psychoanalysis even be used as a tool for geopolitical analysis?

There’s some history to this approach. Henry Dicks, a British psychiatrist conducted extensive interviews with German prisoners of war who were selected to be representative of different social groups in Germany. Dicks was interested in identifying the root causes of Nazi ideology and the areas where they resonated with Germans.

I’ve been pouring over Dick’s archives for a new book on World War II propaganda, and asked the practicing psychoanalyst and University of London Professor of Literature Josh Cohen to help me make sense of them—and their relevance today with Russia.

Continue reading:Putin’s Fears

Dicks discovered that the dominant relationship among German soldiers and those who like the Nazis was one with abusive, authoritarian father figures. The child felt both humiliated and longing to be accepted. This led to an inability to feel autonomous and a need for leaders. A common side effect was to deify impossibly ideal mother figures and to attack women who did not live up. To deal with this feeling of inadequacy, irrational spurts were used to attack. Interestingly Dicks saw the Nazi insistence on a ‘Lebensraum’, the vast territories in Ukraine and Eastern Europe the Nazis claimed as theirs, partly as a compensation for this cycle of frustrated recognition and humiliation: a geopolitical demand born not merely out of ‘rational self interest’, but out of irrational ‘secondary narcissism’

“If primary narcissism is structural and necessary,” explains Cohen, “is basically our investment in our own self-preservation, secondary narcissism involves specific character traits and habits—vanity, self-inflation, superiority, all of course masking an underlying fear of one’s own inadequacy.”

One doesn’t need to be a psychoanalyst to notice how Russian popular culture circles around simultaneous adoration and fear of authoritarian father figures: Stalin, Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible especially, all of whom not only both glorified the state while abusing its people, but also, literally killed (Ivan), or were involved in killing (Stalin and Peter) their own offspring. When Russian state TV launched a vote to define history’s “Greatest Russians,” back in the still supposedly pro-Western era of 2008, Stalin was coming top until a late, potentially orchestrated surge put the near mythical, pre-medieval figure of Alexander Nevsky top.

Two Russian women Olga (L) and her daugh
Andrei Smirnov —AFP/Getty ImagesOlga and Nadia, two Russian women (L to R), are watching Vladimir Putin take questions in a Shcherbika-style town-hall session. It was televised nationally on December 4. 2008. Putin said that Russia’s next presidential election would not be scheduled for 2012.

There are daily humiliations in the Russian system, along with the love/fear relationship that fathers can have with their abusive children. In the first decade of Putin’s era in Moscow, there were many humiliations that the average person faced. On streets corners, traffic officers charged people with inventing violations and demanded bribes. At work, bosses were known to shout at subordinates and make it a habit to curse at them. On the roads, ordinary citizens were trapped in traffic. The wealthy and connected were able to use government sirens to speed down the road, reinforcing their sense of insignificance. And when one finally got home, full of burning resentment at the system, the TV would repeat “America is humiliating Russia, stopping it from rising from its knees.” The burning resentment would be sublimated onto evil foreigners.

Continue reading:Navalny urges Biden to stand up to Putin

The TV would also often reiterate the well-worn trope of how Russians needed a “strong hand” to guide them, a disciplinarian that protects and punishes. Putin is described in this way often. His propaganda machine elevates him to the status of father-leader, and the entire panoply macho images depicting the President riding bare-chested, on horses.

“It’s hard not to think of ‘the second time as farce’ when relating this to Putin” says Cohen. “It’s as though all these categories like ego weakness and secondary narcissism resurface today, but with a nudge and wink. With Putin there’s the kitsch, the shirtless photographs… What is interesting is that this doesn’t make him any less dangerous, and in a certain way makes him more so.”

In 2012 after Putin returned to the Presidency and following protests demanding an end of authoritarianism, humiliation daily from officials and an end the dictatorship that characterized the Putin-Leader movement, this propaganda was rampant. The state-supported support of outbursts against minorities has also grown, as laws legalizing domestic violence against women were passed.

Greater domestic oppression synced with the invasion of Ukraine and further augmented the widespread sense that Russia, already the world’s largest country, deserves territory far beyond its gargantuan reach. This sense of fluid borders ranges from the far-right fantasies about an Eurasian Empire from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, to the more common “Russo-sphere.” In Russia’s case the term “sphere of influence” doesn’t only denote something hard and defined, which can be hammered out with other “great powers” in some grand new geopolitical deal, but something that swells and swings with the pistons of suppressed resentment and emotional dynamics.

What does this mean in practice for dealing with Putin’s Russia?

Official diplomacy should be limited in its expectations that any kind of deal will magically solve the problems. Russia will not, as Biden’s National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan hoped, be “parked.” The Kremlin needs to permanently keep the attention of a superpower to validate itself. Whether this entails gobbling up half of Ukraine along the way I don’t know, but even if it does the appetite will only increase and not be sated.

But while the thing once known as the West looks for the diplomatic tools to restrain Russian aggression today, we need to start thinking how to help address the deeper anxieties and traumas that pervade Russian society and culture, and which the Kremlin’s propaganda exploits. Submerged topics are brought into the public sphere to be discussed and finally overcome.

At its most fundamental level, the US and Western leaders are failing to communicate with the Russians. Despite internal Kremlin propaganda referring to NATO’s threat, none of the politicians has reached out directly to Russian citizens. In the Cold War Margaret Thatcher, who famously appeared on Soviet television to debate and defeat their current affairs broadcasters, was much more successful at this. It was difficult to get in touch with Russians back then because they were subjected to censorship. However, social media makes it infinitely easier for them today.

Vasily Gatov, a Russian media analyst, suggested that these communicators be people that a wide array of Russians would respect and pay attention, even though they may not agree with them. Perhaps former security officers and Generals could fill the role.

Beyond such basic political engagement, there’s the deeper public diplomacy that would initiate a conversation with ordinary Russians about how they see the country’s future place in the world. Many Russians want to live in a country that isn’t subjected to the same oppression and violence. Dicks studied German POWs and found that they were not all beholden the Nazi psychic seesaw of humiliation and bullying. These other groups were he believed would rebuild Germany following the war.

There are many Russians—artists, academics, film-makers—who already do a great job of excavating the Russian unconscious. Many of them are not given much support from their government and have even had to flee the country. To support them, there should be an independent transatlantic fund. Also, we must think of the future generations and set up a Russian language university for critical inquiry.

These may seem to be long-term measures, but they are not the best options for an immediate crisis. The root causes of the crisis lie deep. Many Americans are still unsure if they offended Kremlin elites during the 1990s. It is equally important to note how the Americans stopped listening and communicating with Russians. Now is the time to get started.


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