One of the most salient topics in the news today is the war between Russia and Ukraine. Or perhaps I should call it the siege of Russia against Ukraine. Certainly, if Ukraine had its way, it would go back to its existence before the invasion by Russia. Ukraine was a peaceful country with a solid economy that marketed its agricultural products to countries all over the world. And notably to many countries in the Third World that simply don’t have the kind of soil needed to grow many food staples. But unfortunately, Ukraine can’t go back in the near future to what it was. It is estimated that it will cost Ukraine and the world one trillion dollars to rebuild the country. And there is no price tag that can be assigned to the trauma and suffering that the Ukrainian people have experienced. That will take generations to overcome. Even if Ukraine succeeds in pushing the Russians out of its territory and winning the conflict.
Putin has not tried to win this conflict in any conventional way, because early on, he came to the realization that he wasn’t going to be able to. Surprisingly for Putin, he discovered that he was not going to be able to roll over the Ukrainian army effortlessly and quickly take control of his neighbor. So instead, he decided he was going to punish the Ukrainian people for their resistance. In particular, he was going to aim many of his weapons on the civilian population. Many urban areas have been totally demolished. It is as if Putin wants to totally erase the existence of Ukraine as a political and cultural entity from the planet. Apart from physical destruction, Putin has kidnapped many Ukrainians, particularly children, so he can brainwash them and give them a new Russian identity. The question is why is Putin so intent on destroying the old Ukraine and making it a part of Russia in every way.
Many commentators have discussed the idea that Putin is trying to restore the old imperial Russia. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great look out. But if this is the case, why did Putin pick this particular moment in history to carry out his ambitious plan? Why precisely now?
For one thing, with the rise of China economically and militarily, Russia is no longer one of the two major powers competing against each other for influence among less powerful countries in the world. This has to be particularly irksome for Putin, because with Russia having all of the natural resources that it does have and being the largest country in terms of land area in the world – a country that spans 11 time zones – Putin feels that Russia should be treated with more respect than it actually receives. Russia is the second largest exporter of military equipment in the world, but its consumer goods are shoddy, so the kind of respect it receives is actually fear. Particularly because of its nuclear weapons program. It’s a negative respect rather than a positive respect. It’s a mediated respect rather than a close-up immediate warm respect. Most countries have no desire to be embraced by the Russian bear. So with its extensive military production and its shoddy consumer goods, Russia is left out in the cold in terms of the possibility of strong positive relationships with many other countries and particularly countries in the West. Now Russia does export non-agricultural raw materials and, in particular, a raw material that has been very important to its economy, namely oil. However, oil is not the kind of product that generates admiration among its customers. It is simply a raw material that Russia is lucky to have in large quantities. And yet with the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has succeeded in pushing the West away from purchasing its oil.
So where does this leave Russia and Putin? Major powers, particularly like to think that they have significant missions with regard to other countries in the world. A mission apart from that of inspiring fear because of the possible use of nuclear weapons. Up until fairly recently, Russia has lacked this mission. On its Western border, Russia confronts a defensive alliance that paradoxically has a very important mission in relation to it: an alliance whose purpose has been the protection of its members against an authoritarian regime that is against freedom. But now Russia is more than just an authoritarian regime. It is, according to Putin’s dream, a country that is going to restore a traditional empire that will give Russia not only positive respect from other countries but also a sense of pure glory in relation to them. A grounding of self-generated organic stimulation. Putin’s Russia has been stagnating in a direction-less, mission-less, experiential vacuum. Taking over Ukraine is merely the first step in rebuilding for Putin and for Russia a glorious empire that will pull both Putin and Russia out of the stagnation of a deep numbness.
© 2023 Laurence Mesirow