Understanding the Russian Invasion of Ukraine: Four Analytical Lenses
For many in the European Union, war has unexpectedly come very close and is creating new links in thought: the question of how we want to live and thus which domestic social order is desirable is now much closer connected to the way we perceive international order – and its violently erupting challenges. Social cohesion, on the one hand, and world order, on the other, are more clearly interrelated then we thought. Just a few weeks ago elections were still impacted almost exclusively by domestic issues rather than foreign policy questions. Accordingly, the European public is currently exercising unfamiliar perspectives and hitherto neglected attentions. So, the question is: What do social sciences in general and the field of international relations in particular have to offer to make sense of this situation?
llustration: die superpixel
It is not at all clear which perspective is the most appropriate and adequate to understand what is going on in the world. In the field of international politics, values are even less likely to be shared among all of us, and even facts are highly contested. This is even true in the case at hand. However unequivocal the condemnation of Russian aggression against Ukraine may be, what we see in the developments first and foremost is how much effort it takes to reach any common understanding of the situation – even more so for an understanding that is decisive enough to take action in one way or the other. In the following, I will present four analytical lenses through which the war in Eastern Europe can be viewed when focusing on its geopolitical and security terms. We can analyse the situation on the ground and speculate about the outcome of the war, or we can search for answers to the question whether or not Vladimir Putin will stay in power. But if we do not look at the broader scenario in space and time, we hardly get the real meaning of this conflict. From my disciplinary background, I see at least four lenses to look at such a conflict: (1) the logic of great power competition, (2) the Russian paranoia of the enemy »next door«, (3) the perception smaller neighbouring states have of the actions of Russia, and (4) the lack of understanding of each other’s histories and psychologies by US and Russian leaderships.
The Logic of Great Power Competition
The first lens is the logic of great power competition, in which the United States, China, and Russia, as imperial powers with their own political cultures, compete to extend their influence overseas. In the United States, there is the idea of manifest destiny, which may lead to the ambition to exercise a hegemonic function in the international system, while in Russia it is the Orthodox vision of the society, promoted by Patriarch Kirill and philosopher Alexander Dugin, which is opposed to the liberal values of the so-called West. In China, the vision of the deep-rooted and long-lasting capacity to steer global affairs inscribed into the Belt and Road Initiative plays a similar role as a driving ideology.
What US, Russian, and Chinese policy-makers have in common is a sort of imperial mindset, but the ways they pursue their own interests are different. China expands its influence through economic infiltration, Russia through its military power, and the United States combines both. The US government uses the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to maintain influence over Europe, and especially to deter Russia, a historical competitor of the United States, from launching large-scale conventional wars. In the Pacific region, the US government has established security agreements with countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam while promoting investment and trade agreements. The security pact Aukus – which includes United States, United Kingdom, and Australia – was also established with the aim to counter China’s ambitions.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Warsaw Treaty was followed by a period (1991–2004) in which Russia was not strong enough to counterbalance US influence in Europe. Therefore, many post-socialist countries in Eastern Europe could join the Atlantic alliance without a strong, maybe even violent, reaction from Russia. Eastern European countries did not join NATO because of pressure from the United States, but because they wanted to avoid being absorbed into a new »collective East«. This is the case for the Visegrád states (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia), as well as for the Baltic states, Romania, and Bulgaria. As soon as Putin could consolidate his power, Russia became more aggressive, and its imperial footprint remerged, as was seen in Georgia in 2008, responding to the United States with the only power Russia has at its disposal: the military. Then, there was the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015, and there has been deployment of Russian air forces and private contractors in Libya since 2015. The situation deteriorated further with the Russian interference in the US presidential elections in 2016 and 2020, the accusation by the US administration of cyberattacks by Russia against US political parties, companies, and critical infrastructures, and the withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, in which following the foreign ministry of Ukraine stated that it now had the right to develop intermediate-range missiles.
It is nothing new in the scholarship, but we should not forget that we live in a world in which the United States, China, and Russia are three of the five permanent members (with veto powers) of what was born in 1945 as a guarantee of the post–World War II world order and of collective security: the United Nations. Whether or not it works is another story, but we should remember that these states are the three key players in world affairs and global security. They compete with each other, sometimes at the expense of smaller states.
In this case, the ramifications of such competition are global, and they may fuel conflicts and tensions in many parts of the world. Referring to consequences of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, AGCO chief executive Eric Hansotia participated in a CNBC interview, on 25 March, in which he mentioned that »13% of the global calories came out of production. This is a really big deal, because when that volume of calories comes out of the food chain, it triggers other things. Not only hunger, but unrest. The last time we had this kind of disruption, it was one of the major triggers for the Arab Spring«. Moreover, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are the main producers of fertilizers in the world. Belarus and Russia are now under severe sanctions, while Ukraine faces significant disruption of its supply chain.
In time of rising energy and food prices, the Russia-Ukraine war could trigger new unrest and instability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In 1973/74, the oil shock caused an price increase of 300%. Today, the world oil price has risen by 100% in a few months. The world gas price rose by 400% in about a year. The Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, met with the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Emir of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed, to discuss the consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war on energy, market stability, and food security. Ukraine and Russia produce 25% of the global demand of wheat, while Egypt imports 80% of its supply from them. The last G7 meeting focused on the need to act to avoid a global food crisis that would more likely affect Africa and Latin America (i.e. Brazil) than Europe, all in the era of climate change.
However, it would be a mistake to limit the understanding of the Russian invasion of Ukraine just to the great power competition.
The Russian Paranoia of the Enemy »Next Door«
This brings us to the second lens: the strike-first attitude. The fear of the Russian leadership of threats from abroad has forced the Kremlin time and time again to take offensive actions. It is a fact that Russia was attacked by foreign countries in the past: from the Napoleonic wars in 1812 to the attempts of counter-revolution in 1917 to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. For Putin, these facts are the historical bedrock to fear security threats coming from the West, endangering Russian society and its values. Therefore, a »national security state« to preserve internal stability is needed as much as an aggressive foreign policy before the enemy, whoever that is, reaches the territory of the Russian Federation, putting in danger Russia’s historical greatness. In Putin’s mind, the historical facts abovementioned justify the imperial attitude of the Russian Federation, resulting in military occupations, the spread of Russian propaganda, exerted economic pressure, and undertaken cyberattacks. These make up the so-called hybrid threats – which are used against not only European countries but also states throughout the world.
The Perception of Smaller Neighbouring States
But how do the victims react and perceive the actions of Russia as a great power? The third lens is to look at the current war through the eyes of a Lithuanian, a Finn, a Ukrainian, a Pole, or a Georgian – just to mention a few. What is the perception of the people and governments of smaller states regarding the Russian Federation’s actions under Putin’s presidency? The ongoing conflict in Ukraine should be seen through their perspectives as well.
All those countries who suffered Russian tsarist and/or Soviet interference have their own reasons to fear Putin’s Russia. They remember the partition of Poland and partial occupation of Finland in 1939, the repression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution by the Soviet army, to the more recent devastating cyberattack against Estonia in 2007, occurred after the government’s decision to remove a Soviet war monument from Tallinn. I already mentioned Georgia in 2008, the partial occupation of the Donbass, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Then there are provocations like the unwelcome presence of »unknown« submarines in Finnish waters or the appearance of Russian bombers in Swedish air space. I should mention that Finland and Sweden are not even in NATO. By looking at these facts, it is not surprising, but rather understandable, that the wish of these people and governments in establishing security guarantees looks westwards.
The Lack of Understanding between US and Russian Leaderships
The fourth lens to look at the Russia-Ukraine war was explained very well by Henry Kissinger in March 2014, when he wrote, »Putin is a serious strategist. Understanding U.S. values and psychology are not his strong suits. Nor has understanding Russian history and psychology been a strong point of U.S. policymakers.« This is the fundamental problem: the lack of understanding of each other’s historical national interests in the respective leaderships.
In 2007, the Russian government created the Russkiy Mir Foundation. Scholars are divided on its purpose. Some consider the promotion of the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) concept as an instrument of soft power, whereas others consider it to be a political manifestation of the will to reverse prestige lost by Russia after 1991. In any case, this is a government-sponsored foundation promoting the idea of a Russian world based on Russian Orthodox and Slavophile tendencies. Its creation is emblematic of the ambitions and aspirations of Putin. One year later, Russian armed forces attacked Georgia.
In many occasions over the years, Putin has used an imperialist rhetoric, defining Russian borders as endless or showing admiration for Emperor Peter the Great. It does not make sense to list them all here. What is important is that his propaganda has been followed by actions. The annexation of foreign territories like Crimea in 2014 or the fuelling of Russophile separatist sentiments such as in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia or in Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine were the results of the perceived and promulgated Russian history and psychology, which has been met with a lack of understanding by the West.
The religious component is always present and often labelled as pure propaganda. Putin is backed up by Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2018, the archbishop of Constantinople granted Ukraine’s wish for a church independent of Moscow, refusing to support Putin’s view of »Greater Russia«. This resulted in the 2018 Moscow–Constantinople schism.
In a previous article I published on Visegrad Insight, I mentioned that, in 2019, Putin accused the Ukrainian government of destroying the lives of Orthodox people in Ukraine because of the Autocephaly (independence) of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, warning of possible retaliations. In July 2021, Putin’s essay entitled »On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians« was met with silence. References to Orthodoxy are in several paragraphs. Dimitri Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, echoed Putin’s ambitions regarding Ukraine in October 2021, giving five reasons why it was »meaningless« to keep talking with the Ukrainian government. US intelligence services warned about a large-scale invasion in November 2021, but the Europeans did not believe it.
Therefore, if we look at Russian history and psychology, the ongoing aggression against Ukraine is in line with Russia’s historical national interest of rejecting and disrupting the fundamental values on which the Euro-Atlantic community was built on since 1949 and to which Russia’s most important neighbour, Ukraine, is getting closer since 2014. The pillars of Western democracies (i.e. free elections, freedom of press, rule of law, human rights, etc.) are perceived by the Russian leadership as incompatible with the ones of the Russian society. Putin’s use of the term »de-Nazification« as a goal of the invasion is part of a process that as a first step has an explicit military component (the »special military operation«). Following this may be censorship, (re)education of younger generations, perhaps a ban of the local language, or even a name change of the country in question. It seems hard to believe that the Russian armed forces will be able to conquer all of Ukraine. However, the fact that the »de-Nazification« of Ukraine includes cultural, historical, educational, and political elements is in line with Putin´s essay published in July 2021, and it shows that the Russian aggression against Ukraine is not only a geopolitical and security matter. Rather, it is the latest result of socio-historical processes and circumstances typical of an imperial power committed to domination over reconciliation, while its counterbalance (the United States) relied for years on diminishing Vladimir Putin as its policy. I am afraid, a pretext for the absence of one.
The shift of Ukraine westward was thus perceived by Putin’s Russia as a threat to the values and interests the Russian society is based on. A total of 83 per cent of Russians in Russia support their president and his actions. It is creation of a strategic culture arising from Russia’s geography, history, and imperial narrative. For the Russians, Kiev is where Russian history was born. Therefore, the 2014 Maidan revolution not only resulted in the possibility of Ukraine to join NATO, but also jeopardized Russian historical and cultural heritage as being considered incompatible and opposed to the West.
The signs of a large-scale invasion of Ukraine have been apparent, at least since 2019, but we did not understand them, or we did not want to see them. We believed that »Pax Europaea« would have been forever, or we used the wrong lens to look at Putin’s »Pax Russica«. George Kannan somehow predicted that in 1997. In his diaries, written during the time of NATO expansion eastwards, he warned of an emerging new Cold War following the decision of the Bill Clinton administration to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in the Atlantic alliance, expecting a strong militarization of Russia due to the perspective of country’s leadership of an incoming danger from the West.
The war in Ukraine can be seen in different ways:
- As the latest stage of a great power competition in which the US and Russia as imperial powers compete, at the expense of smaller third parties (Ukraine in this case);
- Through Putin’s strike-first attitude, deriving from the fear, even paranoia, of threats from abroad and forcing the Kremlin to take offensive actions before threats reach the territory of the Russian Federation;
- Through the eyes of the smaller Eastern European states forced to seek security guarantees from the West after the Cold War due to a historically aggressive Russia; or
- As a new episode of the long-term misunderstanding by US and Russian leaderships of each other’s interests, histories, and psychologies, leading to mutual incomprehension and poor decision-making.
Paolo Zucconi is a research fellow at the Research Institute Social Cohesion, affiliate researcher at the Leibniz Institute for History and Culture of Eastern Europe, and research associate at the Institute of Middle East, Central Asia and Caucasus Studies. He is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School Global and Area Studies at Leipzig University.