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Understanding the political psychology of the Russia-Ukraine war


The Siberian playwrights the Presnyakov Brothers authored a play called "Terrorism", which reflects a series of post-Soviet themes of paranoia, confusion and disorganisation about bureaucracy and government in Russia and the other post-Soviet states. In the play, there is a bomb at the airport. At least, so it is said. Everyone believes this and discusses it, although you cannot find any official report and no newspaper or government press release covers the issue. People who go to the airport find that there is no information. There is just a single guard who says that he has no information about the situation at the airport. Therefore it is necessary to wait at the airport; although there is no information provided about why it is necessary to wait; nobody will say that there is a bomb at the airport; there is no information about how long the wait is necessary; and nobody will admit that there are no aeroplanes flying. The entire play manages to proceed without anyone mentioning the central tenet of the play, namely that there is a bomb at the airport. Nobody ever defuses the bomb, the officials occasionally change but they all continue to have no information, and the imagined aeroplane never appears and never takes off.



This Russian version of "Waiting for Godot" captures the uniquely Soviet trait of paranoia even about the possession of information or knowledge about something. One expression you will hear in the East that one never hears in the west is that it can be downright foolish to read the newspapers or look at the media, because you never know what you might find out and this could be extremely bad for you. In an environment with so absurd an aversion to accurate knowledge, private gossip becomes rampant. The bomb, in the interim, is an allusion to unknown government action with unknown purposes that will have an indeterminate duration, in response to which, because nobody knows what it is about and it may be a cardinal Soviet sin just to think about an issue, everyone's reaction patterns are subject to seizure. Nobody does anything, whether officials or members of the general. public, because they have received no official notifications and therefore it is as though events have not been happening. This propensity in post-Soviet states to ignore the glaringly obvious as a result of paranoia about knowledge is one of the most curious features of Soviet thinking. Until you can start thinking at least a little bit like this, it is common that nothing in Russia or her CIS satellites makes much sense.

The theme of mysterious bombs that nobody can precisely say anything about is a common theme in the politics of the entire CIS region. Airports can have bombs; so can schools, universities, theatres, hotels, railway stations, government buildings, military barracks and all sorts of other public institutions. In these allusions, nothing explodes; nobody can necessarily say exactly where the bomb is, who planted it, or why. These are genuine political rumours that this author has come across repeatedly. They are allusions to other things that may be going on, and that people dare not talk about or even think about. A bomb in the airport is probably an allusion to a political instruction that travel is not allowed for some entirely ulterior reason; when the bomb has been removed from the airport then the authorities are once again permitting travel. A bomb in the hotel might be a reference to foreigners being banned. A bomb in a theatre might mean that socialising is officially discouraged. A bomb in a university or school might suggest that the schools have been closed because the propagation of seditious information by liberal academics is being suppressed. And so on and so forth. The bomb is an allegory for some sort of real or imagined governmental action to preserve internal order, often the actions of an internal security agency. But nobody is allowed even to think that such measures might be undertaken. That is why the bomb is so mysterious and open-ended as a security threat, similar to conceptions of inchoate terrorist threats in the West.



The Ukrainians have been trying to unlearn these sorts of Soviet lessons, stretching out to the West not just for political support but for imagined cultural nourishment in rethinking the way they live. Nevertheless their conception of government and its impact upon their lives continues to follow Soviet grooves, and in this way the Ukrainians are every bit as bad as the Russians. If you hear Ukrainians making preposterous political claims not based upon evidence, it may be that in their minds there is a bomb at the airport. Often their political culture only superficially resembles that of the West they often aspire towards, in thinking of Russia as a dangerous dark horse and Westphalian states as an imagined paradise in which there are no bombs at airports and hence you can chant any slogan and adopt any point of view, no matter how unhinged or unconnected with reality, because that is how they see Western political culture and this is what they are mimicking. Ultimately Ukraine is a nation of political actors, which is why they have a political actor as their President replete with sweeping political imagery that he projects to western countries, in each case copying those countries' historical political themes but without realising that each of those themes is the product of painful collective histories and cannot just be borrowed off the shelf. That is why the Ukrainian President appears to much of the West as rather fake. Deep down in his heart, there is a bomb at the airport; and he's just filling in the gaps using the West's borrowed imagination.

The Presnyakov Brothers aimed to explain how to capture in the popular mindset a sense of crisis - in their case, terrorism (where there was in fact no act of terrorism, or none that anyone would even identify) that would create political stasis. That is what we are seeing in both Russia and Ukraine. Perusal of the Russian and Ukrainian media presents extremely different visions of what is happening in Ukraine, and to manage the crisis on our doorsteps we in the West must come to learn that we are being deceived by both of them as well as appreciating that there are elements of truth in both of them. The war on both sides has reached a sort of stasis, based around popular political conceptions of crisis and a deeply held conviction, in both post-Soviet societies, that in the face of inchoate crisis there is fundamentally nothing that anybody can really do. Some of the hidden details of this war, not being openly expressed in the regional media, include the following: 1. The war has ground to a halt in many regions. 2. The war is being taken in stages. 3. The underlying dynamic, which is a battle between Moscow and Ukraine's forever errant oligarchs, is being more or less completely hidden from everyone. 4. Nobody seems to understand what Moscow's objectives are in pursuing her "special military operation"; indeed nobody even seems to understand what this phrase means. 5. Nobody is complaining about the domestic shortages in Russia caused by the onset of war (at least not publicly). 6. A number of Russian journalists in Ukraine are dying. (The number is really rather abnormally high.) 7. Zelenskiy's posturing as a political actor carries so little apparent weight outside Kyiv. He is a one-man show, not least because he represents just one of the several Ukrainian oligarchs (Igor Kolomoisky). 8. Western journalists, at a loss as to explain why the war is even taking place, have taken to elaborating grand and inconceivable plans on the part of the Kremlin to try to explain Russia's strategy and intentions when in truth Russia has no set strategy and intentions. 9. Neither does Ukraine, that has failed to form any strategic goals save to keep some fighting going somewhere in the proximity of Kyiv, so that her news machine may continue to feed atrocities and successes by the vastly overwhelmed Ukrainian armed forces to a western media that for nor remains hungry for stories but that, the Ukrainians know, may sooner or later reach a state of war fatigue. The Russia-Ukraine war is, if not at a stand-off, deeply bogged down in the mud. The Ukrainian narrative is that this is due to the plucky Ukrainian fighters facing down the overwhelming armed forces of their bigger brother. But the better explanation is that there is a bomb at the airport. Nobody is quite sure what they are fighting for anymore, or why they began, or why Russia amassed troops, or why they invaded, or why Ukraine did not just immediately accede to Russia's principal demand (namely that Ukraine remains neutral without foreign troops and does not join NATO, something that their President Zelensiky has since conceded within the first three weeks of the conflict). In the interim the West has no real idea how to solve this war, which nobody wants to concede has actually only just begun. The problem with a behemoth as large as the Russian Army (or even an organisation as large as the Ukrainian Army, which at some 200,000 troops is more than twice the size of the British Army) is that once it has rumbled into action, with all its wheels and cogs turning and intermeshing each with the other, it becomes a bureaucracy with a life of its own even though its final direction becomes so hard to divine. This has a number of consequences for any attempt to bring the war to a conclusion. Relentless application of pressure upon Russia will not work; she has vast resources and she is able to withstand any levels of pressure. Her history has shown that she is entirely capable of operating as an autarchy. The population of Russia, uncertain as to precisely what is happening, will nonetheless merely bunker down and wait to see what happens, suffering through more difficult domestic conditions as a consequence of the international crisis that understand to be underway. Ukraine will continue a strategy of noisy defence, based around public relations battles and political theatre far more than actual warfare (a situation in which they are obviously in an inferior position by reason of their smaller size). Each side will continue to bleat impossible demands of their opponents; Russia will demand unconditional surrender while Ukraine will require unconditional withdrawal, both such scenarios impossible and even silly and in respect of which there is obviously no logical middle ground. Ultimately the war will grind to a complete halt; virtually all wars do. At that stage, peacemaking will be the product of painstaking work to create into legal agreements the status quo on the ground moderated by the language of diplomacy, human rights and civil reconstruction. One thing this author has learned from his observations of civil conflicts around the world is that wars are virtually always fought for a reason; and that reason is territory. So once the active aspects of the war have quietened down and new territorial lines and means of interaction between the parties can be observed, then it is time for the peacemakers to intervene and document in positive terms the negative destruction the parties have enacted upon the contested territory through their theatre of the absurd. The point of the Presnyakov Brothers' play, of course, is that there was no bomb at the airport; and there was no act of terrorism that justified the unusual measures and restrictions that nobody ever understood. Nevertheless the true terrorism - which was inside people's minds - generated indefinite inertia, suffering, inconvenience and bureaucratic mindlessness. And this disease of people's collective minds, locked into a paranoid way of thinking in which people are afraid even to think in a way that might be considered unorthodox, stretches out the human misery and suffering for far longer than is necessary. The people who think in this way live right on Europe's doorstep; and perhaps the most demanding political challenge is to help redirect their political spirits from one of communist paranoia to open and liberal democracy in which public debates over what is politically true as opposed to politically false are the best catalysts of economic and political reform.