Charles Crawford CMG is a communication consultant who has drafted speeches for members of the Royal Family, Prime Ministers and other senior figures. He gives masterclasses in negotiation technique and public speaking / speechwriting. He is an expert on central Europe, having served as British Ambassador in Warsaw, Belgrade and Sarajevo.
“Yeah, things didn’t all work out according to the best scenario. No problem, we’ll press on. We’re prepared to shed as much blood as necessary on this, and they’re not.”
These lines describing Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine policy come from Meduza, an excellent source of independent Russian analysis and comment: an interview with Russian sociologist Grigory Yudin, whose gloomy predictions about Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the Kremlin’s response to Western sanctions have come true. Yudin argues that for Vladimir Putin and the people who surround him a state of war is now normal: “Stop thinking that peace is the natural state, and you’ll see the situation through their eyes.”
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The foundational assumptions of the modern ‘Western’ world can be presented as a range of simple principles variously articulated during the Enlightenment. They include a commitment to rationality; the consent of the governed; human freedom and human rights; limits on rulers’ power in constitutional checks and balances; the rule of law; and so on.
All of them in one way or the other derive from a moral worldview emerging from Europe’s long tradition of big ideas: from Aristotle’s virtue ethics through Emanuel Kant’s claim that moral rules can be deduced by reason and then pragmatic British Utilitarianism.
Where do Russia and especially its current leadership fit into this picture? What are their foundational assumptions?
They lie in a very different political-philosophical place. For most of its existence Russia has had autocratic if not despotic rule. Russia missed the Enlightenment and its focus on reason and accountability. Its leaders see their legitimacy as coming only from their struggle to advance Russia’s unique traditions and interests that are constantly menaced by jealous outside powers. Russia’s imperial Soul itself gives all the moral basis they need.
Russia’s greatness is so great in part exactly because it does not fall into puny categories of ethics and reasonable behaviour set by non-Russians. This approach reached giddy depths under Lenin and then Stalin. Destroy thousands of churches. Use famine as an instrument of policy. Mass deportations. Mass show-trials and executions. Commit stupendous war-crimes such as the Katyn massacres, then deliberately lie about them for decades. When it comes to war, do whatever it takes to win. Throw wave after wave of young Russian conscripts into battle, shooting anyone who turns round. Steal thousands of children.
For a few years after the Berlin Wall came down, Russia’s post-communist leaders including Vladimir Putin in his early years in power tried to accommodate themselves with the broad Western approach. But these deeper darker instincts have come back and if anything become more extreme in the past few years. Putin increasingly has fallen back towards Stalinist iconography and Soviet rhetoric. Human rights now count for nothing in Russia. Opposition to the war is effectively outlawed, down to persecution of the family of a young schoolgirl who made a pro-Ukraine drawing.
As Grigory Yudin puts it, Vladimir Putin produces a sense of “… monstrous, endless resentment. Nothing can mollify this resentment. It’s impossible to imagine what could compensate for it. It doesn’t allow people to think about establishing any kind of productive relationships with other countries.”
This focus on angry resentment leads to crazed threats of nuclear Armageddon regularly appearing on Russian TV channels. Yet it does strike a chord with many millions of ordinary Russians who scarcely are aware of any other way of thinking about the world. And it resonates in China, South Africa and other countries around the world, whose leaders enjoy the idea that it’s high time ‘the West’ was toppled from its sanctimonious perch.
Perhaps Putin is on to something in vaunting his account of Russia’s Greatness. Maybe there is something ‘great’ in committing open acts of astounding villainy (including against one’s own people) and being proud of them. In the idea that the usual tedious moral codes and sense of proportion and well-established norms of international law simply don’t apply. In the idea that there are no limits of any sort, other than those suggested by studied cynicism and opportunism. What if my greatness doesn’t fit into your feeble categories of greatness?
Putin not incorrectly calculates that when faced with the sheer sustained enormity of his policies, much of the world will stare intently at its shoes. Look what’s happened. Days after the International Criminal Court issues an arrest warrant for Putin’s arrest on various war crimes charges, Russia takes its turn to sit primly right at the top of global order chairing the UN Security Council. Business as usual. It’s all Western manipulation and propaganda! As usual, Western governments huff and puff about it but can do nothing. They look weak.
Insofar as Putin has a problem in grinding on with this war almost regardless of the cost in Russian lives and wealth, it is that the Ukrainian people know exactly what he’s up to. They too have had the same Soviet psychological training. They too can be ready to do whatever it takes to win and suffer the costs. Plus they are clever at playing on the deepest Russian insecurities, talking up the prospect of Russia disintegrating under the weight of its own contradictions and even boasting that Ukrainians are the ‘real’ Russians, ie the natural descendants of the historic Kyivan Rus that flourished from 880-1240.
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The Ukraine-Russia war drags on, slowly but surely getting more dangerous as Western weapons pour in and the Russian army suffers absurd losses but keeps grinding into battle anyway. None of us know what level of calamity it might take for some senior Russians to summon the courage to bring Putin down. But if he doesn't get toppled, he will keep going. As I wrote in my 2022 Insights piece soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one of the central tenets of Russia’s negotiation posture is this:
• We can take more pain that than you can imagine
• We can take more pain that you’re prepared to inflict
• Whatever you do to us, we’ll do worse to you
And so it’s proving.