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Ukraine: Next act in Putin’s empire of humiliation

Putin’s manipulation of the cycle of humiliation and aggression is integral to his psychological grip over Russia. This may seem like legislating to criminalise opposition to the war while also appealing for solidarity in the fight against the West

Ukraine: Next act in Putin’s empire of humiliation
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To humiliate people is to exploit your power over them, making them feel worthless and dependent on you. It is clear, then, that the Russian military seems intent on humiliating Ukrainians, taking away their right to independence and their right to make their own decisions. This war is an act of imperialism, a colonial war meant to destroy another nation’s right to exist and to subjugate it. But it is not empire building in the sense of a coldly considered plan for territorial gain and economic resources; it is the next act of Vladimir Putin’s empire of humiliation.

Russia’s president would have the world believe his country is guided by unifying ideas of cultural pride and conservative values, exceptionalism and splendid isolation. But in reality, Putin’s Russia has no coherent ideology; it’s just a mess of contradictions: It is Soviet nostalgia and a cultural arrogance that glorifies the Russian empire; it is a Russian ethnic and Christian Orthodox superiority that sits uncomfortably with what is supposed to be pride in being a patchwork of ethnicities and faiths.

Russia is a bastion of conservative values that has some of the world’s highest rates of divorce, and its soundtrack is a Kremlin TV that amplifies any compliment or conciliatory gesture from the West — clips of Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, appear frequently. Kremlin propaganda claims Russia revels in isolationism, but it is also addicted to seeking approval from abroad.

And Putin’s success as president of Russia has rested for some time on his ability to mete out daily humiliations to Russians and then act as if he feels their rage as they do, as if he alone knows where to direct it — toward the West, toward Ukraine, anywhere except toward the Kremlin.

But when Putin himself tries to explain why Russia is in Ukraine, he swings between what seem like very different excuses. In a speech in June Putin compared himself to Peter the Great, on a mission to expand Russian lands. Another time he claimed “we had no choice” but to act in Ukraine, a message that was repeated endlessly on television.

So which is it? It is neither and both. Putin likes to perform both sides of the humiliation drama: from the seething resentment of the put-upon Russian everyman to cosplaying Peter the Great. This allows him to appeal to Russians’ deep-seated sense of humiliation, which the Kremlin itself inflicts on people, and then compensate for it. It’s a performance that taps into the cycle of humiliation and aggression that defines the experience of life in Russia, and now Ukraine is the stage.

When Russia pulled back from western Ukraine in May to regroup and launch its second phase in the east, it had lost more than 10,000 troops and enormous amounts of matériel. It was clear to almost everyone that it had suffered a major defeat.

Putin, in his speeches, often employs the language of “family,” with Russia as the elder brother to other countries. It’s a rhetorical tool Putin uses when talking about Ukraine, too. Ukraine is the prodigal relative that must return to the family, that must once more be “with us.”

When Chechens sought independence in the 1990s and early 2000s, their cities and villages were carpet-bombed by President Boris Yeltsin and then Putin.

In the “family,” ethnic Russians are known as “the elder brother,” but that doesn’t mean they are spared humiliation. Whether it’s the bureaucrats and cops who threaten and bribe citizens and businesses, the farce of participating in fixed elections or the cloying fear that you might be arrested if you dare to speak up against the Kremlin — or if some bureaucrat just wants your business — living in Putin’s Russia means enduring the daily humiliation of being governed by an extractive class that takes money and lives from its own people.

Over three-quarters of Russians believe they need a “strong hand” to rule the country, a common phrase that denotes a leader who will both protect and violently discipline its people, and which Kremlin propaganda often uses to describe Putin.

Putin’s manipulation of the cycle of humiliation and aggression is integral to his psychological grip over Russia. That manipulation can look like legislating to criminalize opposition to the war while also appealing for solidarity in the fight against the West. As the impact of economic sanctions rolls across Russia, Kremlin propaganda has called for Russians to show how tough they are: Haven’t they survived great trials in the past? These calls for toughness can resonate — people can learn to define themselves through surviving pain to the point of getting a certain satisfaction from it.

Putin is not just trying to break Ukraine, he is using energy dependency to get Europeans to kneel to Russia’s demands and up until recently was holding more than 22 million tons of grain that the world needs hostage in Ukrainian ports.

In the face of such threats, it can be tempting to try and placate Russia. The editorial board of The New York Times has said Ukraine will likely have to accept territorial compromises. Macron has said the West should avoid humiliating Russia. Such proposals are fundamentally misguided: Russia’s sense of humiliation is internal, not imposed upon it. To coddle the Putin regime is merely to participate in the cycle. If you yearn for sustainable security and freedom, abusive partners and predators cannot be indulged. The only option is to limit the sources of dependency.

For Ukraine, that means defending its sovereignty on the battlefield and, when negotiations come, making sure it is in a position of strength. The US and other allies must keep arming Ukraine to do this. To stop doing so or to let up the pace is just an invitation for more violence and abuse.

For Europe it means breaking free of energy dependence. Though this may be expensive in the short term, in the longer term it will mean true economic security.

For the rest of the world, it means ensuring that we are no longer quite so reliant on Russian food supplies, and that Ukraine is able to export its own grains and fertilizers again. The deal the two countries agreed on for Ukraine to resume grain exports is a welcome development, but it demonstrated the frailty of the world’s dependence on Russia’s good will, especially after Russian missile strikes hit the southern port of Odesa a day after the agreement was struck.

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