17 Mar 2014

Ukraine crisis: inside the mind of Vladimir Putin

As EU leaders decide their response to the situation in Ukraine, does “getting inside the head” of Vladimir Putin offer any hope of securing peace?

Every conflict has opposing points of view and Ukraine is no different. From the Russian soldiers stationed in Crimea, identifiable, but lacking insignia. Fascists and neo-Nazis that Moscow insists are taking over in Ukraine – but yet to be really seen.

The latest is a referendum posing as a democratic choice for the people of Crimea – but imposed on its people by stealth. Even as the votes of Sunday’s ballot are counted, many believe the future of the region has already been decided.

So which way now? In a new book entitled The Fog of Peace, co-author Gabrielle Rifkind, a psychotherapist, argues that solving diplomatic tensions requires an awareness of psychological elements that are too often ignored.

When he met US Secretary of State John Kerry last week, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said both shared little common ground. By Ms Rifkind’s analysis, this is the essence of the problem. To reach an effective resolution, her book says, mediators should get into the mind of their adversaries.

Empathising with Russia

Can we do this when it comes to Russia? Consider two narratives. From the US and EU perspective, Crimea feels like an effect of aggressive Russian expansionism designed to test the resolve of the west at a time in history where it is reluctant to flex military muscle. Moscow, however, insists this is about protecting Russian interests and the fate of its ethnic people dotted all over the southern peninsula.

Both narratives are credible and self-serving. For Russia, it validates stationing troops on the eastern border and a zero-tolerance approach to the skirmishes in Donetsk last week.

For the EU and the US, their version of events validates the response of economic sanctions and, at a more prosaic level, vindicates the actions such as Liz Wahl, the “proud American” who quit Russian state-sponsored television news claiming she could no longer be “part of a network that whitewashes the actions of Putin”.

Considering other motives

But both are arguments seen through the lens of old-world narratives. Ms Rifkind calls for something more creative. “To get out of the quagmire of war demands not only that we find solutions to break the cycle of violence but also that we address the psychological mindset of those involved in the conflict,” the book says.

But is it even possible to do this with Russia? Only if we recognise the underlying humiliation that may be connected with Russia’s actions. Consider for a moment that Moscow is acting out of fear. Rather than a move to integration it is simply attempting to preserve its sovereignty after the removal of the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in what it saw as a genuine coup staged by right-wing nationalists.

Whatever the western conjecture on Putin’s motives, he has repeatedly insisted that there is no invasion, just as Lavrov did on Friday. So should we take this at its word? What if Crimea is not an attempt at a reintegration but a move designed to protect Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol?

Re-examining the context

To buy these theories, of course, means understanding the wider effect of the Soviet collapse and its psychological ramifications it left in its wake. Russia felt furious and double-crossed when Nato expanded to Russia’s post-Soviet border. It felt spurned by bombing of Serbia and, more recently, by the fast-tracked independence for Kosovo.

President Putin, who has devoted much of his time to negotiating border treaties with neighbours, was always concerned about a spillover from Ukraine’s western-backed Orange revolution. Now, his one safeguard Yanukovych, has fled, and left a crucial border exposed.

Then there are the emotional outpourings of this whole standoff. Ask older generation of Tatar Russians living near the eastern border of Ukraine. Most have not been witness to the European project in the last few 50 years, hankering instead for the old Soviet Union that they have seen fracturing and splitting.

Their world is one frozen in time, where Crimea is synonymous with memories of childhood holidays by the Black Sea – not the gains to be had from a European trade agreements.

A final attempt at understanding

Which brings us back to Ukraine. The country’s interim prime minister, Arseny Yatsenyuk, told the UN last Thursday that he is convinced Russians do not want war. “If we start real talks with Russia, I believe we can be real partners,” he said afterwards.

He just may be right. The question is whether the world can hold its nerve – and all sides exercise enough empathy – so that such thinking becomes more than wishful – but a reality.

For the consequences of a failure of understanding now are too dangerous to fathom.