By Volodymyr Yermolenko
Why the West should stop being angelic towards Putin
Throughout its modern history Russia continuously tried to play a double game: to look “civilized” to please the West, but also look “sufficiently barbaric” to scare it. Combining these alternatives, it often sculpted an image of a “good barbarian”, a “barbarian-you-can-accept”.
A “good barbarian” would be able to help the West destroy “bad barbarians”. This was the hope of Voltaire when he sent letters to Catherine II and praised Russia for its offensive against the Turks. This was the hope of Joseph De Maistre when he saw Alexander I obliterate Napoleon and, he hoped, the very legacy of the French Revolution. This was the hope of both T.S. Eliot and the French communist intellectuals when they saw the Soviet Union smashing Hitler.
The new Russian lie about Ukraine’s “fascist junta”, a cornerstone of Russian propaganda today, served this goal too: the West should close its eyes to Russian barbarianism, as Russian barbarianism is destroying the “bad” Ukrainian nationalism, said the Kremlin.
But at the same time, Russia tries to look much less civilized than it could be, appearing “sufficiently barbaric” to scare the West. It has no fear of breaking the rules, or of openly insulting and intimidating western leaders. The massive invasion into Ukraine happened on 26 August, the very day that diplomatic negotiations took place in Minsk, involving EU leaders; a symbolic spit in the West’s face, a larger repeat of Yanukovych’s (Putin-inspired) attempt to dismantle the Maidan the same day that top EU and US diplomats visited Kyiv on 11 December.
Russia, briefly, wants to look sufficiently barbaric, openly showing how little respect it has for western rules and western leaders. It is all just to scare the West, as a neurotic and unpredictable barbarian usually frightens a civilized bourgeois.
***The West should not look scared, however. Nor should it feel guilty. The Tyranny of Guilt, a brilliant book by Pascal Bruckner, rightly objects to Europe’s feeling of guilt before the rest of the world, including Russia. The West’s attempts to “hear Russia”, calls to “stop bullying Russia” always backfire: for Putin, tolerance is weakness and dialogue is failure to impose force.
The West, at least the post-war West, believes in a “win-win” model of human relations, whereas KGB-styled Russia believes only in a “win-lose” or “dominate-or-submit” model. This is the late nineteenth-century logic of social Darwinism, in which you win or you lose, you devour, or you are devoured.
This “win-lose” logic makes you feel strong only if your opponent is weak. Russia will cross the red line if the West lets it cross the red line. The Kremlin’s hidden joy is not doing what it wants, but doing what you don’t want it to do. It has a sadistic pleasure in putting you down; it doesn’t long to see its own victory, but to see the other’s loss, defeat and intimidation. It feels no happiness other than the unhappiness of its opponent.
Historically, Russia was always sceptical of western theories of happiness, of its eudemonism or hedonism, of the joy of small human pleasures. Contrary to western history, Russia’s modernization was profoundly ascetic: Stalinist and post-Stalinist USSR considered hedonism one of the “bourgeois” vices and educated its population in the ideal of full sacrifice.
This created a sadistic climate in Soviet and post-Soviet society: when pleasures are profoundly unattainable, your only joy is to provoke the suffering of others. Putin is a direct product of this sadistic society: his forced smile reveals the inability to feel joy; the sufferings of others please him more than his personal pleasure. Sado-putinism is his geopolitical doctrine.
Vladimir Bukovsky, a prominent Russian dissident, has pointed out that a typical KGB officer classifies people according to two categories: his foes and his agents. A KGB officer will be “friends” only with those who will serve him, or those who dominate him. He will be your “friend” only as your boss or your servant. Friendship will be always vertical; any “horizontal” or equal relations with people can for him be nothing but antagonistic. If the other is your equal, he is your enemy.
The western logic of human relations is built on the presumption of friendship (“the other” is your potential friend or partner), whereas post-Soviet logic starts with the presumption of enmity (“the other” is a priori your enemy, unless proven otherwise).
The West approaches Putin as a potential friend, showing readiness to take a step back in a gesture of friendly concession. Friendship is an art of mutual concessions, indeed, and the West thinks that its backpedalling will facilitate a “win-win” outcome.
But Putin thinks differently. He will either make you his agent, or he will try to destroy you.
When the West thinks it makes concessions in order to achieve a win-win result, Putin thinks the West displays weakness. Every time you take a step back, you will not see Putin taking a step back in return, but taking a step forward. The West wants everybody to win, while Putin wants to claim victory for himself – and you to lose. In his game, only one side can be victorious. All others should lose, and lose brutally.
When George Orwell looked back at the Spanish civil war, in which he participated as a volunteer, he noted that its outcome was “settled in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin – at any rate not in Spain”. He continued: “The Nazis and the Italians gave arms to their Spanish Fascist friends, and the western democracies and the Russians didn’t give arms to those who should have been their friends.” As simple as that.
The same pattern is repeated today. The Russians are giving military help to “their friends” (many of which are Russian citizens) in eastern Ukraine and are now starting a massive direct invasion while the West is very slow in accepting the need for military aid to Ukraine (modern weapons and equipment would be enough). France is selling Mistrals to Russia but, at the same time, Germany blocks the supply of 20,000 armoured jackets to Ukraine.
The West’s “cautious” dealings with the Spanish Republic in the 1930s did not help prevent a large war. Instead it helped this war happen, showing Hitler and Mussolini that their involvement in other country’s affairs would go unpunished. Nonetheless, one particular mantra in today’s western discourse is that the West should not “provoke” Russia. Yet, “not provoking” is precisely what provokes Russia.
Europe’s “silence of the lambs” is not, and will never be, a proper response to Russia’s war. The West should stop being angelic towards Putin, and understand that no compromise is possible with a KGB officer.
Compromise and backpedalling will always be interpreted as weakness by Putin. This weakness arouses the Kremlin’s aggressive instincts, like a drop of blood excites the vampire.