The Battle of Wills between the West and Russia:
Which Side Will
By: Joshua Tartakovsky
From the very beginning or emergence of the Ukraine crisis, as details of the
coup emerged and Crimea was, in the eyes of the west – annexed by Russia – it
became clear that we are heading to a prolonged battle. This is one that is not just a physical war
which entails much destruction but a war of wills in a conflict over the
question of which side has the moral upper hand. From the very beginning, the
West and Russia were speaking in opposite languages and had opposing mindsets.
While the West, led by the US, accused Russia of aggression in Ukraine and
pointed a finger at it for violating international law, Russia was speaking
about fascists in Kiev and about an illegal coup. It became clear from the very
beginning that the issue was not merely one of disagreement or division, but of
a cultural war with the West attempting to prove its superiority, vis-à-vis
While US support for the coup in Kiev could be analyzed from the
perspective of traditional imperialism with the US seeking to impose its will
and ensure that its will overrides others, even that of regional powers, the
way it has managed to convince many in the West of the righteousness of its
cause and in its support of the Kiev post-coup government, was due to an appeal
to the Western sense of justice and law with Russia being presented as an
aggressor and violator. Furthermore, Russia was presented as practicing the “laws of the jungle” as Angela Merkel put
it, and therefore as a barbarian.
If one wishes to understand the crisis and its nature, it is
necessary to analyze the respective mentalities of each side (while of course
realizing that among individuals there are greater differences).This kind of
analysis is especially needed due to the fact that the current conflict is
showing all the signs of developing into a major war, with an all-out nuclear war
appearing as a realistic possibility which
should not be ruled out.
The Western mentality based on capitalism, the Puritan work
ethic (prevalent to the largest degree in the US), Martin Luther’s doctrine of
the individual being saved by faith, Calvinism, liberalism as a product of the Enlightenment and the rule of
law, sees the creation of an autonomous, independent individual as its highest
achievement. The rule of law is held sacred as it is the
mechanism by which the market operates, even when the law serves to strengthen
the control of corporations over the lives of ordinary people. Within this
framework, the creation of an independent, rational actor, who must live for
his or her own sake and seek to express his worth via his external
accomplishments, is the hallmark of the Western civilization. This individual, for
obvious reasons, therefore faces immense pressures by his surrounding
environment. He has to constantly prove
his worth to earn the approval of others by being successful, and yet does not
have the support of a larger community to a degree more common in the Middle
East, Latin America, Africa and Asia (with Singapore and Japan perhaps serving
as an exception yet both have attempted to imitate the West).
The individual in the West is judged solely on his
accomplishments and not on his internal value as a human being. For this
reason, he is constantly insecure and seeks to prove himself. However, faced
with obstacles for which he cannot easily ask for assistance as it would
display a lack of ability, the surrounding pressures are immense and a relief
must be provided. The easiest way one can feel secure about himself, therefore,
is by seeing how he is better than others, and ways in which he is superior.
After all, if people are atoms, and judged by their accomplishments alone,
while not enjoying support of a community or even that of a close family due to
the demands of the Capitalist work ethic, then one sees others as a competitive
threat on the way to the prize. Therefore, by pointing at how he is better than
others, more moral than them, more professional and so on, he feels better
about himself and is secure, if only momentarily.
What is true for the individual is true in a greater scale in
the neoliberal Western order.
If one looks at Western history, especially of the UK, US,
Germany, and so on, it is replete with aggressive
expansion, imperialism, bloodshed, colonialism, exploitation and slavery.
Imperial wars conducted by the US and UK
have continued and intensified in recent decades. The Western mentality,
however, still holds that the West is better than all other ‘oppressive’
countries, despite the fact that the latter did not engage in bombing campaigns
of ‘backward’ countries. While overlooking a legacy of colonialism in the case
of the UK and of supporting oppressive regimes in Latin America in the case of
the US, the Anglo-Saxon Western world views itself as superior and as an
upholder of liberal values. Therefore, it is all too convenient for it to point
a finger at Russia for violating international law by its annexation of the
Crimea. By blaming Russia, the West feels better about itself.
|McCain assures fascist Svoboda head Tyahnybok and PM Yatsenyuk of western support|
In Russia, despite having a market economy and Oligarch-run
capitalism (while in the West, the rule of corporations has been prevalent for
several decades and their control of the media and government remains
unexamined), society is still to a significant degree influenced by the
tradition of socialism and Orthodox communitarian values. Although strong ties
in the community have weakened in Russia in the past two decades, the
individual is still not viewed wholly as an atom who lives for his own
fulfillment, but as one who belongs to a community and a nation, and must live
for a moral purpose. While this notion has weakened in recent years, it is
still stronger than in the West. Even if many people do not follow this mode of
living, the understanding that they are failing by doing so. Indeed, Russians
tend to be very critical of themselves in how well they live up to certain
standards and are not too comfortable with themselves in the way Westerners
tend to be.
In Russia, despite the image of immense corruption that is common in how
Westerners view it, friendship usually comes before career. People will go out
of their way to help a friend in most cases, even at their expense of their
professional development. While in
Western culture it is more common for people to mock, belittle or insult those
whom they dislike or who serves as a competition, in the Russian mentality,
basic decency is to be generally respected and people are not to be humiliated
or mocked without mercy unless in exceptional cases as a response to an
What is true for the individual is also true for the society at
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia did not engage in
regime-changes or imperial wars abroad. While the US attacked Iraq, Afghanistan
and Libya with Syria possibly serving as the next target, Russia has minded its
own business. The war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, for example, was not
initiated by Russia but followed the unprovoked shelling
of Tskhinvali by President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The issue of Crimea’s annexation by Russia and how to interpret
it highlights the different modes both cultures have in seeing reality and why
they will inevitably come into conflict over this.
In the Russian view, US overt recognition and support for
Ukrainian neo-Nazis (as exemplified by John McCain meeting with Svoboda’s
leader Oleh Tyahnybok), its support of an unconstitutional coup in Kiev, and
its defense of it later, is not only an insult but also a betrayal. The fact
that the United States, formerly an ally of the USSR during the common battle
against Nazi Germany, placed Nazis in power in Ukraine and did so illegally by
a violent coup, was seen not only as an act of breaking all norms and laws and
in posing a direct danger for Russia and ethnic Russians in Ukraine, but also
as a betrayal of the worse kind in which the other side has shown clearly that
it holds nothing sacred. Neither Ukrainian law, nor international law and
certainly not the legacy of World War II were given any value. In other words, the
West has engaged in the greatest insult possible, while claiming that the rule
of law is on its side. In so doing, it has revealed that it cannot possibly be
trusted. It betrayed not only the common sacrifice made by millions of soldiers
serving for the anti-Fascist Allies during World War II, but also the promise
made by Baker to Gorbachev against NATO expansion to the East.
Therefore, the West, in Russian eyes, revealed itself as
entirely unreliable, a treacherous partner, from whom no basic decency is to be
expected. This notion is only reinforced
by the fact that the West appears to be more preoccupied about the bloodless
annexation of the Crimea than about the Kiev government’s bombardment of its
The Russian response to the West overlooking the fact that a
third party of external snipers were
hired to fire at protesters on Maidan, that
Right Sector fascists fired at the police, and that national socialists
were placed in the immediate government, was to regain some dignity as
quickly as possible and secure Crimea before Sevastopol fell into the hands of
NATO. To this end, a rushed referendum was conducted, which did genuinely
reflect, the will of the people there, as recent polls
revealed, and Crimea joined Russia. Following the coup in Kiev, people
in Lugansk and Donetsk took arms in East Ukraine and demanded a federation in
which their rights will be respected. This was done after the establishment of
an ultra-nationalist West-Ukrainian government. Yet while the West supported a
violent coup in Kiev led by fascists who fired at the police, it denounced as
“violent” and “illegal” the fact that people in the Donbass did not see
themselves as represented by the post-coup government in Kiev, supported by the
|Due to Ukrainian shelling, some families live in basements (photo: Olga Solnishko)|
In the eyes of the West, the annexation of Crimea is wholly
unacceptable. This is due to the fact that the referendum was not carried out
in due process, following a lengthy and organized legal proceeding. It was seen
as a barbaric action, conducted by the barbaric Russia. As mentioned earlier,
in the Capitalist West, that operates by laws serving the market, the law is
held as the most sacred thing (at least when violated by other countries). In
the eyes of Russia, however, and in Eastern thinking in general, a more
holistic thinking is practiced in which the spirit of the law is more important
than the letter of the law, and decisions need to be made based on flexible
thinking and not due to rigid compliance.
For the West, the annexation of Crimea is the proof that Russia
is insane, irrational and dangerous. It went on to depict Russia as irrational,
dangerous and, of course, aggressive.
It was not only that the West portrayed Russia as barbaric, but
also within Ukraine, divisions made themselves manifest. West Ukraine has
depicted residents of East Ukraine as “barbarians”, “subhumans” and
“easterners”, repeating the terms and ways of seeing that Nazi Germany viewed
Russians in the East. Furthermore, while people in the East tend to live in
more collective lifestyles and to support wider communities, people in the
West, due to the influenced of the Austrian rule, have inherited individualism
(as well as Ukrainian fascism as practiced by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army).
For the West, pointing a finger at Russia as a violator of
international law, has served several important purposes. First, it placed
itself in the camp of “enlightenment”, “modernity”, “liberalism” and “democracy”,
while looking down at “barbaric” Russia which does not recognize present day
borders and lives in a different era. Secondly, the West gains pleasure by accusing
of “breaking the law” while ignoring its own violations of international law in
its many wars of aggression and bloody history of colonialism. Thirdly, it
gains self-esteem by seeing itself as superior to a dangerous and irrational
Russia. Indeed, while in the West, democracy prevails and a rule of law is the
norm, Russia is portrayed as a corrupt, dictatorial, oppressive regime. Russia
is the evil Other whose demonic forces constantly manage to make their way into
Ukraine and fight the European Ukraine, the sons of light. Russia is the
aggressor. It is an aggressor not due to an action it took but by its nature,
therefore every move it makes must be viewed with great suspicion.
For the West, especially the US and UK, supporting the Ukrainian
government that does not represent a significant part of the country, is
absolutely necessary since Russia must be “taught a lesson,” “civilized” and ”
disciplined” to behave by Western law. While colonialism in Africa and Latin
America was justified as a method of bringing Christianity to the masses, even
as these were massacred, in present times “democracy” and “human rights” are
the values sought to be imposed on the “barbarians” by the West, whether they
reside in the Middle East or in “backward” China and Russia who must be
Needless to say, Russia does not view things this way. For
Russia, before any accusations are made, decency in human behavior comes first.
Once the US supported fascists in Ukraine, it cannot expect Russia not to act
whimsically. Once basic trust has been violated and a betrayal has taken place,
all bets are off. It is now a war.
In the ensuing war, therefore, waged in the media sphere, by
economic means and on the ground militarily, two ways of looking at the world
are battling each other.
For Russia, the West is now a hypocrite by nature. It provoked
the current debacle by its Kiev coup, and therefore its eternal preaching will
inevitably fall on deft ears. Russia does not care what the West thinks about
it, or whether a law was bended here or there, because the US broke the most
sacred law, which is not to place fascists in power, especially considering the
great sacrifice made by Russians during World War II. The massive bombardment
of ethnic Russians is seen as a genocidal act, in the spirit of World War II
fascists who waged a war against ethnic Russians.
Which side will win?
For the West, the war against Russia is a war in which it sees
itself as superior and seeks to discipline the barbarian. It now does not need
to deal with its own shortcomings, failures and neuroses, but has the role of
the enlightened educator who will teach Russia to obey the law.
For Russia, this is a war to restore its basic dignity, and a
war of survival, as its very heart was attacked due to the close proximity to
its borders, and the symbolic role Kievan Rus plays in Russian memory. It will therefore
stop at nothing in what it sees as self-defense.
Both sides will inflict heavy damage on each other, and to an
intensifying degree each time.
However, in the long run, Russia will be the one who wins.
That is not only because historically, in every war where Russia
fought for its survival (from Genghis Khan, to Napoleon, to Hitler), Russia
won, but also since the pristine need to survive is more deeply rooted than the
need to belittle and mock others in order to feel superior about oneself.
The West can find another target to attack after Russia proves
that it is an undefeatable enemy. Or it can raise its hands in despair
and mumble something about Russia being a barbarian who cannot be controlled
and it therefore gives up (France and Germany have recently come to this
conclusion, for the US and UK it may take longer).
But for Russia, basic decency is a value worth dying for, and
some norms of human behavior must never be crossed in any circumstances.
Therefore it will fight until the end and will do anything in its power to win.
For the West this is not a war on its survival. It is a war to
teach Russia a lesson and to point to its own superiority.
For Russia, this is a war about protecting basic dignity and
decency, a war on basic decency which must not be touched, since if one
compromises on one’s honor, one has no right to continue to live.
Therefore Russia must win, and, if to judge by history, will
win. But the price can be high.
Joshua Tartakovsky is an independent researcher and a graduate of Brown University and LSE. He is currently in Athens
Follow him on twitter – @J_Tartakovsky