How Culture Keeps the Russians and Ukrainians Steps Away from War

The two Slavic peoples are willing to suffer far more than Westerners for their perceived national interests.

Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military parade in Moscow, May 9
Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military parade in Moscow, May 9 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

The Ukrainian civil war has been easy enough to fall off the world radar; with headline-grabbing terrorism striking the heart of Europe, Donald Trump running his irrational mouth and the EU rendering itself asunder, the conflict in Donbas, the eastern province now split away from Kiev’s central control, seems like a whisper of a war we’d all forgotten about.

Now reports are abounding that Moscow is deploying large and powerful military units both within Donbas and in annexed Crimea. It all began with accusations that Ukrainian special forces had slipped into Crimea to bomb a highway full of officials. True or not, it resulted in a deployment of tanks and artillery on both sides of the de facto border. Worry emerged that both sides might begin blowing one another up.

While the Russians don’t seem keen on an all-out battle, and neither do the Ukrainians, the whole mess bears examination. There are essential truths to learn, both for Russia and Ukraine and the wider world.

First, a review

A demonstration against Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev, December 2, 2013
A demonstration against Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev, December 2, 2013 (Alexandra Gnatoush)

In 2013-14, Ukraine was rocked by protesters who wanted to bring the country closer into Europe. The European Union offered a possible route to prosperity and security; from the EU, Ukraine could then join NATO and be forever free of interference from Moscow.

The Russians did not like any of this. While Russia did what it could to preserve the power of its man in Kiev, supporting President Viktor Yanukovich even as his special police were overwhelmed by protesters throughout that bitter winter, eventually Yanukovich was forced to quit the capital, winding up in Moscow, as his enemies took power.

The Russians moved quickly: As Yanukovych fled in February 2014, Russian special forces suddenly appeared in then-Ukrainian Crimea in March, grabbing up bases, police stations and military sites. In April, a vote was held, with Crimeans voting to join the Russian Federation. Later that month, rebel forces appeared just as suddenly in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-speaking populations provided cover for an insurgency that sought to split Donbass off from Ukraine as a Russian-dominated republic.

There were moments when it looked like Russia might actually march to Kiev, but in the face of Western sanctions and the possibility that Ukraine could be seen as Poland in 1939 the war became a stalemate. Various attempts to cease the fighting in the east, including most recently the largely useless Minsk Accords, have all failed.

Thus the considerations of today, as both sides hope to wear down the other

Ukrainian soldiers conduct military exercises in Yavoriv, October 21, 2014
Ukrainian soldiers conduct military exercises in Yavoriv, October 21, 2014 (Arseniy Yatseniuk)

Russia sought to stop the expansion of the EU and NATO; it succeeds so long as Ukraine has a civil war. The Russians do not want to formally break Donbas off Ukraine; to do so would leave a pro-EU rump that would have no hindrance to join. Crimea had to be grabbed up. Even the potential of those bases falling into NATO hands was a good enough reason for Moscow to make a move. But Donbas is not nearly as strategic. Its Soviet-built factories are mostly in ruins, its geographic location no great advantage.

Instead, the simmer in Donbas keeps Ukraine dysfunctional. Like Georgia, also divided up into Russian fiefdoms out of Tblisi’s rule, Ukraine may have hopes and dreams that cannot come true so long as Russian forces keep Donbas alive but integral to the country.

Ukraine, meanwhile, hopes it can engage in enough low-level fighting along the Donbas border to prod the Russians out; something like the Afghan War on a smaller scale. Sanctions too help Kiev, shrinking the Russian economy and putting Vladimir Putin on the back foot; those take time to come into full effect.

Yet the sudden escalation of the conflict demonstrates something further: a political need for conflict.

Here we delve into how culture functions in relations to geopolitics

Russian policemen outside Moscow's Red Square, October 16, 2007
Russian policemen outside Moscow’s Red Square, October 16, 2007 (Yan Boechat)

Geert Hofstede has done excellent work breaking down how culture works beyond the surface level. While our languages, religions, clothes, food and other cultural artifacts do matter, they are not nearly as telling as the underlying ways we relate to one another, and to other groups, through culture.

The comparison of the Hofstede’s centers measurements of Russian and Ukrainian cultural dimensions reveals some commonalities that matter in the Donbas conflict.

Key among them is the measurement of power distance, the measurement by which a cultural tolerates distance between those who lead and those who follow. In more egalitarian societies, leaders are seen as equals — these are the countries that vote for politicians they can “have a beer with” or otherwise identify with as an everyday person. Such societies project more of their hopes and fears onto leadership; they see their leaders less as great protectors and more as careful shepherds, swapped out should they waver in their patronly duty.

In societies like Ukraine and Russia, with high power distance scores, the opposite is true: leaders lead, through blood and iron if necessary, sacrificing peons while covering themselves in whatever medals are appropriate.

This is a huge reason why Westerners underestimate Putin. Were a Western leader to ever start a war that resulted in an economic crunch like Putin, they’d be ousted in the next election. But Russians do not see Putin’s failure to trade as a failure to lead; they see his decisive, bullet-ridden choices as clear attempts to stave off further Western encroachment.

This goes for leaders in Kiev, who, with the same scores, also have citizens who clamor for clear action against the Russian menace.

But Ukraine is fundamentally weaker than Russia. It could not hope to win a war against it in the open. But such political pressure explains the willingness to violate cease fires.

Two other scores are important: the low indulgence and individualism scores. Both societies do not value the individual over the group. Hence the willingness to fight what is, on an individual scale, a meaningless war, of value mostly only to the elites back in the capital. Both societies, as demonstrated by their indulgence scores, are willing to suffer along the way. Societies that have low scores here do not flinch as often in the face of hardship, valuing happiness less than other societies.

Thus a perfect storm: citizens who are willing to die and suffer while empowering remote, distant elites. It explains why Vladimir Putin has not suffered electorally despite the costs of the Ukraine war. Body bags home don’t have the same electoral effect for either side. To give in will prove that the elite cannot provide the security they must and will doubtless topple them from power. So Kiev and Moscow build trenches and threaten one another.

The good news: both elites are wise enough to know an open war is a disaster

Russian president Vladimir Putin meets with ministers in Moscow, December 9, 2015
Russian president Vladimir Putin meets with ministers in Moscow, December 9, 2015 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

While doubtless Russia could roll into Kiev in a matter of weeks, to do so would invite a massed response from Europe, still the world’s most powerful continent, in alliance with the United States. It would empower Hillary Clinton in the American election while weakening the Kremlin favorite, Donald Trump. It could well rise up to nuclear war.

But even if it didn’t, once Russia was in Ukraine, it would be stuck occupying 45 million Ukrainian citizens. The US couldn’t even manage far less populous Iraq. Should the West avoid nuclear war, it could readily arm a rebellion that would bleed the Russian military just as the Afghans did the Soviets. Being on the border with Romania and Poland, two NATO states, would make the job incredibly simpler.

Ukrainian elites, meanwhile, know they don’t have the West’s backing for a full offensive, nor the army to do it. They prefer to wear down the Russian bear through sanctions and tit-for-tat bombings without the escalation that could provoke Moscow to occupy the whole country.

Still, the cultural pressure to fight will remain strong. Neither side has an incentive to spare lives or reduce overall suffering; if anything, elites can get away with all sorts of abuse before they’re reigned in by their own people.

Such societies are the cornerstone of conflict. Thankfully, human culture is not monolithic: it changes over time. As battles fail to yield results, cultures can shift and war weariness can set in.

Still, for the time being, we can expect further escalations that go just short of war in Donbas.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, August 18, 2016.

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