Carl von Clausewitz famously asserted that war is the continuation of politics by other means. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the continuation of identity politics by other means.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the writings of conventional international relations experts to be not very helpful in understanding what this whole crisis is about. But I’ve found the writing of experts in social psychology to be enormously helpful.
That’s because Vladimir Putin is not a conventional great power politician. He’s fundamentally an identity entrepreneur. His singular achievement has been to help Russians to recover from a psychic trauma — the aftermath of the Soviet Union — and to give them a collective identity so they can feel that they matter, that their life has dignity.
The war in Ukraine is not primarily about land; it’s primarily about status. Putin invaded so Russians could feel that they are a great nation once again and so Putin himself could feel that he’s a world historical figure along the lines of Peter the Great.
Maybe we should see this invasion as a rabid form of identity politics. Putin spent years stoking Russian resentments toward the West. He falsely claimed Russian speakers are under widespread attack in Ukraine. He uses the tools of war in an attempt to make Russians take pride in their group identity.
The Soviet Union was a messed-up tyranny, but as Gulnaz Sharafutdinova writes in her book “The Red Mirror,” Soviet history and rhetoric gave Russians a sense that they were “living in a country that was in many ways unique and superior to the rest of the world.” People could derive a sense of personal significance from being part of this larger Soviet project.
The end of the Soviet Union could have been seen as a liberation, a chance to build a new and greater Russia. But Putin chose to see it as a catastrophic loss, one creating a feeling of helplessness and a shattered identity. Who are we now? Do we matter anymore?
Like identity politicians everywhere, Putin turned this identity crisis into a humiliation story. He covered over any incipient feelings of shame and inferiority by declaring: We are the innocent victims. They — America, the Westerners, the cool kids at Davos — did this to us. Like other identity politicians around the world, he promoted status resentment to soothe the wounds of trauma, the fears of inferiority.
In the first years of his reign, he rebuilt the Russian identity. He reclaimed parts of the Soviet legacy as something to be proud of. Mostly, his vision of Russian identity revolved around himself. By parading as a powerful figure on the world stage, Putin could make Russians feel proud and part of something big. Vyacheslav Volodin, then the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, captured the regime’s mentality in 2014: “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.”
This grand strategy seemed to be fully vindicated that year with the successful invasion of Crimea. Having reclaimed this land, Russia could strut like a great power once again. More and more, Putin portrayed himself as not just a national leader but a civilizational leader, leading the forces of traditional morality against the moral depravity of the West.
But now it’s all spun out of control. Putin’s identity politics are so virulent because they are so narcissistic. Just as individual narcissists appear to be inflated egotists but are really insecure souls trying to cover their fragility, narcissistic nations and groups that parade their power are often actually haunted by fear of their own weakness. Narcissists crave recognition, but they can never get enough. Narcissists crave psychic security but act in self-destructive ways that ensure they are often under assault.
The Putin identity and Russian identity are inseparable. The billion-ruble question is: How does a guy who has spent his life battling feelings of shame and humiliation react as large parts of the world rightly shame and humiliate him? How does a guy who has spent his life trying to appear powerful and farseeing react as he increasingly appears weak and shortsighted?
I imagine that, at least for a time, Putin can revert to the familiar Russian “besieged fortress” narrative: The West is always out to get us. We always win in the end.
There have been hints that Putin might be willing to cut a deal with some sort of compromise and retreat from Ukraine, but that would be a shock. It would destroy the bloated and fragile personal and national identity that he has been building all these years. People tend not to compromise when their very identity is at stake.
My fear is that Putin knows only one way to deal with humiliation, which is by blaming others and lashing out. A couple of years ago, my colleague Thomas L. Friedman wrote a prescient column about the politics of humiliation in which he quoted Nelson Mandela: “There is nobody more dangerous than one who has been humiliated.”
Putin brought this humiliation on himself and on his country. Speaking as one who deeply admires so much in Russian culture, I think it is a great crime that a nation with so many paths to dignity and greatness chose the path that leads so viciously to degradation.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.