“Narrative” has become one of those buzz-words or buzz-concepts which one cannot avoid nowadays. At its most basic, it simply means “story”; in the more precise cultural context in which it is generally used, it is a story told or shared within a group as an instrument to define a common reality, or at least perception of reality (whether in fact there is any difference between these two is a more complex philosophical question I have no intention of going into here). The following is an attempt to analyse the current situation in and around the Ukraine with the help of this concept.
The Conventional Wisdom Narrative
This is the one that that is prevalent in the West – in the US and (maybe somewhat less stridently) Europe. The Ukraine is a democratic post-Soviet country where the majority of the population wants more distance from an aggressive, powerful neighbour, which used to be its imperial master, and therefore wants to orientate itself more towards the West. In this, the Ukrainians are simply following the course already taken by other former parts of the Soviet Empire in the past twenty five years. All the former Warsaw pact countries, as well as the three Baltic republics, are now members of both the EU and NATO. They have been able to take advantage of the freedom they (re)gained following the collapse of the USSR at the beginning of the nineties to reposition themselves as part of the “free” world, developing and deepening their democratic, economic, political and social structures to integrate themselves into the new European model which has brought such prosperity, stability, and democratic standards to those countries which have embraced it since WWII.
All the majority of Ukrainians want is to follow the same course. But Russia won’t let them. It has been consistently trying to destabilise (with varying degrees of success and failure) every attempt the Ukraine has made in the past twenty years to position itself in the western camp. Putin sees the Ukraine as an essential part of the Russian sphere of influence and is not prepared to accept, under any circumstances, a reorientation of the Ukraine towards the Western block.
During the chaos following the fall of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government at the beginning of this year, Putin judged the situation favourable for more direct action and, basically, annexed the Crimea. Though the West condemned this, there seems to have been a fair deal of international understanding for this move. The majority in the Crimea is pro-Russian, Russian-speaking and ethnic Russian. The Crimea is of major strategic importance for Russia – particularly with regard to naval emplacement in the Black Sea – and there had been special status agreements regarding Russian military interests there ever since Ukrainian independence.
Encouraged by the Crimean experience (which, he judges, he had basically got away with), Putin has now decided to repeat this process for the whole of the Eastern Ukraine, where there is much stronger (possibly even majority) support among the population for a pro-Russian course. As a result, he has been covertly – and increasingly overtly – supporting separatists in this area, who have declared the independence of the region from the Ukraine. This support has included weapons and weapons-systems, (almost certainly) military advisors, and (probably) troops. This is the kind of stuff that’s difficult to control tightly. On July 17 a group of separatists almost certainly used a military-grade anti-aircraft system to shoot down a Malaysia Airline jet, killing 298 innocent people, probably because they thought it was a Ukrainian Air Force fighter. Put bluntly, they fucked up, probably because they weren’t sufficiently trained, weren’t patched into the intelligence air-traffic control systems which would have told them that the plane they were aiming at was a civilian one, and/or were possibly even drunk.
This put Putin in the position of the sorcerer’s apprentice; he never wanted this. Damage control swung into place, the Buk anti-aircraft battery used to shoot down the plane was swiftly disappeared back into Russia, jubilant posts on the web were quickly deleted (though not quickly enough), and a whole plethora of smoke-screening diplomatic, media, and PR-spin measures have been put into place.
Following the conventional wisdom narrative, my take on Putin’s tactics is this: The Crimea is essential to Russian interests, he wanted it, he got it, and he’s going to keep it. I also feel that the West (and even the Ukraine) has generally been prepared to accept this. As far as the Eastern Ukraine is concerned, my suspicion is that, while he might like to have it, he’s not set on it. Keeping some low-level conflict going there, stirring the pot, keeping the general chaos level up, is probably sufficient for him. It keeps the whole Ukraine unstable, blocks any real movement to cement the country into the Western alliance and means the levels of tension with the West won’t rise above a controllable volume. The US and EU will scream and complain and will do some little PR-spin economic sanctions (which will hurt Russia a bit, but they’re worth it from his point of view). The situation remains fluid, so he still has some freedom to act and react, depending on the way the situation develops. The downing of Flight MH17 disturbs this strategy, it ups the ante for him to a level which is uncomfortable. So I would expect the Russian position in the wake of this murderous disaster in the next weeks and months to be a mixture of obfuscation, half-assed cooperation, talking things up, playing things down, introducing red herrings and pink elephants; generally muddying the waters and judiciously stirring the shit until things simmer down.
Of course, all of this is set within the Conventional Wisdom Narrative. It’s even all true. But it’s only one narrative.
The Russian Counter-Narrative
There was a Cold War and Russia (in its Soviet iteration) lost. The whole of the Eastern European buffer-zone (aka Warsaw pact) and the Baltic Republics, which the Soviet Union occupied to protect the Rodina [the “Motherland”, a Russian expression of identity, almost mystical in its cultural and nationalist meaning], are now all firmly part of the Western sphere of influence. Russia has historically suffered on an almost unimaginable scale as a result of aggressive invasion from the West. Tens of millions of Russians have been killed and huge destruction has been wrought on them, from Napoleon to Hitler. The basic Western attitude to Russia historically has been to regard them as sub-human, Asiatic barbarians, who don’t really belong in what Gorbachev (in his boundless naïveté) called the “Common European House”.
The West simply cannot be trusted. Its leaders speak in fulsome tones about values such as freedom, democracy, and self-determination and then aggressively proceed, under cover of these phrases, to follow their deeper instinct to keep Russia weak, perhaps even destroy it completely.
In the negotiations about German reunification, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West made solemn promises to the Soviets. "The Americans promised that Nato wouldn't move beyond the boundaries of Germany after the Cold War but now half of central and eastern Europe are members, so what happened to their promises? It shows they cannot be trusted." (Michael Gorbachev, 2008).
But the losses following the end of the Cold War go far deeper. Not only were the strategically necessary Soviet conquests in Eastern Europe gone, the losses were even greater. From Peter the Great onwards, Russia had followed a consistent path to push Christian civilization and values eastwards, in the Caucasus, Central Asia and further. Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Siberia were all conquered, settled and civilized by the Tsarist Empire. What the United States had seen and realised as Manifest Destiny to the west, Russia had done eastwards. Only (unlike the US), this had never been accepted by the rest of the residents of the Common European House. Russia was not seen as expanding European values eastwards, rather as building up a dangerous barbarian Asian-infested imperium to threaten the real Europe from the East. All these 18th and 19th Century Russian conquests, with the exception of Siberia, are now lost. The scale of the secession of all these former Soviet Republics from Russian hegemony has only one modern historical parallel; the attempted secession of the Confederate States of America from the Union in 1861 (and we all know what that led to).
And that’s not all. The original heartland of Russia is not just Moscow-based Russia, but rather, from the very beginning, a kind of federation of three closely-related proto-nations; Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine. The origin of later Muscovy and subsequent Russia, is, historically, Kievan Rus’ (9th Century). In an exercise of (from the Russian point of view) desperate damage limitation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus could ultimately be stabilised under the firmly pro-Russian dictatorship of Lukashenko (1994). Despite continuous Russian attempts, a similar stabilisation of the Ukraine within the Russian orbit has not been possible.
From a Russian point of view, the role of the West in all this has been deeply suspect. At best, the West has been cheering on all the centrifugal tendencies within the former Soviet/Russian Unity from the side-lines. There is a widespread – indeed almost general – perception among Russians that the West has actually been actively encouraging and fomenting every possible movement towards fragmentation, when and wherever they occur. This is not simply paranoia; the involvement of a plethora of Western groups (with clear pro-Western agendas) within the former Soviet hegemony, and particularly the Ukraine, is generally accepted and well documented. To this has to be added the enthusiastic involvement of all sorts of Western business (and state-supported) interests in the massive garage-sale/robbery of practically all the national resources of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the chaos of the Yeltsin years, which led to a transformation from a state-owned to an oligarchy-owned economy in less than a decade, the consequences of which Russia is still attempting to deal with – or just live with.
This is the background to the Putin era and is essential to any understanding of where Russians are today. It explains a lot about how Putin understands himself and the goals he sets for the country he rules. It explains why Russians tend to perceive anything coming from the West (apart from consumer goods which you can buy and own) with the deepest suspicion and cynicism. It also explains Putin’s enduring popularity with the great majority of Russians. Faced with a collective psyche deeply traumatised by what his people experience as defeat, humiliation, and betrayal by the West, he’s giving them back their dignity; a sense of strength. And worth. Balm for a badly wounded soul.
Is it then any surprise that ordinary Russians are willing to believe the spin/propaganda put out by the overwhelmingly state-controlled media in their country since the current Ukrainian crisis gathered momentum? That they accept the official line that the present regime in Kiev is fascist? That dark, abstruse conspiracy theories about sinister US-agency involvement in the downing of flight MH17 are given widespread credence?
Such narratives of cultural identification are immensely powerful. For those who identify with them they supply a coherent world-view, they provide a conceptual framework which allows both individuals and groups to define themselves and relate to the chaotic, complex wider world in which they find themselves. We all have our narratives, for the simplest and most fundamental of all is the individual personal biography, merging into family narratives, the stories which express the experiences of particular communities, moving into all sorts of larger-scale instruments of group identity such as religions and nations. They bind stories of the past, value systems and questions of the present, shared vocabularies, dialects and languages, common ways of seeing the world and interpreting individual and shared experiences to provide those contextual structures of meaning which we all need at a basic level to define our very identity.
Narratives are also wonderfully and necessarily flexible. They are not monolithic. We all identify with and buy into multiple narratives, which – and this is centrally important – need not be consistent with each other. So, to give just one example, there are many people who manage to combine a particular fundamentalist Christian world-view with a scientific one, so that they can simultaneously work, say, as molecular biologists while denying evolution.
This particular example also offers a good illustration of how important and powerful narratives can seem to be completely resistant to what others, who do not subscribe to them, regard as self-evident “facts”. No matter how much “evidence” you bring, you will not be able to bring a creationist, whose world-view is based on a particular religious narrative which is a central element in that person’s self-identification, to abandon his position in favour of an understanding of the world based on evolutionary processes going back for billions of years. And such considerations also help to explain just how difficult it would be to persuade the majority of Russians that their perception of the “realities” of the current Ukrainian conflict, and particularly the destruction of MH17, is “wrong”.
The Realpolitik Narrative
This is the starting point and context for those who regard themselves as illusionless realists. They are adherents of a narrative encapsulated by such expressions as, “Politics is the art of the possible” (Bismarck), “France has no friends, only interests” (de Gaulle, paraphrasing Lord Palmerston on England), or “Those who have visions should go to the doctor” (Helmut Schmidt). It tells the story of a world where the ultimate reality is a social-Darwinist one, going all the way back to Thucydides’ famous description of the Athenian position in the History of the Peloponnesian War, “the strong do as they can and the weak suffer as they must”.
Certainly this narrative is one of those which inspires Vladimir Putin. Following its premises, the most likely future scenario looks much better for the Russian position than the Ukrainian one. For all the platitudes being spouted in the EU about the primacy of international law, its members will do nothing serious to change the current status quo, one in which Russia has grabbed the Crimea and may even possibly go on to occupy additional territory in the Eastern Ukraine, or at least control it by proxy through a Russian-supported separatist regime.
There are already some indications of this. Despite economic sanctions being talked-up at the moment, France is still going ahead with the delivery of Mistral amphibious assault ships to the Russian navy. But the real test of principles against interests will develop in the coming months, particularly if Russia maintains its current aggressive position. At the moment, the EU imports around a third of its natural gas and oil from Russia. Germany’s dependence is even greater (36% of natural gas and 39% of oil). Expanding sanctions to cover this area – something that would genuinely hurt Russia – would mean the EU would have to put its money where its mouth is. Higher prices at filling stations would certainly be one result. Literally hundreds of millions of EU citizens heat their homes and power their workplaces with natural gas, a significant amount of which is imported directly by pipelines from Russia. (Just to make the situation even more complicated, the most important pipeline runs through the Ukraine.) Would anyone like to bet what would happen to Angela Merkel’s currently high popularity ratings in Germany if home heating prices rise sharply this winter or (worst-case scenario) the situation so deteriorates that no gas flows from Russia, the winter is particularly long and cold, the gas reserves are used up, and rationing has to be introduced? And this doesn’t even address the question of what consequences real economic sanctions on Russia (and Russia’s reactions to these) would have on a world economy still in a state of precarious, fragile recovery from the disaster of the Crash of 2008.
Are the leaders of the western democracies, compelled as they are to win elections at regular intervals, prepared to gamble their popularity and positions for the sake of principles? How important are the international rights of a former Soviet republic to the citizens of the West, compared with their economic well-being and comforts? How long will the shock and indignation at the killing of a few hundred plane passengers last before our short attention spans are diverted to the next crisis or scandal, driven as we are by a continuous, ubiquitous media frenzy for the next new big story?
The Realpolitik narrative teaches that interests always trump principles, that bread and circuses are always more important to the masses, and that public opinion is always infinitely malleable. The reality of the world is that it spins, and the only thing you really have to do is to make sure that your spin works.
And, anyway, nearly all the real power in the world belongs to a tiny elite of the super-rich who use their wealth to consolidate, maintain and increase their position and privileges. This is also part of the defining reality of human existence; it has always, basically, been this way and there are no good reasons to assume that it will ever substantially be different. Revolutions and upheavals may sporadically occur, but such wobbles in the basic spin of the world correct themselves relatively quickly and everything reverts to business-as-usual.
Awareness of multiple narratives
The narratives I have outlined here are not the only ones relevant to the current crisis in and about the Ukraine; I have not, for example, delineated the Ukrainian Narrative, a central one for any complete understanding of the situation there. There is also a Polish Narrative which has some significance. I have especially avoided the Moral Narrative (which is related to but not identical with the International Law Narrative) since the complexity of that particular story would at least double the length of an essay which already threatens to be too long.
The important point is that in every complex human situation, particularly where differences and conflicts are involved, there are multiple narratives and that these narratives can be (and usually are) simultaneously contradictory and true. A realisation of this is essential for any attempt at conflict resolution. It also moves the work of conflict resolution beyond the search for simple compromise on the level of a lowest common denominator towards a search for some kind of metanarrative which can encompass the most important elements of all the narratives involved.
Writing this as I do in the summer of 2014, my thoughts inevitably turn back a hundred years, to the summer of 1914. Anyone reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, a magnificent account of the beginning of World War I, cannot fail to be struck by the parallels between the aftermath of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, and the aftermath of the downing of Flight MH17. Very few people, particularly those who were responsible for making the crucial decisions, really wanted war in 1914. They all thought that they could manage a situation of brinkmanship. That the world stumbled into a cataclysmic conflict was in no small part due to the inability of the major responsible actors to realise the strength of all the other narratives which were not their own.
It is a lesson we would do well to remember.
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