The conflict in Ukraine is proving to be a long and draining one. It is a hard sight to stomach for the international community, but nowhere near as hard as it is for those in Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk. Despite the efforts to solve the crisis, it is ongoing and is unlikely to stop for the foreseeable future. It is clear that Russia’s support of the conflict is a key factor in prolonging the rivalry, however it is Putin’s character that makes the resolution ever so complicated and distant. The continuous blame game, denial of historic events, denial of involvement only to be followed by new revelations – that is the psychological game we are facing. We are dealing with a leader who has no qualms with deceiving an entire nation and who manages to avoid ramifications by playing his cards right. A person who can weave the truth in such a way, and sell it to the nation in the process, is more dangerous than someone in power with weapons by his side.
The landscape of the facts regarding the conflict in Ukraine has been shifting quickly from the moment the conflict began. One of the first, and arguably the biggest, revelations was the presence of Russian troops on the territory of Luhansk and Donetsk. What began as a complete denial of the fact, became a game of ‘telling a story’ how they are merely volunteers. It is hard to build a rapport when such lies are present and the lingering distrust will prevent progress towards resolving the conflict.
Going further, calling the troops volunteers is difficult at best. While no one will be able to confirm it from the outside, numerous reports from the parents of soldiers illustrate that entire battalions have been supposedly for training. Training that is unusually long and about which nothing is divulged to the parents. Thus these unwilling volunteers are likely to be the backbone of the rebel forces.
Fast forward and these very same volunteers are being driven back to Russia in trucks designated “Cargo 200” with no further follow up. The designation number means that the cargo inside is actually the dead bodies of soldiers. Of course, verification in and of itself is a difficult process and the inability to do it is a kind of confirmation that all is not right in Russia. Thus his claims of Russia’s neutral stance is later destroyed by decrees to make Russian troop deaths in peace time a state secret. Now, this is just a snapshot of the events, but it shows a pattern. A denial, followed by a momentary acceptance, which is immediately downplayed.
Putin will be difficult to deal with, because he plays by vastly different rules compared to the West. While the Western countries critiques their politicians for dishonesty and tax evasion, Russia is seeing its entire history being virtually rewritten. This is to create the sensation of grandeur and past greatness among the populace, and the current state of people’s minds are more than ready to play along. An excellent example is the recent airing of a documentary that virtually rewrote the events of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was now stated that the invasion was merely aimed at thwarting a military coup that had the backing from the West. Yet these events sparked no outrage on the Russian soil, because it added to the image of Russia as the good and strong force in the story.
We are unlikely to even consider the possibility of the rewriting historic events. Yet for Russia changing them is not a problem, even when the previous Soviet/Russian governments themselves have admitted their actions and apologised for them. This somewhat humble behaviour is overshadowed by the cult of machismo, the hatred towards weak and homosexuals, and the patriarchal society that exists.
The changing narrative does not send ripples inside the country to the same extent that they have when, for example, it was revealed that U.S. tapped Angela Merkel’s phone. In the same way, the world was in awe when it was discovered that Germany has also been doing the same to U.S. Yet when it comes to Russia, the same effect is not seen. Whereas any actions against Russia are interpreted as an attack, both by officials and the public, an action by Russia is just ‘politics’ or ‘self-defence’. For a country not involved in the conflict directly, Russia has been vocal about being upset over US training Ukraine soldiers. It is a bias, one way view that will not change. Even obvious evidence, like the NATO satellite images of Russian troops, will have little impact on Russia’s behaviour.
This creates a difficulty when dealing with Putin. He has a strong backing of the populace and has an iron grip on descent within the ranks of officials, making revolts from below nearly impossible. People are unlikely to be roused by outside influences, as illustrated by the continuous support received by the president. Putin is also able to weave new stories and tales to maintain this state of the ‘love for the leader’. Even virtually empty shelves and soaring prices in the shops had only a minor effect on the overall support for Putin. If nothing else, a well presented story has allowed to use the narrative to portray the West as trying to suppress and subdue Russia, further mobilising the country. This will allow Putin to maintain his power for years to come, and make dealing with the country ever harder.
The way the world views and deals with Russia will not change. The world is not dealing with a specific set of inanimate policies, a specific leader, or even a personality cult. It is dealing with all of the above, which has its roots in the specific way of thinking that Russia possess: strength, manliness and ever-present danger from the west. It is a type of mentality that is hard to deal with, and even harder to understand. Russia is a unique entity, both attractive and dangerous, and whose actions are going to have a profound influence on the international landscape for the foreseeable future.