The news are dominated by the confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine. Unfortunately, there is quite a lot of nonsense repeated in the American newspapers over and over again. It’s just another reminder about the care we, social scientists, must take when we use media as empirical sources. Read Distorting Russia: How the American media misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine by Stephen F. Cohen in the Nation for details, and check also this piece by Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
As we stressed on many occasions, the Social Evolution Forum focuses on science (see Keeping Science and Ideology Apart). We do not take partisan sides – whether it is Democrats versus Republicans, the United States versus Russia, or different factions versus each other within Ukraine. Nevertheless, evolutionary science has some interesting insights to offer about the conflict. In particular, there is much discussion among the American and European political elites about what can be done in practical terms. The discussion is focusing on economic sanctions, as is described in this Reuters article, U.S. and EU marshal economic tools to punish Russia.
The problem with this approach is that none of these measures would have any effect on the Russian policy. The primary motivating factors behind the Russian push to bring Crimea within its orbit (either by ensuring its independence from Kiev via deep autonomy – de facto independence – or by an outright annexation) are not economic, and so economic sanctions will have no effect. They are, first, geopolitical and, second, something that we could call following Scott Atran “sacred values.”
Alexander Deyneka: Defense of Sevastopol (1942). Source
Apart from a small and largely powerless pro-Western opposition, the Russian political class is solidly behind Putin on the issue of Ukraine. The great majority of politicians from all parties represented in the Duma (the Russian Parliament) and most political commentators perceive the post-Soviet history of NATO-Russia relations as a relentless drive by NATO to encircle and isolate Russia; a kind of the “winner-take-all” policy. Russia has already went to war in Georgia in 2008 to indicate that are some “red lines” that it will not tolerate crossing. The stakes are even higher in Ukraine – a much larger country inhabited by millions of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Very importantly, Crimea is also the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol. Crimea, thus, is of huge geopolitical importance to Russia, serving as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” and the only naval port open year-around. Their fears may be exaggerated, but the political class perceives returning Crimea to the Russian orbit as a necessary condition for retaining the status of a great power, which is for many an existential issue.
If the geopolitical aspect has been discussed by many American commentators, the second fact, sacred values, has been completely ignored. But it shouldn’t be, because in many ways it is of the overriding importance.
Crimea is of huge symbolic significance to the Russians. As I described in my book War and Peace and War, for centuries the Crimean Tatars were a dagger in the Russian southern ‘underbelly’ – raiding, looting, killing, and enslaving millions of Russians (‘millions’ is not an exaggeration).
Alexander Potapov: On the Steppe Frontier. Source
It took three centuries for Russia to push the steppe frontier south to the point when it finally encompassed Crimea. Crimea was ceded to Russia in 1774 by the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Crimea, and particularly Sevastopol (founded by Catherine the Great), were associated with resistance against external enemies – during the Crimean War and World War II (in both cases, Russian historical books refer to the “heroic defense of Sevastopol”). When the Soviet Union collapsed, the great majority of Russians felt that it was a great mistake to allow Crimea to be retained by Ukraine (it was gifted to Ukraine by the Communist leader Khruschev in 1954 as “a token of eternal friendship”). So a return of Crimea to Russia is perceived as righting a historical wrong. Crimea to Russians is what Scott Atran calls a “sacred value.”
Siege of Sevastopol by Franz Roubaud. Source
Threatening economic sanctions when sacred values are in balance is counterproductive. Such a threat is actually much more likely to stiffen the resolve to defend them at all costs.
As a result, Putin’s policy towards Ukraine is very popular among the Russians, which includes, importantly, both his support group among the elites (the so-called siloviki, recruited from the military and intelligence agencies) and just common people. Judging from the comments in the blogosphere, he is regaining support even among many people who have been quite critical of the “Putin regime” because it is broadly perceived as rather corrupt and primarily serving bureaucrats and their businessmen cronies. These people are very supportive of “returning Crimea to us.” Some even say that if Putin returns Crimea to Russia, they will forgive him all.
If Putin retreats on this issue, on the other hand, he will lose all credibility among large swaths of the Russian population. And everything suggests that Putin is very careful to retain and nurture his high approval rating. So a recent jump in the approval rating from 60.6 percent in January to 67.8 percent in March suggests that he would be quite immune to the threats of economic sanctions.
Max Presnyakov: On the Steppe Frontier. Source
Notes on the Margin: I am at the end of making the transition back home after a stint as visiting professor at Aarhus University. Thanks to all who have left comments while I was in transition, and my apologies for not responding to them.
I think Turchin is mostly on the mark.
Sent from my Sprint tablet
I agree with all this.
Of course, it’s largely a moot issue – sanctions aren’t on the table. At most, we will just see Russia’s exclusion from the G8 (who cares? The G20 is where it’s at) and a curtailment of some military-to-military programs. Anything more will be opposed by business interests; suffice to say that one of the UK’s requirements for any EU sanctions against Russia was that it would not harm the City’s bottom line. Talk of a loss of passionarity…
One small caveat: “So a recent jump in the approval rating from 60.6 percent in January to 67.8 percent in March suggests that he would be quite immune to the threats of economic sanctions.” –> This jump was not necessarily due to Crimea, since the Winter Olympics and Russia’s excellent performance there also surely contributed. That said, the Crimea adventure certainly hasn’t hurt him.
Agreed. The Olympic Games were a great success, and clearly contributed to the jump in Putin’s popularity. But the Crimean Gambit is clearly Putin’s play, so he directly gets the benefit or the blame, depending on how well it succeeds. What is ironic is that there is one segment of the Russian blogoshpere, the nationalists who are leery of Putin’s “anti-popular” (антинародный) regime. These guys can’t wait to see economic sanctions imposed on the oligarchs. Won’t happen, of course.
Sacred? it was not mentioned in any widely available historical book during USSR time.
So people just do not have that information in their minds. And if something does not exist – it cannot be sacred, even if someone has a deep idea on it.
Neither it is mentioned much now during coverage of evens on Russian TV. The whole reasons crimeans do not want to live in Ukraine is a bad shape of the economy. Crimeans say this openly. and not much about ‘sacred’ things.
As for russians – it is just natural to like ‘land grab’ ( look at players of civilization to get idea of it’s popularity ) plus a propaganda ( complete control over big pie of mass media ). For others, like me – the whole thing looks awful. Don’t think I’m not russian, I’m.
So I find you story strange.
Sergey, a major assumption underlying your analysis is that human beings are motivated solely by considerations of economic gain. Yet research during the last 20 years demonstrated decisively that’s not the case. Only 25-30% of people can be approximately described as rational agents/homi economici. The motivations of the rest include such extra-rational considerations as social norms (what’s right) and sacred values (something they wouldn’t give up no matter how much money they were offered).
I am not saying that everybody in Russia feels passionately about “returning Crimea to us”, but a substantial part do. For the nationalistically minded part of the population Crimea is a sacred value. For example, the patriotic commentator Egor Holmogorov wrote in his blog that when he learned about the decision by the Crimean Council to join Russia, he cried. Crimea is not just any piece of land. For example, even though Estonia was part of the Russian empire and USSR for a comparable period of time, the great majority of Russian nationalists don’t really care that it is not part of Russia.
Yes, sacred! What you are saying is not true at all.
In the Soviet times there were tons of historical books about Sevastopol , the Hero City – that’s how it was always called. “Sevastopol Sketches” by Leo Tolstoy were part of Russian literature program at Soviet school. Alexander Deyneka’s painting ‘Defense of Sevastopol’ which Peter used as an illustration is a Soviet classic known to everyone. Sevastopol occupies the same place in Russian mind as Stalingrad.
Not in yours, obviously. I find it strange that you are trying to extrapolate your own thinking on the vast majority of Russians misrepresenting facts along the way.
P.S. Just yesterday there were huge rallies in ‘support of Crimea’ all over Russia. In Moscow alone there were more than 50 thousand. Watch youtube.
You may be correct in this analysis, but you forget Ukraine which has ‘sacred values’, too. War can also be good for Putin’s popularity at home, but only to a certain extent.
No, I don’t forget it at all. If Russia decided to annex Kiev, it would have a bitter war on its hands, first by what remains of the Ukrainian army, then by partisan forces, and coming not just from Western Ukraine.
Nobody is seriously talking about Kiev.
Even regarding Crimea, I suspect that for Putin its primary role is as a bargaining chip for future dealings with Ukraine.
‘you forget Ukraine which has ‘sacred values’, too’
It’s hard to tell what are they. In any way, they would be quite different for Eastern and Western Ukraine.
The only thing close to ‘sacred values’ that comes to mind is the personality of Stepan Bandera worshipped by Western Ukrainians. His pictures were all over Maidan. So you better not touch this one.
Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.
A one-time ally of Nazi Germany who later turned against the Nazis…The Simon Wiesenthal Center and other Jewish organizations have condemned the glorification in Ukraine of Bandera, whose troops are believed to have killed thousands of Jews when they were allies of the Nazis in 1941.
Svoboda lawmakers have regularly used the pejorative “zhyd,” which is equivalent to “kike,” to describe Jews.
In response to protests from Jewish leaders, Svoboda argued “zhyd” was a correct and neutral, albeit archaic term. Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has in the past referred to a “Moscow-Jewish mafia” which he said ruled Ukraine.
Crimea was presented to Ukraine by the USSR Communist ruler Nikita Khrushchev, the same guy guy who almost got us in the WWIII by installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, banged his shoe at UN table and promised to bury America. This gift extravaganza was similar to the old days Emperor’s gestures to please loyal vassals and make Ukrainian people forget that it was he who administered Stalin’s terror in Ukraine. Crimea was and will be Russian and no sanctions will change this fact. I suggest we all relax and sing together this beautiful song
Talking about “sacred values” risks presenting Putin, or at least the Russian public to whom he is supposedly responding, as being irrational. Is this what you are implying? Or are those values a manifestation rational interests?
I prefer ‘extra-rational.’ And all human nations, not just Russians, have sacred values and are motivated, in part, by extra-rational considerations. As an example, the Americans tend to object to people burning the American flag – this is an example a sacred value.
If the counterpart to the Russian “extra-rational” invasion of another country is American anger toward flag-burning (which is not translated into action since flag-burning is still constitutionally protected in the US, IIUC) then the Russians are clearly being the more “extra-rational” of the two.
What about American invasions (of which there are many) – are they extra-rationally motivated?
As much as I politically symphatize will Ukraina – 100% – and as much as I dislike Russian politics, I agree with the sacred values theory. I do not support Ukraina because I would be a liberal. I support Ukraina because I feel a lojalty with the other people living in the other frontier countries of the Western Europe against Russia meaning Ukraina, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraina, my own country Finland and Poland.
Western people have lost their feeling of sacred values – especially in Western Europe. They have lost their pride of Europe. The conflict against Russia should make it clear for us how we have lost our ability to protect the Western values.
When the Russians won over Hungary 1956, the Budapest radio ended their broadcasting by saying something like “we fight for Europe”. Europe can be reborn on the frontier. We do not need any new Chamberlains but a new Pilsudski.
Do you think the EU like the Ukraine needs an Enemy to define itself against?
I don’t think the EU does, per se, but Russia (or at least Putin) certainly does.
(I said per se because I don’t think the EU needs an enemy, but it’s likely to regard an entity that is anti-democratic, anti-civil liberties, and threatening to it as an enemy).
‘I don’t think the EU needs an enemy’
From what I see lately it does. Resurgent Germany is quickly consolidating other EU countries, all bristling hostility towards Russia. Confrontation with Russia is a good reason to foist full political union onto the rest of EU. Just what they need is a common enemy. That is how empires rise , according to Turchin.
As for Russia, it will be enough to start a little propaganda reminding Russians that in 1854 Turkey, France and British Empire started the seige of Sevastopol ( anniversary!) and in 1944 Sevastopol and whole Crimea were liberated from Germany ( again – anniversary! ). Same old…
At the same time, one of the first acts of new leaders in Kiev was repealing the Nazi Propaganda Law (now it’s OK to wage Nazi propaganda in Ukraine) and canceling anniversary commemorations of liberation from Germany in Ukrainian towns and cities. To appease Germany, why else?
So Russian propaganda has plenty to work with.
“Resurgent Germany is quickly consolidating other EU countries, all bristling hostility towards Russia.”
Interesting perspective, but one I disagree with. Germany actually has little reason to be hostile to Russia (being heavily dependent on Russian gas), and you can see that the Europeans (led by Germany) are less aggressive about sanctions and pushing back against Russia than the US is. As for “consolidating other EU countries”, you have to give examples of what you’re talking about.
Germany is the default de facto leader of the EU now, but that is due to the size of its economy and the weakness of EU institutions & leadership. Germany certainly didn’t _want_ a crisis in Ukraine to erupt. However now that one has, what do you expect them to do? Allow Russia is just redraw national borders by force? All of the EU looks askance at that idea (for obvious reasons).
Please, see my reply to your other comment.
I only want to note that, reason or no reason, Germany has been very active through the Ukraine crisis. Their Foreign Minister visited Maidan offering encouragement and solidarity. Germany has its own dog in the fight – former boxer Vitaliy Klitchko. “Germany’s adopted son”, as he is called in German media. He was one of three Maidan leaders. His party is funded by German NGOs.
This is not to say that Germany caused the crisis, but when it erupted Germany was ready.
Germany might have been reluctant for a while to assume leadership in the EU, but finally it did. New Foreign Minister and Defense Minister announced in early January that Germany was going to be more assertive in its foreign policy.
‘what do you expect them to do? Allow Russia is just redraw national borders by force? All of the EU looks askance at that idea ‘
Europe had no problems with redrawing national borders in the Balkans not long ago, using force.
Russia never used force so far.
Crimea has the same right as Scotland or Catalonia to decide its fate by referendum.
Whole Crimea exept for Tatars (12% of the population) is celebrating, people are overwhelmed with joy. They always hated it to be under Ukraine, especially now when members of virulently anti-Russian and anti-Semitic parties took part in the current government in Kiev and most likely will be members of the next.
The EU – read Germany – had many choices, but chose confrontation with Russia.
I do not see it as a random choice.
shoe banging as a symbolic event. sometimes the symbolic is more important than the reality and recreates the reality.
I very much agree with respect to economic sanctions. In fact, I can’t think of a simple concrete example where noteworthy sanctions achieved anything (there’s South Africa, but that’s more of a correlation-not-causation situation). Here is something on the topic:
Note that none of the four conditions the author lists for sanctions to be possibly effective hold. The goal is not relatively modes (they can work to get a political prisoner released, but not to get a country to withdraw), the “target” (Russia) is not much smaller than the country imposing sanctions. The sanctions have not been imposed quickly and decisively (disagreements between US and EU and among the EU). The fourth condition, that “The sender avoids high economic or political costs to itself.” might be true for the US but it is not true for EU countries (at least they seem not to think it’s true).
However, I wouldn’t discount economics entirely. Even sacred values have a price. Note that the crisis was escalating until March 2nd, until the Moscow stock market lost 10-12% in one day, the ruble began falling and Russia’s central bank had to pump in 10-12 billion of its foreign reserves to prevent it from falling too much (a fall in the ruble implies an increase in the value of Russian external debt). The next day, according to reports, Putin ordered the troops stationed on Ukraine’s eastern border back to bases, the markets calmed down (regained 5-6%) and large drains on the foreign reserves stopped (to what extent it’s hard to tell, unless it’s a big outflow, since that data is published only periodically). Financial commentators did attribute the partial recovery to what appeared at the time (not anymore) a potential for de escalation of the conflict.
Putin, and those who support him, is probably very willing to accept some economic costs in return for getting what they want politically and strategically. But it’s worth keeping in mind that it was the financial crisis of 1998 which more or less pushed Yeltsin out, and it was the more recent 2011 crash that brought a large number of anti-Putin protestors out in Moscow and St. Petersburg just a few years ago. And the potential for financial instability probably does play a role in Putin’s thinking. Economic sanctions by themselves are unlikely to translate into financial instability. The question is whether that can occur for other reasons and how big these can get, and how much can be absorbed without serious internal political costs .
I think it is also worth considering American sacred values in this discussion. As a Brit, I am occasionally struck by how enthusiastically Americans cling to the narrative of being descended from the huddled masses: in particular from beleaguered peoples fleeing some overseas tyranny – even when this is sometimes only a small part of the truth, or indeed not true at all.
This manifests itself in people claiming to be Irish when they aren’t….
….and on highlighting the stories of those ancestors who fled persecution more than those who simply arrived for other reasons. Even the Mayflower Pilgrims are described as “fleeing religious persecution” when in fact the opposite may be true: they simply found 17th Century England excessively tolerant on matters of religion.
Britain, France and Russia obviously don’t share this foundation myth*. That is not to say we are right and that you are wrong – not by any means. But it undoubtedly affects the dominant news narrative in predisposing you to support the underdog.
[* For many ethnic groups in the US this is not a myth, I know. But Americans of English and German descent make up quite a large proportion of the population……. how true is it really for them?]
the enemy of the EU are the people of Europe. they always seem to vote ‘no’ to the constitutions and further integration offered to them. thus the elites scheme ways of getting the plum jobs they want through “Lisbon” treaties instead. the Russians pose absolutely no thread to this gravy-train. if the Crimean crisis can be spun-out over number a years of patient diplomacy or even decades of international legal gridlock there will be a lot of very happy bureaucrats.
Who cares what the people of Europe think? Or the people of their own countries?
This is from Deutche Welle March 10:
Majority of Germans against anti-Russia economic sanctions
‘An opinion poll has shown that the overwhelming majority of Germans is against the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia over its Ukraine policy.’
The EU read ‘Germany’ says it is ready to pick up the economic tab for Ukraine. Would German taxpayers, who all but rebelled against a help to a close ally Greece and even to a tiny Cyprus, glad to give money to utterly corrupt Ukraine with population close to 50 million?
Also, I am curious to see how David Cameron is going to sell free movement in Europe of the Ukrainians to the British. Or Angela Merkel to Germans.
You realize that that post is at odds with your statement:
“Resurgent Germany is quickly consolidating other EU countries, all bristling hostility towards Russia. Confrontation with Russia is a good reason to foist full political union onto the rest of EU”.
If anything, the Germans are against a fuller European Union. As you said, they had little desire to give money to Greece or Cyprus (which, BTW, few Germans would consider “close allies”; not sure where you got that idea from–from a German perspective, the Greeks are no closer than the Ukrainians).
no contradiction at all.
‘If anything, the Germans are against a fuller European Union.’
Common Germans are definitely against. But who asks them? It is the ruling elites who decide and keep accepting new members.
‘ As you said, they had little desire to give money to Greece or Cyprus’
So what? They did give it volens-nolens. Tons of money.
Just a short while ago, last November, Yanukovich was begging Merkel to give him $15 billion to avoid default and he was ready to sign the EU association agreement on this condition. He got ‘Nein’ for an answer and a ridiculous offer of $600 million (or was it euros?)
That was when Putin stepped in.
Fast forward three months. Germany offers EU11 billion (roughly $15 billion) to Ukraine! It’s just for starters. Ukraine is broke. Germany elite made a decision to finance Ukraine (well, the EU, but we all know who the paymaster is). It will be ve-ery expensive.
The main Yanukovich’s selling point of the EU association agreement to Ukrainians was visa free travel to the EU (yes, Yanukovich was heavily promoting it for months). It does not matter that it was not part of the original deal, that is what they expect.
Interim government in Kiev keeps promising to sign the agreement on March 21 stressing the same point. I am curious to see whether free movement is included this time around. If it is, the people of Europe will love it. If they do not have enough of Bulgarians, Romanians and “Polish plumbers”, they will see how 47 million Ukrainians look like.
My point is that all these are purely political decisions made by Germany ruling elite. Other European elites fell in line. With few exeptions – Bulgaria,Greece and Cyprus:))) But eventually they will do too. Every EU country will do what Germany tells them to do. That is what I mean by political consolidation. Of course, this is just the beginning.
a) there seemingly was very little consideration of “Russia’s sacred values” by the West because the overriding narrative has been — the Kremlin lacks values & an ideology, it’s all about “crooks and thieves” (as you point out as well). Yet most messages related to U.S. foreign policies are described in terms of national interests, American values, ideals, etc. Of course, most Sovietologists in U.S. foreign policy circles realize how important Crimea is to (almost) any “Russian soul,” yet we’ve seen very little reflection of that in either media or politicians’ statements. Or perhaps they really did miscalculate either Crimea’s sacredness or Putin’s capacity to act unilaterally.
b) The Kremlin would probably agree their interests are driven by “sacred values” (sounds charming, like “traditional values”) but the question of rational behavior is a different issue here. If the Kremlin is also driven by realpolitik, than taking Crimea at this time was a rational decision based on numerous considerations weighed against the take-over (western sanctions & internal opposition, the possibility of an actual war, next steps, etc.). Thus, are actions in pursuit of “sacred values” always “extra-rational” or can they rational as well? Is pissing off the rest of the world always irrational or extra-rational?
c) What is the primary purpose of sanctions here: to server as a deterrent or a political gesture aimed at one’s domestic audience, which thereby receives a reaffirmation of the government’s commitment to its understanding of American values and international norms guiding the behavior of “belligerent” nations?
“What is the primary purpose of sanctions here: to server as a deterrent or a political gesture aimed at one’s domestic audience, which thereby receives a reaffirmation of the government’s commitment to its understanding of American values and international norms guiding the behavior of “belligerent” nations?”
From my perspective, most definitely the second.
BTW, because these are political gestures aimed at a domestic audience, the sanctions actually don’t pose a threat to Putin and Russia:
In fact, the bigger threat to Russia is Putin himself, inciting minorities on the fringes of Russia to unrest.
BTW, all this appealingto sacred values may not be in Putin’s (and Russia’s) best interest, BTW.
“While Putin is clashing with the West, he may be underestimating the domestic consequences of his actions in and adjoining Russia. He may face more wary neighbors, and restive minorities in Russia’s majority Muslim regions may wonder why they are denied the breakaway votes that Putin demanded for ethnic Russians in Crimea.
“If Russia continues on its current course in Ukraine, the greatest damage to its interests will occur not because of any sanctions or ostracism foreign leaders impose, but the repercussions along Russia’s long and vulnerable borders,” Matlock wrote.”
I’m sure that the sundry (and growing) minorities within Russia have sacred values as well, and they likely involve something other than recovering Crimea for Russia.
The fringe minorities is key, but it brings back the question about rationality. Chechnya has been “solved” for now, in fact it’s very possible some of the green people in Crimea are from the North Caucasus. If Kadyrov had his way, he’d go all-in on Moscow (even if it’s a trolling move designed to destabilize Russia in the long term — but how long). Other principalities’ sacred values are closer aligned with Moscow than ever – Tatarstan (no), Tuva (no way), who else (nobody)? The original Tatar constitution in the 90’s was to be even stronger than Chechnya’s. Now neither means much.
The real threat comes with “vulnerable borders,” but it’s not domestic, remains external. Where are they, these vulnerable borders? In the Far East. China’s watching how Russia reclaims its lands. (Perhaps the biggest deterrent against adding Crimea to the Russian Federation?) China’s watching how the U.S. reacts to things. China knows the future belongs to them, etc. etc.
Wow, this blog’s comments suddenly look similar to Russian-language livejournal…
Surely, it’s difficult to cure the masses of militant hysteria by imposing sanctions. It is even possible that Putin is trying to provoke broad sanctions so he can blame the West for the looming economic crisis.
But there are different kinds of sanctions. I think what the West should do now is target the top layer of Russian elite: the oligarchs, the Federation Council, the military leadership. Their property should be confiscated, their assets frozen, their children studying in Western countries asked to return home. Then the long, painful and expensive process of removing Russian corruption network in the West has to be done. All those money-laundering schemes, shady financial groups, consulates and “cultural centers” working as covers for industrial espionage by the FSB… For twenty years the West has been profiteering by propping up Russian regime and partaking in its exploitation of Russian population. Now it’s time to pay the price.
This is a very interesting essay.
The problem with and for Russia is that it has very little “soft power,” just thuggery. You don’t hear about a lot of people clamoring to emigrate to Russia. With all of its problems (and they are substantive), the U.S. is still a place where many people want to go and start a new life. Its mythology is still alive and well.
the one thing that the us can do that would send ripples through the Russian economy and have a major impact has not even been considerd