By John Fowler
Once again, a great power and permanent member of the UN Security Council and nuclear power has invaded another sovereign state. We are reminded that war remains a feature of the international landscape as we reflect on US operations in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq spanning from 2003 to 2021. With the benefit of hindsight we can reflect on how Russian operations in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 without significant repercussions from the international community have contributed to the conditions that have led to this point, though this is not the focus of this article. At the time of writing, peace talks in Istanbul have stalled and the fighting and bombing of Ukraine cities continues while millions have fled the country. The news can be harrowing enough on a day-to-day basis but has now taken a dark turn as we watch from afar. There is no possible way that this article will keep abreast of the rapidly changing events and there will be a dearth of news, analysis and commentary that will emerge over the coming days, weeks, and months. Instead, this article will examine the narrative that Putin has mobilised to justify the invasion while simultaneously revealing aspects of his own personal narrative using the theoretical framework of ontological security as a guide.
Before continuing, it is important to note what is not being argued here. Firstly, this article is not an attempt to dismiss the realpolitik aspects of the conflict. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion into eastern Europe, and Russian fears of encroachment by NATO is an influencing factor worth more exploration. Negotiations held, agreements honoured and broken, accusations of infiltration of Ukraine political structures by far-right militants and political machinations both domestically and internationally all contribute to this Gordian Knot that we find ourselves with. A comparison between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and US military operations mentioned above would be interesting reading, though one could start the comparison by noting Russia’s permanent seizure of territory in Crimea. This article does not argue for the ‘innocence’ of the West and NATO nations- you may read some of the comments from Putin below and agree with his criticisms of the United States and NATO, though many do not hold up to serious scrutiny. These factors amount to a novel’s worth of analysis that I’m sure is being written as you read this. The argument posited here is that Putin has mobilised a personally consistent narrative to justify his actions and that his decision to go to war is a logical progression of his own narrative and that of Russia and this can be understood using the ideas of ontological security.
Ontological security was first coined as a term by psychologist R.D. Laing in 1969 and the taken up by sociologist Anthony Giddens in is 1991 book “Modernity and Self Identity” (Giddens, 1991). The ideas incorporated in ontological security stem much further back but they were first adopted in International Relations (IR) theory in the late 90s and early 2000s (for example, Mitzen 2006; Kinnvall, 2004; Steel, 2008). These authors revealed the explanatory power of narratives in exploring different actions of the state that could not be encapsulated into the more traditional theories within IR. Giddens writes (Giddens 1991, p.44):
All individuals develop a framework of ontological security of some sort, based on routines of various forms. Peoples handle dangers, and the fears associated with them, in terms of emotional and behavioural ‘formulae’ which have come to be part of their everyday behaviour and thought.
Additionally, he writes (ibid, p.53):
Self-identity is the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography. Identity here still presumes continuity as interpreted reflexively by the agent. The ontologically insecure person displays a lack consistent feeling of biographical continuity and a preoccupation with apprehension of possible risks to his or her existence.
Without getting into a philosophical debate on the merits and critiques of such ideas, this article attempts to utilize ontological security, or the need for individuals and states to maintain their own biographical continuous narrative to help them make sense of the world, to analyse some of the rhetoric used by Putin in the lead up to the Russian invasion. Prevalent to the discussion below are the emotional aspects of narratives that Giddens outlined in his work. These are: fear, anxiety, trust and pride. This brings us, in a freight train-like fashion, to Putin and the invasion of Ukraine. As a head of state, he has his own personal narrative and is a mouthpiece of Russia’s collective narrative. Being an essentially autocratic leader, it can be argued without too much effort that Putin’s narrative is the only one that matters in considering Russia as a state. In a 2021 article, Putin lays out his justification for the current conflict and in Putin’s recent speeches, we can see that he is utilizing all of these emotions as both expressions of his own narrative and using them to solidify domestic support. For brevity’s sake, I will deal with the positive emotions of pride and trust together and the negative emotions of anxiety and shame in two sections below, examining how these have been drawn upon in Putin’s public communications.
Pride and Trust
Putin has invoked elements of a narrative that invoke both pride and trust in the course he has chosen in justifying the invasion. Quoted in Patel (2022) Putin’s 2021 article titled ‘On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, Putin wrote:
Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements and victories.
You can see he is trying to muster pride in a shared history, making the case for a ‘unified’ Russia, of which Ukraine is a natural part. He is drawing on the history of Russian and Soviet empires, the latter of which he watched first-hand when it disintegrated in late 80s and early 90s. He continues:
Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.
In positing Russia as a benevolent father figure, Putin argues (Domanska 2021):
The anti-Russian Ukrainian authorities have “wasted and frittered away the achievements of many generations”, even while the two nations still have “great affection” for each other.
Based on these comments, he clearly sees himself as a unifying figure, bringing together two nations that should never have been separated. He also conveys trust and pride in Russia’s military strength. In his recent national address, he stated (Al Jazeera, 2022):
As for the military sphere, today, modern Russia, even after the collapse of the USSR and the loss of a significant part of its capacity, is one of the most powerful nuclear powers in the world and possesses certain advantages in some of the newest types of weaponry. In this regard, no one should have any doubts that a direct attack on our country will lead to defeat and horrible consequences for any potential aggressor.
The outcome of World War II, as well as the sacrifices made by our people on the altar of victory over Nazism, are sacred. But this does not contradict the high values of human rights and freedoms, based on the realities that have developed today in the decades following war. It also does not cancel the right of nations to self-determination, enshrined in Article 1 of the UN Charter.
In contrast, Putin is vehement in his criticism of United States and the collective West, including the current Ukrainian government, portraying them as the ‘Other’ and enemies of Russia. You may recall similar rhetoric invoked by George Bush in his ‘War on Terror’ campaign. When he said “Once again, I emphasise, all responsibility for possible bloodshed will lay on the conscience of the ruling regime in Ukraine,”, he is trying to paint NATO as an ‘Other’ and attempting to instil pride and trust in Russia’s cause to his audience. In his criticism of the West he states that:
In this context, there were promises to our country not to expand NATO even one inch to the east. I repeat – they deceived us, in other words, they simply conned us…After all, such cheating behaviour contradicts not only the principles of international relations, but above all the generally recognised norms of morality. Where is justice and truth here? Just total lies and hypocrisy.
As one final example, Putin stated:
Therefore, with good reason, we can confidently say that the entire so-called Western bloc, formed by the United States in its own image and likeness, all of it is an ’empire of lies’.
By building trust in both the historical and present-day ethical justification of his decisions, he has painted himself as being on the ‘right’ side of history and the ‘West’, specifically the US, as ultimately responsible for the current and unacceptable state of affairs in Ukraine that must be rectified. As a whole, he is taking great pains to portray himself as a father figure, reluctant but resolved to discipline his errant wards. The decision for Russia to invade Ukraine cannot be analysed purely in geopolitical terms, but also an opportunity for Putin to redeem something lost- both personally and for Russia as a state- during the demise of the Soviet Union. In this way, people of Russia can trust Putin, trust the need for action in a show of strong opposition to the vilified ‘West’, trust in future success of the mission and they can have pride in those actions.
Shame and Anxiety
The emotions of shame and anxiety are triggers for ontological insecurity and are to be avoided. Similar to the examples above, Putin has used these emotions to create a persuasive narrative. As above, this includes reference to the fall of the Soviet Empire as well as the perceived threat from NATO. In his address he states:
The problem is that in the territories adjacent to us – territories that were historically ours, I emphasise – an “anti-Russia” hostile to us is being created, placed under full external control; [it] is intensively settled by the armed forces of NATO countries and is supplied with the most modern weapons.
He goes further, making Ukraine the site of an existential crisis for Russia.
And for our country, this is ultimately a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a people. And this is not an exaggeration – it is true. This is a real threat not just to our interests, but to the very existence of our state, its sovereignty.
Similar to his use of the ‘Other’ in placing Russia on firm historical and ethical footing, he uses the depiction of ‘the Other’ in a way that invokes anxiety and insecurity, with particular reference to US interference in Ukraine.
They, of course, will crawl into the Crimea, just like in the Donbas, in order to kill, just as the gangs of Ukrainian nationalists, Hitler’s accomplices, killed defenceless people during the Great Patriotic War.
It is related to the protection of Russia itself from those who took Ukraine hostage and are trying to use it against our country and its people.
Putin here is effectively painting Ukraine as a hostage to international interference that has also been infested by far-right groups. The threat he has depicted is life-threatening and by invoking Russia’s historical rule over Ukraine, has effectively mobilised shame and anxiety into his narrative as justification for his decision to invade.
I have attempted to demonstrate that Putin has effectively mobilised a clear narrative to induce trust and pride. According to Putin, Russia is strong enough to overcome all obstacles and enemies and is morally, ethically and historically justified in doing so. Through fear and shame, he can remind Russians about glory lost while triggering anxiety by painting Ukraine as villains, puppets and victims to be brought back into Russia’s loving embrace. In doing so, we are seeing Putin attempt to redeem some of his own pride while alleviating his own anxiety and fear. The historic emergency session held by the United Nations General Assembly may have condemned Russia’s actions and called for universal de-escalation, but even in the face of relatively unified opposition, to reverse the current course would be a betrayal of Putin’s own narrative. It is my belief that he is unlikely to do such a thing- the anxiety and shame he would experience would undermine his own narrative, what he represents and would possibly spell the end of his role as the architect of the Russian narrative he is trying to control.
What remains to be seen is if, or for how long, the Russian people will accept this narrative in the face of widespread condemnation, economic sanctions and the continued loss of life, particularly as Ukraine continues to defend itself with more resolve. Thus far, reports indicate that he does have their support, with Washington Post indicating a 58% approval rating of the invasion by the Russian people (Parker, 2022). If they have adopted Putin’s narrative as their own, I fear that their support will continue for some time. Like Putin himself, to capitulate would be to accept fear and shame and betray their own narrative. As such, any hope of significant and prolonged domestic resistance or opposition Russia seems highly unlikely. We will have to seek hope elsewhere.
Al Jazeera, (2022) ‘No other option’: Excerpts of Putin’s speech declaring war’, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/24/putins-speech-declaring-war-on-ukraine-translated-excerpts, accessed 28/2/2022
Giddens, A. 1991, Modernity and self-identity: self and society in the late modern age, Polity, Cambridge
Domanska, M, (2021) Putin’s article: ‘On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, Center for Easter Studies, https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2021-07-13/putins-article-historical-unity-russians-and-ukrainians, accessed 27/02/2022
Laing, R. D. (1969) The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness, New York: Penguin
Mitzen, J. (2006), “Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma”, European Journal of International Relations, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 341-370.
Parker, C. (2022) 58 percent of Russians support the invasion of Ukraine, and 23 percent oppose it, new poll shows, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/08/russia-public-opinion-ukraine-invasion/, accessed 10/03/222
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About the Author
John Fowler is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. He is exploring global security, ontological security and state level security policy. With a keen and wide interesting in International Relations and its root philosophy, he is a keen contributor to UNAA and similar platforms concerning peace and security issues in Australia, the Pacific region and across the globe.