Years ago, I was an exchange student in the Soviet Union. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of Britain, and Ronald Reagan president of the United States. The Soviets were fighting a war in Afghanistan. Martial law was in place in Poland. Soviet-Western relations were hardly what one might call “good.” And yet, one could go to the USSR as a student. There were numerous direct flights. Politicians and diplomats retained a degree of decorum in their language. And arms control agreements functioned reasonably successfully. Despite mutual hostility, both sides made an effort to keep doors open.
Compare that to today. Following the invasion of Ukraine in February, Western states have almost entirely severed relations with the Russian Federation. A student today who tried to go to Russia would find it very difficult, if not impossible. Even the most benign cultural ties have been cut. Meanwhile, Western states are sending a steady stream of heavy weapons to Ukraine, encouraging it to wage war against Russia to the bitter end. The current state of Russian-Western relations makes the Cold War look like an era of mutual love and respect.
The harsh policies enacted by the West against Russia have come at a heavy price. Sun Tzu said that if you know your enemy and know yourself, you will never be defeated. But how can one know another country if you make it impossible for people to travel or do research there? One cannot. Meanwhile, the West’s economic sanctions have arguably hurt the West more than they have hurt Russia, stoking inflation, while higher energy prices mean that Russia is earning more money from oil and gas than ever before.
One would imagine that states would only endure such costs if especially important interests were at stake. But, harsh though it may sound, Ukraine’s fate, while a matter of extreme importance for Ukrainians, isn’t desperately significant for the West. Russia’s original demands—that Ukraine become neutral and accept the loss of Donbass and Crimea—while undesirable from a Western perspective, were not exactly existential threats. The extreme nature of the West’s response to Russia’s actions requires some explanation.
One possible reason why Western leaders have responded as they have is that they believe in a modern version of the domino theory. One might imagine the logic to be that if Ukraine falls, the Baltic states will follow, and before one knows it, the Soviet flag will once again be flying over the Reichstag. It may be that some people believe this, and indeed American and NATO officials have parroted this line. But the scenario outlined above is as farfetched as the original domino theory. The Russian army is struggling to defeat the Ukrainians. It is hardly going to be able to invade western Europe and defeat NATO. The Russian threat is overblown.
That said, it could still be that the West’s response is justified by the need to uphold what some like to call “the rules-based international order.” The Nuremburg Tribunals in 1947 established the principle that waging aggressive war is the supreme international crime. It requires a firm response.
But if a commitment to the rules of the international order were really what drove our political leaders, they would have behaved very differently over the past 30 years. Russia is undoubtedly waging aggressive war against Ukraine. But Western states have done likewise on multiple occasions, most notably the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Were Canada, for instance, truly driven by concerns relating to the fundamentals of the international system, it would have imposed on the United States and the United Kingdom the same sanctions it has now imposed on Russia. It did not. That doesn’t mean that we don’t care about those fundamentals, but breaches of them do not per se provoke a tough political response. Something else is at play.
At this point, one might appeal to values and institutions. Following the line of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, some claim that the war in Ukraine is a decisive battle of democracy versus autocracy and that the very future of liberalism and democracy is at stake.
This idea doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. The Russians have consistently shown themselves to be indifferent to other states’ political systems. Moreover, almost nobody in Russia considers Ukraine a democracy, especially since the current Ukrainian state owes its existence to a violent coup back in 2014. The idea that the Russian government fears Ukrainian democracy completely misrepresents how Russians view both Ukraine and themselves.
A final explanation of Western behaviour lies in the moral realm—the sense that Russia’s military methods are beyond the pale. Media stories repeatedly use words like “barbaric” and “brutal” to describe Russian military operations. The physical destruction of Ukrainian towns, and the concomitant loss of civilian life are evidence of this barbarity.
Yet Western armies act much the same way when military necessity demands it. The destruction inflicted by the Russians on towns like Mariupol is no different than that inflicted by the Americans on cities like Fallujah, Mosul, and Raqqa. Western leaders have shown a complete lack of concern over the past eight years for the civilians killed by Ukrainian shelling in Donbass. The death and destruction wrought by the Russians in recent months clearly exceeds the latter by many degrees. Nevertheless, the selective nature of Western moral indignation suggests that moral objections don’t lie at the heart of our response to what Russia has done. So what is going on?
In his 2010 book Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives for War, Richard Ned Lebow argues that the primary cause of wars, past and present, is not matters of security, or the pursuit of profit, but rather issues of status, which one may fit within the broader category of honour. What holds for war holds for international relations more generally. Honour in its many manifestations—status, prestige, face, credibility, esteem, self-esteem, the desire to avoid shame, and so on—plays a decisive role in politics. Hegel noted that international disputes were often “struggles for recognition.” This is indeed the case. The international hegemon—the United States—demands recognition of its supremacy. Others push back and demand recognition of their autonomy. The mutual refusal of recognition strikes at each side’s sense of worth—i.e. their honour—so producing conflict.
Honour comes in many forms—internal (one’s sense of one’s own worth) and external (others’ recognition of one’s worth), absolute (one has it or one does not) and relative (one’s position relative to others). Status is external and relative. It is a matter of where others rank you. Zoological and medical studies suggest that status-seeking is a biological imperative—irrespective of material conditions, low status is associated with high stress and a shorter life span. Low rank (external honour) impacts one’s sense of self-worth (internal honour) producing anxiety and a resulting desire to achieve the recognition one lacks.
The problem, however, is that rising to the top of the pile doesn’t provide security. Quite the opposite. From the top, the only place one can go is down. In his book The Human Zoo, Desmond Morris noted that baboons have a simple strategy to deal with this. The moment even a semblance of a challenger appears, the top baboon stomps down hard on him with disproportionate force, pour encourager les autres, as it were.
And so it is in human affairs. States seek status, and those who have risen to the top (which means the United States and its Western allies) feel a need to put anyone who might challenge them firmly in their place. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is such a challenge. Ever since the Maidan revolution of 2014, the West has determined that Ukraine lies within its own sphere of influence. By arguing otherwise, Russia is challenging the West’s honour. The West feels that it must respond or lose face.
In duelling cultures, to which international relations may to some degree be compared, gentlemen don’t fight duels with people of lower social status. A challenge does not have to be met. One can brush it off as beneath contempt. The fact that the West has chosen not to do so in this instance is revealing. It demonstrates that the West feels insecure in its hegemonic status. It is aware that as economic power shifts to the east, political power is shifting with it, and as a result its relative status is declining. It cannot let the challenge pass—thus the vehemence of the response.
Tough policy serves two purposes. First, it suppresses challengers, protecting external honour. Second, it makes people feel better about themselves, protecting internal honour. The ancient Greeks referred to hybris as the feeling of superiority one gets as a result of humiliating others. The easiest way to go up in relative terms is to push others down. Tough measures and harsh rhetoric against Russia serve this purpose, giving us that pleasurable feeling of our superior worth that is the mark of hybris. We might imagine that we have moved on since ancient times, but the same psychological processes continue to propel our actions.
Hybris is dangerous. The Greeks recognized this, noting that hybris produces a negative, often violent, reaction from those who resent being pushed down. Just as the West cares about its status, so too do others, including the Russians. For them, this is also a struggle of recognition, and as such linked to a fundamental psychological need. Consequently, it is unlikely that they will back down.
The shifting balance of international power means that we may expect a prolonged period of status anxiety in the West. It can respond in two ways—accept the loss of status, however uncomfortable that may feel, or resist it through hybris and attempts to suppress challenges wherever they appear. The first option will allow a peaceful transition to a new global system. The second will drag out the process and make it decidedly messier, without altering the ultimate outcome. If the West’s policies towards Russia are anything to go by, it appears that our leaders have rooted firmly for option number two.
Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.