European leaders are concerned about Ukraine’s possible victory, as it will humiliate Russia and lead to unpredictable consequences. We explain what the problem is.
To begin with, what is the victory of Ukraine. According to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba, these are four points:
1. Liberation of the occupied territories, including all of Donbas and Crimea.
2. Reparation payments by the Russian Federation.
3. Tribunal for war criminals and those who have committed crimes against humanity.
4. Ascertaining Ukraine’s place in European integration.
At the same time, President Zelenskyy stated that the victory would be a visit to the borders on February 24, 2022, while negotiations would take place for the liberation of Crimea and the Russian separatists’ states of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
This is not about Putin’s face
For Russia, defeat is a broader concept, namely – failure to achieve the stated goals. But the Kremlin had left room for maneuver before the invasion when it did not specify these goals. We have described it in detail here. Therefore, it is not clear what will be a humiliation for Russia and where is the line that some European leaders plan to pursue.
One needs to understand that while the war is real, Putin has the ability to create a “virtual reality” in Russia, because he controls the entire media field. If we take into account that the real goal of the Kremlin was the whole of Ukraine and the capture of Kyiv, we can already talk about the humiliation of Russia, but it’s not the same for the Russians.
The Kremlin propaganda works in such a way that it can switch its society on and off, giving alternative interpretations of any event. Just before the invasion, Kremlin propagandists said that there would be no war and that the West was lying about a possible invasion. The population supported this thesis. On February 24, the Kremlin launched the war, and the Russian society continued to live in the new reality of “war has always been there,” as in Orwell.
The retreat from Kyiv did not make the Russians feel humiliated, as it was “planned” and the “second stage of the special operation” had just begun. Putin saved his face. Now Russian propaganda is so ingrained as “Russia is at war with the whole Western world” that “not allowing NATO soldiers” on Russian territory will be considered a victory. Russian society already sees this war as a defense against the collective West.
The reason lies in the colonial politics
The basis of this paradigm is that Ukraine does not exist for the Kremlin, while the war is a “domestic showdown,” i.e. the internal affairs of the Russian Federation in dealing with a rebellious colony. It was these theses that Putin actually voiced before the invasion in February 2022, when he rejected Ukraine’s right to sovereignty and the very existence as a state.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accuses the West of “aggressive neo-colonial policy.”
Sigmund Freud introduced the notion of “projection” in psychology. When humans have uncomfortable feelings, e.g., the desire for control, jealousy, anger, sex, you name it, the way to suppress it is to project it on others.
Lavrov’s comment is a defense mechanism against Russia’s desire to regain colonies. The Russian elite has this desire but wants to suppress it, and Lavrov helps them to do so by accusing the West of neo-colonialism.
What the Russian elite is truly angry about is the fact that the West helps Ukraine. Russia’s secret feeling is that it’s unfair because Ukraine is their colony.
The fact is that Russia is waging colonial wars against Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, and does not recognize the sovereignty of the former Soviet Union constituents as countries (except the Baltic states).
That is why EU politicians who want to “save face” play into the worldview of the Kremlin leadership, where the metropolis has the right to deal with its colony on its own terms and absolutely can’t lose.
The Kremlin still follows the pre-decolonization policy of “spheres of influence,” adopted at the Yalta Conference of 1945 that took place in the Soviet Union. It is there where Stalin made Roosevelt and Churchill agree that Eastern Europe is Russia’s zone of influence after Hitler is defeated.
That’s why Russia demands NATO’s withdrawal from the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. Putin has repeatedly called for the West to promise Russia 30 years ago not to expand NATO to the east, instilling “guilt” among Western leaders and rejecting the idea of Eastern Europe’s sovereignty. That is why the rhetoric of “saving Putin’s face” hides fears of deepening Russia’s conflict in “its sphere of influence.”
However, the days of empires are over. It is necessary to stop playing on the rhetoric of the Kremlin because Moscow takes it as a weakness. The war on Ukraine will end in negotiations. It is only a matter of the positions of the parties in these negotiations. The sooner Russia realizes that Ukraine’s victory is an irreversible process, the sooner they will begin. And Putin and the Kremlin will deal very well with their own faces.