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Russia and the West: Are Values the Problem?

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The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation approved by the President of Russia will go down in history as a document that sharpened the issue of the country’s traditional spiritual and moral values. Values were also featured in in its predecessor, Strategy 2015. However, Strategy 2021 has new accents. The source of the threat is the “Westernisation” of culture. Russian values, according to the document, are being attacked by the United States and its allies, transnational corporations, as well as foreign non-profit, non-governmental, religious, extremist and terrorist organisations. If earlier terrorism and extremism, in one way or another, were separated from the “Western” theme, now they are considered threats of the same order. The transition of confrontation with the West to the realm of values is a new stage in Russian strategic thinking. Earlier such a confrontation was perceived more in terms of material categories (defence, economics), but now it has clearly shifted to an ideological level. Why did this transition take place? What problems will Russia face in the new paradigm, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?

Let’s start with the premises. Russian foreign policy has been deviating from the value dimension for quite a long time. A certain surge occurred in the early 1990s with the idea that Russia’s values were converging with those of the West. But by the second half of the 1990s, there was a clear departure from liberal idealism towards pragmatic realism. In the early 2000s, realism finally took root in Russian doctrines. We viewed security and foreign policy in terms of specific material threats. On this basis, interaction with external forces, including the West, was built. The realism of Russian thinking was determined, on the one hand, by fatigue from the excessive ideologisation of Soviet foreign policy, and, on the other hand, by quick disappointment in political rapprochement with the West and the understanding that declarations of common values do not necessarily mean avoiding competition.

Western foreign policy, on the other hand, retained its ideological burden. Russia quickly returned to the ranks of the “significant others”. That is, it again became a reference point against which the Western identity was built. New residents of the “Western House” from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe played a role here. For them, the formation of a new identity was a particularly important task, and opposing the former “empire” was a convenient political technology. This process began long before the events in Crimea in 2014. Voices about Russian authoritarianism, expansionism, etc. began to be heard back in the early 2000s, paradoxically adjacent to statements about the inevitable extinction of the once-mighty power. Identity games have also become a political technology in the post-Soviet space. The notorious “colour revolutions” unfolded, among other things, on the basis of the opposition’s concept of “modern West vs. backward Russia”.

In Russia itself, positioning the West as a “significant other” was initially the lot of the opposition. In the 1990s, both the left and the right built their election campaigns on it. The former exploited nostalgia for Soviet times, the latter exploited the demand for “geopolitical” revenge. In the 2000s, such a narrative partly moved to the level of state policy, although it did not reach the level of open opposition between value models. The process accelerated after 2014, but even then, the value component of the Russian approach to the West was noticeably less significant in comparison with the narratives of individual Western countries and organisations. In 2021, the value load of Russian strategic thinking approached the Western one. What used to sound veiled and had remained between the lines is now called by its proper names. At the same time, the core values proposed by the new Strategy will face several conceptual problems.

The first problem is related to the fact that the values that are proclaimed in the Strategy: Russian spiritual and moral guidelines as opposed to “Westernisation”, are either of Western origin, or, at least, are not alien to the West. Among them, the document notes life, dignity, human rights and freedoms, patriotism, citizenship, service to the Fatherland, high moral ideals, a strong family, creative work, the priority of the spiritual over the material, humanism, mercy, collectivism, mutual assistance and mutual respect, historical memory and the continuity of generations.

Rights and freedoms are the values of the Enlightenment, the cradle of which is Western Europe. The same goes for patriotism and citizenship. The English Revolution, the French Revolution, and then a series of other revolutions in Europe opened the way for them. The revolutions in Russia itself also took place under the same slogans, although the Russian imperial government managed to organically integrate patriotism into its system of values. Life and dignity are rather universal values and are certainly shared by many in North America and Europe. In the West, it is difficult to find a society that would abandon the high moral ideals and values of the family, in spite of several waves of “sexual revolution” and emancipation. Creative labour is at the core of Western economic ethics. Here is the combination of the spiritual and the material. To regard the capitalist West as an adherent of the primacy of the material would be an exaggeration. Suffice it to recall the Protestant ethics and the “spirit of capitalism”, or the high religiosity in a number of societies. Inglehart’s large-scale studies have shown that the choice between conditionally spiritual and conditionally material priorities changes cyclically. That is, one generation can be driven by materialists, the next idealists, and the next materialists once again.

Humanism is a Western concept. By and large, it underlies liberal political theory with its assumption of the creative nature of man and human life as the highest value. Mercy, mutual assistance and mutual respect are universal values. The same goes for justice. Moreover, it is in Western political thought that the theory of justice has been the subject of reflection for centuries and even millennia — from Plato’s just state to John Rawls’s theory of justice. Finally, collectivism is also present in the Western value matrix. Here are both ideas of the common good and theories of the political community. Within the West itself, there are societies that are more “collectivist”, or conversely, more “individualistic”.

The second problem is related to the fact that the West itself is extremely heterogeneous. It consists of many ways and cultures. Yes, there is a common narrative promoted by security organisations (NATO), those promoting economic and political integration (the EU), and individual nation states. But under this surface there is a great degree of variety, which simply cannot be reduced to a common denominator. Conservative Poland, with its restrained attitude towards migrants, high religiosity and the prohibition of abortions, coexists with a multicultural Germany, which has much wider boundaries of tolerance. Within Italy, there are at least two subcultures: of the North and South. Moreover, they differ radically in the peculiarities of the organization of society, in labour ethics, and in electoral preferences. The United States is also distinguished by its significant level of diversity, even though it is often mistakenly regarded as a kind of homogeneous organism, transmitting values of the same order abroad. Internal differences are sometimes colossal. What are the informal rifts between the North and the South that have been preserved since the Civil War? In America, we will also find polar views on the theme of sexual minorities, which Russian critics love. Those of tolerant California will be very different, for example, from those of “the Cotton Belt”. The occasional murder of members of sexual minorities is a part of American life. They can happen anywhere. You can recall the historical experience. The well-known McCarthyism of the 1950s coexisted with the activities of John Peurifoy, the Deputy Undersecretary of State for Administration. He “exposed” the “homosexual underground” in his department, firing 91 employees. True, at that time, representatives of minorities were also considered to be clandestine communists.

In short, by declaring that the West is a force that promotes “broad views of life”, we can find, to put it mildly, misunderstandings among large segments of the population in Western countries who hold completely opposite views. Any generalisation here requires careful calculation and elaboration.

Finally, the third problematic aspect is the specificity of the Russian society itself. Since at least the 17th century, we have been under the powerful cultural and civilisational influence of the West. Moreover, the openness to such influence was a deliberate decision of the political elites. The Westernisation of Russia began at the top and was actively promoted by the Russian leaders with certain fluctuations for more than three centuries. We tried to borrow the core of the Western experience — the rationalisation of key political institutions, their transformation into a smoothly working efficient machine. Here we are primarily talking about the army, bureaucracy and instruments of disciplinary power. Without this borrowing, Russia, apparently, would have suffered the same fate as China in the 19th century, which was literally torn to pieces by more advanced opponents. Instead, the modernisation of the army and the political apparatus in accordance with Western models brought Russia the status of a great power.

Throughout the 19th century, battles between Westernisers and Slavophiles were fought in Russia. Both camps were not satisfied with the half-heartedness of modernisation and relations with the West. The Slavophiles, as you know, called for “returning to the roots”, believing that borrowing only distorted and disfigured the Russian historical path. The Westernisers, on the contrary, urged to complete the process, not to be limited by the army and the apparatus of coercion, and to modernise all social and political institutions.

The revolution of 1917 and the victory of Soviet power can hardly be considered a victory for the Westernisers or Slavophiles. But the form of Westernisation which is familiar to us has been preserved and even intensified. Socialist (communist) ideology itself was of Western origin. Yes, the Russian Marxists have made their notable and original contributions to it. But the basic principles remained those of Enlightenment and rationalism — that is, Western. Here is the belief in the creativity of man (anthropological optimism and humanism), and emancipation in all spheres, including, incidentally, family and sexual relations, and the primacy of human rights and freedoms. Of course, it all turned out a little differently. In fact, the usual imperial model of modernisation was reproduced: the development of the army, the apparatus of disciplinary power, as well as all the industrial and scientific potential necessary for a modernisation breakthrough. At the same time came the preservation and sharp strengthening of the space of non-freedom. The mixture of modernisation of the institutions of coercion with the mass character of modernisation according to the Western model, among other things, gave rise to specific forms of totalitarian being set up within society, which, however, became softer over time. The eternal half-heartedness of our Westernisation, its exaggeration in some areas, and sublimation in others, became one of the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet state.

Is the dispute between conventional Westernisers and Slavophiles relevant now? Unlikely so. In the nineteenth century, Russia really did have a cultural base of bearers of “traditional” values. We are talking about the village and large masses of people who were not involved in modern forms of organisation of the economy and society. The deepest rupture and at the same time the inextricable connection between them and the elite of the time is perfectly described in classical Russian literature. However, in the twentieth century, this base was largely destroyed. The Soviet modernisation project melted agrarian Russia into an industrial and urbanised country with a completely different way of life. Religious institutions were simply trampled underfoot. In terms of secularisation, we are far ahead of the West.

In terms of urbanisation and lifestyle, late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia were and are a Western society with all its attendant problems. Society has lost its traditional landmarks.

Our family institution is a typical Western model with a small number of children and a high divorce rate. Moreover, this trend was entrenched back in the 1960s. The collapse of the USSR and the collapse of the economy only exacerbated all the typical problems of an urban and modernised society. There is a high level of murders and suicides, alcoholism, and the atomisation of society.

In other words, it is difficult for us to offer the world and ourselves an alternative to “traditional culture”, since during the 20th century its social base was lost as a result of unprecedented modernisation. It made it possible to achieve large-scale results and turn the Soviet Union into a superpower. But it also had a price. In comparison with Russia, the countries of, for example, the Middle East region have had a much more significant potential for constructing a “traditional” identity, if only because of the decisive role of religion in political public life. Is all of Russia ready for such an experience? Obviously not, especially given the fact that our country itself is rather heterogeneous. The post-Soviet period has intensified this heterogeneity. The outstripping modernisation of large cities was accompanied by an equally tangible demodernisation in a number of regions and segments of Russian society. Moreover, the experience of modernisation and demodernisation is intricately intertwined.

Does it mean that tradition in such a society is generally impossible? Of course not. But this is a different type of tradition. A tradition based on patriotism, citizenship and the preservation of historical memory is not much different in structure from similar patterns in many Western countries. This means that the opposition to the West here will also be very notional.

Whether we like it or not, our ties with the West are not going anywhere. Political contradictions and a military threat will force us, at least, to take into account the Western experience of organising the army, industry and science.

Value impulses from various Western countries will come to us even if we strictly censor information and the public space. In Russian society, social groups persist with a demand for the modernisation of the economy, institutions and society, including those which reflect the Western model. The fact that such groups are a minority is unlikely to be directly correlated with their influence. The Russian elite itself is Westernised. There are also numerous cadres in economics, science and other critical areas that cannot exist in a closed society. Cleansing these spheres and even mass repressions will not solve the problem in principle, because these spheres themselves work or should work in the frame of reference of a modern, modernised society.

Finally, the most important thing. Values alone do not prevent political conflicts from arising. The peoples of Russia and Ukraine, for example, are close in terms of their respective value spheres. But politically Moscow and Kiev are opponents. There are a lot of similar examples. The modern West is literally built on bones. For several centuries, wars between members of the “united Christian community” have been an almost-daily routine in international relations. The long-lasting peace of the last 76 years is historically an anomalous exception. One should not be afraid of values as such, but of political conflicts that can exploit these values. Russia needs modernisation, which, in turn, is impossible without interaction with Western societies. Just like 300 years ago, borrowing foreign experience and combining it with one’s own vision and strategic objectives can become the key to the country’s survival.

From our partner RIAC

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Fidel Castro’s Political Struggle Unites Havana and Moscow

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Under the auspices of an official state visit to attend the unveiling of  a statue in memory of former leader Fidel Castro in northwestern Moscow, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez unreservedly expressed support for anti-American position taken by Russia, reminded the history of Cuba and the Soviet Union during the Cold War when shared the same stand.

Diaz-Canel Bermudez highlighted the significance of the visit to Moscow. Cuba and Soviet Union had similar experience, both were blockaded. “It takes place at a time when both Russia and Cuba have been subjected to unfair unilateral sanctions and have a common enemy, a common source which is the Yankee empire, which manipulates a large part of humankind,” he said. “We constantly condemn the sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation and the sources of the ongoing conflict so that people are not misled and do not blame Russia for this, and we also condemn what Europe is doing, being completely subordinate to US interests.”

Referring to the unveiling of the monument, he described it as a true reflection of Fidel Castro’s personality in the midst of struggle, just like in the midst of struggle today. He denounced the imperialist powers and further praised all efforts of the Russian Federation and, under such complicated circumstances, Russia’s role in orienting the world towards multi-polarity. 

Russia can always rely on Cuba. Moscow and Havana will continue to strengthen cordial bilateral relations and defend the great values of freedom, equality and justice. The principle of continuity, not just a slogan or a motto, but to continue promoting relations with the Russian Federation. Cuban leader thanked Russia for its support for his country and spoke in favor of expanding economic cooperation between the two countries.

President Vladimir Putin noted in his speech that the bilateral relations between Cuba and Russia have been making steady headway in the past three years since the previous meeting in the Kremlin. He pointed to the appreciable developing cooperation between foreign ministries, parliaments and governments. State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin visited Cuba quite recently.

The Russia-Cuba Intergovernmental Commission is working. It held its 19th session. There are plans for cooperation between the governments with many joint projects up to 2030.

Putin stressed that the Soviet Union and Russia have always supported and support the Cuban people in their struggle for independence and sovereignty. “We have always opposed any restrictions, embargoes, blockades and so on. We have always backed Cuba on international platforms. We are seeing that Cuba occupies the same position with respect to our country, to Russia,” he added.

All this is a result of the traditional friendship that was started by Comrade Fidel Castro. Today, Cuba and Russia agreed to have unveiled a monument to him. Indeed, this is a good memory of him, a true work of art. He is so dynamic, always in motion, moving forward. It definitely captures the look of a fighter that he had.

Putin really remembered his personal meetings very well, even the details with him. “He was an impressive man. I remember how during our first meeting in his office when we were freely discussing the current situation during lunch, I was stunned by his attention to detail and his knowledge of the nuances of ongoing events, even if they took place far away from Cuba,” he narrated the story.

“He was aware of and could analyse everything happening in the world. It was very interesting and useful for me to have these meetings with him. Relying on this firm foundation of friendship, we must certainly move forward and enhance our cooperation in the current conditions,” Putin said in conclusion. 

Work on the bronze-made three-meter-monument lasted for six months and took place in the Russian capital. Castro is depicted seated on a rock with a stylized map of Cuba inscribed on it. The image reflects the heroic path of a person who stood up for the rights and freedoms of the Cuban people, according to the Kremlin’s press service fact sheet. 

The Moscow city legislature approved the idea of such a monument on February 16. The initiative to erect a monument to Fidel Castro came from the leadership of the Russian Defense Ministry. The idea was supported by the Russian Military-Historical Society which held a closed artistic contest with 11 works participating. 

The monument was erected on Moscow’s square named in honor of Castro. Fidel Castro was one of the leaders of Cuba’s revolutionary movement who chaired Cuba’s Council of Ministers from 1959 to 2008. The Cuban politician died in 2016.

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Annexation of Ukrainian oblasts to undermine the Russian Constitution

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Photo Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel

On September 30, 2022, Russia declared its annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts – Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. Not only none of the oblasts was under complete Russian control at the time of annexation, the unilateral proclamation of “new Russian territories” took place amid Russian military setbacks seen by many as one significant continuing retreat. 

To make the annexation look legitimate, the Kremlin staged “referendums” in all four oblasts. Then, according to the “will of the people” there, the State Duma voted for admitting these four into the Russian Federation, with the Russian Constitutional Court acknowledging in a hasty overnight session on October 2, 2022, that four new treaties with “the newly-acquired territories” fully correspond to the Russian Constitution.

In the Kremlin’s view, this set of obviously illegitimate actions showed its complete legitimacy. It seems to have worked for the internal political agenda as Putin’s Goebbels-style propaganda gurus have used billions of dollars much more effectively than his military aides. At the same time, it has shown the absence of the Rule of Law with its basic presumption that no one – including the most highly placed officials – is above the law. The “legal documents” supporting the annexation prove that Russian authorities live in virtual reality. 

February 21, 2022, Putin acknowledged the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk Republics to use it three days later as a pretext for the military invasion of Ukraine. But the document he signed stated that Russia recognizes the whole territory of Donetsk oblast as the Donetsk Republic, which means that for the Donetsk Republic to become a part of the Russian Federation, all people of Donetsk oblast should have been represented at the staged referendums. Failing to seize the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk oblast by the end of September, the Kremlin couldn’t do it. And neither the Kremlin nor the State Duma or should-be highly-professional judges of the Constitutional Court expressed any care for the fact.

The preamble of the Russian Constitutional Court’s approval of the four treaties states that as a consequence of arbitrary decisions of the Soviet government, the territory of the Ukrainian SSR was primarily comprised of lands with a predominantly Russian population without the will of the people. Moreover, according to the viewpoint of the Russian Constitutional Court, the situation in Ukraine began to deteriorate after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it became even worse after the government change in Kyiv in 2014.

The Russian Constitutional Court also noted that “admitting belief in good and justice as one of the founding values of the multi-national people of the Russian Federation, and being a social state governed by the Rule of Law, Russia can not ignore massive facts of violations of the right to life and discrimination based on ethnic and linguistic affinity, more so on the territory with the population of which Russia has long-lasting historical, cultural and humane connections.”

This official statement provides legal grounds for the revision of the collapse of the USSR. The Russian Government may use this official legal ruling of the Constitutional Court to acknowledge the void of the Belovezh Accords of December 1991, which declared that the Soviet Union ceases to exist, effectively overturning the will expressed by more than 76% of the Soviet people, who in March 1991 voted for preserving the Soviet Union. 

In 2017 Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Kremlin internal policy team and an architect of the structure of the contemporary internal politics in Russia, declared that “the Russian state functions on principles different from the treaty principle.” His statement justified why the Kremlin did not want to re-sign a treaty between Tatarstan, a subject of the Russian Federation, and the federal center. The treaty that was refused to sign was approved by the Russian Parliament in 2007 to be effective for ten years, and to be re-approved in 2017. And the 2007 Parliament’s approval followed the 1994 Treaty signed by Tatarstan with the Kremlin, after Tatarstan refused to sign a Federative Treaty between the Kremlin and all Russian regions, which became the basis of the Russian Federation and its Constitution of 1993.

Openly loyal and Kremlin-supporting Chechnya never had any treaty signed with the Kremlin. After two wars there is not even a valid peace treaty between Chechnya and Moscow, let alone a Federative Treaty. May 12, 1997 Aslan Maskhadov, the then President of the Chechen Republic Ichkeriya signed  a peace treaty signed with the Russian President Boris Yeltsin. That peace treaty provided legal grounds for controversies to be resolved only by peaceful means and according to the norms of international law (needless to remind you that Putin violated it three years later). It is interesting that Boris Yeltsin declared that the Treaty “put an end to the war and 400 years of conflict”.

This treaty followed the Khasavyurt Accords of 1996, titled “On principles of the basis of relations between the Russian Federation and the republic of Chechnya”.  Both documents do not clearly define the status of Chechnya within or outside of the framework of the Russian Federation. The documents de-fact treated Chechnya as an independent state, and at the same time the Russian Parliament never ratified the documents, which is obligatory for international treaties and agreements.

This mix of misleading title and content demanded a particular provision of the Russian Constitutional Court stating on December 26, 1996, that the signed Khasavyurt Accords did not regulate any relations between the Russian Federation and one of its subjects, clearly leaving Chechnya outside the existing legal structure of the Russian state. Moreover, the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, whose President signed the treaty, was declared “ceased to exist,” replacing it with the Republic of Chechnya, leaving any documents signed before legally void.

As we see from the legal point of view there are at least two subjects of the Russian Federation that have no legally effective treaties with the central authority.

Most regions signed the Federative Treaty of 1992, which later was transformed into the Russian Constitution. The signing needed to repeat in a new format in 2002. The initial treaty provided for a later re-signing revision of approval only for the regions initially formed as Republics, and usually, these are ethnicity-based regions. But Putin’s negligence of the law when he felt that he had authority, which he already possessed in 2002, let the resignation issue out of his attention scope. In 2017 Tatarstan demanded this attention but only received Kiriyenko’s statement that the Russian Federation was not based on any treaties.

And this is when legal cover for acquisitions of new territories plays a role. In 2014 Moscow signed a treaty with the Republic of Crimea. In September 2022, four “new subjects of the Russian Federation” became its part through treaties. 

Looking at the Russian state legal structure, we see one republic with a treaty not re-signed (Tatarstan) and another that changed its name without signing any legal treaty with Moscow (Chechnya). There are also 18 republics that initially signed the federative treaty. Still, later the Kremlin declared that there was no need to prolong it without talking any supporting legal actions. Finally, there are also three republics with existing treaties whose legitimacy is not recognized internationally (Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk republics), and of course, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts.

This context shows the total absence of the Rule of Law in Russia and undermines its Constitution and legal principles of interrelations between the regions and the Kremlin. 

The current mobilization state of Russian politics and economy drives the Kremlin to re-organize its administrative structure based on purely economic effectiveness reasoning. An obvious target for future reforms will be ethnic republics, as now different level Russian media start spreading statistics proving the predominance of Russians in the historically ethic-based republic. A good example is a Krasnodar Krai discussion of why the Maykopsky district of the Republic of Adygea can’t be a part of Krasnodar Krai since 85% of people in the community are Russians, raising a question about Adygea as a whole with 65% of Russians leaving there.

This Kremlin-inspired discussion presents an existential threat to many smaller ethnicities abiding in Russia. Many ethnic people already feel they are being exterminated by the war in Ukraine, with just a handful coming back from hundreds sent to the frontline. And suppose they look closely at the legal grounds of why they live in the Russian Federation to find out their absence. In that case, the centrifugal forces of Russian internal politics, becoming increasingly evident with every war defeat, may become unstoppable.

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Reason And Anti-Reason In Moscow: Psychiatric Determinants Of “Cold War II”

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Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has obviously critical implications for United States foreign policy.[1] Among other things, this expanding Russian “crime against peace”[2] has undermined once residual hopes for superpower reconciliation or “détente.” In essence, whatever the variable particulars, we are now embroiled in “Cold War II.”

Are there any discernible psychiatric elements to this “war?” As a key player in world politics, is the Russian president fundamentally rational or irrational? And how should a meaningful answer be determined?

There are some additional questions. Is it plausible that Mr. Putin might sometime pretend irrationality as a calculated step toward “escalation dominance?”[3]  How could American analysts reliably distinguish between authentic enemy irrationality and pretended enemy irrationality? How credible are Putin’s periodic threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine? To be sure, assessing an adversarial head of state is not “normally” a psychiatric task.

Still such informed queries need not imply “abnormality.” Inter alia, such an implication could mean dispensing with variously tangible distinctions between “normal” and “abnormal.” This dispensation need not suggest that findings of “abnormality” would be insignificant, but only that Putin’s most injurious traits could present in obscure or unforeseeable ways.

In some cases, owing to the higher likelihood of decisional miscalculations during crises, these qualities could prove more portentous than “normalcy.” Here, though counter-intuitive, a perfectly rational Vladimir Putin could pose greater global perils than an irrational Putin. As to a Russian president who would become genuinely “mad,” prediction would become all but impossible. Then, using a poplar gaming metaphor, all bets would  be off.[4]

What then?

Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.”

There is more. It will be important for US decision-makers to differentiate between a Vladimir Putin who is “merely” evil from one who is abnormal, irrational or “mad.” Though there exist no intrinsic or “essential” meanings to such potentially overlapping descriptions, current strategic theory centers most conspicuously on judgments of “irrationality.” More precisely, an irrational national decision-maker is one who does not value national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences.

               Such matters would always be multifaceted and bewildering.  Nuance would be critical. Accordingly, specific designations of “normal” and “abnormal” could appear sharply delineating or mutually exclusive.  But US foreign policy decision makers could also discover that any true qualities of abnormality, irrationality and madness are more correctly thought of as isolable points along a common continuum than as sharply distinct analytic alternatives.

                There is much more to understanding Vladimir Putin and his belligerent threats than first meets the eye. Sigmund Freud wrote about the Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1914) while tracing assorted connections between “abnormal” and “normal.” He was surprised to learn just how faint the supposed lines of any tangible conceptual demarcation could actually be. Exploring parapraxes, or slips of the tongue, a phenomenon that we now popularly call “Freudian slips,” Freud concluded that certain specific psychopathologic traits could sometimes be discovered even in “normal” persons.

               What then?

               What would this mean?

               How might it impact US foreign policymaking in “Cold War II?”

               After the Holocaust, American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton interviewed Nazi (SS) doctors. Perplexed, as a physician, that such monstrous crimes could have been justified as “hygiene,” Dr. Lifton was determined to answer some basic and necessary questions. Most elementary was the altogether reasonable query:  How could Nazi doctors have managed to conform large-scale medicalized killing of innocent and defenseless human beings with their otherwise normal private lives?

 In similar fashion, US decision makers and other world leaders ought now to inquire about Vladimir Putin and his all-too-many underlings, separatist enablers and otherwise witting allies.

 How can these people witness the daily aggression and genocide[5] now being inflicted in Ukraine by thousands of Russian soldiers and continue “per normal” with their day-to-day lives?[6]

               In response, history could be instructive. It was not unusual for Nazi doctors to remain good fathers and husbands while murdering Jewish children. These defiling physicians (doctors sworn by Hippocratic oath to “do no harm”) were capable of supervising genocidal mass murders six days a week (on Sundays they “normally” went to church). Now we must ask along very similar lines of questioning: 

Are Russian soldiers and their Ukrainian nationalist collaborators murderers[7] who are also able to remain good fathers and good husbands?

               Robert Lifton carried on his examinations of the Nazi “biomedical vision” as a Yale Professor and Fellow of the Max Planck Institute for Research in Psychopathology and Psychotherapy. For this American-Jewish physician, such examination was not just some random undertaking of narrowly intellectual curiosity. Rather, adhering to widely-accepted and reason-based protocols, Dr. Lifton embarked upon a series of carefully rigorous scientific studies.

               To the physician, the Oath of Hippocrates pledges that “I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art.” When asked about this unwavering duty, most interviewed SS doctors experienced no personal contradictions. In Nazi pseudo-biology, “The Jew” was “a source of infection.” Ridding society of Jews, it followed, was a properly “anti-infective” medical goal. The Nazi doctors saw such murderously irrational “excisions” as a proper “obligation” of “healing,” “compassion” and (above all) “hygiene.”

               Do Vladimir Putin and his compliant subordinates have similarly “cleansing” views of Russia’s Ukrainian genocide? Based on readily available evidence, this is hardly a difficult question.

               Resembling their Nazi forbears, perpetrators of the ongoing Russian genocide in Ukraine must prepare to consider Putin-ordered mass murders as a crime justifiable by metaphor. Literally millions of Holocaust murders offer irrefutable evidence of just how easy it is to subordinate science and reason to the most preposterous forms of comparison.[8] With any such willful subordination,[9] otherwise normal military behavior is giving way again to once unimaginable levels of inter-state and intra-state predation.

 There is more. The duality of good and evil within each individual person is a very old idea in western thought, most notably in German literature, from Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Nietzsche to Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Always, in studying this clarifying literature, we may learn that the most critical boundaries of caring and compassion are not between “normal” and “abnormal” persons, but within each individual person.  As Putin-ordered Nuremberg-category crimes continue to escalate,[10] it is high time to recognize that the porous walls of human normalcy and abnormality can allow a single individual to navigate effortlessly between polar extremes.

Pertinent oscillations would take place between cruelty and altruism, violence and calm, right and wrong, or reason and anti-reason.

 In the best of all possible worlds, truth could never be manipulated as political contrivance. It is, after all, an exculpatory trait, both in specific psychiatric assessments and in serious judgments of international relations. Still, at any identifiable moment of human history, the veneer of human civilization has remained razor thin. It has remained brittle, fragile, tenuous, ever- ready to crack along multiple and mutually-dependent interstices.

               After attending the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, political philosopher Hannah Arendt advanced the controversial hypothesis that even extreme evil can be ordinary or “banal,” that it can be generated by the seemingly benign absence of authentic thought.[11] This novel interpretation was widely challenged and disputed following the trial, but it remained identifiably rooted in certain classical views of individual human dualism, particularly Goethe’s Faust. Hannah Arendt’s troubling idea of evil as mundane was further reinforced by various-earlier studies of nefarious human behavior in the crowd, the herd, or the mass, especially in overlapping works of Soren Kierkegaard, Max Stirner, Arthur Schopenhauer, Gustave Le Bon, Carl G. Jung, Elias Canetti and Sigmund Freud.

               In all these thematic writings, a common focus is placed upon the potentially corrosive impact of group membership and identity on individual human behavior. Freud’s own best contribution remains his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). Here, the psychologist-philosopher already understood that Reason is at perpetual war with Anti-Reason and that political dictatorships will inevitably favor the latter.[12]

               Robert Lifton likely knew all this. Still, he sought something more, some other isolable mechanism by which the ordinary or “normal” evildoer could render himself or herself “abnormal.” Ultimately, he discovered this esoteric mechanism in an intra-psychic process Lifton labeled as “doubling.”

               Different from the traditional psychoanalytic concept of “splitting,” or what Freud preferred to call “dissociation,” doubling is the means whereby an “opposing self” begins to replace portions of the “original self,” in effect usurping and overwhelming that original self from within. When this happens, we may learn further, the opposing self is able to embrace evil-doing without restraint and while the original self still seeks to remain “good.”

                Significantly, for optimum understanding of Putin’s grave crimes against Ukraine, doubling may permit Russian evil doers to avoid personal guilt and thus live simultaneously within two coinciding but adversarial levels of human consciousness.

               As a “maneuver,” however unwitting, doublingallowed Nazi doctors to be murderers and decent family men at the same time. In similar fashion, doubling is likely the way that shameless Putin-functionaries are able to reconcile the blatant ordinariness of their public lives with derivative displays of personal cruelty. As with Nazi doctors and the Jews, it is plausible that “know nothing” Putin-followers regard the harms being inflicted upon “sub-human” Ukrainians as not merely pleasing, but also as a welcome form of “healing.”

Sometimes, truth may emerge through paradox. To wit, there can be an abnormal side to normalcy. For the future, in thinking about how best to protect human beings from yet another genocidal national leader, all states and peoples would be well-advised not to think of such leaders in starkly polar terms – that is, as “normal/abnormal” or “good/evil.”

               In the Third Reich, doublingwas not the only reason that “normal” individuals were able to be complicit in crimes against humanity.[13] Elements of “groupthink,” especially an overwhelming need to belong, have always expressed a dominant decisional influence on human behavior. Clinically, at least, whatever sorts of explanation might ultimately emerge as most persuasive, we humans may finally have to accept that the most odious and contemptible national leaders have sometimes been clinically “normal.”

               Such conclusions ought to be kept in mind as US national security officials prepare to better understand the “psychopathology of normalcy.” In support of such necessary preparations, these officials should focus more diligently on fact-based explanations[14] than on narrowly simplistic or conspiratorial ones.[15] Analyzing Vladimir Putin has already become an urgent task for America’s scholars and national policy makers, but it is also a task wherein US assessments of adversarial normalcy need not imply any diminishing dangers. Even a completely “normal” Vladimir Putin could underestimate American military reactions and/or overestimate his own forces’ capacity to fend off American nuclear reprisals.

 At some still-indeterminable point, one when violence-stoking hatreds are channeled by the Russian President into the crudely belligerent nationalism[16] of  “Mother Russia,” they could  precipitate a catastrophic international war. And this prospect could include a nuclear war.[17]

               In the final analysis, truth will be exculpatory: “Happy are those who still know that behind all speeches are the unspeakable lies.” This cryptic observation by Rainer Maria Rilke, the Dionysian[18] poet (a poet generally associated with dense philosophical issues of “being”) laments the lies of individual leaders like Vladimir Putin. Though the virulent particulars of such lies are ever-changing around the world, their overall generality of meaning remains constant. Such welcome generality also represents an inherently gainful trait of science, medicine and law.[19]

 Why does the famous Edward Munch “scream” (see image above) resonate so tellingly? It is because so many “normal” human beings are able to grasp thatin a self-defiling world that is presumptively normal, not to be abnormal represents a special form of madness.[20]Now, amid the ongoing horrors of Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine, it is this unique form of madness that is most worrisome.

 Even if Vladimir Putin could be judged more-or-less normal, there would remain multiple perils for a US President to consider,[21] some of them unprecedented or sui generis. Though both abnormality and irrationality could render Putin increasingly dangerous to world order,[22] even national leaders who would remain normal and rational amid such evident global absurdity could bring this long-suffering planet to irremediable misfortune. After experiencing or witnessing Putin-inflicted horrors of anti-Ukraine violence,[23] humankind’s only plausible hopes lie latent in certain complicated fusions of truth, intellect, justice[24] and prudence.[25]

This means, among other things, that the core task before a beleaguered humankind is intellectual; it is not narrowly political.

As always, in Moscow and elsewhere, Reason and Anti-Reason can coincide. More particularly, as 20th century German philosopher Karl Jaspers observes in Reason and Existenz (1955): “The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it. The only real question is in what form the other appears, how it remains in spite of all, and how it should be grasped.” Until we can prepare to answer this many-sided question with refined thinking and accumulated expertise, Putin’s aggression against Ukraine will glow ever more menacing.


[1] See: RESOLUTION ON THE DEFINITION OF AGGRESSION, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS, Art. 51. Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans 1153, 1976, Y.B.U.N. 1043. Significantly, Russia’s current aggression – resembling Nazi Germany’s attacks on assorted nations between 1939 and 1945, made possible subsequent crimes of genocide.

[2] See: https://www.roberthjackson.org/article/london-agreement-charter-august-8-1945/

[3] See by this writer, Louis René Beres: https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/united-states-nuclear-strategy-deterrence-escalation-and-war

[4] Do you know what it means to find yourselves face to face with a madman,” inquires Luigi Pirandello in Act II of Henry IV, “with one who shakes the foundations of all you have built up in yourselves, your logic, the logic of all your constructions? Madmen, lucky folk, construct without logic, or rather, with a logic that flies like a feather.”

[5]  Some of these egregious Russian crimes nay not be literally genocidal in strict jurisprudential terms, but nonetheless qualify as “genocide-like” crimes. For precise characterization of the concept “genocide-like crimes,” by this author, see:  Louis Rene Beres, “Genocide and Genocide-Like Crimes,” in M. Cherif Bassiouni, ed., INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL LAW: CRIMES (Dobbs Ferry, NY:  Transnational Publishers, 1986), pp. 271 – 279.

[6] Political philosopher Hannah Arendt would have said “banal lives.”

[7] International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, comprise: (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules.  Codified primarily at The Hague and Geneva Conventions, and known thereby as the law of The Hague and the law of Geneva, these rules seek to bring discrimination, proportionality and military necessity into belligerent calculations.  On the main corpus of jus in bello, see: Convention No. IV, Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, With Annex of Regulations, Oct. 18, 1907, 36 Stat. 2277, T.S. No. 539, 1 Bevans 631 (known commonly as the “Hague Regulations”); Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T.  3114, T.I.A.S.  No. 3362, 75 U.N.T.S.  85; Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T.  3316, T.I.A.S.  No. 3364, 75 U.N.T.S.  135; Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T.  3516, T.I.A.S.  No. 3365, 75 U.N.T.S.  287.

[8].  Twentieth-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gassett clarified the generic bases of such a leader-induced declension in his classic The Revolt of the Masses (1930):  “It’s not that the vulgar believes itself to be superexcellent and not vulgar, but rather that the vulgar proclaim and impose the rights of vulgarity or vulgarity itself as a right.

[9] During his presidential tenure, too little attention was directed toward Donald J. Trump’s open loathing of science and intellect. Ironically, the Founding Fathers of the United States were intellectuals. As explained by American historian Richard Hofstadter: “The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.” See Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 145. A post-Trump conclusion ought now to surface: How far we Americans have fallen.

[10] Regarding Nuremberg-category crimes, see: AGREEMENT FOR THE PROSECUTION AND PUNISHMENT OF THE MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS OF THE EUROPEAN AXIS POWERS AND CHARTER OF THE INTERNATIONAL MILITARY TRIBUNAL.  Done at London, August 8, 1945.  Entered into force, August 8, 1945.  For the United States, Sept. 10, 1945.  59 Stat. 1544, 82 U.N.T.S. 279.  The principles of international law recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the judgment of the Tribunal were affirmed by the U.N. General Assembly as AFFIRMATION OF THE PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED BY THE CHARTER OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL.  Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, Dec. 11, 1946.  U.N.G.A. Res. 95 (I), U.N. Doc. A/236 (1946), at 1144.  This AFFIRMATION OF THE PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED BY THE CHARTER OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL (1946) was followed by General Assembly Resolution 177 (II), adopted November 21, 1947, directing the U.N. International Law Commission to “(a) Formulate the principles of international law recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the judgment of the Tribunal, and (b) Prepare a draft code of offenses against the peace and security of mankind….” (See U.N. Doc. A/519, p. 112).  The principles formulated are known as the PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED IN THE CHARTER AND JUDGMENT OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL.  Report of the International Law Commission, 2nd session, 1950, U.N. G.A.O.R. 5th session, Supp. No. 12, A/1316, p. 11.

[11]See Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963).

[12] On this key theme, see especially Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952). In a diagnosis that seems to fit perfectly with America’s recent struggles against Trump-inflicted criminality, Jaspers summarizes a lethal problem of “normalcy.” In essence, notes Jaspers: “The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”

[13] Crimes against humanity are defined formally as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population before or during a war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated….”  See Charter of the International Military Tribunal, Aug. 8, 1945, Art. 6(c), 59 Stat.  1544, 1547, 82 U.N.T.S.  279, 288.

[14] But see Karl Jaspers, Reason and anti-Reason in Our Time (1952): “There is something inside all of us that earns not for reason, but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought but for the whisperings of the irrational….”

[15] Recall, in this connection, Bertrand Russell’s timeless warning in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death.”

[16] Authoritative legal assumptions concerning solidarity between states concern a presumptively common legal struggle against aggression and genocide. Such a “peremptory” expectation, known formally in law as a jus cogens assumption, had already been mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey., tr, Clarendon Press, 1925) (1690); and Emmerich de Vattel, 1 Le Droit des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758).

[17] For early accounts by this author of nuclear war effects in particular, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018). https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy

[18] In German, “Existenzphilosophie.”

[19]In law, responsibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin for such Nuremberg-category crimes is not limited by his official position or by any other requirement of direct personal actions.  On the underlying principle of command responsibility, or respondeat superior, see: In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1 (1945); The High Command Case (The Trial of Wilhelm von Leeb) 12 LAW REPORTS OF TRIALS OF WAR CRIMINALS 1, 71 (United Nations War Crimes Commission Comp. 1949); see: Parks, COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY FOR WAR CRIMES, 62 MIL.L.REV. 1 (1973); O’Brien, THE LAW OF WAR, COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY AND VIETNAM, 60 GEO.L.J. 605 (1972); U.S. DEPT OF THE ARMY, ARMY SUBJECT SCHEDULE No. 27 – 1 (Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Hague Convention No. IV of 1907) 10 (1970).  The direct individual responsibility of leaders for crime s of war, genocide and genocide-like crimes is unambiguous in view of the London Agreement, which denies defendants the protection of the Act of State defense.  See AGREEMENT FOR THE PROSECUTION AND PUNISHMENT OF THE MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS OF THE EUROPEAN AXIS, Aug. 8, 1945, 59 Strat.  1544, E.A.S.  No. 472, 82 U.N.T.S.  279, Art. 7.  Under traditional international law, violations were the responsibility of the state, as a corporate actor, and not of individual human decision-makers in government or the military. Today, even if Putin could argue persuasively that Russian military violations in Ukraine were being committed without his express authorization, he would still remain legally responsible.

[20] This form could center on oft-cited differences between n rationality and non-rationality in world politics. See, by this author, Louis Rene Beres (Israel):  https://besacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/516-Israeli-Security-and-Enemy-Rationality-Beres-Author-approved-version.pdf

[21] See by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Air and Space Operations Review, USAF (Pentagon):  https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/ASOR/Journals/Volume-1_Issue-1/Beres_Nuclear_War_Avoidance.pdf

[22] The term world order reform has its contemporary origins in a scholarly movement begun at the Yale Law School in the mid-and late 1960s, and later “adopted” by the Politics Department at Princeton University in 1967-68. The present author, Louis Rene Beres, was an original member of the Princeton-based World Order Models Project and wrote several early books in this scholarly genre.

[23] https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/05/louis-rene-beres-putins-nuremberg-level-crimes/

[24] Regarding considerations of justice in these matters, neither international law nor US law advises specific penalties or sanctions for states that choose not to prevent or punish genocide by others. All states, most notably the “major powers” belonging to the UN Security Council, are bound, inter alia, by the peremptory obligation (defined at Article 26 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties) known as pacta sunt servanda, that is, to act in continuous “good faith.” This pacta sunt servanda obligation is itself derived from an even more basic norm of world law commonly known as “mutual assistance.” This civilizing norm was famously identified within the classical interstices of international jurisprudence, most notably by eighteenth-century Swiss legal scholar, Emmerich de Vattel, in The Law of Nations (1758).

[25] The seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarks prophetically in Pensées: “All our dignity consists in thought…It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing further upon René Descartes – strives to define an essential theory of learning and knowledge.

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