Every leader carries around in his or her head a mental map of the world, one that is the basis for action regardless of whether it corresponds to the actual map or not. Vladimir Putin is no exception, Petro Oleshchuk says, but his map is especially inadequate because he views the borders of the world as if they were those before World War I.
“In order to understand the nature of the current conflict” in Ukraine, the Ukrainian political analyst says, one must understand Russia’s “imperial worldview which defines in turn Russian policy in the present-day situation.”
On Putin’s mental map, he continues, “there is no Ukraine.” But there are no other countries between Russia and Germany. On its map, “there is Germany, there is France, there is Great Britain, there is Japan. And there are China and the US. But there is no Ukraine, there is no Belarus, and there is even no Poland. All this is ‘[Russia’s] immemorial.’”
“Of course,” Oleshchuk continues, “there are some kind of governments there,” and Moscow “recognizes this fiction.” But despite that, Russia views all them as belonging to it. “Of if not to [Russia], then to the Americans or the Chinese.” The key thing is that such places must belong “to someone” or other but not to their own peoples.
This map, he continues, reflects the fact that the Kremlin does not view “nations as the subject of politics. Empires don’t recognize the existence of nations,” and the Russian one is no exception. There are “great powers,” there are “elites,” and there are “territories which they control.” But the nations are irrelevant.
Moreover, this map and this conception mean that “Russia as a ‘big player’ must have its own buffer zone of satellites” and that “all issues need be decided only with [other big players]” and not with the peoples of these non-existent states. The West can kill off the Maidan instantly, Moscow believes, because it created it. The Russian view leaves no role for Ukrainians.
What all this means, Oleshchuk says, is that Russia will not stop even though its losses now exceed its potential benefits because Moscow is “convinced that it has a victory in in its pocket. There is no Ukraine. The ‘elite’ which controls Ukraine is controlled by them.” And all that is needed is to push the West out of the way so Moscow can resume its rule over that place.
From this point of view, he continues, the Kremlin is certain that it “need only ‘show firmness’ so that the Pentagon will understand that the West is dealing with a serious player.” The game is thus in Washington and Brussels not in the Donbas. Russia doesn’t understand Ukraine, and this means that “the conflict will be a lengthy one.”
As inadequate as this mental map and vision of the world is, it has one great advantage, although this is not something that the Ukrainian analyst mentions. Moscow’s vision of a world dominated by great powers in which “the nations in between” are irrelevant is tragically shared by many in the chancelleries of Europe and the US.
Those who share it always claim that they are the true “realists.” In fact, they share with Putin a fantasy, one for which they like he are likely to pay a high price even though even more tragically the nations in between may again be forced to pay an even higher one because of such mistaken views.