The Mahablog

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The Mahablog

Russia Invaded Ukraine for Imaginary Reasons

Here’s some history that may seem irrelevant to anything going on now, and maybe it is, but I want to use it to make a point.

While researching my book The Circle of the Way I learned a lot about Japanese history, beginning about 552 CE, when Buddhism was introduced to Japan, to the present day. This includes the militarization of Japan that began in the late 19th century and which terminated in defeat in the Pacific War, 1945. With the caveat that I’m hardly an expert on Japanese history, it does seem to me that the driving purpose behind that militarization arose from things buried deeply in Japan’s history, and in the Japanese psyche. The reasons for Japan’s wars of aggression were more sociopsychological and sociocultural than geopolitical.

Beginning in the 8th century, Japanese emperors developed a unique problem — too many sons. These sons were delivered of several women, but Japan didn’t seem to have developed the concept of illegitimacy, so all the sons were considered noble and potential heirs to the throne. And they all required an inheritance, so they were not only a potential source of political instability but also a drain on the budget. Daughters could be married off, but what do you do with surplus sons?

The answer, for several emperors, was to strip the sons of lesser mothers of their rank and titles and exile them from Kyoto, then the capital city. Many of these once-privileged men had a burning desire to claw their way back to importance. They did this by conquering territories in what is now northeastern Japan that had not been part of the empire before. This territory was populated by a fierce warrior people called the Emishi, who fought on horseback with curved swords designed for slashing. Eventually the conquered territories were a patchwork of hereditary fiefdoms owned by the families of the exiles, who collectively adopted a new name for themselves — samurai, those who serve.

To very oversimplify, the samurai came to power in the 12th century through military conquest and a lot of court intrigue, and from that time until the Meiji Restoration began in 1868, Japan was a military dictatorship ruled by the Shogun and the samurai class. In time, only those born into the samurai class were allowed even to carry weapons. There was still an emperor, mind you, but he was a figurehead. In that culture, loyalty and discipline were so valued that if you displeased whatever lordly samurai you answered to, usually you would not be executed but ordered to commit ritual suicide. And you would do it.

When European merchants and missionaries began showing up in the early 16th century, at first the Japanese tolerated them and even found them interesting. But it didn’t escape notice that other Asian countries were becoming European colonies. The merchants and missionaries came to be seen as the tip of the spear of European conquest, and in 1603 the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu ordered that Japan be almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. Trade with China continued through the port of Nagasaki, and an office of the Dutch East India Company in Nagasaki was allowed to remain in operation. So information about the wider world did get through the barrier. But most Japanese were not allowed to leave Japan, and as a rule foreigners were not allowed inland beyond Nagasaki.

So it was that when Admiral Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay in 1853 with a fleet of cutting-edge steam-powered warships, armed with guns that fired 150-pound shot, the Japanese suddenly realized the uncouth barbarians had gotten ahead of them in technology.  They realized also that their coastal cities could not be defended against a modern navy. Admiral Perry’s little visit touched off a series of events that toppled the last shogunate and restored power to the teenage Meiji Emperor in 1868.

The Meiji Emperor was a forward-thinking young man who decided Japan had to stop being a medieval backwater and join the modern world. Within a few short years the old fuedalist system of ancestral fiefdoms was demolished. The country was reorganized into prefectures with state-appointed governors. Industrialization and the introduction of new technologies and modern banking systems quickly followed. There was even an elected parliament and prime minister, although suffrage was limited and the Emperor still pretty much was in charge of the big stuff.

And the samurai class was abolished. Japan built a modern military based on European models, and young men of all backgrounds were consripted into it. But no more samurai.

Then Japan got to try out its new, modernized army, first against China and then against Russia. In the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), Japan fought Qing Dynasty China over influence in Joseon Dynasty Korea. China had not modernized its army and sued for peace. The defeat for China touched off events that led to the 1911 revolution that deposed the last emperor. The victory for Japan persuaded the Japanese they should be considered the great power of Asia.

Then there was the Russso-Japanese War, 1904-1905. There is quite a good article about this war and its effects on 20th century history at the Association of Asian Studies that I recommend.  Very briefly, both Russia and Japan had imperialist plans for Korea and Manchuria, so they had a war. And Russia did very badly. In fact, the war should have ended more quickly, but Tsar Nicholas II refused to believe his army would lose to Japan. Many years earlier he had visited Japan as Tsesarevich and barely survived an assasination attempt there. He considered the Japanese to be “a bunch of monkeys” ever after. How could Japan possibly defeat Imperial Russia? More to the point, how could a nonwhite nation defeat a white one? It soon became obvious that the Japanese had a superior military to Russia, but even so both sides were depleted when President Theodore Roosevelt offered to broker peace.  One problem with the peace deal is that TR denied the Japanese an indemnity it expected, which led to two days of rioting in Tokyo. Per the Assocation of Asian Studies:

After courting the Japanese, Roosevelt decided to support the tsar’s refusal to pay indemnities, a move that policymakers in Tokyo interpreted as signifying that the US had more than a passing interest in Asian affairs. Indeed, the argument can be made that the conduct of the United States during the treaty negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War not only contributed to the broader recognition of its growing role in the Pacific, but also started US and Japanese policymakers down the road that resulted in Pearl Harbor and culminated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But in the early 20th century there was another factor eating away at Japanese modernity, and that was the lost tradition of the samurai. Japan’s was a conservative culture that romanticized the old days of samurai military rule. The men who were the top officers of the military were the sons and grandsons of samurai, and these officers had not received the inheritance their forefathers had received. And so it was that Japan drifted down a rabbit hole of right-wing authoritarianism. By the 1930s, Japan had effectively become a military dictatorship once again. More than one historian has pointed out the parallels between the 1930s Japanese military top brass and the exiled imperial sons of earlier centuries who came back to power through military conquest of the Emishi.

And this brings me to Russia and Ukraine. I keep running into people who are still clnging to the notion that Putin has some legitimate grievance regarding NATO that explains the invasion. And I have also run into the notion that the invasion is really about oil deposits in the Black Sea that Russia wants. People will argue and argue this point.

But I think the truer reasons for Russia’s wars of aggression are more sociopsychological and sociocultural than geopolitical or economic. Truly, if you look closely, more often than not this explains most modern wars. Nations choose to engage in war for reasons that are mostly intangible, possibly even imaginary. That was certainly true for Germany in World War II. It was true of the U.S. in Vietnam and Afghanistan/Iraq. I could go on. And in the interest of world peace, this needs to be acknowledged. Maybe we’ll stop making the same mistake if this is better understood.

Please see Russia believed the West was weak and decadent. So it invaded. by Kristina Stoeckl and Dmitry Uzlaner at the Washington Post.

Russia presents itself as being at the forefront of the global culture wars, leading the resistance to liberal values. Russian anti-Westernism has religious implications: According to its own narrative, Russia is guarding true Christian faith, as embodied in the Eastern Orthodox church, from Western attempts to distort it, whether through Marxism in the 20th century or liberalism in the 21st.

Ukraine plays an important role in this story. It is depicted as part of the “Russian world,” the cradle of Russian civilization, which for many centuries was centered not around Moscow but around Kyiv, capital of today’s Ukraine. Ukraine’s choice to orient itself toward the West and reconcile a Slavic Orthodox identity with liberal democratic values is thus dangerous to this Russian vision of itself.

I believe this. It’s not really about oil and it’s not really about NATO. It’s about how Russia understands itself (or, at least, how Putin understands it) in light of its history and national mythology.

The article goes on to say that mixed into the Russian vision of itself is a whole lot of Christian conservatism imported from the U.S. that also saw the West as hopelessly corrupt and failing.

This account of the West helped give birth to a new Russian triumphalism. Russian media filled with TV shows and “documentaries” on “Gayropa” and “Sodom.” These shows conjured up a caricature of weak “gayish” Western males and women who lost their femininity by competing with men in spheres where they could achieve nothing serious.

Russian media frequently stressed the oddity that many Western democracies nominated women as defense ministers, as if that was the ultimate proof that the West has lost its ability to defend itself. In this collective image of a weak West, Russia depicted itself (to the inside and outside) as the country of strength, the bulwark of traditional families: with strong men, fertile women and children properly guarded against subversive homosexual propaganda.

Sounds like Florida. And, frankly, I’m sure Trump as president fed into Putin’s fantasies of the weak West. But I am done with people who keep whining that this war is somehow NATO’s fault.

6 thoughts on “Russia Invaded Ukraine for Imaginary Reasons

  1. Maha – you managed to hint at how tangled the web of motives, excuses, sources of power, exploited grievances, and religion affect the decision to commit thousands to a conflict that will affect millions and result in destruction that (ignoring the graves) will cost billions – or trillions. And for what (going in) and at what cost (or benefit) when it's all done. 

    Was Iraq for the oil (which we got no permanent hold on) or to make money for the military-industrial folks (VP Cheney) or to stroke the ego of Rumsfeld ho as convinced he could do a cheap war with huge commercial gains? Was it because Sadam had insulted the senior Bush and W was trying to impress his mother? (Some weird Freudian stuff there, but not necessarily wrong.) We know the threat of WMD was manufactured – so what was the reason?

    If we don't know the basis of a recent US war, guessing Putin's mind will always be a guess. Putin is (almost) always the shortest guy in the room. Angela Merkel is two inches shorter – and a foot taller if you consider integrity a factor. Age may be a factor – Putin is nearly 70. To go down in History for restoring Russia (according to Putin's vision or hallucination,) conquest has to be now. Putin's speeches have implied the dominance Putin thinks is Russia's global role. IMO, Putin sees NATO as a method to cage the bear. Also as opinion, Trump's major contribution was breaking down NATO, creating internal conflict and uncertainty about if the US would participate in supporting Europe. (And Trump was a dream come true for Putin but NATO is stronger than any one country. NATO held and Biden restored the faith)

    What I'm seeing on FB looks like an organized attempt to divide the US on involvement. IMO, the participants do not know they are being fed the narrative they are spreading. But it comes from somewhere and blaming NATO is the core. This makes no rational sense. NATO has never invaded another country, unlike the USSR or modern Russia. NATO is not guilty of war crimes by any stretch. And yet NATO is at fault for what Russia is doing to cities and towns, including rape, torture, and murder.

    The good news is that the Pro-Putin propaganda seems to be failing. Russian crimes around Keiv are being documented. Anti-NATO accusations aren't getting much traction against the photos of murdered civilians, evidence of torture, and bodies of children. 

    There are dangerous ulra-nationalists in Ukraine who have committed crimes against civilians. That's true and I do not approve. These crimes were within Ukraine against Ukranians. It's not Moscow's place to overthrow the government to put in Russian nationalists.

    • My interpretation of why the U.S. invaded Iraq…

      Little George – I can finish what my daddy could not

      Darth Cheney – Oil

      Bush's Brain – War time presidents always get elected

      Neocons – "Real men go to Tehran" but Iraq is a start

  2. To some people, it seems, war must have a noble cause.  Other people contend that all wars are ignoble, and result from some group of humans run amok.  Most people are in the middle and like to pick and choose the wars that they see as just and noble, and ones rooted in righteous pursuit.  A few are on a different path completely.

    Sigmond Frued posited his grand theory of human behavior when determinism was contending with notions more metaphysical, many linked to religious and/or spiritual belief systems.  Eros, a life force, was posited as the energy source for all human activity, which was a needed for the preservation of all humans.  All was well and good with his theory until the horror of WWI.  This was human behavior, which was killing off humans in huge numbers, hardly attributable to a life force.  Well, the theory was not completely discredited, but had to be modified to include another force, to explain why humans destroy themselves in mass numbers.

    Could it not be possible that humans destroy themselves in mass numbers not due to another force but due to the way their life support systems work, here using the immune system as an example.  The immune system, of course, is our natural defense system against cell sized invaders.  Without it we perish, having no natual defense for invasive bacteria and viruses.  We have learned to fortify it with vaccines in recent years and anti-biotics, while using our language of war to describe its mechanics.  Is it not amazing that this war at the cellular level sometimes goes amok and the defending army starts attacking our "good cells"?  No one seems to know why this happens, but some seem to think it is because our defending army gets too bored (It is quite a reach to attribute a personality disorder to a T-cell but take that mental jump if you dare).  

    This is not all we seem not to know at the cell war level.  We have been puzzled by how our defensive cells come by the ability to adapt to mutating viruses and the like. How do they know a bad virus from a mutated bad virus?  One recent puzzle is why the system needs a period of time to develop appropriate antibodies?  One new idea addressing this throws out the notion that your immune system is an evolutionary design for your personal survival.  It seems more that it is a design more suited to the survival of your species and is quite willing to sacrifice you and many others like you for the well-being of your kind.  Here also a mental flight to cell level heroism to explain why this war strategy might prevail, is well beyond reasonable limits against over-generalization from cell behavior to human behavior.  

    If one were to generalize, would it not be more reasonable to contend that all war and this war is a characteristic of even the simplest of organisms?  As the survival of the group seems to be the determining force at the cell-war level, should not that be the probable determining force at the multi-cell level of organism?  No real need to explain why with the likes of Freudian theory or search for the true cause of this war horror. 

    So too, Russia might be misperceiving an existential treat, and reacting like a bored T-cell and attacking what is claims to be part of itself…mutated into decedent western culturalism.   Let us just say that if this war is an act of a free will and the complex mind of a human or humans, it sure mirrors the common behavior of a mindless single living cell.  A cell whose behavior is generally seen as much more determined by the laws which control all life than the amalgamation of cells that is Putin or the amalgamation of humans that is called Russia. 



  3. Good summation, difficult topic. Britain had the same problem: the younger sons (and daughters) of the landed gentry with no land left to inherit. Solved it with arbitrary land grants in the Carolinas and Virginias of the "new world" a hundred and fifty years before the Mayflower dumped it's unruly passengers ahead of the crew running out of beer and killing them all. Greatest trick the devil ever pulled was establishing that founding myth.

    Those younger sons (and daughters) of the landed gentry with no land left to inherit brought their old-world lifestyle with them: at first with peasantry and indentured servitude but they couldn't bring enough; then they tried enslaving the natives which didn't turn out well at all … then they took to dealing in slaves. Which of course (eventually) didn't work out but is the root of those same resentments over the loss of prestige (or perceived prestige). Indeed, that Cavalier background is the root of all our troubles.

    Not entirely off-topic side-note: Siberia is a big place and though Russia claims it Russia doesn't fully control it, and Japan is already making moves to re-establish claims forfeited a hundred and more years ago; China has claims as old if not older … the Japanese, afterall, were Chinese immigrants.

  4. Another reason Japan wanted its own colonial empire was that it wanted to westernize, and all the great western powers, and some not so great ones, had colonial empires. Those empires provided markets, resources, labor and strategic control in the battle against the other great powers. Around the time Japan was taking over Korea and challenging Russia, the US clobbered Spain and took over its empire including the Philippines. Kipling wrote a poem about it, "The White Man's Burden", asking if the US was up to being a proper colonial power. Since he wrote in English, Kipling never wrote a Japanese version which is just as well.

    I read an old article in Foreign Affairs about Russia, written shortly before World War II, arguing that the differences between much of Europe and Russia stemmed from Constantine's adoption of Christianity and the move of the Roman capital to Asia Minor. The western church inherited the old Roman citizen values. Constantine wanted to be an eastern style absolute leader without a nagging senate to deal with. Degraded as they were, religious and secular power stayed two separate domains in the west. In the eastern empire, the emperor was supreme in both realms.

    Russia adopted that view of power and orthodoxy by the time Olga of Kiev converted and went from persecuting Christians to persecuting pagans. Then came the Northern Crusades, the "Polack wars" in Hamlet, fighting against, among others, the Russian hero Alexander Nevsky. By the time that article was written, Stalin was citing the essential "asiatic" nature of Russia and the need to defend it from the decadent west. He had a point; Hitler was no prize. As others have noted, when Peter the Great visited the west, her brought back ship making technology, not parliamentarian democracy.

    That reminds me. What happened to Catherine the Great? She was the one who actually built up Russian infrastructure and won actual wars. Has she been written out of Russian history? Given her court of vipers, she was clearly as tough as nails. Maybe Putin needs to borrow one of her old war leader outfits from a museum and show the world how to win a war. That would be a hoot.


  5. Hitler and Stalin were mass murderers who inflicted death and pain on millions of innocents. After losing WWII, Germany had to spend time coming to terms with its past. After winning that war, Russia never had to make the same kind of reckoning; it could remember its triumph in the Great Fatherland War and assure itself that it had destroyed fascism and therefore was innocent of wrongdoing during the twentieth century. 

    Khrushchev exposed some but not all the crimes of Stalin, whose memory is still recalled with some fondness in Russia. Pictures and busts are displayed in public and some citizens still think that he did more good than harm. In Germany, it is illegal to have displays of images of Hitler in public.

    The difference between what Germany and Russia did with the dark part of their pasts has something do to with the differences in their current policies toward the world.

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