I will not lie to you by saying that war is a newcomer to our reality. Wars were plentiful in our past and, I’m afraid, will be plentiful in our future international relations. But certain linguistic limitations force this simple word to house radically different phenomena, such that it requires a special skill to tease them all apart and put them all together.
Even though all wars ultimately bring violence, they differ greatly. Differences can be seen in scope, in the intended goals, and most importantly in the archetypes that they excite in the collective consciousness. It is natural to assume that those making the decision to start a war will take into account the “resonance” that will be excited in both sides of the conflict. Therefore, these expectations aren’t purely rational - rationality depends on one’s worldview - but are rather intuitive and understandable on a more basic level.
In February 2022, a mistake was made that I, as an analyst, must apologize for. I personally did not believe in the possibility of what ended up happening on February 24th. I did not believe it because that decision was the absolute worst one that could have been made, given the archetypical programming of the elites. The decision is so bad in fact that the only way to explain it is by allowing for the possibility of a fundamental rupture between the Russian military/political elites and reality.
Before, we could have had arguments about the goals that Russian political leaders were pursuing, but we would have had to acknowledge a certain degree of success they had in pursuing these goals over the last 15 years: the 2014 operation in Crimea, the Syrian intervention and last month’s Kazakhstan deployment. But on February 21-24, Putin nullified all of his achievements and brought his country into a strategic dead end. A phrase comes to mind, belonging to Napoleon’s chief diplomat Talleyrand: “it is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”
We can only make indirect judgements about why the decision was made to directly and unambiguously attack Ukraine. It is already evident, however, that that decision was the worst of all worlds. The decision uses and strengthens ALL possible archetypes of war on the Ukrainian side, and does not activate A SINGLE archetype of war on the Russian side, which in turn fractures the very psychological foundation of the regime.
Allow me to clarify my terminology. Archetypes are universal, inherent psychological structures, which compose the “collective (un)consciousness” and which spontaneously determine human thought and behavior. The concept of archetypes assumes that, since these structures are outside of the plane of human consciousness, their effect isn’t always acknowledged by that consciousness, and is therefore projected outwards and tied to emotions. This entire process is, to a great extent, spontaneous. The “archetype matrix” explains the existence of similar sociocultural models and motifs seen among various peoples and cultures.
Let’s start with Ukraine. In this war, Ukraine can draw on all of the historical archetypes that feed the collective imagination: the Patriotic War, the Defensive War, the Wild Cossack Approach and the Partisan (Home) War. The very fact that all of these archetypes are present simultaneously is a once-in-a-millenium occurrence.
The Defensive War archetype is one of the most deeply rooted archetypes of Western Christian culture, which is activated in the event of an attack of an external force on a political community. Christian culture generally decries violence, but allows for an exception - the use of violence to defend the defenseless, such as children, women and the elderly: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends” (John 15:13). Therefore a country with a Christian culture always finds it easier to wage a defensive war.
The Patriotic War archetype is rooted in the consciousness of a people under attack that unite in a righteous struggle. This archetype is present in the entire post-Soviet space, being an heirloom of the Russian Empire (Napoleon’s 1812 invasion, the Patriotic War) and the Soviet Union (Germany’s 1941 invasion, the Great Patriotic War).
The Wild Cossack Approach archetype is more elusive, and could have laid dormant here if not for the effective narrative efforts of the Office of the President. As a result of these efforts Ukrainians everywhere have responded to the challenge with enthusiasm, despite the ubiquitous tragedy and drama of the events unfolding. It is similar to a passage from The Lost Letter - “How are we going to fight them? - we’ll find one way or another!” This archetype is rooted in the importance of personal choice - leading to bravery that can border on madness. In other terms, it is the belief that one’s sheer force of will can overcome the most hopeless of situations. One pictures a Cossack unit attacking a Turkish army 20 times its size.
The Partisan (Home) War archetype is self-evident. It is deeply rooted in Slavic history, with temporary retreats into the woods to avoid the raiders of the steppes. One sees its imprint in the entire Slavic space, from Poland and the Czech Republic, to the Balkans, to Ukraine and Russia.
The simultaneous activation of these archetypes is already bearing fruit: Ukraine in a matter of days has cast off its centuries-old victim mentality - which hung around its neck like an albatross - and became an independent subject. This change will not be reversed, regardless of the final result of this war! One can see the change in the tone Ukraine’s leadership has in its discussions with the EU and NATO - it is not a subservient beggar, but an honorable equal.
Before moving on to Russia, I will quickly comment on the EU, in order to accentuate the folly in Putin’s decision.
From the West’s perspective, the most comfortable - emotionally speaking - model of warfare is “civilization vs. barbarism” and “the Crusade.” These have been the most historically successful narratives, and the West is very comfortable with them. This is the reason behind the lightning-quick reaction we saw when it came to sanctions, behind the degree of solidarity with Ukraine and behind the visceral condemnation of Russia’s actions. On a psychological level, Europe’s reaction could not have been different due to this basic, psychological reason. One can only guess why Moscow didn’t see this coming. With that in place, let’s discuss why none of the Russian archetypes of war were activated on February 24th.
Russia’s military history has many examples of successes and heroism. But it must be noted - in the absence of battlefield superiority, success was only ever seen in defensive wars. In these defensive wars, many archetypes were activated - that of the Partisan (home) War, of the Patriotic War and, above all, of the Holy War. These were the wars that brought success and that left their mark on collective memory.
Success in offensive operations was only ever seen in two cases. In the first, there was an overwhelming numerical superiority. In the second - a critical technological superiority. Examples include the conquest of Siberia, successful campaigns in Central Asia, and the Russo-Turkish wars of the 18th century.
Neither is present in the current war. Currently, no amount of propaganda has been able to convince even Russia’s domestic audience that this is a defensive war. There is no overwhelming numerical superiority vis-a-vis the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The operation was launched without an understanding of the real state of Ukraine’s society and army. The assumption was that a relatively modest force and airstrike campaign would be able to demoralize the military and the country’s leadership, leading to capitulation and subsequently to adoring crowds throwing flower wreaths onto the victorious Russian columns. The Russian military’s technological superiority was also, at the very least, insufficient - some might say outright absent. The West had enough time to provide the country with more effective armaments: most notably drones and anti-tank devices.
The intermediate conclusions are quite paradoxical - even from the perspective of the regime’s internal logic, the decision is at odds with the fundamental aims of the decision itself. What could have led to this mistake? I am sure that historians will write many a tome on the topic. I will humbly advance my own hypothesis here.
Russia’s leadership became a hostage of its own system of thought, which has been developing and growing since at least 2008. I propose to call this system the “matrix of foreign relations.” It is composed of four elements.
First, “we are the *Russian* people.” We are truth incarnate, the bringers of absolute justice, which absorbs into itself those carrying it, turning them into a conduit of some Higher Good. This approach absolves every individual of responsibility for their past actions, and this collective “us” erases any shadow in its history by participation in the war. In essence, the conflict serves as justification and absolution. But crucially - for this function to work, three other elements are required: a referential Other, a figure of Expiatory suffering, and a sacred Evil sacrifice.
The referential Other serves as a partner, dialogue with whom serves to confirm “out” right to Truth. Without this, our sense of self would be burdened with doubt about our righteousness, would be hounded by the specter of our personal culpability and by our fear of the corresponding responsibility. Only this kind of Other can serve as a partner in Dialogue. Clearly, from the Russian leadership’s perspective, this Other is the West.
The figure of Expiatory suffering is a group that lacks a sense of self, a figure that needs to be saved, and whose suffering allows “us” to speak the language of truth. Examples of this suffering include victims of the Holocaust, Soviet civilian losses in WW2, victims of the house explosions in Budyonovsk, Beslan, “peacekeepers” in South Ossetia, the “people” of the Donbas, victims of ISIS in Syria.
Finally, the key element of the matrix is “sacred Evil sacrifice.” Examples of this Evil sacrifice can be seen going all the way back to Plato. He differentiated between two types of conflict:”there are two kinds of war, one without and one within a state, of which the internal is by far the worse,” (Laws).
Internal war is defined as a war inside of a Greek polis or between Greek poleis, and is seen by Plato as a terrible tragedy, which occurs when “the poor and the hungering go to the administration of public affairs, after their own private advantage, thinking that hence they are to snatch the chief good, order there can never be; for they will be fighting about office, and the civil and domestic broils which thus arise will be the ruin of the rulers themselves and of the whole State” (Republic). Because in order to master the maelstrom, a Law is required - certain special rules of the game that are accepted by all sides: “And on similar grounds there should be a limit to the devastation of Hellenic territory—the houses should not be burnt, nor more than the annual produce carried off. For war is of two kinds, civil and foreign; the first of which is properly termed ‘discord,’ and only the second ‘war;’ and war between Hellenes is in reality civil war—a quarrel in a family, which is ever to be regarded as unpatriotic and unnatural, and ought to be prosecuted with a view to reconciliation in a true phil-Hellenic spirit, as of those who would chasten but not utterly enslave. The war is not against a whole nation who are a friendly multitude of men, women, and children, but only against a few guilty persons; when they are punished peace will be restored.” (Republic). Moreover, the goal of war between “civilized peoples” must be the establishment of agreement and unification: “reconcile the contending factions, and unite them against their external enemies.” (Laws).
In dealing with the non-Hellenic barbarian, no laws are required: “Hellenes should war against barbarians, as they war against one another now.” (Republic). Therefore, the ideal international system according to Plato is composed of 3 elements: We - the Polis, the Other - Greek city-states that are similar to us, and the Excluded barbarians, who can be subdued and punished without remorse. Moreover, it is this external barbarian that is the guarantor of internal peace and stability, and it is this barbarian’s suffering that is the antidote against inter-Polis civil war.
Returning to Russia, in the context of the Russian semantic war, the “Evil sacrifice” is the Platonic “barbarian” - the one you can “shiv in the shower” and eliminate without a second thought. This is because they are the source of the Expiatory suffering: Hitler, ISIS, Chechen terrorists or, in the case of Ukraine, Jewish Neo-Nazis etc…
In contrast to Expiatory suffering, the Evil sacrifice is an independent actor, but is at the same time located outside the bounds of “human” rules of conduct. There is no need for dialogue with the Evil sacrifice, no acknowledgement of its right to its own truth, its own history, its own ethics - it only exists to be destroyed. For this reason - its own destruction - it must have independence, since without independence the Evil sacrifice can’t cause the Expiatory suffering that justifies its destruction. Ideally, this Evil must be destroyed simultaneously with the referential Other, whose cooperation with “us” in the process of destroying the Evil is composed of two functions. First, it lends legitimacy to the equivalence of “our” righteousness to their system of values. Second, it relinquishes its right to question any aspect of our history - it grants us a pardon for all historical crimes. The joint destruction of the Evil sacrifice absolves “our” Jungian shadow.
This system can’t exist without the referential Other - the international context. Without the legitimacy granted by this Other to our tribunal-like righteousness, without the absolution granted by the Other to the dark pages of the history that haunt the “Russian people”, the latter can’t possibly hope to be a carrier of Truth. This is why dialogue with the Other is always more important than any Internal dialogue, which never leaves the barracks/house/apartment. This Internal dialogue is ugly, and it’s best to pretend it just doesn’t exist.
This is, on the whole, a complex model of ressentiment, the phenomenon that Nietzsche called “slave morality,” although a more apt term might be “unindependent morality.” Nietzsche described it as such: “in order to come about, slave morality first has to have an opposing, external world, it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all, – its action is basically a reaction.” The inability to express the individual “I” births a vengeful shadow - ressentiment - that is even more destructive in its potential than direct aggression.
Nietzsche himself described ressentiment thus: “Externalized hatred, the revenge of the impotent”, “the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naïve, nor honest and straight with himself. His soul squints; his mind loves dark corners, secret paths and back-doors, everything secretive appeals to him as being his world, his security, his comfort; he knows all about keeping quiet, not forgetting, waiting, temporarily humbling and abasing himself.” This psychology of ressentiment, which conceals the inability to deal with one’s own shadow, served as the foundation for modern Russia’s matrix of its foreign relations - the principal model which it uses to interpret and describe all relations with foreign entities.
I note that in the context of this model, any conflict that either modern Russia or its historical predecessors find itself embroiled in must necessarily be described with a single rhetorical model: “the forces of Evil appear out of nowhere on a certain territory (or they threaten to appear), causing the suffering of innocents. “Russia”/the forces of Good appear and resolve the situation, despite the intrigues of the West.” This is the model that is used for any conflict. Before, analysts assumed that, even taking this model as a given, those making the actual decisions in Russia understood that his model was fundamentally a propaganda tool that, at best, didn’t correspond to reality perfectly. Now, it is clear that over the last 15 years Vladimir Putin has begun to see this model as real. He made this decision based SOLELY on this illusion, and is now paying the price. Because meetings with reality are often brutal.
The semantic model collapsed in the war in Ukraine. To be frank, it collapsed back during the Syrian operation, but those operations were far away from the Russians. The war was causing minimal losses, and the population had the luxury of ignoring it. The Ukrainian situation is different.
The belief that the Donbas is some kind of innocent victim is a hard sell - even for the Russians themselves. Russian media have been unable to develop a real sympathy for the region outside of a small circle of propagandists, and in any event this ship has sailed. The belief that Ukraine is a victim that needs to be liberated isn’t even accepted by Russian soldiers: victims don’t tend form long queues to sign up for territorial defense.
The idea that Ukraine is an enemy that needs to be destroyed isn’t even seriously advanced by Russia’s propaganda machine. It simply can’t declare Ukraine as an enemy, since that runs counter to the liberation discourse - hence the bizarre descriptor of “special operation.” Special operations aren’t conducted with a significant percentage of your capable forces. The language of “denazification” has been used as a crutch, but ample video evidence now exists that no one is really happy to see the “liberators” - they are met with condemnation from fellow Russian speakers that are very similar to them in most ways - and as a result the image of an “absolute evil demanding destruction” falls apart. The acceptance of this fact is seen in statements from Kremlin talking heads - few call Vladimir Zelensky anything other than the legitimate President of Ukraine.
Which leaves us with the Other - the West. It is the West that the propaganda is trying to talk to. But it takes two to tango - and the West is being a wallflower. A little over two weeks ago, caravans of world leaders were flying to Moscow, and the caravan showed no sign of slowing down - but after February 24th there will be no more planes. Without these elements - the victim and the enemy - the key question of “Who Are We” remains unanswered. Instead of overcoming Our shadow - we are forced to face it, and when we do, we feel terror. Putin has undermined the foundations of Russia’s psychological stability, and it cannot be repaired! Because now, the shadow can’t be hidden. Some will certainly embrace it, quoting Blok by saying “Yes! We are the Scythians! We are the slit-eyed Asians!” But those capable of rational thought will feel horror when they begin to ask themselves questions as uncomfortable as they are logical.
There are few exits from this field of battle. It is a zugzwang - every decision that the military makes will in turn make the political goals of the war that much less feasible. Sending all available reserves - both technical and human - might lead to local success in Eastern Ukraine, but will eliminate definitely any hope of resonance with the Liberation War archetype, since it will create hatred among the last pockets of pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine. Furthermore, the Russian army is simply unprepared psychologically to carry out punitive war against such a similar population, which in no uncertain terms makes its displeasure known in each town and village (in clear, understandable Russian). This differs greatly even from Chechnya, which with a population twenty times smaller than Ukraine’s was never truly conquered.
Now, every day a Russian soldiers spends in Ukraine (and survives) offers a brutal collision with reality: psychological stress that they are unequipped to deal with. Soldiers in the columns aren’t shown videos of Kiselyov, and even if they were, it is harder to believe him each day. The human psyche loves self-delusion, but not when physical survival is at stake. Imperialistic wars are always hard to justify in this sense - especially for a person who doesn’t grasp the bigger picture. Dying for your Motherland - that is understandable. Dying somewhere far away from your Motherland - that requires significant motivation.
And here I return to my original points. Success in war depends a great deal on a correspondence between the war and the archetypes used to justify it. Each day takes away a soldier’s belief that he is fighting a Holy War - and Russian history knows no other way to ensure success in a war of aggression.
The war in Ukraine is the first war of its kind in the 21st century. First and foremost it is a psychological war, where resonance with archetypes contributes more to success than the materiel of the armies. It is in the field of these archetypes that Russia’s leadership lost the moment they gave the order to attack.