Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has upended the international order. Of course, he has given many reasons for his actions. These excuses do not make his unprovoked invasion right. At the same time, however, labeling Putin evil, Hitler or crazy and calling for regime change have not stopped the war and make diplomatic efforts less likely to succeed.
If we look at the situation through Putin’s eyes, it is clear that he sees himself as representing a wounded Russia, a proud country with a long history of contributions to Western civilization that feels rejected and threatened.
Hopefully, it is not too late to bring an understanding of trauma, cross-cultural differences and how basic psychological needs govern people’s actions to the task of diplomacy.
How was Russia’s collective trauma reawakened?
Sense of safety: Putin believes that if Ukraine joins NATO and/or the E.U., it will be a serious threat to Russian security. He calls the invasion an act of self-defense intended to “de-nazify” Ukraine. Given that several European countries have attempted to conquer Russia in the past, Russia understandably fears for its safety. Russia must be reassured and helped to fulfill its genuine security needs without resorting to war.
Self-image and meaning: Putin sees the conflict as part of a confrontation between Russia and the West. He believes the collapse of the USSR was a catastrophe. The West’s mocking of communism made the proud Russian nation’s humiliation absolute. Afterwards, Putin’s attempts to reconcile with the E.U. and NATO were rebuffed. The U.S. then came to control a new unipolar international system. To Putin, keeping Ukraine in Russia’s orbit is necessary for Russia to regain its superpower status.
Sense of trust: Putin does not trust the West, particularly after it supported the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in the name of promoting democracy. That revolution toppled a pro-Russian government and came on top of years of NATO expansion. Putin also accuses the U.S. of unfairly rejecting Russia’s right to its sphere of influence while retaining the Monroe Doctrine, which declares the Americas to be the U.S. sphere of influence.
Sense of justice: Putin claims that he seeks to “de-nazify” Ukraine. Though Ukraine has a Jewish president and recognized the Babyn Yar massacre after many years, it also has a neo-Nazi military unit. Putin remembers that Ukraine fought on the side of Hitler and is only now beginning to acknowledge its participation in the Holocaust. Why, he no doubt wonders, is Ukraine being courted by Europe and NATO, when Russia was a major victim of Nazism?
Europe, the U.S. and the international community can engage in a dialogue that will help satisfy Russia’s basic needs for safety, self-image, meaning, justice and trust.
Safety: The first step would be to ensure that Russia has safe borders. The West will likely have to compromise on Ukraine joining NATO while ensuring Ukraine’s security. It must respect Putin’s own “Monroe Doctrine.” Ukrainian leaders should seek to reconcile its Russian and Ukrainian populations.
Of course, Putin must understand that the West is ready for a new cold or even hot war if necessary. The West should ensure deterrence, as it is doing now by arming Ukraine. This also shows that the West is not afraid of Putin’s nuclear arsenal.
But the West must also use diplomacy. Instead, it is creating a narrative that the conflict is an East-West confrontation, which has pushed Putin into the arms of China and Iran. If this situation persists, Western power will be significantly diminished.
This is because a new order is already being forged. Asian, African and South American nations are rebelling against Western demands to sanction Russia. Russia has been a trusted ally to them, supplying grain, gas and weapons, as well as military and diplomatic help. These nations are creating new economic and banking systems in order to free themselves from American economic hegemony. This only benefits nations like China, which is seeking to remake the international system to its own advantage.
Self-esteem and identity: Efforts should be made to recognize Russia’s civilizational grandeur. Canceling Russian authors, music, ballet, sports and others is childish and does not advance the cause of peace. The West and Russia must attempt to understand each other’s values. French President Emmanuel Macron had it right: The West must avoid humiliating Russia. It cannot expect Russia to conform to a world order established according to Western rules that are against Russian interests. Moreover, for Russia, Ukraine is not just another foreign country. Ukraine has been intertwined with Russia and Russian history for centuries.
Sense of trust and justice: Peace does require deterrence and NATO must warn Putin that it is willing to go to war to protect its members’ territorial sovereignty. At the same time, the international community must recognize what the Nazis did to Russia.
Meaning: Eventually, Putin can be invited to serve as a bridge between the West, already so dependent on his oil, and the Far East, preventing the latter from going rogue. Russia straddles Europe and Asia. Putin has interests in both and can and should collaborate in the international system.
The West must understand that the struggle between it and Russia is artificial and benefits no one. The two sides must explore potential common ground.
Gina Ross, MFCT, is the founder and President of the International Trauma-Healing Institute USA and ITI-Israel.