Six months after the war launched by Russia against Ukraine, thousands of Ukrainian civilians have died, millions have become refugees, and thousands of soldiers have been killed on both sides. The response to Russia’s invasion was swift: outrage and condemnation, harsh sanctions, and NATO countries rallying to help Ukraine win the war and rout the Russian evil.
Unexpectedly, the consequences of the sanctions are dire for the entire world: inflation is roaring worldwide, with oil and gas – the lifelines of most economies – and corn and wheat – food staples of the world – being used as pawns in the war, endangering many economies and creating food insecurity for the poorer countries.
China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia have formed a newly empowered “evil axis” intent on toppling the prevalent world order (rule-based international order upheld chiefly by the US and Western democracies). The Third World, or Developing World, is not aligning with the West on this question. There is talk of a new Cold War starting; even worse, a Third World War. Can something else be done? With different results?
How to end the Ukraine-Russia War quickly and save more people
At some point, the war will stop. Looking at the war from the point of view of collective trauma and the emotional layers that come with it can help attain a quicker resolution and save more people from dying.
Analysts, pundits, and politicians have described Vladimir Putin as an authoritarian leader who lost his mind, a second Hitler with imperial ambitions, and a powerful threat to all of Europe. But others have resisted this understandable tendency to view him as an ambitious and evil autocrat set on recreating the Soviet Union. They seem to understand the collective trauma and its multi-generational impact behind his reasoning and actions. The advantage of this type of understanding is that it helps us diminish instead of amplify the flames of the conflict.
Like unresolved individual trauma, unresolved collective trauma leads to serious misunderstandings, polarized beliefs, negative emotions, deregulated and sometimes aggressive behavior, and aggression among groups or nations at the collective level. Collective trauma contributes to the distortion of collective narratives and perceptions of needs, leading to intolerance of differences, in this case ethnic, religious, cultural, political and economic system differences. Unresolved collective trauma creates conflict and chaos. Propaganda is used to demonize “the other” and incite violence and destruction, including genocide.
With his invasion and threat of nuclear war, Putin has created an international uproar, threatened the international order, and unified the West against him and Russia.
Their quick response is dangerously shaking a global economy that has barely recovered from the two-year corona pandemic. The art of diplomacy must be foremost in the decision-making process, holding both views together: led by a calculating, ambitious autocrat with a strong nostalgia for the lost Soviet empire and grander Russia, Moscow may have made a strategic mistake, failing to consider the considerable support Ukraine is receiving from the West, including weapons, training and intelligence.
Many speculated that Putin might be assassinated, or that the Russian population might revolt. But we can also analyze Putin’s stated reasons for invading Ukraine. Through his eyes, we see a wounded Russia, a proud country with a long history of cultural and artistic contributions to Western civilization. Yet there is also a traumatic history of occupation by several European countries, the 1991 demise of the Soviet empire and the consequent shaming, the ferocious struggle for ideological competition with the dominant US and its Western allies, and their reluctance to integrate Russia into Europe.
The Russian collective trauma has been re-awakened. Applying the Free from Conflict Model, we can see that from Putin’s viewpoint, Russia’s universal basic needs (UBN) have been compromised. These include the needs for physical and political safety, self-image, identity, meaning, trust and justice.
1. Russia's sense of safety has been compromised
For Putin, NATO threatened Russia’s need for safety (physical, economic and cultural) when it integrated most of the previous Soviet satellites – central and east European nations – under its military umbrella against Russia’s wishes. Putin’s redlines were Ukraine, with its long border with Russia, and the dispute over Crimea, which he invaded in 2014 to regain access to the sea. The 2004 Orange Revolution had over the years exacerbated the sense of danger, and the 2014 Maidan “coup” shifted a Russophone Ukrainian government – which allowed the ethnic Russian population to exercise its identity (culture and language) – to a West-oriented government, which canceled the Russian language in Ukraine. It also engaged in an eight-year war in the Donbas against ethnic Russians.
Putin believed that “if Ukraine joined NATO, it would be a direct threat to Russia’s security,” but his demands to keep Ukraine out of NATO were ignored. He saw the moves to incorporate Ukraine into NATO and the EU’s offer for economic expansion and pushing Ukraine away from Russia’s circle of influence as signs that they intend to invade Russia. In response to this sense of insecurity, and taking advantage of the American debacle in Afghanistan, Putin felt free to invade Ukraine as a “defensive maneuver meant to “demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine.”
Speculation over his intent, his demonization by the West and calls for regime change in Russia do nothing to allay his fears. With Russia’s history littered with European invasions, European moves to enfold Ukraine ignored at their own peril Russia’s fears of being occupied and subjected to other nations’ imperial goals again. Resolving Russia’s collective trauma could help fulfill Russia’s fundamental safety needs without resorting to war. Or is it too late?
2. Russia's self-image, sense of identity and meaning have been compromised
Putin perceives the conflict as part of a serious confrontation between Russia and the West. He views the Soviet collapse as a total catastrophe. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Empire fell, Russia had no Marshall plan. Instead, an arrogant claim of victory against “the evil empire” was followed by mocking and condemnation of the communist system. The proud Russian nation’s humiliation was complete. The establishment afterward of a US-dominated unipolar international system was the final nail in the coffin. For Russia, keeping Ukraine in its orbit is righting some of that humiliation and restoring its superpower.
3. Russia's compromised sense of trust
Russia does not trust the intentions of the West. Putin accuses the West of fostering Ukraine’s Orange Revolution under the guise of promoting democracy, when their goal was to topple the pro-communist Russophone regime. He excoriates NATO’s and the EU’s expansion in the Baltic and other East European nations, the 2008 Summit regarding Georgia and Ukraine’s application to NATO, and the West’s lack of reciprocity regarding Russia’s sphere of influence, like the Monroe Doctrine for the US.
4. Russia's compromised sense of justice
Regarding Putin’s “Denazifying” comment, Ukraine fought on the side of Hitler, and Russia remembers the involvement of pro-Nazi groups in the 2014 Ukraine coup and its continued presence in the Donbas war. Russia was a victim of Nazism, with 40 million Russians killed in WWII. While Ukraine has recognized its participation in the Holocaust, it is Russia’s beneficial actions that helped the West win the war at significant costs and stop the Holocaust.
How can the West help Russia, Putin satisfy their unfulfilled universal basic needs?
How can Europe, the US, and the international community help Putin and all the Russians who support him satisfy their unfulfilled universal basic needs for safety, self-image, identity and meaning, trust and justice, in healthy, peaceful ways? It is a crucial endeavor. If the escalation is kept up, the sanctions’ unintended consequences and conflict amplification will continue to ripple worldwide. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea’s synergy will get stronger, and further empower them to be more aggressive in their intent to topple the West’s international order, and with the help of the BRICS countries, work toward the demise of the dollar’s hegemony as a reserve currency.
How to quell the political revolt in the Third World?
ANOTHER ISSUE of note is the Third World’s position. It has decided not to take sides, and continues to ignore the American threat for breaking the sanctions against Russia because those sanctions are crushing their own economies. Their result was not only minimizing the impact of the West’s sanctions against Russia (which is selling more oil now than before the war), but negatively impacting the European and American economies, and creating a political revolt in the Third World against the West’s hegemony. Here are a few options to address their needs and their deep antipathy against the neo-Nazis fighting them on the Ukrainian side.
1. Help Russia fulfill its safety needs
Start by helping Russia fulfill its safety needs in constructive ways. Safety requires safe borders, which means that Ukraine should not be part of NATO (whose reason d’etre is to fight the Russian peril). Kissinger said it best: “While Ukraine should have the right to choose its economic and political associations freely, including with Europe, it should not join NATO.” The West must compromise and reassure Russia it can have its own Monroe-like doctrine, mandating that the Eastern sphere is not turned against Russia. Ukrainian leaders can opt for reconciliation between their country’s ethnic Russian and Ukrainian populations and not cancel the Russian language. Ukraine could have imitated Finland, which was fiercely independent before the war, yet cooperating with the West and avoiding hostility toward Russia.
“While Ukraine should have the right to choose its economic and political associations freely, including with Europe, it should not join NATO.”Henry Kissinger
NATO needs to use real deterrence – including Europe freeing up its energy needs from Russian supplies and being ready for military intervention. Just as importantly, Russia must get a clear message that whatever its grievances, military conflicts could produce another Cold War, perhaps even leading to a hot one. Still, as Kissinger suggested, the West must not establish the present conflict as an East-against-West confrontation.
2. Satisfying Russia's need for self-image, identity and meaning
The international community can recognize Russia’s historic civilizational grandeur. Cross-cultural understanding is essential. Both sides do not understand each other’s values. Patronizing and demonizing Putin and the Russians just backfires, making them more aggressive. Taking it for granted that Russia must obey the international world order established by Western rules and values against Russian interests also backfires. It is also essential to recognize that Ukraine is not any foreign country to Russia. The cradle of Russian history and religion started there, in Kievan-Rus. Ukraine has always been an integral part of Russia and Russian history. Their histories are forever intertwined.
3. Satisfying Russia's need for trust and justice
Russia must be made aware that if its trauma vortex continues to spin out of control, the US, Europe and others are willing to go to war to protect a country’s territorial sovereignty. There can be no more Crimeas or Georgias. Simultaneously, the international community must recognize what the Nazis did to Russia.
4. Satisfying Russia's need for meaning
Russia’s need for meaning can best be served if the West invites Putin, as he had hoped before, to work in tandem with the West, which is already so dependent on Russian oil. This dependency is so pronounced, and the sanctions’ impact so devastating to Europe and the whole world, that sanctions against Russian oil are quietly being lifted. Putin can be a bridge between the West and the Communist Asian East. The US, Russia and Europe should be brought together to collaborate in the international system. It may still be possible to show Putin he has much to contribute to the West and the world. His fight with the West is now somewhat artificial. The West and Russia have much in common, although politics have hijacked their common grounds. He can also be invited to consider why East European nations want to unite with Europe and not with Russia.
It is essential to stop the demonization, understand the historical and emotional nuances, and keep the dialogue open, focusing on helping the different parties fulfill their universal basic needs. A Free from Conflict Protocol offers much to the current situation. Understanding peoples’ and nations’ universal basic needs and how they get distorted by trauma opens the door to dialogue, with more significant potential for diplomacy. But the threat of using defensive force must be fully met for nations that have already fallen into a violent trauma vortex. ■
Gina Ross is founder/president of the International Trauma-Healing Institutes in the US and Israel, and co-founder of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem.