War is a brutal sequence of horrors, including merciless murder and rape, at times wholesale massacre and even genocide. The warriors are often filled with rage, vengeance and other powerful and painful emotions. Why are the Russians and Ukrainians fighting so bitterly? The warped personality of the Russian tyrant Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a fascinating subject by itself, is not enough to explain the war, nor the horrible massacres at Bucha, Borodyanka, and all over Ukraine, and the unending war between Russians and Ukrainians. Each side fervently believes his war is just and that the other side is the villain. We now have millions of Ukrainian refugees both outside and within Ukraine, and countless cases of murder, rape and other war crimes by Russian soldiers, who treat their Ukrainian victims as less than human. If you look at this war in black and white terms, Russia is the obvious aggressor and Ukraine the victim. But human affairs are more complicated.
The tragic irony is that the Russians and Ukrainians are very much alike. Russian history began in “Kievan Rus,” a confederation of tribes centered around Kiev (Kyiv) in the 9th to 13th centuries. The languages are very similar, except for the h and the ï and other Latin characters in Ukrainian, which probably reached it from the Polish language. Ukraine was under Polish rule for centuries. The Cyrillic alphabet common to both languages consists of Greek, Latin and Hebrew characters. The religions are practically the same, Russian Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox. Rationally, there would have been every reason to expect the two neighboring nations to live in peace and harmony beside one another.
Nations, however, are psychological entities, and they provoke powerful emotions in their members as well as in their enemies. Normally, a nation is a large group of people who share a language, a territory and a collective history, much of it imagined and glorified. The psychoanalyst Erik Homburger Erikson called the nation a “pseudo-species” and the political historian Benedict Anderson “imagined communities.” It is a well-known and amazing fact that nations who are very close and similar to one another often fight more fiercely than those who are far apart. Sigmund Freud spoke of “the narcissism of minor differences,” whereas Vamik Volkan used the term “ethnic tent” under which the “large group” such as the nation gathers itself. The collective identity is threatened much more by those which are similar yet slightly different from it than it is by faraway ethnic communities.
Unconscious externalization and projection play a key psychological part in such conflicts. Each group can unconsciously and collectively attribute its own faults and defects to the neighboring one and fervently believe that its ideas about its neighbors are true. This kind of interaction happens between the English and Scots, between the Flemings and Walloons, between the Spanish and the Catalans, between the French the Belgians, and between countless neighboring tribes, ethnic group and nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It played a key role in the American Civil War and in fact, in many wars since the dawn of collective armed fighting in the history of our species, which probably began not earlier than twenty thousand years ago.
There are always, of course, rational and conscious motives for war: the wish for territory, domination, imperial aspirations, economic resources, and many others. But there are also the unconscious motives mentioned above. The psychoanalyst Franco Fornari called war “the paranoid elaboration of mourning,” mentioning how an African tribe whose chief has died, rather than mourn his death, believes that a neighboring tribe has killed him by witchcraft and make war of that tribe. Here again we see the work of externalization and projection. They are pernicious psychic processes that have made for untold cruelty and misery in the history of our species.
Under Nazi (“national-socialist”) influence, the Germans, who had suffered great losses and humiliations in the Great War of 1914-1918, fervently believed that they belonged to an imaginary superior “Aryan” race with its roots in Tibet, or maybe in Scandinavia, and they adopted the Hindu Swastika (in reverse) as their symbol. The Jews were dehumanized, even though most of the German Jews were very similar to the German Christians, and their culture was very German. This dehumanization, which also occurs in the Russian-Ukrainian war, made it possible for the Germans to murder six million Jews during the Second World War. They also murdered countless “gypsies,” homosexuals, handicapped people, Slavs, and those who were “not Aryan.” Christopher Browning described the process through which “ordinary men,” members of a German police unit, became mass murderers. Under extreme circumstances, indeed, ordinary men can commit atrocities.
In the heat of battle, emotions are inflamed. Russian soldiers whose tanks have been fire-bombed by Ukrainian fighters, feel tremendous rage at the defenders. These young Russians are also ill-treated by their commanders, and hazing is common in the Red Army. Their rage may include an unconscious displacement from their commanders to their Ukrainian antagonists. And the latter often treat the Russians as “dogs” who have come to destroy their country. Ukrainian nationalism and rage at the Russian occupiers become very intense.
The interpretation of history also plays an important role. The Ukrainians became part of Russia in the 17th century, when Bohdan Khmelnitsky, the hetman of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, and a former Polish nobleman who had fallen out with the Poles, settled his score with the Polish king and nobles by taking Ukraine, which had been under Polish rule for centuries, into the arms of the Russian Tsar. He and his Cossacks massacred entire Jewish communities during their war on the Poles, in 1648-1649. It was only in the 20th century that Ukraine became an independent nation. Nonetheless, the wish of the Ukrainians to distinguish themselves from the Russians has never been greater. The Russian war on Ukraine has caused Ukrainian nationalism to grow and prosper, and the mutual hatred between Russians and Ukrainians reached unprecedented proportions.
Will the horrific Russian-Ukrainian war stop if the Russians make the “Russian” provinces in the Ukrainian Donbas, Luhansk (Russian: Lugansk) and Donyetsk, independent from Ukraine, as they did with Crimea in 2014? It is hard to see Volodymyr Zelensky and his government giving up any part of their country. The nation is like a mother, and its members do not wish to see their motherland dismembered. Tragically, it seems, many more people will die before the current conflict is over. A furious Putin has threatened to use chemical and nuclear weapons. Many buildings, at times whole cities, in Ukraine lie in ruins. Many thousands have been killed on both sides. It is sad to see how the gradually growing division of our species during its evolution into “pseudo-species” called nations has been the source of destruction and death on a mass scale for so many centuries. Our own conflict with the Palestinian Arabs is yet another glaring example of the tragedy of this “pseudo-speciation.” Just as many Russians look on Ukraine as an integral and historical part of Russia, many Israelis look upon “Judea and Samaria” as part of the Land of Israel. The consequences are dire in both cases.