The Narcissism of Small Differences in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

I remember when I visited Crimea in 2015, I spoke to a retired Russian naval officer who was a longtime resident of the peninsula. He admitted that Russia had always viewed Ukraine as the little brother in the relationship and that perhaps Russians had underestimated how much some Ukrainians had resented that. I thought about this when I read the following excerpt of a Twitter thread by Alexander Gabuev in mid-March:

“The Russian Empire has never perceived Ukraine as a ‘colony’ and thus has never developed a discipline to study Ukraine as “the Other.” When Putin wrote that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people,” he meant it. These problematic assumptions have led to a giant flaw in the Kremlin’s understanding of Ukraine. Hence, Russian diplomats and spies who didn’t bother to learn the language or study the culture, and policymakers operating on stereotypes…The level of Ukraine expertise in Russia documented by Liza Surnacheva in 2014 was terrifying, and it hasn’t improved since. If anything, it only got worse.” ~ Alexander Gabuev, Twitter, 3/9/22

In previous pieces, I’ve focused on the larger geopolitical context of this conflict, but how much is the Russian leadership’s mindset about Ukraine itself a factor? Is there validity to Gabuev’s point above that the Russian leadership has a condescending attitude about Ukraine? Is there a lack of a realistic understanding of modern Ukraine among Russian officials?

I asked Professor Nicolai Petro, an expert on Russia and Ukraine, who told me: "Gabuev is not wrong, though the problem he describes is especially bad among countries that share so much. Sigmund Freud called it “the narcissism of the small difference.” As he wrote, “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.” It is then exacerbated by the in-fighting that typically occurs in large bureaucracies."

Petro referenced a 2010 article by Christopher Hitchens that goes into more detail on this phenomenon of small differences between two peoples creating such deep-seated hatred that can be difficult for outsiders to understand:

"But that in itself could well be the explanation. In numerous cases of apparently ethno-nationalist conflict, the deepest hatreds are manifested between people who – to most outward appearances – exhibit very few significant distinctions. It is one of the great contradictions of civilization and one of the great sources of its discontents…

…. In his book The Warrior’s Honor, Michael Ignatieff spent some time trying to elucidate what it was that made soldiers in the Balkan Wars – physically indistinguishable from one another – so eager to inflict cruelty and contempt upon Serb or Croat or Bosnian, as the case might be. Very often, the expressed hatred took the form of extremely provincial and local rivalries, inflamed by jealousies over supposed small advantages possessed by the other. Of course, here again there are latent nationalist and confessional differences to act as a force multiplier once the nasty business gets started, but the main thing to strike the outsider would be the question of "How can they tell?""

Indeed, on more than one occasion I have found myself wondering how Russians and Ukrainians can distinguish who is necessarily friend or foe in this conflict (when uniforms are not involved), both having a common Slavic ancestry and with many Ukrainians outside of Donbas – who view themselves firmly as Ukrainians – speaking Russian as their first language.

When I talked to Professor Paul Robinson about this, he agreed with Gabuev’s point to an extent: "I don’t have any direct knowledge of the level of Russian understanding of Ukraine, but Gabuev’s thesis certainly strikes me as credible. It has long struck me that Russians’ understanding of the West is very poor (as is Westerners’ understanding of Russia), so it would not be a surprise if the same is true of Ukraine."

As for the concept of the small differences driving more intense hostility, he seemed to agree but thought the situation was more complicated:

"Obviously, the long connection between Russia and Ukraine cannot but shape mutual perceptions in certain ways that hinder understanding. Beyond that, official Russia’s view of Ukraine has clearly been shaped by their experiences dealing with the Ukrainian state over the past 30 years, experiences which, I’m told, have not been good even under Ukrainian presidents who were considered ‘pro-Russian’ in the West (but were not viewed that way in Moscow)."

On the Ukrainian side, sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko pointed out in an interview before the war, that surveys over the years had demonstrated that the majority of Ukrainians were not concerned about identity but prioritized jobs, wages, and prices. The disproportionate influence of violent ultranationalists since 2014 has likely served as a convenient diversion away from the lack of economic progress for the majority of the population as neoliberal economic policies were increased at the same time. However, Ishchenko believes the Russian invasion has likely changed the role of identity and its prioritization.

Ukrainian academic Olga Baysha, who has family and friends in southeastern Ukraine, agrees that Russia likely has not paid sufficient attention to the change in non-rebel territories of the southeast since 2014 when many anti-Maidan residents would have welcomed the Russian intervention: "[W]hat was true in 2014 may not be necessarily the case now. Eight years have passed; a new generation of young people, raised within a new social environment, has grown; and many people simply accustomed themselves to new realities…Even if most of them despise radicals and the politics of Ukrainization, they hate the war even more. The reality on the ground has turned out to be more complex than decision-makers expected."

But Baysha also noted the lack of understanding and condescension of pro-Western Ukrainians who supported the divisive Maidan protests for those Ukrainians who opposed them. These internal divisions were bound up in culture, class, geography and ethnicity and paved the way for the conflict that started in 2014 and escalated this February: "[F]or me, this is the most tragic part of the whole post-Maidan story, because it is exactly this sense of superiority that prevented the "progressive" pro-Maidan forces from finding common language with their "backward" pro-Russian compatriots. This led to the Donbass uprising, the "anti-terrorist operation" of the Ukrainian army against Donbass, Russia’s intervention, Minsk peace agreements, their non-fulfillment, and, finally, the current war."

Natylie Baldwin is the author of The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations, available from Amazon and other major booksellers. She blogs at Twitter: @natyliesb.