There are many different readings of this crisis. One that is overlooked in current accounts is to equate Putin’s action with teenage knife crime. Many teenage gang members are frightened and traumatized young men and often the most vulnerable are the most dangerous. Putin’s failure to overwhelm Ukraine means that he is now extremely vulnerable and at his most dangerous. Max Pixel graphic.
Disrespect and dangerous rhetoric at root of Putin’s Ukrainian War
by John R. Bryson
Like perhaps most people living on this planet, I have been trying to understand what lies behind the current Ukrainian conflict. Yesterday, I spent the day visiting churches in Herefordshire’s Golden Valley. In the graveyard of the church at Ewyas Harold there is a headstone that warns the reader to “pass on, nor waste your time, on bad biography.” Perhaps bad biography is at the root of this new Russian war, but whose bad biography?
There are many different readings of this crisis. One that is overlooked in current accounts is to equate Putin’s action with teenage knife crime. Many teenage gang members are frightened and traumatized young men and often the most vulnerable are the most dangerous. Putin’s failure to overwhelm Ukraine means that he is now extremely vulnerable and at his most dangerous.
This link to Putin and knife crime might seem strange, but these young men often have a fragile sense of self-worth and consequently any perception that they have been disrespected will lie behind their motivation for a knife attack and even murder. In the world of teenage gangs, accepting disrespect is a sign of weakness. The difference between Putin and knife crime perhaps is only one based on the weapons available and the extent of the reach of any action.
Another reading of Putin comes from looking across the University of Birmingham’s campus at “Old Joe,” or the 100m tall Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower, which dominates the Edgbaston campus. This tower is believed to have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to imagine the Eye of Sauron that was “watchful and intent” in his Dark Tower in the Lord of the Rings. Putin is watchful and intent from his safe position in the Kremlin.
One of the lessons that comes from the Lord of the Rings is that the people of the West, or in Tolkien’s words “the men of the West” had to combine to utterly defeat Sauron. The same degree of unity between all nations of the free world is required to defeat Putin. The reaction against the illegal invasion of Ukraine is deepening resulting in Russia’s increasing political and economic isolation. This is to be welcomed, but all this is too late. A similar unified front should have been presented to Putin when he annexed Crimea in 2014.
In 2000, Putin experienced the first major crisis of his premiership. This was the sinking of the Kursk submarine. He handled this badly and from this he learnt that a key weapon was control over media discourse. Central to much of Putin’s rhetoric is a concern with his image and a sensitivity to any form of perceived disrespect. In Putin’s world he is always right.
It is important to consider the narratives that emerge around the Ukrainian crisis. To Russia this is a “special operation” that is not about occupying territory but about destroying military capabilities. Nevertheless, this illegal operation is similar to knife crime, because at its roots is a false perception that Putin and Russia have been disrespected. Putin’s perception of disrespect then leads to an illegal “military campaign” in which 352 civilians, including 14 children, were killed in the first four days of the invasion. In addition, the lives of all Ukrainians have been disrupted with normal life ceasing.
I began this piece by trying to understand the current situation in Ukraine. There are two points to make. First, a unified front is required to defeat Putin and ensure that this type of illegal action never occurs again. This must be consistent and long-term showing no signs of weakness. Second, Putin failed in his handling of the Kursk disaster and in the Salisbury poisoning. The current Ukraine situation has further highlighted Putin’s limitations. Any plan for a rapid successful assault in which the might of the Russian army would overwhelm Ukraine has failed. On Sunday, Putin placed Russia’s nuclear deterrent on high alert. This highlights some degree of desperation or, in the world of teenage knife crime, the selection of a larger knife.
When I read or listen to accounts of Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine there is another narrative flowing though my mind. This is a narrative of coordinated murder organized by Putin and this led to the links that I have made between Putin and knife crime. Putin’s new Russian war should never be sanitized as something that is more akin to a military campaign; illegal killing of innocent civilians must always be defined for what it is — murder.
John R. Bryson is Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography at the University of Birmingham in England.
Contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
To fend off hackers, organized trolls and other online vandalism, our website comments feature is switched off. Instead, come to our Facebook page to join in the discussion.
These links are interactive — click on the boxes