Ottawa scholar Vern Neufeld Redekop explains how the conflict derives from national identity needs.
It is one thing to decide individually not to fight or engage in violence. It’s quite another to reflect at a collective level on what to do to reduce or prevent widespread systemic violence that destroys the lives of many.
Over the last three decades I have researched the drivers of extreme violence, looking for ways to prevent and recover from the worst that we humans do to one another, looking to take the peace orientation of my Mennonite heritage to the level of public policy and action.
Many Canadians want to help reduce the suffering we see in the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Many are contributing to humanitarian aid for people in Ukraine and to refugees – both those coming to Canada and those who are concentrated in countries like Poland.
But what can be done to stop the widespread bombing, shelling and shooting of civilians? How can we stop a heavily armed country like Russia from simply taking over a sovereign country by lethal force?
We can start by trying to comprehend what drives the violence.
Violence and identity needs
The Australian social theorist John W. Burton put forward a breakthrough insight in the 20th century about violence being rooted in “identity needs.” The way he put it is that when the non-negotiable, non-material identity needs of people are threatened, they will fight.
Or, to put it another way, people are driven by emotions, and emotions are linked to identity needs. When these are threatened there will be an emotional reaction that will drive our thinking and action. When leaders tap into the identity needs of a nation, they can motivate people to join in violence they see as justified.
l would like to explore how five identity needs of Ukrainians and Russians are affected. Let me first explain the need categories and the deep emotions connected to them.
We as humans have a need for connectedness, individually and collectively. At the individual level, we value the bonds of friendship and relationships. We love to be with people who speak our language. At the collective level, our capacity to work together has made possible the evolution of culture, including faith-based culture. Collectively we pass on the accumulated understandings of the past through the generations; we constantly refresh and augment these understandings through new creative insights. When we lose a sense of connectedness through conflict or through loss or death, we become sad. When we are cut off from meaningful relationships, we feel isolated and alienated.
Closely related to connectedness is security. Security can be threatened by physical violence as well as by misunderstandings, rivalries, and threats. Violence can take many forms that include economic deprivation and destruction of the systems needed for healthy living – medical, informational, housing and food. When our security is threatened, we experience fear – one of the most powerful motivators for action. When we feel secure, we are confident.
We also have a profound need for recognition of our own worth. We, as individuals and groups, want to be noticed, affirmed and validated. When we are unrecognized or blamed, we feel a sense of shame. When our need for recognition is positively met, we have self-esteem.
Self-esteem and confidence provide the inner strength we need to take action – another identity need. If we are stifled or put down, we can become frustrated and depressed.
Finally, we have a need for meaning. We want to understand who we are, and what is our place. Our world of meaning includes values that govern how we live. When our meaning system is threatened, particularly by injustice, we become angry – another powerful emotion.
Needs and what satisfies them exist and develop through time. Hence, they are accessed through stories. The stories of historical groups can be thought of as ethno-narratives. These can include, in the words of Vamik Volkan, “chosen traumas” (when identity needs were threatened) and “chosen glories” (when identity needs were fulfilled).
In the case of Ukraine there is a long historical sense of peoplehood rooted in the land. A key chosen trauma is 300 years of occupation and subjection to Russians.
Incidentally, during the years of the Soviet occupation of Ukraine, Saskatchewan Ukrainians saw it as their mission to preserve a distinct Ukrainian culture. Their educational programs thrived with many young people learning language, dance and customs. As soon as Ukraine gained its independence, interest in these programs plummeted as the future of the Ukrainian nation seemed secure.
In other words the emergence of Ukraine as a country meant that identity needs for connectedness, security, recognition, action and meaning were being met. These were all reinforced through language, culture and religion, with Ukrainian Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical churches having new freedoms in the post-Soviet world of the 1990s.
With Ukraine emerging as an independent country there were many challenges, because until then they were part of the Soviet Union with integrated systems for everything, including nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil. They had to develop new systems and develop a new political culture with key decisions about potential allies. They also had to contend with a large minority of ethnic Russians concentrated in east Ukraine.
As they asserted their sovereign independence and moved away from Russia, President Vladimir Putin reacted and tried to force them under Russian influence. This started with the threat of troops amassed on Ukraine’s border and continued with outright war. Given the asymmetry of the military, Ukraine fought back with remarkable efficiency.
From the point of view of identity needs, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared, “We are fighting for our lives.” This desperation reflects the attack on security, which then attacks connectedness (people are separated), recognition (their claim to be a sovereign nation is not recognised by Russia), action (they are thwarted from doing so much because of the destruction and threats) and meaning (the injustices are overwhelming with attacks on civilians and infrastructure).
However, in their desperation Ukrainians are becoming more united and resolved than ever. The threat to Ukrainian identity has intensified this and, thanks to an influx of weapons, their capacity to take military action is growing.
Putin’s way of operating is to assert control by using bombs and missiles to attack civilian and other targets relentlessly (consider Russia’s involvement in Georgia and Aleppo, Syria). This has certainly been the case in Ukraine.
Given his ruthless tactics to control the Russian population (violent repression of dissent), it is important to separate his role as a tyrant from his role as a leader. What we can do is determine some of the beliefs that motivate his actions toward Ukraine – these beliefs would be shared by those Russians who support his leadership.
These beliefs can be viewed in light of the identity need for recognition. Putin wants to make Russia great again. The sense of entitlement for greatness includes the power of the Soviet Union at its peak. There is also the chosen glory of the victory over the Nazis after the siege of Leningrad.
Melded into this is the grandeur of the Russian Empire (recall that Putin grew up in Leningrad/St. Petersburg). At another level is the embrace of the Orthodox Church with a chosen glory of the conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kyivan Rus in 988 CE. It is hardly coincidental that Putin erected a statue of this prince in front of the Kremlin.
Greatness includes territory and military might for Putin. His plan was to achieve greatness by quickly overtaking Ukraine. This would have united the Ukrainian and Russian peoples, who, for him, should not be separate, and would re-incorporate all the Russian-speaking people within Ukraine into Russia.
The threat to recognition has included the eastern growth of NATO to include countries that were part of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact (the Communist counterpart to NATO). Another threat is democracy, which stands against his authoritarian approach to governance – again, the need to appear strong.
Furthermore, for Russians, the very thought of Ukraine joining NATO threatens security, action (being cut off from the Black Sea), connectedness (between both the millions of Russian-Ukrainians as well as Ukrainians themselves) and meaning (in the light of their shared history).
The least we can do
Writing as a part of the Anabaptist Mennonite community with historic roots in the land now suffering violence, I wonder if there might be a peacemaking role that could emerge from Anabaptist Mennonite people, thinking and traditions?
Anabaptist Christians have played a role in the historic evangelical church that was marked by creativity of interpretation of Christianity and broad-based inclusiveness. (Contrast this role with the fundamentalist and American nationalist varieties of Christianity that developed later.)
There are now evangelical Christians in both Ukraine and Russia, some of whom have significant connections. Might there be a way to engage faith leaders from both countries in a way that would build bridges among evangelical, Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox, and Ukrainian Catholic leaders?
Generative dialogues can provide a context for something new to emerge. We need to keep looking for contacts in our networks who could influence what is happening to reduce the wanton violence. Applying the ideas about identity needs, can we find positive things to say and do that satisfy identity needs without including violence?
When something positive does emerge, we need to be attentive to see how we can support it and do whatever we can to bring the violence to an end. Let’s seek a just peace in which all people can thrive. Is it not the least we can do?
Vern Neufeld Redekop is professor emeritus of conflict studies at Saint Paul University, Ottawa.