“After the clash of civilizations, the clash of illusions”

“Russia does not have a monopoly on illusions. » SPUTNIK / REUTERS

FIGAROVOX/TRIBUNE – Samuel Huntington’s thesis, presenting Russia as a “civilized state”, is insufficient to understand the changes brought about by the war in Ukraine, argues Marc Hecker. According to researcher Ifri, Vladimir Putin’s behavior is partly due to the illusion of power.

Marc Hecker is director of research and development at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri).

30 years ago, Foreign affairs published Clash of civilizations, by Samuel Huntington. The latter think that after the Cold War, the main drivers of conflict are no longer ideological but civilizational. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, this controversial thesis has primarily been read through the prism of a hypothetical confrontation between the West and the Islamic world, but Huntington’s vision is much broader. Harvard professors identified 8 cultural areas, including the “Slavo-Orthodox” civilization. He considered war between Russia and Ukraine impossible, “two Slavic peoples and mostly Orthodox people”. However, Huntington’s theory echoes in the Kremlin’s rhetoric that presents Russia as a “civilized nation” as opposed to a decadent West. Another surprise, namely the illusion, helps explain the changes brought about by the war in Ukraine.

The term “illusion” has three meanings. The first shows bad perception or wrong interpretation: we think we see what is not there. classics Of International Relations, Perceptions and Misperceptions in International Politics by Robert Jervis emphasizes the importance of this factor in foreign policy. The Russian invasion on February 24, 2022 confirms this. Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine, Europe and the United States as more cruel and divided than they really are. This analytical fallacy was fueled by the frightening Western backlash following Russia’s operations in Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but also by an exaggerated interpretation of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.

Vladimir Putin thinks he is stronger than he really is. He was caught with some form of strategic bravery.

Marc Hecker

The second meaning of the term “illusion” relates to the discrepancy between desire and reality. In the field of international relations, this is especially manifested by the illusion of power. Vladimir Putin thinks he is stronger than he really is. He was captured by a form of strategic audacity, which we have seen gradually increase since his speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 and resulted in a series of coups and outside interventions. Russia has thus asserted itself as a returning power, not only in the near abroad, but also in the Middle East or in Africa. This audacity led the Kremlin to believe it had the means to bring down Kyiv within days. The Russian army proved unable to duplicate American strategy shock and awe and the “special military operation” turned into a long war.

The third meaning of the term “illusion” refers to the product of an intelligence. This illusion is created and presupposes the existence of an illusionist. In other words, touching on the domain of propaganda, misinformation, drunkenness, and even psychological warfare. Russia’s propensity to act in this area – whether through TV stations, internet “farm trolls” or influencers – has been the subject of numerous investigations and scholarly works. . It is more difficult to study how propaganda can turn against its transmitter and produce a form of automatic intoxication. When Vladimir Putin described Ukraine’s leaders as neo-Nazis who enslaved the brotherhood, did he really expect Russian soldiers to be greeted as liberators?

Russia does not have a monopoly on illusions. Many European leaders and experts – especially in Paris, Berlin and Brussels – did not imagine that the Russian army would invade Ukraine and believed in dialogue to get Vladimir Putin to listen to his reasons. They didn’t quite take into account the warnings coming from Washington and London, which were scalded by the manipulation of political intelligence before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and brought little credit to Boris Johnson, mired in “Party Gate” as Russia was amassing its troops. on the Ukrainian border.

No one knows today how or when the Ukrainian tragedy will end. Faced with this uncertainty, it is very important to be wary of illusions.

Marc Hecker

Today, no one can ignore the nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime, nor the Kremlin’s desire to destroy the Ukrainian nation. But not all politicians draw the same conclusions. Some of them believed that it was necessary to support Kyiv until the defeat of Russia; others are more cautious and believe that negotiations with Moscow will be necessary to end hostilities. They reproach each other for being deceived by an illusion: the ability to liberate Ukrainian territory quickly and completely on the one hand, maintain diplomatic channels with Russia that will only comprehend power on the other.

No one knows today how or when the Ukrainian tragedy will end. Faced with this uncertainty, it is important to be aware of illusion, in all three senses of the term. First, by strengthening the field sensor and analysis capabilities. Second, by being realistic about our actions and the consequences of our increasing involvement in conflict. Thirdly, to intensify the struggle in the field of perception, especially in countries where Russian propaganda resonates. It is often said that truth is the first victim of war. Without pretending to be the truth, let’s at least try to be clearheaded.

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