Discover more from Polemology Positions
Dominance, Hierarchy, And International Order
A recent history
Joe Biden timed his Kyiv visit to match the Russian offensive getting underway in eastern Ukraine and pre-empt the one-year anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s renewed invasion. Moscow was the intended audience of this display.
Whatever the reader thinks about the American president, or the Ukrainian one, their show of confidence this week did have a psychological impact on Russians. We can be sure of that because so many Russians spent the whole next day talking about it on television.
Biden, they said, “runs things” in Ukraine, anyway, so who cares? Zelenskyy, they said, “looked like a servant next to Biden,” who is just “kicking off his own reelection campaign” so who cares? Also, Biden is simultaneously a tool of “the neo-Nazi regime” in Ukraine because he is stupid. So who cares?
It was all sour grapes.
Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya said the Kremlin will view Biden’s visit as “yet one more piece of evidence that the U.S. has completely bet on Russia’s strategic defeat in the war, and that the war itself has irrevocably turned into a war between Russia and the West.”
Stanovaya said Putin’s state-of-the-nation speech on Tuesday “was expected to be very hawkish, aimed at defiantly breaking off relations with the West,” but after Biden’s visit to Kyiv, “additional edits can be made to make it even harsher.”
Get that? We are supposed to be afraid now, because this is clearly a full-blown proxy war between the United States and Russia, and to prove it Putin might use harsher wording in a speech.
The Putin spoke for almost two hours. “The more they send weapons to Ukraine, the more we will have the responsibility of the security situation at the Russian border,” he said. Putin withdrew from the START nuclear treaty, which is not great, but he did not draw any new lines, nor announce any new policies.
If Biden sends fighter jets, perhaps Putin will use a stern tone all day.
Left out of Putin’s speech was any reference to the SARMAT missile, meant to be Russia’s next-generation ICBM. He had hoped to announce a successful test, but that mission had failed on the previous day, while Biden was in Kyiv.
Reframing recent history as a dominance hierarchy in flux, we may see events a little differently. Instead of partisan advantages, think about status positions in a hierarchy of international order.
Leaders follow this model with remarkable predictability. George H.W. Bush personalized his war with Saddam Hussein and so did George W. Bush. Putin personalized his war with Zelenskyy. Xi Jinping sees his own greatness, and China’s, as one and the same, with the decline of Putin and Russia being their gain. And so on.
Go back to the American presidential debate of 2012, when Gov. Mitt Romney criticized the incumbent president, Barack Obama, for ignoring the emergent threat of Russia, “our number one geopolitical foe.”
In response, Obama declared that the Cold War was over, and minimized Russia as a “regional power.” His administration considered China to be America’s number one “competitor” at the time, having come to office seeing the adventure in Iraq as a distraction from Pacific challenges.
Partisans argue which one was right. In fact both men were right. Romney was correct that Putin’s Russia is the most aggressive and impulsive enemy of American foreign policy. Obama was correct that over the long term China is a far more challenging threat, demanding a bigger American presence to confront than European security against Russia. The consensus in Washington today is that Europe, encouraged at last to look to its own defense, does not need a new, large American troop presence, whereas the footprint of US forces around the South China Sea is expanding.
Set aside the geopolitics, however, and we are left with the sting of that phrase, “regional power.” It was a diss, a demotion. Putin had just won his third term as president of Russia months before. His aggressive support of the Assad regime in Syria was escalating the conflict. Obama was not about to give Putin the satisfaction of acknowledging Russia’s imperialist revival. But Putin heard those words, “regional power,” and must have thought: I’ll show him. Two years later, Russian forces occupied Crimea.
The reader may recall that on another, earlier occasion at the 2011 White House Correspondents Association dinner, President Obama launched into five minutes of jokes aimed at Donald Trump, who sat in the audience. Peddling tired conspiracy theories about Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate, Trump had earned the derision, but the burn to his ego had historic consequences. He would show them, Trump said to himself, and ran for president.
Putin was happy to have Trump in the White House. Not as a Manchurian candidate, or an espionage agent, or even an agent of influence, but as an open admirer of Putin.
The reader may be primed to reject connections between the Trump campaign and Russian influence operations, and indeed there is no evidence that such a connection existed, or that Russian influence was consequential to the outcome of the 2016 election.
But that was never the point of what Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency did on Facebook, or what Natalia Veselnitskaya said when she visited Trump Tower to meet with Trump’s children. Rather, Kremlin policy aimed at making Russia great again. Americans, Putin reasoned, would get lost in a wilderness of mirrors on their own, projecting anxieties onto shards of information and reading what they wanted in their reflections. Boy howdy, did it work.
And while American democracy spiralled, look how Putin grew on the world stage, specifically standing next to an American president.
Understandably terrified of giving any oxygen to narratives of Russian influence or collusion, the Trump Team never gave statements about the contents of phone calls between the two leaders. At their end, Kremlin officials posted those very types of communications. When they met at international conferences, Team Trump would issue no statements while the Russian side did.
A contrast in transparency like the Cold War, but with the mafia state appearing the more honest side.
The dynamic was visible when they appeared together. Trump, the reality TV star in over his head, next to the cool, Machiavellian mastermind. Side by side, Trump offered his hand first and Putin took it. Despite the height difference, the alpha in the relationship was always clear to this observer. Putin got an undeniable status boost from the Turmp presidency.
Then Zelenskyy became the president of Ukraine, and then Biden became president of the United States. With his hand in Russia weakened accordingly, Putin abandoned efforts to bring Zelenskyy on side in 2021, choosing to invade, and reportedly sending more than a dozen assassination missions directly at the Ukrainian leader in the opening hours. Zelenskyy’s trolling behavior is clearly aimed at getting into his enemy’s mind.
During the Libyan crisis of 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron was a cheerleader for removing Muammar Gaddafi from power. Tony Blair, his predecessor, was a cheerleader for removing Saddam Hussein from power in 2003. Leaders of two different parties slipped effortlessly into this role; critics may assign this to American power, but in fact it is a symptom of British weakness. The UK relies on their Atlantic cousin’s position as a global power to maintain their own position as a global power. Each PM is defending Britain’s status in the global hierarchy.
All of these leaders, conflict anthropology suggests, are enacting their leadership heuristic, and then assigning a strategy to it. Performative as a Kyiv visit might be, the performance is instinctive. Everyone knows their place in the hierarchy, seeks to maintain and improve their place in the hierarchy, or attack the position of other leaders in the hierarchy, without having to be told.
We explain it all to ourselves as politics, goes the theory. In fact, we invented politics to explain it. Putin can explain it for two hours without saying anything important, for the politics were never important to him, only the hierarchy of global power.
Polemology Positions is a reader-supported publication. Subscribe to support my work