Putin and many of his apologists are giving us what Slavoj Žižek called the “broken kettle” logic of the war in Iraq. Borrowing from Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of an old joke about a broken kettle, Žižek uses the example to shed light on an unconscious defense mechanism deploying many inconsistent arguments: “(1) I never borrowed a kettle from you, (2) I returned it to you unbroken, (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you.”
Does the same mix of reasons not apply even more to the war Russia is waging against Ukraine, as explained by the Russian leadership itself? So, “I never borrowed a kettle from you” is tantamount to the denial of the very fact of there being a war, which is officially called “a special military operation” in the Russian media. “I returned it to you unbroken” corresponds to the rigged history lesson Putin gave to the public in announcing this very “special operation,” according to which he was going to protect the population of the Donbas region and join together, rather than break up, territories that have traditionally been part of Greater Russia. And “the kettle was already broken when I got it from you” parallels the defensive stance, according to which Russia attacked its neighbor because it felt threatened, either in the long term by the eastward expansion of NATO or in the short term due to belligerent designs imputed to Ukraine. Thus, according to the official justifications of the unjustifiable war, it was simultaneously a preventive strike, a special operation to stop a genocide, and a war of conquest and imperial expansion.
Nevertheless, the brutality of Russian military activity on the ground in Ukraine paints a picture that is vastly different from the mess of the “broken kettle.” If alleged war crimes are so prevalent in the Russian invasion, that is because its aim is the genocide of the Ukrainian people. In the beginning of April, one of Russian political technologists loyal to Putin, Timofei Sergeitsev, published a manifesto in the official state-owned RIA Novosti agency, according to which Ukraine should cease to exist as an independent country after “the special operation” is over. Nothing escapes the destructive intent of this screed: Ukraine would be stripped of its territorial integrity, of cultural identity, and of its very name. While the Western regions — “the Catholic provinces,” as Sergeitsev calls them — of the country would be demilitarized and subject to a constant threat of war should they rebel, the rest of Ukraine would be subject to Russian “curatorial” authority, including the state propaganda machine of the TV, schools, and public cult-like celebrations that has been so effective in subduing the population of Russia itself. Harsh repressive measures, up to and including mass executions, would be reserved for “Ukrainian nationalists” who do not leave their homeland and refuse to obey Russian “de-nazifying” powers.
This chilling document lifts a curtain on what is, perhaps, the most coherent ideological backdrop for the atrocities committed by Putin’s army on the Ukrainian soil. Why?
First of all, genocidal wars do not flare up ex nihilo, or out of the vacuum. Nearly a century ago, in 1932-1933, the Stalinist regime unleashed Holodomor, or mass artificially created famine, onto the Ukrainian population. Internationally recognized as “a carefully planned genocide of the Ukrainian people,” Holodomor is denied in Russia. An attempted genocide, unacknowledged as such by the perpetrator, festers like an open wound and is ever-present in the shape of collective trauma. No healing is, in fact, possible without the acknowledgement of and the reparations for the enormous damage that has been caused, as in the case of Germany with regard to the Jewish populations subjected to Hitler’s genocidal actions. In this sense, Putin’s war in Ukraine is a continuation of this tragic chapter in the histories of the two nations.
Second, the accusation of genocide, leveled by Putin against the Ukrainian state and its actions in the Donbas region, are indicative of Russia’s own intent. Just as Russia’s use of and enabling the use of chemical weapons are often preceded by allegations that the victims are planning to resort to such weapons, so a genocidal scheme is betrayed by the imputation of genocide to those against whom such a scheme is to be unleashed. The psychological mechanism of projection, in which people attribute to external others what is in their own minds, may account for such otherwise puzzling behavior.
Third, and equally importantly, genocides are not only mass killings, but also ideological designs to exterminate a culture, a language, an identity. All these elements are present in Sergeitsev’s manifesto, making it so disturbing. At the same time, it would also be misguided to read it as a classical official declaration of intent, reviewed and approved by people in power, to be published as a demonstration of what Russia stands for. And, unfortunately, not because the document does not fulfill its function; on the contrary, the RIA platform where it was published says it all, in conjunction with the behavior of the Russian army in Ukraine. The problem with this document is a deeper and a more illustrative one.
Russian ideology is supported and conditioned by a complex apparatus, used as a vehicle for its reproduction and spreading. This apparatus combines a broad spectrum of agents and dissemination points: from a TV host who simply broadcasts a Russian ‘patriotic’ news interpretation to secret troll factories, paid pundits, and networks of proxy Telegram channels camouflaged as independent or Ukrainian information sources.
The Russian ideological apparatus has its own rules of the game. Regime strategists know them well. With respect to decision-making, these rules are rooted in a constant process of second-guessing and ideologically narrativizing the actions of the bosses, up to the ultimate boss, Vladimir Putin. There is no think tank, no philosophical mastermind (no matter how much Western academics and commentators want to name one – whether it be our contemporary Alexander Dugin or the long gone Ivan Ilyin), and not the slightest resemblance to any kind of center (or centers) for generating these sinister ideas. Actually, one cannot even call them ideas, because they are pop-up constructs used as a smoke-screen for the justification of political and military moves.
To sum up the situation, let’s use the body metaphor. There is no head in the Russian ideological apparatus. It is acephalic.
The acephalic nature of Russian ideology creates a situation when there are no authors of the ideology, and no genuine ideas, but there still exists a logic, or even a methodology that accompanies and covers the decision-making. And here we can come back to Sergeitsev and his intellectual background. The word “methodology” is particularly instructive in this respect.
Sergeitsev is a product and a member of the so-called “methodological movement,” founded by Soviet philosopher Georgy Shchedrovitsky. Shchedrovitsky developed and propagated a variation of the hyperconstructivist technocratic worldview, grounded in a belief in the unlimited possibilities of engineering design applied to politics.
According to the “methodologues,” any kind of world rearrangement is possible, national, cultural and social included, because ultimately there is no reality to acknowledge and reckon with. From its start in the late Soviet era, the “methodological movement” was not intended to be purely theoretical. Shchedrovitsky made it clear that the social goal of the “methodologues” was to approach decision-making positions as close as possible.
And demand for their services rose. Russian elites, not versed in theory, needed smart words to explain their actions even to themselves. Many among Putin’s media managers, political consultants, bureaucrats and politicians are, in one way or another, affected by Shchedrovitsky’s worldview. And even if they are not (the majority of them, of course, is not affected), some kind of similar engineering logic culminating in the idea that any deed can be methodologized and, through this process, rationally justified, serves as their only ideological framework. The result is that, for any of Putin’s actions and for any action of the Russian army, people like Sergeitsev show up with arguments. And then, creating a kind of positive feedback loop, the regime mobilizes these arguments in planning new actions.
It wouldn’t be fair to blame Shchedrovitsky’s teachings for anything related to war initiated by Russia, nor for anything written by Sergeitstev. But it is instructive to understand the nihilistic impulse shared by Shchedrovitsky’s doctrine and the practices of Russian elites, who are now becoming war criminals. From this nihilistic impulse comes the idea that the project of destroying a sovereign nation and its people is justifiable and can be seen as nothing more than a matter of creating a proper methodology with an action plan. And it is this very nihilistic impulse that, unaffected by any value restrictions, creates a genocidal logic, executed by Putin in the current war.
Michael Marder, Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, is the author of the forthcoming Philosophy for Passengers (The MIT Press, 2022).
Anton Tarasyuk is a Strategic Communications Expert in Method Büro consultancy and a philosopher based in Kyiv, Ukraine.