Western Ukraine vs Neutral Ukraine
Cultural evolutionary insights
We’ve been busy on a few fronts. I’ll write about it as soon as I get a chance. One new paper relevant to the current crisis is the “Paradox of diversity”. It should be open access.
Most of my time has been spent working on a book. The working title is “A Theory of Everyone: who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going”. I offer an explanation for the rapid rise in cooperation, explaining the “long peace” that the world has enjoyed since the mid-20th century, and the longer decline in violence over the centuries. It’s a weird thing to talk about “long peace” when wars and conflicts continue to crop up around the world and when we face very different levels of safety based on who we are and where we were born. Vast inequalities, deep unfairness, and terrible violence still permeate our world today creating much suffering, but if we were given a choice and had to pick a moment in history to be born without knowing our sex, skin color, sexual orientation, or disabilities, it would probably be around the last few decades.
Putin’s seemingly unprovoked attack on Ukraine threatens to puncture that peace and drag the US, UK, and EU into a conflict with another nuclear power. It’s awakened many people and many nations to the realization that war in the West is a real possibility. Europe and the Anglosphere are not as secure as we might assume. I thought it might be useful to discuss what’s happening through an evolutionary lens you will be familiar with.
Threats to the long peace
I don’t want to get into the details of the book in this post, but in summary the long peace is threatened by:
Internal division when resources become limited or economic growth slows to a point where people feel like there isn’t enough to go around (whether true or not). It’s easy to be nice when there’s plenty of resources. But when there isn’t, mumblings and grumblings about inequality or the cultural fractures that always existed grow into something more (check out the paradox of diversity for more on that).
Conflict as larger groups dominate smaller ones (such as what happened during the era of colonization and may happen again with the rise of China).
Conflict between larger cultural-groups, the beginning of which we seem to be witnessing now.
As I argue in A Theory of Everyone, WWI and WWII were not exceptions to an overall decline in violence, they’re part of the same process. Our models predict that the world may be more peaceful, but also more dangerous. Reality, however, is moving faster than I can write, so let’s get into how we got here and where we might go.
How we got here
In the Ukrainian case, I find a realpolitik analysis most compatible with a cultural evolutionary perspective. Evolution requires a God’s eye view that sets aside how we want the world to be. That is, we need to ignore who we think the good guys are, and what we think is right, lawful, and moral based on our cultural background. Instead, we need a pragmatic approach and perspective taking. Not all nations are democratic, not all people see the world the same way, and liberal values and freedom are not universally valued.
For example, UChicago’s John Mearsheimer has argued that the Ukraine crisis is the West’s fault. Here’s a good analysis from 2014 crisis when Putin took Crimea with few consequences.
Mearsheimer’s argument can be broken down as follows:
Ukraine’s cultural fractures
Ukraine as a whole is culturally close to Russia, but the East even more so. This cultural fracture shows up in a bunch of maps and metrics.
Here’s the ethno-linguistic breakdown:
The 2004 election:
The 2010 election:
Same division for whether to join the EU or Russian dominated Customs Union; whether to join NATO; and more. You get the point—Ukraine is a culturally divided country.
We can verify this using the CFst cultural distance metric (main paper). Ukraine’s most culturally close country is Russia:
Over the weekend, my collaborator Cindel White ran the cultural distance between the regions of Russia and regions of Ukraine, and their neighbors and again, we see the same story. There are some additional interesting insights there. I’ll add some plots to the website version of this email in the coming days, but in the meantime, here’s the raw data in case you’d like visualize it yourself (bottom triangle are the CFst values, top right are the 95% confidence intervals).
Edit: As promised, here are visualizations:
In this plot, the higher a region is on the y-axis, the more culturally distant it is from Russia as a whole. Ukraine’s Western region is more culturally distant. The further right you go on the x-axis, the further you get from Ukraine as a whole. This graph reinforces what we see above - the cultural closeness of Ukraine and Russia and the cultural divisions within Ukraine. We also see cultural divisions within Russia, particularly in the North Caucasian Federal District, unsurprising given it’s ethnic composition.
Next, let’s run a Non-metric multidimensional scaling (NMDS) analysis and plot to see if there’s a case for Ukraine as part of Russia. This plot tries to reduce the N-dimensional cultural space to 2 dimensions showing culturally close regions close to one another on the 2-dimensional plot:
This reinforces what we see above:
Russia and Ukraine are culturally close
There is cultural division within Ukraine
There is even larger cultural division within Russia. Interestingly, here we see that although Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District is culturally close to Russia as a whole, it’s quite distant from most other districts.
Ukrainians are culturally distinct from Russians, clustering together as an independent country.
The battle for Ukraine
Beyond the internal divisions, Ukraine as a whole has been a battleground of influence for Russia and the West. In recent times, the West seems to be winning and it sure does seem like Putin’s actions have pushed things further in that direction.
From a Western perspective, anyone can wage whatever influence they want—perhaps there are lines we’d like to draw on misinformation campaigns—but ultimately it’s up to Ukraine whether it wants to join the EU, NATO, or whatever. But Putin is not the West, Russia is not a democracy, and moves in that direction are a threat to Russian interests and security from his perspective.
From my perspective and probably yours, people and nations should have the freedom to choose their future democratically, and so this is an internal matter for Ukraine. But Putin values neither freedom nor democracy. From Putin’s perspective, the US and it’s allies are not the good guys. In an ideal world, Putin would like a Russian Ukraine but he’d settle for a neutral Ukraine. But never a Western Ukraine. And the fact that there are internal divisions offers the perfect pretext.
Thus Mearsheimer is right that it’s the West’s fault in the sense that if your neighbor says he’ll key your car if you park too close to his driveway and then he keys your car when you park too close to his driveway then it’s your fault. In other contexts this would be victim blaming. But this assumes there is a correct value system.
Within a nation, your neighbor is constrained by the law. But internationally, there is no global government to turn to. No world policeforce. The only way to constrain one another is negotiation, economic sticks and carrots, and occasionally military intervention. But there is a cultural competition between groups with competing value systems.
If you believe democracy is the ultimate goal of any country, then a Western Ukraine is a natural end goal. But if you think there are multiple value systems and peace is more important, then a neutral Ukraine was the only way to ensure that peace (at least while Putin is in power). There is no absolute right answer.
So here we are. Where to next?
Where to next?
A few things have happened. Putin’s actions have galvanized democratic values. Much of the Western world and beyond have come together to condemn this incursion into Ukraine. Normally neutral Switzerland has taken a side. Even the Taliban issued a statement calling for peace.
The other Vlad, President Zelenskyy, a fascinating character—a former actor who played the President of Ukraine, comedian with a law degree, and more, I encourage you to read more about him—chose to stay in the capital Kyiv and fight alongside other citizens. This costly signal drew perhaps more support than there would have been otherwise, turning him from Ukrainian celebrity to international celebrity, and rightly ensuring his place in history.
The West is rightly trying hard to avoid an overt declaraction of war, but doing everything they can short of that (though without pointing fingers, you could guess Russian influence in energy and finance based on willingness to sanction and speed of financial freezes).
The economic sanctions have quickly tanked the ruble and appear to have led to runs on Russian banks. The question is, will these lead to Putin de-escalating toward some kind of peace or escalating to a full blown world war with the nuclear sword of Damocles finally dropping on us all. As Kennedy put it, by accident or miscalculation or by madness.
Which direction will we go?
On the one hand, autocracies are not lone dictators. They are small groups of individuals cooperating at the expense of a larger population that can’t engage in sufficient collective action or are better off with the autocratic regime than the adjacent possible alternatives.
Or to put it another way, Putin doesn’t carry oil fields in his pockets. His control over resources is contingent on those who benefit from some share of those resources and in turn those supporters rely on those who get some smaller share (their supporters) and so on. So perhaps the sanctions will disrupt that cooperative network leading to a new leader within that cadre.
On the other hand, it might galvanize support around him or lead to a rise in Russian nationalism. We should be careful that our target is Putin and his supporters and not Russians. That we don’t humiliate the nation into showing more of their destructive firepower—Putin has already shown a willingness to break the new international norms as he did in 2014’s annexation of Crimea.
Finally, what does this mean for the future? Two concerns weigh on my mind.
The first is that it’s easier to disrupt large-scale cooperation than small scale. It’s easier to turn you against your fellow citizens than your friends, your friends than your brother. It’s been easier for Russian destabilization and misinformation campaigns to widen existing fractures than it has been to turn Putin’s closest supporters against him. But, in such small groups, each person has more power—personal decisions can outweight group dynamics. This makes it more difficult to predict. We can only hope that more rational individual personalities prevail.
In contrast, the Russian plan of destabilization of enemies has been incredibly successful. Consider Aleksandr Dugin’s 1997 plan laid out in Foundations of Geopolitics. I suspect Aleksandr Dugin’s personal influence is smaller than it’s sometimes portrayed. How powerful can he be if he can’t hold onto his own job? But Dugin is not alone and the plan reads like Putin’s playbook, an almost obvious checklist for successful Russian nudging over the last quarter century. Grab a pen and start ticking what’s already done and what’s in progress:
The racial divisions within the United States are low hanging fruit. And the EU faces cultural cleavages that a cultural distance analysis makes obvious. Below you can see the clustering of the original member states with the exception of Italy and the cultural gap with some of the recent entrants (countries further away tend to be more culturally distant).
The second thing that weighs on my mind is that we're going to face similar issues with China for similar reasons in places like the South China Sea. A failure to see the world through a very different cultural lens could lead to another surprise and another potential or further puncturing of the long peace.
The solution is to strengthen our cooperative bonds against these forces. Putin is able to highlight and widen our fractures because we’ve allowed them to persist. Fractures such as inequality and discrimination are not problems to be dealt with in the fullness of time, but urgent issues that threaten our bonds, threaten our peace, and threaten our democracies. Our inability to take the perspectives of our enemies, at home and around the world; how different priorities, values, and assumptions can lead to differences in, for example, what is acceptable and what is not; leave us unprepared for real possibilities such as this invasion. And as I describe in my book at the heart of these challenges is energy security. We must invest in nuclear, push a path toward fusion, and supplement with renewables where we can.
For peace, at least while Putin and those who think like him remain in power, I hope a path to a neutral Ukraine still exists. For the success of liberal democratic values, I hope for a Western Ukraine. But in either case, I hope this war shocks us out of our complacency about the long peace and doesn’t become a conflagration that consumes us all.
In the meantime, glory to Ukraine and the brave men and women fighting for its future.
P.S. In case you’re interested, Mearsheimer had an interview at Kings, Cambridge a few days ago, which covers a lot of the same points as his 2014 lecture.