As globalisation rises in the West, Vladimir Putin is encouraging the return of the tribe. He sees the West's individualism as a weakness and his approach has set the world ablaze, writes Stan Grant.
Russia's Ukraine invasion is not just about borders or power. For Putin, it's about identity
This is the sort of war the West does not know how to fight.
It is not just about territory, borders, resources, or power. It is existential — it is about identity.
Vladimir Putin has made it clear Ukraine is part of the soul of Russia. And he is prepared to crush the souls of Ukrainians to achieve his ends.
Yes, Putin has made security demands, he wants the West out of what he sees as Russia's sphere of influence. He wants a cast-iron guarantee Ukraine can never join NATO.
But it is the "why" that is more important than the "what" here.
Why? Because to Putin, there is no Ukraine without Russia. They are one.
Putin said so: there is no Ukrainian sovereignty. Putin sees Ukraine as Russian land essential to Putin's idea of Russkiy Mir (Russian World). It is about Russian language, culture: it is blood and soil.
It is mythological. Russkiy Mir is holy: central is Russian orthodox faith.
To Russian nationalists like Putin, Ukraine's capital Kyiv is the mother of all Russian cities.
This is why Putin famously called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century". It is oft-repeated
, not as often understood.
Putin wants Russia back
Putin doesn't want communism back, he wants Russia back. The catastrophe wasn't the collapse of Marxism-Leninism, it was the suffering of the people.
Russian-speaking Slavic people were cut adrift — as Putin sees it — from mother Russia.
Why can't the West fight this? Because the West doesn't even understand it. The West is meant to be a place beyond identity.
This is everything the West is not. The modern West grew out of Reformation and Enlightenment. It was about liberation. In the West we change citizenship, we move countries, we swap or abandon religions.
Pluralism and multiculturalism have been hallmarks of progress. We celebrate diversity as a strength. But the success of the West poses harder and harder questions.
Liberal democracy is staggering under the weight of growing inequality, contested rights and political tribalism.
What binds us? We appear ever rootless, not rooted.
Not everyone, of course. Roots matter to some, but liberal democracy can leave us unmoored: it hollows out our communities, mocks tradition, banishes faith from the public square.
Liberalism elevates the individual to the point of alienation. Scholar Patrick Deneen charted this decline in his book, Why Liberalism Failed. It has lost its moral and political core, he argues:
"Today's widespread yearning for a strong leader, one with the will to take back popular control over liberalism's forms of bureaucratised government and globalised economy, comes after decades of liberal dismantling of cultural norms and political habits essential to self-governance."
The modern West is less village square than city centre. Yes, there are "somewheres", as the British writer David Goodhart put it, but inexorably we seem to be on a journey to "anywhere".
In the West, Putin sees weakness
This is a demographic, economic and cultural fault line that runs through the liberal pluralist West and it is increasingly political. It is a battle over what the West is, and who is prepared to defend it.
It cuts across religious freedom, LGTB rights, race, gender and class. It divides the rural from the urban.
And Vladimir Putin sees it as a weakness. He has castigated the West for its culture wars and its corrosive identity politics.
Meanwhile, Putin himself plays identity writ large. He plays it hard. When it comes to national identity, when it comes to Russian civilisation, Putin shows none of the self-doubts he sees in the West.
Putin is a product of our age. As globalisation has continued apace, there has been a blowback, a return to borders, tradition, religion, race. The return of the tribe.
And it has set the world ablaze. The Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen best summed this up with his phrase "solitarist identity". He means that our world turns toxic when we are reduced to one essential thing: our race or our religion or our nation.
Then, we fail to see ourselves in each other. This, Sen says, is where identity meets violence. Solitarist identity, he says, "kills and kills with abandon".
The West has been dragged into the wars of identity. Think of the last few decades. The ethnic cleansing of Rwanda, the conflict in the Balkans and the break-up of the old Yugoslavia. The blood feud of Shia versus Sunni Muslim, Hindu against Muslim, the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar.
"Who are you?" is the most dangerous question in the world.
These are wars never won. After two decades in Afghanistan, the US fled, leaving the Taliban to return to a country lacerated by identity conflict.
The West's War on Terror has not quelled the lure of radical Islam. A new generation of Muslims raised in the West, angry and disillusioned, has swelled the ranks of Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Breaking Ukraine's will, enacting revenge
French philosopher Jacques Derrida spoke of those "who have bread of apocalypse in their mouths": those filled with vengeance and grievance, haunted by the past, who see only unending catastrophe.
Western modernity holds no allure for them. Putin has Derrida's "bread of apocalypse" in his mouth.
He has unleashed a war of identity on Ukraine to stop its drift to the West, break its will, and in no small part to exact revenge on Western nations he believes have humiliated Russia.
Michel Eltchaninoff, the author of the book Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin, says vengeance explains much of his crackdown against dissidents inside Russia and his attacks on enemies outside Russia. After two decades in power, Eltchaninoff says
, Putin was about "revenge — against those protesting his return to power and against the West".
As the West has battled the wars of identity abroad, those same battles have exploded within the West itself.
Nations like America face foes without and within. The most powerful country in the world is a nation unsure of itself. Certainly, it is unprepared at this point to fight Putin in Ukraine and is looking to redeem and rejuvenate a sense of its own identity.
America was always an idea: as Abraham Lincoln said, a nation "dedicated" to a "proposition". But the idea of "out of many, one people" struggles to speak to the souls of those who seek only the one.
And watching this is Xi Jinping. The Chinese leader believes this is his time. His China Dream is within reach.
He believes in one people, one China, one identity. He has Taiwan in his sights. Potentially the mother of all identity wars.
Stan Grant is the ABC's international affairs analyst and presents China Tonight on Monday at 9:35pm on ABC TV, and Tuesday at 8pm on the ABC News Channel.