Saturday, February 28, 2015

Russia, Ukraine and the Narcissism of Small Differences

Paul Goble


            Staunton, February 28 – Many people in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere have wondered why two nations so closely linked by history and culture should have descended into such a vicious war, but they shouldn’t be surprised, Boris Grozovsky says, because peoples close to each other more likely to get involved in wars and to suffer more greatly from them.


            On, the deputy commentary editor of Moscow’s “Vedomosti” newspaper, says that such conflicts may be especially likely if “a culturally close people tried to change political institutions” in ways that threaten the political elite of the other (


            Grozovsky draws his conclusions from recent studies of conflicts around the world. He notes that Enrico Spolaore and Romain Wacziarg, two US-based scholars have concluded that closely related peoples are more likely to fight than any others under ceteris paribus conditions (


            The two offer a variety of explanations, including the fact that similar peoples often have a similar view of the world and thus any changes by one is felt with particular force by the other and even as a threat to its own order, especially if that one is not a democracy but rather a dictatorship.


            Cultural closeness often follows such genetic commonalities, other scholars have suggested. Harvard’s Akos Lada, for example, has shown on the basis of a study of wars over the past two centuries that a common cultural past often makes conflicts and war more likely (


            Grozovsky says that Lada’s conclusions are especially suggestive for the war between Russia and Ukraine because they were drawn before that war broke out and because Lada offers a variety of suggestions about wars in general that clearly appear to have specific application to the current one.


            “War harms borrowings in a double sense,” Lada says. On the one hand, “it physically destroys those who could become a model for emulation.” And on the other, “identity is a tricky thing: one cannot at the same time see in another persona an enemy and a model.” Instead, the situation is one of “either-or.”


            Consequently, “an authoritarian leader,” Grozovsky summarizes, by attacking someone who could be an institutional model, “simply ‘deactivates’ that identity which could respond by the borrowing of his successes.” And history shows that “a dictator with a good army will not wait while ‘a fraternal people’ succeeds” in living a life different than his own.


            Moreover, Lada writes, engaging in wars with such an enemy can reward the dictator at home: It can provide him with the justification for a crackdown against his own people in the name of national unity.


            The possibility of wars in general and wars of this kind in particular can be reduced by the spread of democracy and trade, and the linkage between these factors has been the subject of intense study and debate. (See, for example, the work of Seitz, Tarasov and Zakharenko at


            Both democracy and trade promote social well-being and those factor both directly and because they reduce tensions lead to a decline in military spending reinforce one another, the three found.  Wars have just the reverse impact by increasing military spending and harming growth.


            As Grozovsky puts it, “the gods of war and of economics definitely are not friends.” He cites the work of Stephane Auray et al, “Wars as Large Depreciation Shocks” in support of that contention. Their study is available at


             Finally, the Moscow commentator notes one other misfortune of such wars. Authoritarian rulers frequently develop repressive means that they extend from the front into their own countries, a phenomenon that has been studied by Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall (


            Given all this, is there a way out of the war in Ukraine? Grozovsky asks.  He is clearly not optimistic.  He cites the work of Santiago Caicedo who has considered what conditions open the ways for successful peace agreements and what factors do not (


            According to the Chicago scholar, peace accords are more likely “when the leaders of the conflicting sides are forced to be concerned about the well-being of people … [when] the economic advantages of peaceful life are obviously greater than the losses from war [and when] the player which controls the small part of the territory is completely disarmed.”


            “These factors, especially considering the role of Russia in the Ukrainian events,” the Moscow editor says, “make the prospects for the development of both countries not too encouraging.”

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