Rene Girard’s germinal scholarship, which has attracted adherents on both the left and the right, stemmed from his investigation of the ‘mimetic’ origins of desire, which he developed from his recognition that imitation constitutes the fundament of human behaviour. And while he discovered how mimetic rivalry can explain a wide variety of everyday phenomena, his ideas were given birth in the not-so-frisky intellectual burrows and hinterlands of academia. Girard published his ground-breaking theory of the ritual role of sacrifice in Violence and the Sacred in 1972 and became well-known for his work on mimetic contagion in 1978, in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Girard’s commentary uncovered how human rivals compete to differentiate themselves from each other, yet succeed only in becoming more and more alike, eventually leading to crises of random violence resolved only by what Girard called the ‘scapegoating mechanism.’ The community then turned on an extempore victim, and the violence that ensued was repressed, eventually forming the cornerstones of both religion and the rehabilitated social order.
Scholars, businessmen, entrepreneurs and political pundits of every political stripe are reading his work and applying his ideas to their various fields of interest. Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, while splendidly unreserved, can be summarised in the single statement, ‘We desire what others desire.’ We can expand this to mean: We desire what others desire because they desire it. Our neighbour’s act of desiring something makes their object of desire desirable in our eyes. We imitate the desire of others, learn them from others, and unavoidably, such ‘acquisitive mimesis’ creates mimetic rivals along the way. This is so because we are fundamentally social beings. And we fight with others over what is most coveted by our desires. These desires can work on an individual level, on a community level, and on regional, national and global scales. Mimetic desire – which is fundamentally mysterious – provokes fights between children over cheap toys in the kindergarten playground, neighbourhood rivals fight each other, and some countries declare war on other countries. Desires are not natural drives that can be satisfied because they are not autonomously, internally, independently generated. My desire for my neighbour’s desire only intensifies my neighbour’s desire for what he or she already has, creating ‘mimetic doubles.’ Desires point to a universal tendency to envy others and our wish to emulate certain individuals or groups. Certain people we know model our desire for us. That can be a good or bad thing depending on the person that we are trying to emulate. This is because desire is always related to something that we feel we lack, but others enjoy. It is other people who actually tell us what our desires are. We wish to be that person so much that they become our mimetic model in a world that looks very much like ‘a theatre of envy’ (which, incidentally, is the title of one of Girard’s books). Desire, as I mentioned earlier, is fundamentally mysterious – it is that quality that makes us idolise other people and desire the same things that they have. But the anxiety that it produces also fuels public rivalries, or wars, as in the case of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
This is not to say that Girardian theory does not have its critics. This one comes from Joshua Landy, who writes:
René Girard, the founder of the approach, was rewarded … with membership in the Académie française, France’s elite intellectual association. People loved his system so much that they established a Colloquium on Violence and Religion, hosted by the University of Innsbruck, complete with a journal under the ironically apt name Contagion. More recently, Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, loved it so much that he sank millions of dollars into Imitatio, an institute for the dissemination of Girardian thought. And to this day, you’ll find casual references to the idea everywhere, from people who seem to think it’s a truth, one established by René Girard. (Here’s a recent instance from the New York Times opinion pages: ‘as we have learned from René Girard, this is precisely how desires are born: I desire something by way of imitation because someone else already has it.’) All of this leads to an inevitable question: what’s the difference between Girardianism and Scientology? Why has the former been more successful in the academy? Why is the madness of theory so, well, contagious?
Girardian terminology is one way of parsing reality, and there are certainly gaps in his theory. Some big ones. But I find his theory of the scapegoat a thought-provoking way of looking at the war in Ukraine. It is certainly not a theory of everything; it over-generalises and, in places, it drips with hyperbole, wildly exaggerating the idea of mimetic rivalry. In this essay, I have chosen it as a heuristic device with which to consider the war in Ukraine because of its consideration of the idea of the scapegoat.
Girard’s specialty is the cultural anthropology of scapegoating, which is built upon the ways in which societies attempt to curb reciprocal violence through prohibition, ritual sacrifice, and myth. Some facets of the war in the ex-soviet republic of Ukraine can be explained using Girardian terms such as mimetic contagion, brought about by the mimetic rivalry between the US and Russia, for example. One could, for instance, make the claim in Girardian terms that the desire of the United States to bring Ukraine into the sphere of NATO, and Ukraine’s desire to become part of Europe, was part of what drove the desire of Russia to keep Ukraine separated from its goal of pursuing a Western-style democracy.
Ultimately, however, it is possible to choose what we desire by educating ourselves about mimetic rivalry – including whether or not this idea accounts for why we choose, say, certain foods (maybe because it has nothing to do with mimetic rivalry but because we have to eat or else we would die, not because our friend Johnny likes it but because it is more nutritious). Much of this ongoing rivalry is kept in place by religious and legal prohibitions. We say we are at peace with others, but, in effect, we are emotionally and constantly at war. We find scapegoats that we hold responsible for the disharmony in our own lives. And we find scapegoats that we believe to be responsible for the ills of society. The harmony that results from sacrificing the scapegoat usually results from people joining in groupthink, and becoming part of a mob that participates in sanctifying the act of sacrificing the scapegoat by living and reliving it in ritual so as to remind the population of the dangers of rebellion, as in the popular movie, ‘The Hunger Games.’
In the US (where Girard taught throughout most of his life), his theory is considered abstruse, but that has not stopped his work from having a significant transdisciplinary appeal, straddling adjacent spheres as diverse as anthropology, religion, sociology, psychology, philosophy and theology.
Now, do we exist in eternal conflict with everybody? Are we all mimetic rivals? Of course not, but we can exhibit longanimity and trust with our friends, and often do. Yet, according to Girard, mimetic rivalry affects all of us in some debilitating ways. Entire societies – as in the current case of Russia and the US – frequently become engulfed in a process of ‘violent contagion’ which results in what Girard calls a ‘scandal,’ threatening to implode into war unless a scapegoat is effectively identified – in this case, Ukraine.
Imitative behaviour accounts very much for our polarised world (but certainly not all of it) – we can read the Republicans and Democrats through this theory, and certainly account for Trump’s behaviour (again, but not all of it). Both the Democrats and Republicans desire the same thing, power and political dominance, and as they fight each other over differences, they come more and more to resemble each other (although, in the US, the Republicans are so extreme in their comic book antics it is hard to see what they might positively share in common with the Democrats). And both groups manage to find suitable scapegoats, unleashing the concentrated wrath of all the accumulated rivalries they have engendered throughout the current political calendar, or perhaps even throughout their entire political careers. Sometimes the scapegoats are even members of their own party. Mimetic contagion always tugs at the social fabric of society, provoking an existential crisis that can only be cured through the single victim mechanism – ritualised violence against an innocent victim undertaken as an act of salvation, as a substitute for the violence of the larger collective. Through the ritualised sacrifice of a single victim, that is, through enacting mimetic violence on a small scale, it is hoped that violence on a larger scale can be avoided, and a restoration of harmony can proceed. In order to preclude retaliation, these scapegoats must be outsiders, too weak to provoke reprisals.
According to Denike,
For Girard (1979) and others who have expanded on his theory of the scapegoat mechanism, human societies are demonstratively ‘sacrificial’ in nature: to quell their impulses of violence and to manage conflicts and dissension, communities select ‘surrogate victims’ onto whom are mimetically projected the causes of violence or chaos that would otherwise exacerbate social disorder and strife and lead to the ‘interminable, infinitely repetitive process’ of vengeance (pp. 13-14). Girard (1979) describes the scapegoat mechanism, as it operates in contemporary and historical societies, in terms of what he calls a ‘theory of sacrificial substitution’ (p. 5). Considered to be a universal feature of social groups, traceable through the centuries in fictive and factual narratives, the execution or expulsion of an often randomly selected scapegoat – even under the circumstances where he or she is vilified – serves to deflect or absorb potential cycles of violence and vengeance and to restore order to communities, particularly in times of social or economic crisis, widespread insecurity, or panic.
Jennifer Bashaw notes that
[t]he scapegoat must be similar enough to the members of the society that it can bear its pollution but dissimilar enough to be a pharmakos and bear it away. It is for this reason that scapegoats are accused of crimes that a society abhors, often extreme taboos, but are themselves usually innocent of these crimes. The scapegoat must be seen as removed from society by some trait or offence. A final characteristic scapegoats share is that they tend to be those who are weak, marginalised and without family or allies, in order to preclude retaliation from someone on their behalf.
But what is also necessary is the creation of an illusion in the form of religious myth, which can be found, for instance, in the Biblical myths that cover up the fact that people project their own violent actions onto God. As Bashaw notes:
Without the illusion that myth brings to ritual sacrifice, communities would uncover the terrifying violence they both practice and elude and such knowledge would create a ‘sacrificial crisis’ resulting in chaotic violence and destruction. The statement Girard makes about religion and myth shocks and rivets with its simple accusation: ‘Religion dupes; this is its only way to conquer violence.’
Myth cloaks violence under a veil of deception as a means of preventing greater violence. Bashaw writes:
Girard is quite thorough in his trek through the literature and mythology of human history, and in his exploration of ancient cultures, he mines the Hebrew Bible and New Testament for evidence of the mythic veiling of the violent. What Girard uncovers in the literature of the Jewish and Christian religions becomes the revelatory cipher to his theory. Girard sees the Bible as a text in ‘travail between myth and gospel,’ which reveals the system of sacred violence through its stories and theories. Scripture tells the cyclical story of the mimetic crisis of culture through such stories as Cain and Abel and Joseph and his brothers. In the Bible, as in all religious stories, violence becomes sacred as humans project their own mimetic violence onto God and fail to grasp that the violence originated with them.
While I don’t agree that myths always function as concealment, they have proven effective in sacralising violence when they tell the stories from the perspective of the persecutors. Girard looks to the New Testament narratives as a means of telling stories from the perspective of the victims – and consequently, for Girard, they can no longer be categorised as myths. Girard sees the violent sacred that religious mythology has masked for all of history – the unconscious nature of violence – as revealed in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus underscores the scapegoat mechanism in all of history. Here is how Bashaw puts it:
In the end, Girard’s analysis of the gospel message is fascinating and provocative, especially considering that he is neither a theologian nor an apologist for Christianity. Girard finds that, throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ teaching, especially his exchanges with the scribes and Pharisees, uncovers the violence inherent in their religion and all religions, and reveals what societies and religions have kept hidden for all of time. Girard’s commentary on Jesus’ passion and death shows that Jesus is a typical scapegoat like the scapegoats present in all religious ritual; however, unlike myths and other literature, the Gospels are transparent about this fact. The Gospels expose the scapegoat mechanism because they proclaim Jesus’ innocence. A scapegoat that is knowingly innocent completely reverses the effect of scapegoat sacrifice. Salvation from the violence in religion, then, comes with the truth that the Gospels reveal about Jesus’ death and the workings of society’s scapegoat mechanism. Jesus’ teaching and the unveiling of his innocent death make him more than just the scapegoat; they make him the cure to the need for scapegoats and the possible conclusion to sacred violence in humanity.
(Girard’s theories are certainly prone to confirmation bias by Catholics such as himself).
Especially in 2020 and up the present time, Republican leaders and the right-wing media viciously swiped their retractable adamantium claws against the cheekbones of Black Lives Matter activists and teachers whose pedagogy embraces some facet of Critical Race Theory (which in practical terms means any teacher that wants to teach about race, slavery or racism), or who actively support GLBTQ culture, transgender youth, abortion and immigration rights. They are actively seeking scapegoats in order to pin responsibility on them for the decline of America, for the racial and ethnic pollution of America, usually with fantastical claims that made them, in the eyes of their ethnonationalist and white supremacist friends (which included Trump’s base, the vox populi who like to wear camo vests and carry AR-15s), legitimate targets for mob violence. They went on to demand teachers be punished through resignation, stiff fines, incarceration or expulsion – in other words, through the violence of sacrifice. Social harmony and cohesion are expected to be restored briefly, until another crisis or ‘scandal’ occurs. Girard, as a Catholic, ultimately believed that Jesus offers the only escape from mimetic violence and contagion, a path demonstrating both a secular and divine redemption ‘reflecting the hypostatic union’ previously unknown to mankind.’ According to Girard, the sacrifice of Jesus ‘broke the cycle of mimetic violence that was the formation of all human societies prior to Christianity, founding an entirely new anthropology.’
For Girard, ‘things hidden since the foundation of the world’ represent those truths that are hidden under the infected, pock-marked social tissues of imitative behaviour and lies that offer only a binary choice to conflicts that demand nuance and granular analysis. While conflict is inevitable when human beings mimic one another, it can often be resolved by what he called ‘the scapegoat mechanism.’ In our globalised world that is becoming more and more the same, people are desiring the same things to make themselves appear different (just check out the airport terminal stores in dozens of countries), and Girard would attribute this to the burgeoning impact of mimetic rivalry. Super rich Latin Americans want to play tennis and wear Rolexes and buy McLaren racing cars just like Russian oligarchs and ostentatious billionaires in North America. Both pre-Christian and Christian values involving violent ritual sacrifice of a scapegoat victim once helped stabilise a conflictual society at least for a short time until another scapegoat victim needed to be sacrificed. Order was restored and evil temporarily restrained. But we live in a more secular society today (at least as long as we can hold off the charge of the evangelical brigade for Trump). Liberal democracy and humanistic ideas have, over time, tempered mimetic violence. Religion is thus playing less of a political role in secular societies. Secularisation has ended many of the social rituals responsible for constraining the violence of mimetic rivalry. The Catholic Church, at least until the late Roman Empire, worked to support emperors and kings, politicians and conservative captains of industry to reproduce social hierarchies that favoured the few who rule the many: today, we would refer to them as the transnational capitalist class. The role of the Church as the spiritual protector of the empire has diminished to a certain extent with the advent of secularisation. One notable exception to this is the Russian Orthodox Church under the divine directorship of Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus,’ who is clearly supporting Putin’s nationalist conservative mythic function of delineating and defending the invasion as an exorcism of purification, a purging of Ukraine’s Nazi elements, since Krill has publicly proclaimed support for Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Crushing Ukraine will help to purify Mother Russia and its vassal state from the evil of the fascism that has apparently taken hold of its population and is subsequently threatening the peace and security of Russia through Kyiv’s negotiations with the evil West and its sword arm, NATO.
Hodge notes that the ‘claim to protect the victimised allows Putin to make a further claim: that he is only defending his people, not being an aggressor. Girard argues that this is a common way to justify warfare by obscuring the aggressive intent of the party claiming defensive action.’ By ‘radicalising’ the concern for victims on a purely political platform of imperialist violence, it would seem that apologists for Putin and Krill are offering violence against innocent Ukrainians as a means of bringing social harmony to the Russian empire, which amounts to a lie wrapped in a false concern for victims, cementing together the alliance of Putin and Krill as a mimetic rival to Christ. I explored this process, although not in Girardian terms, but by utilising the work of the comparative symbologist Victor Turner in my 1986 book, Schooling as a Ritual Performance. Joel Hodge repeats Girard’s argument that ’the biblical religions contain a ground-breaking awareness of the violence against scapegoats which has unfolded slowly but inexorably, culminating in modernity’s concern for victims. This concern has had a transformative and positive effect, especially for the protection and rights of the persecuted and minorities.’ And yet this has also given birth to a perverse effect: ‘new justifications for mob behaviour.’ According to Hodge, ‘victim-sympathy has been weaponised in political and online purges of those accused of being “persecutors” of selected victims. Modern political ideologies and nationalisms are exemplars in this regard, as they are driven by the struggle for ethnic, nationalistic or revolutionary “justice” for their preferred victims.’
In her journal article, ‘Scapegoat Racism and the Sacrificial Politics of “Security,”’ Margaret Denike acknowledges that Girard sees the modern judicial system as representing a different economy of violence than ‘primitive’ sacrificial economies, the former eliminating the need for vengeance. She writes:
Girard (1979: 22) considers that what marks the difference between ‘primitive’ sacrificial economies of violence and those of ‘well-policed’ societies that feature judicial systems is that, for the former, the sacrificial victim is as random as he is innocent, whereas with the latter ‘the violence does indeed fall on the “right” victim, and it falls with such force, such resounding authority, that no retort is possible.’ This force, he suggests, is what puts an end to vengeance, at least for the time being. What makes our judicial system seem ‘rational,’ Girard argues, is that by insisting on the ‘punishment of the guilty party’ (p. 22) rather than some random innocent, it stifles the ‘impulse to vengeance, rather than spreading or aggravating it, as a similar intervention on the part of the aggrieved party would invariably do’ (p. 23). This is to say that ‘the judicial system and the institution of sacrifice share the same function,’ although the effectiveness of the judicial system inheres in its ‘political power’ as a ‘legitimate form of violence,’ free of recrimination, which, by virtue of this freedom, ‘save[s] itself from the vicious cycle of revenge’ (p. 24). To the extent that this is true, we might add that this is also to say that the retributive logic and brutish force of indiscriminate acts of vengeance – for which sacrifice has a long and ancient history among human populations – run deep in how the security states live and think of ‘justice.’
How well do the Ukrainian people fit into the role of scapegoat victim, according to Girard’s criteria? Denike (2015) notes that
[a] central tenet of Girard’s scapegoat theory concerns the essential characteristics ascribed to the sacrificial victim: the scapegoat is typically an individual that is similar to the other members of the community, yet, at the same time, is marked as different from them (i.e., as a member of a racial, religious, or cultural minority; mentally or physically disabled; bearing a strange appearance or behaviour, and so forth). It is ‘the signs of ‘otherness’ – strange appearance, strange behaviour, strange origins,’ as McBride describes it, that ‘introduce the gaps between victim and community … needed to vent violence safely in an act of catharsis.
It appears that ‘the signs of otherness’ that Putin ascribes to Ukraine are a difficult fit for Girard’s definition of a scapegoat, since Ukrainians view themselves as both similar to and distinct from Russians in variously crucial ways. On the one hand, they both share the same group of Eastern Slavic languages, have a common alphabet, similar grammar, and significant lexical uniformity. Nevertheless, there are particularities in the development of cultures of the Ukrainian and Russian cultures and differences in their language systems and dialectical diversity. This is because ‘individual regions in Western Ukraine having been part of states such as Austria-Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.’ What is unique is that ‘the dialect of a resident from the Ivano-Frankivsk Region in western Ukraine can be understood by someone from Kyiv, while a Muscovite and a Siberian also speak the same dialect.’
The anti-communist and traditionalist Putin emphasises the deep-seated unity among the Eastern Slavs – Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, ‘who all trace their origins to the medieval Kyivan Rus commonwealth,’ and he desires Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus to share a common political destiny – something directly challenged by Putin’s chief mimetic rival: the US. Zbigniew Kowalewski notes that ‘Russian imperialism has always been guided by the ideas of “gathering all Russian lands” and building a “Russia, one and indivisible.”’ He shares a story about Stalin that chillingly makes this point:
In 1937, during a reception organised on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution, Joseph Stalin made a very special toast. As an eyewitness, Georgi Dimitrov, noted in his diary, in doing so, Stalin explained that the tsars had ‘done a good thing: assembled a huge state reaching as far as Kamchatka’ and ‘we Bolsheviks have consolidated and strengthened it into a state, one and indivisible.’ Consequently, ‘anyone who seeks to separate a part or a nationality is an enemy, a sworn enemy of the State and peoples of the USSR. And we will destroy such an enemy, even if it is an old Bolshevik; we will destroy all his kindred, his family. We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his actions or his thoughts – yes, his thoughts – threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their relatives!’
On the other hand, Putin claims that the so-called distinct Ukrainian and Belarusian identities are the product of foreign manipulation, and that Ukraine is essentially a fabrication, part of a Western plot against Russia. Here, Ukraine’s national identities are viewed by Putin as artificial, and he maintains that the current Ukrainian state was a creation of the Soviet Union and should be renamed for its supposed ‘author and architect,’ the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. The idea that Ukraine is a Nazi state stems from pre-World War II, when Western Ukraine was dominated by Stepan Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which attempted to set up a puppet state under German protection during World War II and ‘was the site of some of the war’s worst atrocities – including the German-led annihilation of the Jewish population and Ukrainian-led ethnic cleansing of Poles, and Polish retribution attacks on Ukrainian civilians.’ Additionally, ‘Putin and other officials claim that Ukraine’s post-2014 governments have pursued a “Banderite” policy of purging Russian influence under the direction of foreign sponsors.’ And, of course, since the breakup of the Soviet Union,
Ukraine has undergone two major revolutions: one in 2005 and another in 2014. Both revolutions aimed to denounce Russian supremacy and sought to establish a place for Ukraine within the EU and NATO. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated in late 2013 and eventually resulted in the Russian annexation of Crimea, a peninsula in southern Ukraine. The annexation was considered to be illegitimate by Ukraine and most of the rest of the world.
So Ukraine makes it difficult for Putin to successfully prosecute Ukraine using a scapegoat mechanism, claiming his invasion is a necessary sacrifice that will bring about safety and security for Russia (as Ukraine will be forced not to join NATO and to accept a neutral status, eventually remade into a puppet regime under Putin’s control). It is important to remember that the Soviet state was created on the basis of Stalin’s Great Terror. Ukrainian nationalism was forbidden by Russia as far back as Stalin’s leadership in the Bolshevik party. Kowalewski writes that
[t]he central leadership of the Bolshevik party, led by Stalin, opposed the aspirations to national independence with a policy of linguistic and cultural nationalisation of the non-Russian republics. Unexpectedly for its Muscovite promoters, the policy of Ukrainization became an extension of the Ukrainian national revolution, which this policy revived and remarkably revitalised. It lasted ten years, until 1932. The extermination by famine (Holodomor) and the crushing of Ukrainization by terror were both constitutive acts of the Stalinist bureaucracy separated from the Thermidorian bureaucracy that reigned until then (and later, during the Great Terror, it would be exterminated by the Stalinist bureaucracy) and an act of rebirth of imperialism, this time bureaucratic-military.
Denike describes Girard’s ‘contractual reasoning that drives a discriminating collective.’ She writes that, according to Girard, ‘if the sacrificial victim is “too different” from themselves, “the affect arising from relations with mimetic rivals … could not be projected onto the sacrificial victim”; on the other hand, “if the sacrificial victim is too similar to themselves, the scapegoat appears to be just another mimetic rival whose death would trigger a new round of violence initiated by those who identified the victim as one of their own”’ (p. 309). According to these criteria, the government of Ukraine is a moving target for Putin, marking itself as a difficult scapegoat mechanism advantageous to Putin. Having Ukraine symbolise the West, and equating it with fascism, is a difficult case to make, and especially when it means justifying a violent, full-scale military invasion. In fact, it brings into further relief Putin’s covert acts of deflection from the fascist currents in its own governing practices. Ukrainians are both too similar to Russians and therefore ‘just another mimetic rival whose death would trigger a new round of violence initiated by those who identified the victim as one of their own’ and too different from Russians, so that relations arising from these rivals ‘could not be projected onto the sacrificial victim.’
Denike notes: ‘The point here is that sacrificial victims, as Girard (1979) has noted, are invariably distinguishable from the non-sacrificeable beings by one essential characteristic: between these victims and the community, a crucial social link is missing, so they can be exposed to violence without fear of reprisal. Their death does not automatically entail an act of vengeance.’ Well, clearly, Ukraine is not missing that crucial social link, whatever that link might be. Its military forces are actively seeking revenge, and the reprisals have been devastating to Putin since he mistakenly believed his army could march essentially unopposed into Kyiv, where he would be greeted with sympathy by cheering Ukrainians while imposing a pro-Russian puppet regime. If [t]he ‘sacrificial victim’ is basically ‘the creature we can strike down without fear of reprisal’ the one onto which acts of vengeance can be diverted, without inviting further conflict,’ then Ukraine was a bad choice for Putin.
Denike argues that we need to understand how the differences between scapegoats and the nation become ‘visible markers of communal identity/dis-identification and as its conditions of liberty and security.’ Denike (whose own work deals with issues of the ‘empire’s scapegoat racism,’ criminal law, the justice system and immigration policy) maintains that ‘[a]ttention thus needs to be paid to the productive work of sacrifice at this historical juncture, what it says about how ‘the nation’ sees itself and identifies itself as a coherent identity… against some differences and not others.’
The response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine outside of Russia has led to a rapid militarisation of Europe and Ukraine, and has drawn Finland and Sweden closer to joining NATO. While support for Putin continues to remain strong inside Russia, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets and now face long jail sentences. Putin’s scapegoating of Ukraine, insofar as it justifies itself as a biopolitical act of ‘purifying’ the social body’ of Ukraine through the mythos of Ukraine as a neo-Nazi state (yes, there are neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine, as there are in the US and in Europe, and I have written of the Azov regiment in earlier columns and have pointed out that in the 2019 presidential election, which Mr Zelensky won, the main far-right candidate won just 1.6% of the vote) is a shameful excuse for war. The same is true of Putin’s stated goal to ‘denazify’ and ‘demilitarise’ its neighbour, which is giving Putin the opportunity to distinguish who has the right to live, and who has the right to be murdered on a battlefield that includes schools, hospitals and apartment buildings. Putin’s statement that ‘[t]here was every indication that a clash with neo-Nazis and Banderites – backed by the US and its junior partners – was unavoidable’ is the blanket claim under which his justification for war hides. It is the central ideological prop used in Putin’s sacrificial ritual, whose chants echo with imperial splendour in the church of hyper-nationalism and can be heard vibrating all way around the world from the stone onion domes of Saint Sophia Cathedral in the city of Vologda. As Hodge notes,
this hyper-nationalism is only effective in the short- to medium-term, for two reasons: Firstly, modern people cannot suppress their understanding of scapegoating and must eventually recognise their victims. Girard argues that this is shown by modernity’s inability to sacralise or divinise victims, that is, turn victims into gods or demons, like archaic people could, in support of their own politico-cultural system. Secondly, totalitarian constructs such as autocratic nationalism cannot satisfy the deep and infinite need for identity and communion that lies in the human heart.
We must also acknowledge that Ukraine is, in a sense, also a potential sacrificial victim for use by the United States. The US is willing to allow Ukraine to be potentially demolished by Russian troops (although this is hardly the case at present, as Ukrainian troops appear to be staving off the Russian offensives) in its efforts to weaken Russia by a proxy war, so that NATO can continue to expand closer to Russia without having to put its boots on the ground – a move that will give the US a greater strategic advantage in relation to its other mimetic rival, China. But this invisibilised aggression on the part of the US – the idea that the US is using Ukraine for its own strategic purposes – has been disguised from the American public by the US positioning itself as a champion of Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression. The US is simply telling the American public that it is coming to the aid of a victim of Russian aggression – not that this is part of a greater US strategic plan also involving China. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been divinised as a modern Winston Churchill (he admittedly is quite a remarkable leader). Ukraine is a ‘potential’ sacrificial victim for the US in its escalating rivalry with Russia (and China), depending on how Ukraine’s war with Russia plays out and if and when the US decides to withdraw financial and military support from Ukraine, say, in the increasing likelihood of nuclear war.
Clearly, the victims of the war in Ukraine are more easily identified with Russian aggression, and hence Hodge notes: ‘Nevertheless, in the meantime, much destruction will be wrought, as we are seeing in Ukraine. All those who stand on the side of the victimised – in this case, the majority of the Ukrainian people – must stand up to the Russian invasion, though without escalating it. It is a delicate balance, but firm action to sanction Russia and support the Ukrainian military must be taken, even if it costs the West at the petrol pump. Moral stances exact a financial cost.’
I agree with Hodge with the caveat that we recognise the dangerous trajectory of US policy towards Russia, including its ‘insistence that NATO is the only legitimate security organisation for Europe and Eurasia and the extension of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture to the Eurasian space surrounding Russia, which in Moscow’s eyes represented a threat to Russian security.’ As the executive summary by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace charges:
Changing the trajectory of US-Russian relations will be difficult. Russia’s image is toxic in the current US political climate, and, as a result, there will be few opportunities for cooperation even where Washington and Moscow have common interests. Russia is vitally important to the United States, however, and managing this relationship responsibly – even if not necessarily making it better or solving problems – is a task that US policymakers can ill afford to neglect. Yet the difficulty of managing the relationship is compounded by the fact that both countries are set in their respective approaches to each other and will find it hard to change course.
Whether or not we agree with Girard’s theory of the scapegoat, it does provide a potentially productive heuristic device with which to frame some of the dynamics concerning the war in Ukraine. In the meantime, the bodies are piling up, and negotiations are at an impasse. Putin is accusing Ukraine of trying to acquire nuclear weapons again. When it was part of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine did have nuclear weapons, but these were given up in the 1990s when security guarantees from the US, UK and Russia were promised to Ukraine. Ukraine is banned under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it joined in 1994, from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Whatever we make think of Girard’s theories (happily embraced by pundits on the right and the left), we can agree that rivalries can escalate into blood-curdling political campaigns and, left to fester, they can be canalised by ideological fury into the horrors of war whose drumbeats we hear only too late. Listen for the drumbeats because they carry both rumours and realities, both of which are part of the rituals that are defining the shape of the world to come.
Russia’s oligarchic state capitalism and military-oligarchic imperialism constitute the imperial ruins of the Russian state, as Russia’s borders rapidly receded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It still remains the world’s largest nuclear power. It has a vast army with many reserves. Yet Russia needs the vast resources of Ukraine in order to create a Eurasia Empire, one that exists above Europe and Asia. Otherwise, it risks competing to become an Asian imperial state. But reclaiming Ukraine through force, by sacrificing its desire for independence for the supposed larger good of the Russian motherland and Ukraine, is but a ruse of Russian military-bureaucratic imperialism. To keep its designs for a Eurasian empire in play, it is willing to sacrifice the freedom of the Ukrainian people to choose their own destiny.
It seems as though we are back in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart on the issue of Ukraine after the results came in following the Ukrainian referendum of December 1991. When asked if they wanted Ukraine to be independent, more than 90% of Ukrainians responded resoundingly in the affirmative. With that, the USSR dissolved rapidly, within a week. The Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were not important to the Soviet Union without Ukraine, and Russia had no desire to rule a Central Asian empire. In hindsight, should Ukraine have kept its security, which were its nuclear weapons? If they had kept them, there is a strong likelihood that the war would have gone nuclear from the outset. But, admittedly, the Ukrainians were forced to give them up without sufficient guarantees for the country’s independence. And here we are in the middle of a war using conventional weapons. But we should remember that conventional weapons, while not nuclear, are still weapons of mass destruction, despite how the rhetoric of war is spun. If we could ask the corpses on the hospital floors, on the streets of Bucha, in the crumbling ruins of schools and in the rubble of factories, I am sure that they would agree.