An illustration of stacked cards
© Luis Grañena

On the video, an old woman in a woolly hat in the Crimea is berating Russian soldiers. “Fear is the psychology of the slave,” she shouts. Then a man in black says, “You are a provocateur, babushka,” and shoves her. She tumbles over.

The ugly scene, watched 600,000 times on YouTube, highlights the strangest aspect of this conflict to date: very little bloodshed. As Vladimir Putin remarked after Russia’s invasion, “I cannot remember a single act of intervention without one shot.” One month later, three Ukrainians had died in the conflict. When Russians captured a Crimean air base last Saturday, Ukrainian soldiers – most carrying only wooden sticks – responded by singing Ukraine’s national anthem off-key. The casualty toll: one Ukrainian lightly injured. For contrast, more than 500,000 people died in the Crimean war of 1853-1856, and 75,000 in Hitler’s Crimean offensive of spring 1944. True, things could still go horribly wrong. Russian troops are massing on Ukraine’s borders. One incident could spark large-scale killing. However, there are reasons to think violence won’t erupt. Crimea today helps clarify why the world is becoming more peaceful.

The great theorist of this trend is Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard. His book The Better Angels of Our Nature says that annual deaths in battle dropped by more than 90 per cent from the late 1940s through the early 2000s. “The decline of violence,” Pinker writes, “may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.” (Syria is the great current exception, accounting for most of the world’s deaths in conflict last year.)

I phoned Pinker for his take on the Crimean crisis. First, he said, it confirmed his view that conflicts are more often caused by nationalism or narcissistic leaders than by states pursuing their rational interests.

Certainly, Russia isn’t on some hard-headed quest for resources. Crimea offers little more than a warm-water port, and Ukraine let Russia use that anyway. Occupying more territory gives Russia no security, because nobody will ever attempt a land war against it again.

Rather, said Pinker, “Putin has the classic symptoms of a narcissistic leader: dreams of greatness, desire to be worshipped and lack of empathy.” Indeed, Pinker wrote in 2012: “Perhaps an ageing Putin will seek historical immortality and restore Russian greatness by swallowing a former Soviet republic or two.”

Putin’s recent narcissistic self-tribute, the Sochi Olympics, may even have precipitated this conflict. Ukrainian protesters presumably bet that Putin wouldn’t spoil his own party by crushing them mid-Games. The Dutch sports historian Jurryt van de Vooren recalls the Moscow Olympics of 1980, when the USSR tolerated Polish workers’ strikes because it wanted to preserve its Games. The upshot: Poland’s Solidarity trade union emerged.

This time, Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich tried poorly calibrated violence: he murdered about 100 protesters, too few to crush the uprising, but enough to force him to flee. Yanukovich broke 21st-century political rules: you can steal, but don’t kill.

In the current conflict, nobody seems eager to kill. Not even John McCain proposes American military intervention. Last year, 52 per cent of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center agreed that “the US should mind its own business internationally” – the highest proportion since pollsters first asked that question 50 years ago.

. . . 

Most Russians want Crimea but oppose violence, according to polls. In one recent survey, by Alexei Navalny’s oppositionist Anti-Corruption Foundation, 74 per cent called war between Russia and Ukraine “impossible”.

Most Russians oppose war with Ukraine partly for the very reason they think Crimea is “theirs”: they consider Ukraine a kindred territory, almost like Russia. Many Russians have Ukrainian relatives. Many Ukrainians have mixed Russian-Ukrainian heritage, or aren’t sure what they are. Marc Bennetts, author of Kicking the Kremlin, says: “An actual conflict with Ukraine is unthinkable to the vast majority of Russians. It would be like England fighting Wales, or the US fighting Texas. There is no popular support for a protracted war with Ukraine. And Putin very rarely goes against public opinion.”

In Pinker’s terminology, Ukrainians are within the Russian “circle of empathy”. That circle didn’t prevent vast Russian-Ukrainian killing from 1917 through 1945. But circles of empathy seem stronger nowadays.

Then there’s growing economic interconnectedness, which raises the cost of war: any potential enemy is also a business partner. Indeed, all western measures against Russia have been economic.

Last, belief in heroic war just keeps declining. You used to see old men in Russia walking around in medals from the second world war. Soldiers were worshipped. Yet as war becomes ever more automated – another sector where robots are replacing people – human heroism grows scarce. During the Iraq and Afghan wars, the US told two big propaganda stories about individual heroes, Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. Both stories proved false. Pinker said: “Because war provides fewer opportunities for chivalry and heroism, it becomes less recommended as a way to build character.”

A shooting war could still break out. “It is nerve-racking,” said Pinker. However, given declining modern appetites for violence, mass bloodshed looks unlikely. Perhaps there is progress in history after all.; Twitter @KuperSimon

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