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Russia’s fatal “Zugzwang”

The German word “Zugzwang” comes from the words “Zug”, which means “move”, and “Zwang”, which means “compulsion”. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine today appears to be wholly influenced by such an irrational “compulsion to move”. Much like the chess term, Moscow is now pursuing a move that will only worsen its position and harm itself.

February 24, 2023 - Alex Gordon - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Bondardt Photography / Shutterstock

Military and economic aspects will, of course, affect the timing of the end of the war in Ukraine. However, I am interested not in the practice but in the motivation: until when can the Russian Federation continue to fight the war?

Long before the outbreak of hostilities during the First World War, the German conservative elites were convinced that a European war would satisfy Germany’s colonial ambitions and strengthen its military and political prestige in the world. In this atmosphere of arrogance, the statesmen of the German Empire began a war to preserve and expand their empire. They began a war that led to the disintegration of their empire. The empire on the march ultimately lost its sense of reality. It fought the war to the end, not to a victorious end, but to its collapse. Along with it, three other empires collapsed: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian. After the war, a new, unplanned world order emerged, leading eventually to the Second World War.

The people who started the Russian Federation’s war in Ukraine cannot stop it, for it is existentially important to them: they cannot live and act without this war. The Russian Federation declares that it wants order and peace in the world. According to its worldview, order is a “Russian world” in which Ukraine must return to the orbit of Moscow as a Soviet-era artificial satellite. According to imperial logic, the Russian Federation needs to strengthen the “Russian world”, requiring territorial expansion to return to the size of tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. The empire must continue to expand in a seemingly “natural” way, much like the universe. A bloc of European countries like the Entente of the First World War, with enormous military and economic potential, has already emerged against the Kremlin. However, the Russian Federation lives by its imperialist traditions and according to the rhythm of its arrogant belief in power. This therefore promotes the idea that its military actions are inherently just. The “justice” connected to an empire’s policy is determined only by its strength. Unlike the United States and France, which have started but also stopped a series of wars – Vietnam, Korea, Algeria, Iraq, Afghanistan – the Russian Federation, which has no tradition of anti-war protest among the population or system of corrective self-criticism characteristic of democratic countries, cannot stop fighting. It can only go to its end, according to the law of inertia affecting empire.

The people who started and are leading the war in Ukraine are not insane. They are quite consciously, in “sound mind and sober memory”, engaged in political self-assertion, believing only in the military way of strengthening their empire. They are less interested in the actual position of their empire in the war, for they proceed not from what is, but from what must be for military victory. They are in a state of narcotic intoxication, or in the traditional Russian state of alcoholic intoxication. Perhaps they are in a state of “amok”, described in Stefan Zweig’s short story of the same name. Amok is characteristic of Malaysian culture. In Malay, meng-amok means to go into a blind rage and kill. Amok is considered a state of frenzy caused by drug intoxication. In a broader sense, it is a mental illness resulting from a disorder of the mind. However, in the case of the war unleashed by the Russian Federation, we are talking about a conscious step that led to a blurring of the imperial consciousness, a phenomenon well known from the history of adventures and collapse of empires, stupefied by delusions of grandeur.

At the same time, the new anti-Russian Entente is still trying to play by the rules, which Moscow has long since failed to recognise or even understand. Peaceful dialogue with the heads of the empire “running amok” is difficult: instead of an outstretched hand seeking reconciliation, they see two hands raised in the air as a sign of surrender. In a state of growing isolation in the Russian Federation, its leadership is experiencing a delusion of national greatness. Russia has no control over the situation it itself created through aggression. It cannot clearly define what would be a victory for it in the war it has unleashed. It reacts to the actions of the Ukrainian army, supported by the West, but it cannot make a rational decision. The war has become both a modus vivendi and modus operandi for the people running the Russian Federation. The ruling elite of Moscow cannot, on their own initiative, stop the war, which has become an existential, obsessive-compulsive neurosis of sorts, forcing them to fight. Russia has brought itself into a state of Zugzwang. The Russian Federation is incapable of backing down and reconciling. It has placed itself in a position similar to that created by the German Empire when it started the First World War. Following the outbreak of this conflict, the German Empire would only continue to exist for another four years and four months.

Alex Gordon is a native of Kyiv and graduate of the Kyiv State University and Haifa Technion (Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Science). Immigrated to Israel in 1979. Served in IDF reserve infantry units for 13 years. Full Professor (Emeritus) of Physics in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Haifa and at Oranim, the Academic College of Education. The chair of the committee for the appointment of professors on behalf of the Council for Higher Education of the State of Israel. Author of 10 books and about 700 articles in paper and online, was published in 82 journals in 14 countries in Ukrainian, Russian, Hebrew, English, French and German.

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