Putin’s invasion of Ukraine took most everyone by surprise. Pundits in the U.S had counseled that the right foreign policy approach was a pivot toward China. European countries had been confident enough in a peaceful future with Russia that they had made themselves deeply dependent on Russian energy. So how do we explain what we see?
Many have offered as explanation that it was simply Putin’s intent all along to try to restore the old Soviet Union (or perhaps even more grandly, the status of Stalin or Czarist Russia). And some have suggested that Putin, now at age seventy, is either suffering from reduced mental competence, or at least is feeling a last desperate desire for a legacy of power. Each could well be the accurate.
But as tends to be my way, I find myself considering more big-picture contributions to what we see. One such explanation is important to consider as it points toward where solutions ultimately must lie. I’ve written extensively about how, over the last thirty years, we have witnessed regression with regard to the maturity of perspective and decision-making needed for the future, and not just in the U.S. but around the globe. This is most obvious with today’s growing social and political polarization around issues of every sort. (See Perspective and Guidance for a Time of Deep Discord.) We see it too with the way numerous fledgling democracies in recent decades have moved in the direction of more authoritarian rule. As we witness behavior from Vladimir Putin more in keeping with Cold War sensibilities, I find myself asking if again regressive dynamics are not playing a significant role.
Whether this interpretation provides any more reason for optimism at least in the short term is an open question. In the positive side, it could mean that Putin might be perceived as regressive by his own people as sanctions have their effects and as Russia is increasingly viewed as a pariah by the larger world. But it could also mean that the dynamics that are creating this new vulnerability to authoritarianism and conflict are more deep seated and global than just the ambitions of a single leader. With the specter of the possible use of nuclear weapons, dangers then would increase many fold.
We are left with the question of just what is creating regressive dynamics, and of multiple sorts. The answer is critical if we are to make choices that will support larger planetary well-being. I take on the topic in Perspective and Guidance. It is possible that what we are witnessing is just the two-steps-forward-one-step-back nature of societal change. It is also possible that what we see could follow from dynamics more particular to our time but which still have familiar antidotes. Today’s limited and limiting views might reflect momentary regression in face of today’s many highly demanding challenges. It is in the nature of human systems that they will often polarize and regress when confronted with demands that threaten to overwhelm them. If the challenges are temporary and the overwhelm is not that great, patience and perspective—at least if we can avoid making destructive choices in response to being overwhelmed—should be all that is needed to take care of things.
But what we are seeing could also be a consequence of more ultimately overwhelming challenges and with them regression of a more pronounced—and less easily addressed—sort. Many of today’s critical concerns—for example, globalization, climate change, job loss through automation, the dramatic changes of the information revolution, the growing gap between the world’s haves and have-nots, and the loss of familiar cultural guideposts in so many areas of our lives (from generally agreed upon moral codes to clearly defined national and religious allegiances)—are more specifically new and could result in overwhelm of a particularly severe sort. If what we witness is primarily a product of such more deeply demanding and often global dynamics, successfully moving forward could be considerably more difficult. Indeed, what effectively moving forward asks may be more than we are capable of.
Importantly, there is an observation hidden in these descriptions with particular pertinence to the legitimacy of hope. If it is accurate, while it doesn’t make things easier, it does alter the possible implications. Aspects of this easily overwhelming picture—for example, the loss of familiar guideposts in many areas of our lives—may be products of important steps forward in how we understand in our time. For many years, I’ve written about the importance of a new “Cultural Maturity,” a needed and newly possible “growing up” in how we humans think and act. We’ve have witnessed its beginnings over the last century (see www. culturalmaturityblog.net). New capacities that come with it—including taking greater responsibility in our personal and collective choices, better tolerating life’s real uncertainties and complexities, and more effectively dealing with real limits—require that we face realities that before now we could not have tolerated. If such demands are playing a major role in current circumstances, this would further increase what our times require of us—considerably. But it would also increase the likelihood that we can get through these difficult times. It would mean that what we are feeling overwhelmed by may at least in part be what in the end will be required to save us. Today’s backsliding could be part of an awkward-in-between time in a predicted developmental process.
If this more encompassing kind of dynamic is in fact playing a major role in what we witness today in Ukraine, it may not have significant policy implications at least in the short term. The one thing it might do is make it more likely that we could see effective opposition in Russia to Putin’s transgressions. But it does put a further exclamation point on the importance of recognizing such regressive dynamics on the world stage and on the greater maturity as a species needed to move forward.