At least four countries seem consumed by a siege mentality – North Korea, Israel, Iran and Russia. That collective cultural state is based on the belief that the rest of the world is implacably hostile and poised to attack or at least force its isolation. A widespread feeling of victimization is powerful.
Kim il-Sung had been installed by Stalin as the chairman of the North Korean branch of the Korean Communist Party in 1945. When Soviet occupied North Korea declared its independence in 1948, Kim became its first president. (He was grandiose even earlier when he changed his original name to Kim il-Sung, which means, “become the sun.”) Kim built his regime on threats from enemies and, after the Korean War, spread the idea that the U.S. was introducing deadly diseases into the DPRK as a way to destroy it. Even under his son and now grandson, the regime seeks to insure its longevity by reinforcing, ever more vigorously, its siege mentality.
Israel, of course, is a different story entirely. (To paraphrase, even siege mentality states have real enemies.) A long history of persecution, the Holocaust, the attacks by neighboring Arab countries in 1948, and a host of other events help to justify and rationalize the siege mentality. But in Israel, as everywhere, there are consequences. Victimization leads to a sense that “the other” is responsible for its problems and the suspiciousness and defensiveness make concessions to the Palestinians all the more difficult.
The Islamic Republic has built its credibility at home by mobilizing its most ardent supporters to an external enemy — “the Great Satan.” No matter its decreasing power, chants of “Death to America” still are heard at Tehran’s Friday prayers. In fact, the U.S. and Iran have been engaged in a low level, and at times not so low level war since the ousting of the Shah in 1979. (See David Crist, The Twilight War, Penguin, 2012.) The siege mentality is not entirely unwarranted.
But it is in the Russian people’s overwhelming support for Putin’s actions in Ukraine that we see the flowering of the siege mentality at its fullest. Sergey Zaks, a former Soviet citizen and astute observer of Russia writes,
“One of the most amazing things about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is the almost unanimous support Mr. Putin has in his country. One can easily imagine that under different circumstances, threatening a neighboring country would give many people a pause or that the thought of the possible economic consequences would make them uneasy or that the overwhelming international condemnation of their country’s aggressive posture would make them look for reasons other people see their country in such a negative light. None of this is happening.”
He adds, “This social metamorphosis is a very rare moment — I cannot think of anything comparable since 1930s.”
In his April 2014 news conference Putin was asked about NATO by Dmitry Kiselyov, head of the government owned news agency. “NATO is growing like a cancer around us,” Kiselyov said. “I feel like I’m being suffocated by NATO. Of course, you can say I’m being paranoid, but it doesn’t mean I’m not right. As a leader of Russia do you feel suffocated?”
Putin answered, “The reality that you described is accurate. NATO has continued to expand despite promises. . . . It’s true that people have a right to choose how they defend themselves, but it’s also true that when the military moves towards our borders we’re forced to take measures in response. Our decision in Crimea was also based on ‘other considerations.’ If we didn’t do anything after a while they would use the same principles and drag Ukraine into NATO. And soon NATO ships would be in Simferopol. They would push us out of the Black Sea.”
In fact, NATO accepted its most recent members ten years ago (Albania and Croatia) so its is not “growing like a cancer.” I would argue that the newly emphatic siege mentality in Russia has nothing to do with the alleged expansion of NATO. It is entirely a product of Putin’s own grandiosity and paranoia over whether the effects of the Ukrainian Revolution would spread to Russia, leading perhaps to widespread protests and political turmoil – including the harrowing (for Putin) parallel between the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Yanukovych and Putin himself.
Faced with that contagion peril, Putin took the offensive. He ginned up anti-Western passion in Russia, seized Crimea and mobilized pro-Russian mobsters and militia in eastern Ukraine to split from the government in Kiev.
The long-term loser in this will surely be Russia. A petro-state run by a kleptocratic elite with a declining population and a vast military will look ever more like “Upper River Volta with nukes.” Not your favorite country of the future.
Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus, Booth School of Business, The University of Chicago.