(First published Strategic Culture Foundation
I have found this analogy useful: grosso modo, over the past millennium, some countries have been predator fish and some countries have been prey fish. Predators and prey have completely different self images, behaviour and understandings of how the world works and how countries interact. Like all analogies, it’s a rough guide: few countries have been wholly one or the other and for a time, military superiority enabled all European countries to become predator fish on the rest of the world. But I believe that it is a useful analogy today and especially when applied to the calamitous misunderstanding of the Anglo-Americans about Russia; they get it completely wrong and that can have disastrous consequences.
England is the paradigm predator fish. Confined to their small island with their warlike Welsh and Scottish neighbours, the English subdued the first but never quite the second. When James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne he cleverly invented “Britain” and the British people and bound English, Scots and Welsh to a common cause. This new amalgam then created the largest empire of human history: so extensive, the boast went, that the sun never set on it. In its shorter life, the United States of America has likewise been a successful predator fish. Starting as a ribbon along the lower sea coast of a continent – every bit of which was claimed by some European power to say nothing of the autochthonous inhabitants – it spread over half the continent. Today American military dominance in its hundreds of bases (it’s always dawn in a US base somewhere), world-wide naval presence and its sovereign currency make the empires of the Nineteenth Century look half-hearted. Even though its relative power is failing, it remains the predominant power in most categories. And, as the latest Wikileaks revelations show, Washington is happy to use the so-called international instruments like the World Bank, OECD and IMF as weapons in its arsenal. The United Kingdom and the United States are, sequentially, the most successful predators ever; defeating every challenge, they have ascended to greater world power than any two other states in history. They are history’s apex predators.
In contrast African states and kingdoms were prey fish to European and Arab predators: slaves, raw materials and space for colonists. The civilisations of Central and South America were swiftly felled by European diseases and more deadly weapons. For several centuries non-European countries and civilisations were prey fish to Europe. Even Belgium, prey at home, could be a predator in Africa. Mighty China was a prey fish too and one can only hope, in its coming pre-dominance, that it will not seek revenge for its “century of humiliation“.
One should be wary of carrying the analogy too far: Zulus, Incas, Aztecs and Iroquois were successful predator fish in their ecologies until greater predators destroyed them. Sweden was a rapacious predator until defeat at Poltava marked the end and since then it has been quiet and peaceful. Former super-predators like Spain or Portugal, weakened by overextension and collapsed economies, have given up. Austria is a small land-locked country.
National myths have been profoundly shaped by the predator/prey dichotomy. Poland’s independence has been ended more than once: most recently the USSR dominated it and so, today, there is more antipathy towards Russia than to Germany or Austria. The Galicians currently setting the tone in Ukraine show more animosity to Russia than Poland or Austria for similar reasons.
The relevance of this analogy to today’s war on Russia is that Russia is in the unusual position of being half prey fish and half predator fish. For half of its thousand years it was a prey fish: maintaining its existence was a continual struggle with horse peoples in the south and Teutonic Knights in the north. A struggle lost to the Mongols, beginning a centuries-long endeavour to throw off the “Tatar yoke” and re-unite the Russian lands. The ejection of Polish-Lithuanian forces (two prey fish at their moment of predation) marked the end of the prey period and in the next five centuries Russia expanded in all directions, sometimes peacefully and sometimes by war, but always larger.
But the prey fish memory persists. In Russia monasteries are fortified and there are no castles; in Europe, monasteries are not fortified and there are many castles. Russia, in its prey fish time, had to fight for its very existence: given the centrality of Orthodoxy to the essence of Russianness, that meant its religion. Fortunately for the Russian Church, the Mongol conquerors were indifferent to their subjects’ religion but the Teutonic Knights and the Polish-Lithuanians were Roman militants, Napoleon treated churches as stables and Hitler cared nothing for Russianness. Therefore monasteries, as the essence of Russianness, had to be fortified for the wars of national survival. The absence of castles is explained because, as private strongholds, they embodied the ability of local powers to resist the central power; in Russia the central power was the guarantor and protector of Russian existence. Europe, for all its wars, never, since the victory of Tours (a fright at Vienna in 1683) was threatened in its very essence. (Spain, Portugal and the Balkans, however, have Russian-like histories: resistance to the alien and a long re-gathering of their lands).
As a result of these historical realities, Russians have a completely different view of war: for Russia it’s life or death. For medieval Europe it was a sport for kings, ruinous in its neighbourhood but of limited effect elsewhere: from the peasant’s perspective King A or King B meant little. The destructive wars of religion and revolution never threatened Europe qua Europe because they were civil wars between different types of Europeanness.
Russians remember the prey fish period better than they do the predator fish period. The prey fish memory makes it very difficult for the Russians to think of the Great Caucasus War or the wars in Central Asia as the predations that they actually were. They see the wars against the Persians or Ottomans as wars of liberation rather than the eating of weaker predators. The prey fish memory remains strong not only just because the early experience set the pattern but because of the powerful reinforcement of 1941-1945.
The Anglo-American experience of war has no memory like that. They have never been in a war in which every soldier that get to the enemy capital has passed through endless wastes of destruction of his homeland. (Americans: think of Sherman’s march to the sea through the entire Confederacy and then extend it to take in the rest of the country on the Atlantic coast. Britain has nothing to match this other than, on a much smaller scale, the desolation of the Scottish borders under Edward I or the Highlands after Culloden.) This book makes the point that the USA and the UK have no conception of a war of annihilation but Russia has known many. The scars of the latest are still visible: there are nearly half a million dead Leningraders in Piskaryovskoye Cemetery alone: more than all the dead of Washington’s overseas wars. A completely different conception of “war”. This makes Russians defensive, suspicious and ready to fight for the Motherland but not very willing to acknowledge their predator period. The Anglo-Americans expect another profitable predation and sugar coat their predation with moralistic posturing as we perfectly see today in Venezuela: we must seize its oil for humanitarian reasons. A clash is inevitable.
While Russia cannot forget the prey period, its neighbours only remember its predator fish period. The contrast of memories is well expressed in this video from the Russian side of the benefits brought to the prey by “Russian occupants”. But from the Lithuanian prey fish point of view, we have this completely different take of death and destruction. Each is true, each is false: but the difference in perception must be understood.
In other words, prey fish remember being eaten; predator fish have no such memory, or even appreciation of such fears. Predators cannot imagine being pushed to the edge because it’s never happened to them, prey fish remember when they were; predators eat well, prey fish fear extinction. And so today the Anglo-Americans, unable to eat Russia (so confident they were that it was prey so short a time ago! gas station masquerading as a country, makes nothing), project their predatory disposition onto Russia.
The Anglo-Americans, after decades of successful predation, think they can push Russia back forever. But Russia cannot forget its prey period and its bred-in-the-bone understanding of what happens to prey. The danger is that, at some point, it will decide its very survival is at risk and then it will, as it has before, do whatever it needs to do, at whatever the cost, to survive.