Akos Lada is a doctoral candidate in political economy and government at Harvard University who researches war between states with shared identities.

Commentators are invoking Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations to argue that a Cold-War-like confrontation between a Western and an Eastern civilization is in the making: A battle of two culturally-distant groups, sitting on the edges of a cultural chasm. However, what is striking about Ukraine and Russia are the cultural similarities rather than differences. This is a clash of brothers rather than a clash of civilizations. My research shows that such fratricidal wars are more common than we may think.

Countries with shared identities often go to war with each other. This is most likely when two countries are culturally similar but differ in their political institutions. Elites in repressive regimes are threatened by a culturally-similar country where citizens are becoming empowered. The example of the two Koreas illustrates such a conflict vividly. North Korean citizens are most likely to push for change when they are inspired by a culturally-similar democracy such as South Korea. As a result, North Korean dictators work to prevent their citizens from learning about South Korean democracy. They even use force against South Korea to ensure that North Korean citizens see their Southern brothers as an enemy rather than a model.

The Russian invasion of Hungary in 1849 during the European liberal revolutions is another example. The czar’s greatest fear was that revolution would spill over from Hungary to Russian-ruled Poland, spreading “political illness’’ into his own empire. On the eve of the war, he wrote to his general in a private letter that intervention in Hungary was necessary because the Hungarian revolutionaries were “villains, scoundrels, and destroyers, whom we must destroy for the sake of our own tranquility.’’

To examine whether this reflects more general patterns, I analyzed data on all interstate hostility over the past two centuries (using the Militarized Interstate Dispute dataset).

Even after taking into account geographic closeness, I find that  both hostile acts and wars are more frequent between two countries which share identities but have different political institutions. This is true regardless of whether identity is measured in terms of religion, civilization, racial proximity and also more fine-grain measures based on survey questions that ask about cultural patterns of behavior. 

How do we know that two countries are culturally similar in a consequential way? Previous studies find that policy and institutions spread over identity dimensions that are highly visible, such as religion, ethnicity or race.

In his study on policy diffusion in Latin America, Kurt Weyland writes that the policy changes that are most likely to inspire copying are those which are immediately available, salient and striking. Shared identity between two countries along visible dimensions makes a democratic revolution in one of them immediately available as a model for the other.

Ukrainians and Russians share identity along many visible dimensions, such as religion and race. Furthermore, rather than creating a cleavage in the middle of Ukraine, the ethnic Russian minority forges key ties between Western Ukraine and Russia: Pippa Norris finds that ‘’the most striking observation from the comparison of political values held by Ukrainian and Russian language groups in [Ukraine] is the similarities rather than the contrasts.’’

Putin likely sees Ukraine as a threat based on its cultural proximity to Russia rather than its cultural distance. The recent political change in Kiev resulted in a dramatic shift from an authoritarian regime to one with liberal aspirations in a country that is culturally-similar to Russia. Large protests for democratic change were held not just in Western Ukraine, but throughout the East as well, where there is a significant Russian-speaking minority.

Why is this change a threat to Putin? Perhaps because a more democratic Ukrainian government may serve as an example to Russian citizens of how culturally-similar people can be alternatively governed. As history shows, a dictator with an army does not wait for this to happen.


Previous posts on the recent events in Ukraine at The Monkey Cage: