The evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine should surprise no one. Russia wages war by targeting not sparing civilians, as Grozny and Aleppo demonstrated. Russia (and before that, Soviet) soldiers habitually rape and loot. Russia (and before that, the Soviet Union), will not hesitate to execute opponents and exile civilians. No wonder the Ukrainians are fighting so hard.
Russian public opinion appears to be acquiescent. We might be right to be sceptical about even independent opinion polls (who, after all, would risk telling a pollster that they opposed the “special operation”), but there is little sign of public opposition to the behaviour of the Russian army and its masters.
Recordings of conversations between the occupiers and their families reveal a bitter hatred of Ukrainians, as well as orders for the spoils of war. Russian soldiers may be incapable of taking Ukrainian cities but they can take Ukrainians’ washing machines.
Public opinion is, of course, shaped by Russia’s tightly controlled media. At a time when it is impossible to express reservations about the wisdom of invading a neighbour, it is perfectly possible for a state news agency to publish an article describing Ukrainian society as Nazified and calling for the Ukrainian elites to be eliminated (the rest of society gets to be re-educated).
It matters little that the propaganda makes no sense, contradicting itself from day to day. Russia was not going to invade, and then it invaded. The objective was to remove the Zelensky regime; the operation was going to plan; the objectives were then – without explanation – limited to taking the Donbas region. The bodies at Bucha were fakes and then they were real, killed by the Ukrainians.
If a population wants to believe a lie, it will. Russia – in the eyes of many of its people – is always the wronged party, the victim, both a great power and vulnerable to destruction. Mere resistance to its aggression constitutes an existential threat and justifies escalation.
As the American writer David Satter set out in It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway, Russia has never come to terms with its grisly past. The Second World War is seen as a source of great pride and there is no doubt that the Russian people fought bravely against a barbarous enemy. But Russia also committed great atrocities, such as the Katyn massacre of Poles, and Stalin was a monster responsible for the deaths of millions. Russia’s communist past saw the rights of the individual subjugated to the needs of the totalitarian state. Rather than accept the truth about its history, it merely uses its past as a means to mischaracterise its current victims as Nazis.
Russia’s behaviour is shaped by its history and its institutions. Countries can change, as Ukraine is doing in front of our eyes, defining itself by its bravery in the face of authoritarianism and its fierce desire to become a liberal democracy. Germany transformed itself from being a perpetual aggressor to being anti-nationalist and almost allergic to the use of military force.
The worry with Russia, however, is that it is not clear how it can change. If Russia ultimately prevails in Ukraine, this will only fuel its ambitions, as well as enabling it to murder vast numbers of Ukrainians. The rhetoric from Vladimir Putin and elsewhere suggests that not only the rest of the old Soviet Union would be at risk but so would the old Warsaw Pact countries. If Ukraine prevails, it is not obvious that the Russian reaction would be to remove Putin and transform itself into a liberal democracy. As Lawrence Freedman has argued, Putin may be as vulnerable to the hawkish nationalists as to technocrats sceptical about the war.
To make an inexact comparison with Germany, a Russian defeat might be more like 1918 than 1945. To change positively and sustainably, Germany had to surrender unconditionally, to be occupied and partitioned, to have new institutions imposed upon it and to be forced to come to terms with what it had done.
None of this will happen to Russia. The world remains at risk while Putin remains in power but no one has the will or the ability to impose externally a transformation upon Russia. In any event, at a time when Viktor Orbán can be comfortably re-elected in Hungary, Marine Le Pen appears to be within a whisker of winning the French presidency and Donald Trump has a fair chance of returning to the White House, now would not appear to be a good time for the seeds of liberal democracy to germinate in the unfavourable Russian soil.
The grim conclusion is that even in the best-case scenario – further Ukrainian military advances enabling it to rid itself of its occupiers – we will be left with a humiliated, wounded and aggrieved Russia. Its capacity to wage a conventional war may have been degraded but conventional war is not its only option.
This is not an argument against providing support to Ukraine. Russia’s intentions appear to be genocidal, it poses a clear threat to Nato allies and we cannot stand aside.
We do have to recognise, however, that there is no risk-free outcome. Russia is too weak to be the great power it sees itself as being and too strong to have change imposed upon it. It may have too poisoned a culture for positive change to emerge from within. We have a very big Russia problem. The question is: how big?