Why Russia Is Happy at War

Anastasia Edel / The Atlantic
Why Russia Is Happy at War Russia’s Victory Day Parade on Moscow’s Red Square. (photo: Sergey Fadeichev/TASS)

A centuries-long tradition of authoritarian rule and disregard for individual rights underpins Vladimir Putin’s imperial project.

On june 12, Russia celebrates its Independence Day. The commemoration was instituted by President Boris Yeltsin in 1992 to a collective shrug—“Who did Russia declare independence from?” people asked. But in the early 2000s, President Vladimir Putin elevated the day to a major national celebration, accompanied by a cornucopia of flag-waving. For the past two years, “Russia Day,” as it is popularly known, has gone beyond reenactments of historic military victories to celebrate the country’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine—complete with charity auctions and motor rallies in support of the troops, and flash mobs to show national unity branded with a hashtag that translates as #WeAreRussiaWeAreTogether.

Propaganda aside, Russia does seem surprisingly unified. Despite the war’s heavy human toll, estimated by the United Kingdom’s Defence Intelligence to be as high as 500,000, and near-total isolation from the West, Russian society has not unraveled. On the contrary, it appears to be functioning better than before the war and shows clear signs of once-elusive social cohesion. One explanation for this paradox—national thriving amid unfolding calamity—is that, unlike Western states, which are designed to advance the interests of their citizens, Russian society operates with one purpose in mind: to serve the interests of its belligerent state.

A rigid autocracy since the nation emerged from Mongol rule in the 15th century, including seven decades of totalitarianism in the 20th century, Russia’s government has never had any effective separation of powers. For most of that history, the state has allowed few, if any, avenues for genuine political debate or dissent, and the judicial system has acted as a rubber stamp for its rulers’ orders. During my childhood, in the late Soviet years, the message that the individual and individual rights don’t count was drummed into us at school: Я, the Russian pronoun meaning “I,” is “the last letter of the alphabet,” we were told.

This subjugation to the collective embodied by the Russian state is the reason Putin could mobilize society for war so easily. Before the invasion, a quarter of Russians already believed that the state was entitled to pursue its interests at the expense of individual rights. More than two years into the carnage, public support for the war in Ukraine is polling at an average of 75 percent. So who’s to stop the Russian autocrat?

In peacetime, conformism, nepotism, a weak rule of law, and corruption do not inspire the innovation and initiative necessary for economic advancement. But when war comes, Russia suddenly starts humming along. The very things that hamper Russia in peace—the rigidity of its authoritarianism; its top-down, centralized system of government; its machinery of repression; and its command economy—become assets during periods of conflict because they allow the government to quickly and ruthlessly mobilize society and industry for its war effort, making up for the technological backwardness and social atomization that otherwise typify the country.

To the state, war provides its raison d’être: protecting Russians from enemies. In other words, Russia has been made for war.

Russia’s renewed vigor is manifest: In 2023, its GDP grew 3.6 percent, boosted by the government’s military spending; growth is projected to keep rising in 2024. Capital flight from the economy is finally over, allowing Putin to advance grandiose infrastructure projects. Instead of the empty shelves predicted by foreign commentators, Russians continue to enjoy their favorite products—rebranded with domestic names—thanks to Kremlin insiders’ buying or seizing assets of Western companies that left the Russian market after the invasion. Dubious schemes that circumvent economic sanctions have also enabled Russia to source strategic technologies and components, including those it needs for its weaponry, and this in turn has created lucrative business opportunities for Russian entrepreneurs.

The country is awash in money: Incomes are up across the board. The wage for enlisting to fight in Ukraine is at least eight times higher than the national average. Lump sums payable to those wounded—or, for those killed in battle, to their relatives—are enough to enable the purchase of previously unaffordable apartments, cars, and consumer goods. Russian media outlets, official and unofficial, are rife with stories like that of Alexei Voronin, who doesn’t regret fighting in Ukraine despite losing part of a foot there. “Now I have everything,” he says, after the camera shows him gaming. His mother agrees that her son is lucky—he “only stepped on a mine,” whereas several of his fellow enlistees have been killed.

The situation at the front has also improved since last year. Volunteers continue to sign up to fight in Ukraine without Putin having to order another mobilization. Compared with the prospects for soldiers at the invasion’s start, the chances of survival are now much higher: The Russian military has better weapons and supplies, thanks in part to the willingness of civilians in the munitions industry to work round-the-clock shifts to make artillery shells and drones, outpacing Ukrainian and Western production. for our boys and we will win! read the graffiti on the Russian missiles and bombs that are cratering Kharkov and other Ukrainian cities and towns.

Such confidence is not just Russian jingoism. After reshuffling its commanders and improving logistics, Moscow has gained ground in Ukraine, neutralizing last year’s Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russian signals units have also learned to jam Western satellite systems and high-precision weapons.

Meanwhile, Russia has expanded the theater of war to its advantage. It has staged successful sabotage operations in Europe. It has increased its influence in Africa: Having absorbed the Wagner paramilitary force into its official military, Moscow has strengthened its relationship with various governments and local warlords. A self-proclaimed leader in the global fight against American hegemony, Russia has successfully courted regimes hostile to the U.S. all over the world, including Iran and North Korea, as well as more ostensibly neutral countries such as China, India, Hungary, and Brazil. Russia is far from isolated diplomatically.

Putin’s approval ratings remain high. With Kremlin propaganda casting him as a wartime president defending Russia from NATO and the West, Russia’s president has increased the number of his supporters. The opposition leader Alexei Navalny is dead; other dissidents have been exiled, imprisoned, or murdered, so no alternative viewpoints or narratives can break through. Instead of protesting a war that, for many, is literally killing their relatives—some 11 million Russians had relatives in Ukraine at the start of the invasion—young Russians today are lining up to gawk at captured NATO tanks and flocking to concerts of patriotic singers, where they chant “Russia” in almost religious exultation. At least some of that fervor appears genuine. More than half of Russians express confidence that their country is moving in the right direction.

Russia is hardly unique, of course, in enjoying a powerful movement for national unity in a fight against a perceived external threat. What is specifically Russian is that its autocratic leaders always position their aggression as defense, and the Russian people invariably go along with it. The princes of medieval Muscovy seized neighboring territories under the guise of “gathering of the Russian lands.” The 18th- and 19th-century czars expanded this purported defense of Mother Russia to include Crimea, the Baltics, Finland, Poland, and the Caucasus. In the 20th century, the Bolsheviks “defended the achievements of the Revolution” in provinces of the Russian empire that had declared their independence, forcing them back into the fold under a Communist yoke.

The Kremlin’s self-mythology of offense-as-defense has been aided by two big invasions: the Napoleonic invasion of the early 1800s and the Nazi invasion in the 1940s. These exercises in national resistance cost millions of lives—yet the official piety ordains that this very sacrifice is what made Russia great. Putin has continued the tradition under new management, fighting imperialist wars in Chechnya, Georgia, and now Ukraine. For decades, his propaganda machine has exploited the real trauma of the Nazi invasion to support the fiction that all evil comes to Russia from the West, which envies Russia’s greatness and resources, and that it is therefore a duty of every Russian to rise up and fight it.

If you live inside this Fortress Russia, as I did when it was the Soviet Union, the sense of being besieged is almost impossible to escape. At summer camp, our games included “finding and disarming” saboteurs who’d infiltrated the camp to poison our dinner or steal our flag. In school and during holiday parades, we sang such lines as “We’re peaceful people, but our armored train stands at the ready!” The paranoia eased in the perestroika period of the late ’80s, and remained mild through the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in the ’90s, but it never died. The fact that Russia can today produce 3 million artillery shells a year means that even during its ostensibly democratic years following the end of the Cold War, it did little to dismantle its military capacity.

Putin’s war in Ukraine is exacting a greater toll than Russia has experienced in many decades. He is mortgaging the future of Russia and its people to fight his colonial war. A third of the Russian state budget is now dedicated to the effort, much of which consists of simply raining fire on the battlefields of Ukraine. That money won’t be spent on schools, hospitals, or social services. Half a million young men are lying dead in zinc coffins or sitting disabled in wheelchairs. Civilians are paying for their acquiescence with the complete subjugation of civil society, an absence of free speech, and severe travel restrictions. Still, any expectation that Russians will at some point hold their government responsible for all of that is mistaken. In Russia, pain is part of the deal.

Everybody falls in line. Soviet-era tanks are pulled out of storage and sent to the front line, bread factories get converted to drone production, kindergarteners weave camouflage nets: “Everything for the victory” goes the slogan. Businessmen who lost their Italian properties get over the grief and buy new palaces in Dubai with proceeds from government military contracts. The denunciation and prosecution of saboteurs is no longer just a game at summer camp. All aboard the armored train!

This unholy symbiosis of a martial state and an obedient people is bad news for the free world. It means that Putin has succeeded in mobilizing Russia in order to realize his dreams of domination, and Russia can indulge its expansionist mania indefinitely, particularly as the Western response is stymied by the fear of escalation. But Putin has already escalated, unfurling the map of conflict with his hybrid war of sabotage, psychological operations, and interventions in Africa.

The West must take this threat seriously and fight back. And here, it can take a different lesson from Russian history.

As Napoleon and Hitler both discovered, to carry a conflict onto Russian soil can come at a devastating cost. But defeat in a war beyond its borders can be fatal for Moscow’s rulers. Only when faced with that sort of military disaster and humiliation do Russian autocracies teeter and collapse: Already damaged by its failures in the Crimean War of 1853–56, which accelerated the abolition of serfdom, and in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, which forced Nicholas II to concede a parliament and constitution, the Romanov dynasty could not withstand the catastrophe of World War I; the humbling of the mighty Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s proved to be one of the nails in the U.S.S.R.’s coffin. A year ago, at a nadir of Russia’s campaign in Ukraine, Putin survived the rebellion of the Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin; since then, Russia’s military has recovered its position, and Putin’s rule has stabilized. But if Ukraine can begin to prevail, Putin’s narrative as the grand defender of Russia will no longer hold, and regime change will become possible once more.

Until then, the world’s security will always be at risk from “the nation of victors,” as Russia likes to call itself. Meanwhile, for Russians themselves, the independence they are told to celebrate on June 12 is simply a pledge of allegiance to a state that treats them as disposable assets of its imperial designs.

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