Russia isn’t at war with the West. It’s at war with Justice.
The modern Russian has many problems, and all of them orbit the super-massive black hole standing at the center of Russian society: a national contempt for the rule of law.
Russia is decisively losing the war in Ukraine. The momentum of the war has shifted irreversibly in Ukraine’s favor with recent Ukrainian breakthroughs in the Donbas and in the Kherson region. The Russians have absolutely no offensive capabilities beyond mindlessly shelling civilian infrastructure. They are completely out of gas, figuratively and literally. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians only grow stronger by the day with the aid of their western allies.
Inside Russia, the usually compliant state-sponsored media now exists in various stages of shock, defiance, anger, resignation. Vladimir Solovyov, Putin’s chief mouthpiece, seems downright dejected. The ghoulish Margarita Simyonan, who thinks all of Russia’s problems can be solved by nuking western population centers, says she is so anxious that she could hardly bring herself to come to work. I love the work of Julia Davis at the Russian Media Monitor, who regularly translates these Russian propaganda programs on twitter, because of the insight these translations provide into the Russian psyche.
And even though the Russians are dejected and angry about Russian failures in Ukraine and failures at home with the economy and the botched mobilization, the Russians sincerely believe that they will prevail in the conflict in Ukraine and in the conflict with the greater West. They believe that they have no choice but to continue down the path they are on. They feel that it is existential. They acknowledge that the world is against them. But they don’t really understand why.
Putin and his puppets do not understand why Russia’s energy blackmail didn’t work. Why didn’t Western unity dissolve into self-interested squabbling? That was the aim of the play. Why didn’t it work, they wonder? Why haven’t the nuclear threats worked?
For that matter, why isn't the Russian army—the “second best army in the world”—succeeding in Ukraine in the first place?
The Russian propagandists argue that Russia is losing because they are really fighting a battle with the West. But the Russians have been forced to ask themselves how they didn’t take Kyiv in 3 days like they planned, and why their army doesn’t have enough food and gas and ammo and uniforms. They are forced to ask why the West is crushing Russia with sanctions. And they can’t figure out the answer. The West just wants to crush Russia, they think. They are just greedy for a unipolar world order without Russia.
In keeping and espousing these beliefs, the Russians reveal their blindness to simple Western truths. The West cannot permit Russia to invade Ukraine, murder its citizens, and annex its territory because those actions are illegal and immoral. Western unity is not focused on harming Russia, but on protecting the rule of law. And the Russians genuinely don’t get it because Russians hold the rule of law in contempt. In Russia, might makes right and that’s the end of it.
In Russia, when a journalist starts asking hard questions or revealing inconvenient truths, they are murdered or imprisoned. Stubborn politicians and intellectuals are poisoned or fall out of windows. The truth is what the Kremlin says it is, or else. And the powerful people who commit these crimes are invincible within Russian society. There is no accountability among the powerful, and no real crime except to oppose the powerful.
A natural result of an unjust society is the robbery by the powerful of the poor, which can most easily be accomplished through the misappropriation of public funds. And Russian state resources are commonly misappropriated. Money earmarked for military or social programs is easily diverted in a society without justice. For example, a story made the rounds this week about 1.5 million military uniforms that “disappeared” from a Russian warehouse. It is probable that the uniforms never existed, or if they did, that they were stolen and sold to line someone’s pocket. It is likely that someone in the supply chain determined that Russia would never miss these stored uniforms and decided to apply a little graft. With no effective justice system, there is little risk to perform the theft.
Now amplify this problem across an entire country. Tanks and missiles and weapons that were supposedly being maintained in storage for the future needs of Russia have, in fact, been neglected beyond repair. There are low food stores. Few tents. No winter gear. Rusty old weapons. On paper, everything looks great. But in reality, the Russian army simply lacks the resources required to fight a modern war because the money set aside to secure those resources was instead stolen by kleptocrats.
Consider now what would happen in the United States if a military industrial company collected $100 million to make 1.5 million uniforms. There would be accountings, and inspections, and transparency, and congressional oversight. If the uniforms went missing, there would be serious civil and criminal consequences. Powerful people could go to prison. And we do this, in part, because our commitment to justice is a commitment to strength. The fact that the United States has an effective justice system renders it a superior military power because the military as it exists on paper accurately reflects reality.
Likewise, Journalists in the United States are free to investigate and publish the truth. They are even incentivized to find graft and to expose it. No one is going to prison for telling the truth in the US. No one is going to be pushed out of a window for opposing a politician’s decisions. And when the public has access to true and accurate information, the public can reach true and accurate conclusions. A commitment to justice is a commitment to making informed decisions.
But the Russian way is to piss on your leg and tell you it’s raining, and to threaten you with death to accept this false reality. The modern Russian has deluded himself into thinking that the paper reality of Russia, and the propaganda version of Russia, is true and accurate. And the modern Russian is breaking down as reality crashes through these delusions.
And because the Russians are inexperienced with justice, they do not understand why the West will not break. They do not understand why the west cannot break. Russians do not understand that laws that are not enforced are not laws at all, and that the West cares about these laws. We in the West like the laws that prevent murder and genocide and imperialism and want them to govern the conduct of nations. It’s as simple as that. We cannot let Russia get away with its crimes because if we do, then those crimes are not crimes at all. They would just be things we don’t like, but are unwilling to do anything about.
A common theme in recent Russian media of late is how Russia has “no choice” but to press forward. Russia’s response to every setback has been to escalate further. The gas shutoff, the bombing of the pipeline, the mobilization, the nuclear threats, the annexation. No price is too high to pay, in the Russian mind, to defeat the West and to secure Russia’s rightful place among the great nations of the world.
And while I do not believe the Russians are bluffing, I do not believe the Russians have the capability of materially improving its position without implementing effective systems of justice. Russia’s mobilization is a perfect example of how Russia made a collective decision to escalate the war, but lacked the social infrastructure to effectuate their plans. Conscripts of all ages are being sent directly to the front without training or equipment. The sick, the infirm, the elderly, the ineligible, all pressed into service in flagrant violation of Russia’s own laws. Russia cannot even respect its own laws. And the Russian people are starting to notice.
The hope of Russia’s continued escalation is to break the West. Eventually, they think, their threats and evil deeds will finally cause the West to put their own self-interest above Ukraine’s. They think that the West will back down once it really understands and believes that Russia wants to use nuclear weapons. But the West will not break. Bluff or no bluff. Nukes or no nukes.
It is unconscionable that a country can use nuclear weapons (or the threat of their use) to achieve imperialist and genocidal goals. Olga Skabeyeva, another ghoulish Russian propagandist, quipped the other night that if this war means the end of Russia, then Russia is at least going to take the rest of the world with them. But I think the Russians are not so ready to die. A nuclear attack would spell the end of Russia forever, one way or the other. And as strong as the Russian will is, and however great their pride and however deeply rooted the Russian delusions of supremacy, I believe Russian self interest will prevail.
The truth is that Russia does have an out. It can admit defeat. It can leave Ukraine, turn its eye inward, and start picking up the pieces. The cost to Russian pride will be catastrophic, but wounded pride can be healed with time. I am not optimistic that the Russians will choose this path. For now, Russia's answer seems to continue to be escalation.
But I am confident that a reckoning is in the cards for Russians. The West will hold them accountable because it must. The open question is how much damage Russia will cause before they capitulate.