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Is it Putin who is waging “Putin’s war”?

The current Russo-Ukrainian War is frequently called “Putin’s war” by western media. Is this correct? Who is actually waging this war on the ground and from the air and who apart from Putin should share the responsibility for war crimes?

April 22, 2022 - Valerii Pekar Yuliya Shtaltovna - Articles and CommentaryUkraineAtWar

T-shirts with letters Z and V in a souvenir shop on Novy Arbat Street. Signs of Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine among tourist gifts. Photo: Oleg Elkov / Shutterstock

We need to ask some direct questions to those who call the ongoing war in Ukraine “Putin’s war”.

Who is committing war crimes and all those brutal criminal acts that have no military purpose in wartime? Who is deliberately attacking peaceful civilians and civilian infrastructure? Is it Putin who rapes and kills women and children, takes civilians hostage and tortures them? At the same time, who targets humanitarian missions and “green corridors” used by civilians to escape the conflict? Who looted Ukrainian homes and then sent bloody “trophies” to families back home? Who bombed and shelled residential areas where there were no military installations?

There are tens of thousands of Russian war criminals and not just the well-known one in the Kremlin. A war tribunal would name and prosecute each and every one of them. In order to achieve this in the future, the registration of all war crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine is happening on a daily basis. As of April 19th, 7280 war crimes have already been fully documented and registered in this system. All those committing indiscriminate war crimes will be recorded, prosecuted and punished in line with international law. In the digital age, no one can escape or hide from criminal responsibility among the hundreds of thousands of Russian military troops.

War crimes happening in occupied towns and villages should get special attention. Murder, rape, looting, hostage-taking and torture are not just the acts of individual servicemen. Such crimes are committed only with the knowledge of the command or even through its direct order. Any commander in a war is primarily interested in maintaining discipline and will not allow deviations from behavioural norms, except in cases when deviation itself is a norm. Any commander in a war is interested in maintaining a safe and patient rear by not confronting locals, except for a case when he wants to send a frightening message to the people and government of the invaded country.

Modern warfare involves many people in missile launches and airstrikes. It was not Putin who decided to attack a Mariupol maternity hospital or a drama theatre with more than a thousand women and children in its underground shelter. Likewise, no Russian president personally issued a flight task, entered coordinates and pressed a fire button. All the people in the chain of command and control realised that what they were doing went against the established rules of war.

It is clear that the whole chain of command is guilty of committing war crimes, not Putin alone and certainly not only individual service members. Article 42 of the Russian Criminal Code states that “a person who has committed intentional crime in pursuance of a knowingly illegal order or instruction shall bear criminal liability on a general basis; failure to execute a knowingly unlawful order or instruction excludes criminal liability.” Therefore, all people who gave orders to commit crimes and carried out these orders should be pursued in line with military criminal law.

But how did this widespread violation of the rules of war become possible in the first place?

Who prepared Russia for the war?

The Bucha and Mariupol tragedies did not happen in one day. For many years, Russian political and religious elites, as well as their bot-farms and propaganda machine (we know all the key names, but many more were involved), have been inciting hatred, dehumanising Ukrainians, nurturing Russian superiority and laying the ground for these atrocities. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has encouraged international scholars to investigate what led to such atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in the country’s besieged and occupied cities.

For a long time, Russian intellectuals discussed the issue of the “ultimate necessity” of restoring the empire. This was not a spontaneous decision, it was a purposely promoted version of world history. As parts of this promotion campaign, it was blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church, supported by well-financed propaganda, orchestrated by military actions, and protected by a state bureaucracy determined to persecute anyone who defies the ideology.

Did Russian TV presenters and their highly intellectual guests know that their narratives were totally fake? Did they know the fake nature of all those thousands of news articles, discussions on the “illegitimate Ukrainian regime”, “nationalist battalions”, “secret NATO laboratories”, “the Nazi junta holding the Ukrainian people hostage”, and even “a crucified Russian boy” and “Ukrainian school teaching how to kill the bullfinch bird for its similar colouring to the Russian flag”? Overall, they did realise that this was all a lie. They just did their job and were well paid for it. Do they bear their part of the responsibility for war crimes? We will let you, dear reader, decide.

Another root of propaganda and mass thought control in Russia is the Russian Orthodox Church. It has ultimately become the “moral” premise and metaphysical source of this war. It was the Church’s theory of the “Russian World” that fuelled Russian hatred towards Ukrainians and Ukraine. It is subsequently impossible to win simply on the military front, as the “Russian World” ideology will eventually encourage conflict not only with Ukraine, but also with Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Finland.

The Council of Eastern Patriarchs acts as an “International Church Tribunal” and is now being called to give an official assessment of the theory. Theoretically, it could recognise the doctrine as heretical. The main heresy of the “Russian World” is its “ethnophyletism”, which could be described as “mixing the national with the church” by promoting the greatness of one nation at the expense of the universalism enshrined in the New Testament. With 40,000 clergy and 95 million believers, the Russian church could experience tectonic shifts if the council was to condemn the theory backing the country’s slide into fascism and “sacred” war.

Who disarmed the West?

One of Russia’s most significant steps in preparation for the war was the moral and intellectual disarmament of the West in the face of future aggression. Moscow invested billions in installing a powerful propaganda machine in all major western countries. The primary narrative that was broadcasted through this network is the idea of “spheres of influence”. This explains why Russia feels it has the “right” to define the internal and external policies of independent states that emerged in the territory of the former USSR. Moscow even feels that it should have influence over the lands of the 19th century Russian Empire. After all, today’s Russia insists on its right to control the foreign policy of Finland, an EU country.

But the Russian propaganda machine could not be successful alone. Russian culture was the foundation of the propaganda. In Soviet times, propaganda was based on Marxist-Leninist ideas, which are not attractive anymore. Russian culture replaced ideology as the core of modern Russian imperialism.

In mid-April, a massive round of “For Russia” patriotic concerts appeared with the slogan “For a world without Nazism”. The fascistic “Z” symbol also appeared at these events. Do Russian writers, opera singers, ballet dancers, musicians (from classical music to rap performers) and other artists realise they are working for imperial propaganda? We see this from their emotional statements in support of the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Of course, the word “war” is prohibited in Russia under threat of prosecution.

We understand that western intellectuals love Russian classical music and ballet, classical writers and plays. Unfortunately, Russian culture has been taken over by the state. Many theatres now show the Z symbol, with ballet dancers even often performing in figures resembling the letter. The culture might not be guilty. However, artists who realise what they are doing are guilty.

Who is supporting the war now?

We need to try to make sense of today’s situation through meticulous analysis of various statistics (such as voter polls in Russia since 1999). This war did not start in 2022. It started in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. According to Levada (Russia’s most reliable polling organisation), 94 per cent of respondents who approved of President Putin also supported the annexation of Crimea. Even those who did not vote for Putin often supported the annexation. After the events of March 18th 2014, Putin’s approval rating soared to 80 per cent on March 24th. This would peak at 89 per cent in mid-2015. This follows the pattern of 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia and even before during the Second Chechen War.

Levada’s statistics tell us that Putin’s approval rating immediately before the invasion was 71 per cent. According to the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre, 68 per cent of Russians supported the invasion of Ukraine on February 28th. Some sources even claim that Putin’s approval rating grew by 11 per cent following the start of Russia’s invasion. One reason Putin invades other countries is the fact that his population rewards him for it with increased approval. As a result, at least 79 per cent of the population to a certain degree shares responsibility for the war.

There are many examples of similar approval among the country’s educated class. This includes an open letter from the Russian Rectors’ Union, which voiced strong support for the “military operation” in Ukraine and was signed by over 300 university rectors.

Though in most cases, support for the war is not passive. Ukraine’s military investigation service has intercepted numerous phone calls between Russian soldiers and their families. It is hard not to be angered by a mother’s demand that their son loot some kitchen equipment from Ukrainian homes, or a wife’s permission to rape Ukrainian women. Do these family members understand the criminal character of such actions? Indeed, they do.

Discerning the truth

We see that Putin will not be alone at the future tribunal for war crimes.

While Joachim von Ribbentrop was the foreign minister of Nazi Germany, Martin Bormann was just a party bureaucrat. Baldur von Schirach was the head of a youth organisation and Julius Streicher was a journalist. They all stood at the Nuremberg trials together with top commanders of the military. Most of them were sentenced to death. Gustav Krupp was an industrialist and he would have been there if he was not terminally ill. Top propagandist Joseph Goebbels had already committed suicide.

Likewise, a future international tribunal for war crimes committed by the Putin regime will hold accountable not only military commanders, but also the top people in Russian propaganda and bureaucracy who personally made a decisive contribution to the war. We should also keep in mind the fact that millions of people supported the aggression, the murder of civilians and other war crimes. It will not be easy to make these people repent.

Indeed, there are thousands of Russians who dared to oppose the war and the regime, either through a public statement or by bravely participating in anti-war street protests. They risk their freedom and health for the sake of peace and the future of their country. Today, the West makes very little effort to support them in their struggle.

But these brave Russians are the minority today. The majority supports the war and wish to expand it to Europe, possibly with nuclear weapons. This is not a story about collective responsibility, as this is a totally wrong approach. This is a story about shared responsibility, where every person who contributed to the unleashing of the war is partly accountable. Every service member, bureaucrat or propagandist who directly contributed to war crimes is guilty.

All the people mentioned above are happy to hear westerners repeat the Kremlin narrative and call this war “Putin’s war”. This allows them to mentally distance themselves from responsibility for these crimes in reality.

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt described the “banality of evil”. Adolf Eichmann was a career bureaucrat. He personally killed nobody, he expressed no hatred and he just wanted to do his job well. Many ordinary people contributed to the era’s massacres as part of the “moral collapse of the whole nation”.

Of course, both Europeans and Ukrainians should repeat over and over as part of their support of anti-war protests in Russia that this is a war against Putin, not the Russian people. But we must keep in mind that the absolute majority of Russians supports the war and a minority opposes it. The number of people directly involved in war crimes is several dozen times more than the number of those who stated their position for peace. We must not buy the story that “sanctions have to be taken off because innocent people suffer”. As the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said – “Sanctions are aimed at starving Putin’s war machine.” This will help to end the war sooner for the benefit of all nations, including Ukrainians and Russians.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, adjunct professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.

Yuliya Shtaltovna is a Doctor of Philosophy, an adjunct faculty member and lecturer at several business schools and an advisor at The GiLE Journal of Skills Development.

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