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Why it is not just Putin’s war: the collective responsibility of Russians

While Ukraine continues to occupy a regular spot in news reporting, western outlets and politicians still overlook the main reason for the war. In order to make sure such a conflict cannot happen again in the future, we must understand the deep-rooted societal norms that allowed Russia to invade in the first place.

August 7, 2023 - Lesia Ogryzko - Articles and Commentary

Aftermath of the shelling on March 1st 2022 in Kharkiv. Photo: Pavel Dorogoy / flickr.com

Ever since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, western media has been flooded with headlines labelling it “Putin’s war on Ukraine”. This misleading representation points only to the leadership’s personal culpability. Many western observers seem ready to let Russian society off the hook, dismissing the notion of collective responsibility as a product of Ukrainian emotions running high. But Putin is a reflection and creation of Russia’s society, worldview, and popular beliefs – not vice versa. Failing to challenge the imperialistic and chauvinistic mindset that is deeply embedded in Russian society is dangerous. It risks postponing the war’s settlement and prolonging instability in the international system.

Putin does not exist in a vacuum. He operates within, and is a product of, a cultural context that has taken shape over centuries. His regime’s ideology is grounded in a belief in Russia’s spiritual superiority over the “decaying West”, an idea that traces its intellectual roots back to the Slavophile and Eurasianist narratives that dominated Russian geopolitical debates in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The ambition to deny Ukrainians their right to exist as a separate, sovereign nation has been ever-present in Russian politics and society. Putin’s July 2021 essay about the “historical unity of the Ukrainian and Russian people” is a repetition of just that, not a new assertion in Russian society. It is paramount that western policymakers factor these deep societal currents into their decisions in any post-war scenarios for Russia, regardless of who sits in the Kremlin. It is unwise to hope that a new Russian ruler would suddenly embrace Ukraine and the West.

Propaganda and popular beliefs

The Kremlin’s leaders have always been adept at manipulating public opinion through blunt propaganda. However, under Putin’s rule, this art has been mastered. The regime’s propaganda builds on popular beliefs and, in turn, further feeds those narratives. For example, a joint Estonian-Ukrainian study that analysed the content aired on Russia’s three biggest television channels from 2014 to 2018 shows that an astonishing 85 per cent of coverage was negative about Europe. In Ukraine’s case,[1] the ratio of negative coverage climbs to 90 per cent.

The discipline of the regime’s propagandists can be seen in the fact that much of the negative coverage boils down to a few simplistic narratives. Europe, according to Russian propaganda, is beset by terrorism, protests, weak institutions and moral degradation. The average Russian thus feels compelled to “bring order” to Europe. For Ukraine, the narratives are related but distinct, as the country is portrayed as a failed state run by fascists. This content serves to dehumanise the average European. It meets little resistance in Russian society, where ideas of Europe’s decay are widespread.

There is no doubt that the Russian people support the war against Ukraine. Statistical data can be easily manipulated by authoritarian regimes, but numerous independent surveys demonstrate a high level of popular support for the invasion, ranging from 70 to 83 per cent in March and April 2022. A CNN poll conducted before the start of the full-scale war showed that 50 per cent of Russians supported military action against Ukraine. Even earlier, 86 per cent of Russians backed the annexation of Crimea in 2014, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent sociological organisation. A total of 48 million Russians have visited the peninsula since 2014, demonstrating their scorn for international law and the principle of territorial integrity.

Moreover, as of last autumn, one study found that 62 per cent of Russia’s population deemed that things in the country were going in the right direction. This study also revealed that 61 per cent of Russians approved of partial mobilisation and 63 per cent supported Russia’s air and missile strikes on Ukraine’s civilian energy infrastructure. Many observers continue to question statistics like these, chalking the numbers up to the restrictive political environment inside Russia. But for those in doubt, another poll unrelated to the war offers telling insights. When asked about western values and civilisation, 60 per cent of Russian respondents in August 2022 said they saw no value in them, while 26 per cent called them “harmful” and only two per cent supported them.

Uncovering the ordinary Russian

Another way to understand how this is not just Putin’s war is to look at concrete examples of citizens’ support. As with any conflict at this scale, Russia’s aggression is enabled by the silent assent or active support of all parts of society, well beyond the armed forces. Russian bureaucrats and so-called economic “technocrats”, many of whom the West previously viewed as liberals, ensure the smooth operation of the state machinery. Many Russian cultural figures and celebrities, meanwhile, openly salute the regime’s actions and fundraise for the war.

One might argue that the actions of large parts of the elite do not necessarily correspond to the views of regular citizens. But one need not look further than the numerous telephone conversations intercepted by the intelligence services of Ukraine and its western partners to see how the wives and mothers of Russian soldiers encourage them to rape, torture and murder civilians, especially women. Countless cases of Russian women urging their husbands and sons to loot the household appliances, clothing and jewelry of regular Ukrainians have been a source of many Ukrainian memes. Meanwhile, users on Russian social media routinely display joy and triumph after every massive airstrike on Ukrainian civilians.

Germany’s case: drawing lessons from the past

When discussing the collective guilt of Russians, observers frequently draw comparisons to the collective guilt of Germans after the horrors of the Second World War. The post-war “denazification” process divided Germans into five categories of responsibility: acquitted, sympathisers, insignificantly guilty, guilty and the main culprits. While the courts handled these legal processes, a much more interesting discussion was unfolding among theologians and philosophers.

The debate was kicked off by prominent German evangelists, who shockingly argued in 1945 that the whole German nation should be found guilty due to the people’s inaction, silence and evasion of responsibility. This is summed up by the famous phrase das Nichtstun, das Nichtreden, das Nicht-Verantwortlich-Fühlen”. Later, German philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote persuasively of the notion of guilt beyond a criminal or moral sort. In his view, one could have “political guilt” for being a citizen of a country that commits crimes, or “metaphysical guilt” for not actively resisting such wrongdoing. Finally, it was the works of Hannah Arendt that popularised the principle of collective responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity and helped shape the West’s policies towards post-war Germany.

The cases of Nazi Germany and today’s Russia are not totally analogous. Take, for example, each society’s access to information. The Russian population can access real journalism online, through both high-quality western and Ukrainian media that by and large includes Russian-language versions. Technological advancements in the 21st century have made it undoubtedly easier to resist propaganda now compared to the 1930s and 1940s. If Germans were found collectively guilty in political circumstances very conducive to obeisance and mass control, then why should Russians not be after they silently watched the regime strengthen and commit crimes in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and  Ukraine?

A popular Russian argument that society simply has no effective civic or legal remedy against the state is a disingenuous one. It ignores the fact that Putin was not all that powerful when he came to power more than two decades ago. Russian society’s silence or active support from the very beginning increased his confidence and paved the way for him to consolidate his rule. Putin inherited a relatively open political system after Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. Russian society possessed quasi-democratic instruments to influence decision-making but did little to protest as those freedoms were systematically eroded.

Apathy is perhaps the biggest enabler of the regime’s crimes. Remaining apolitical, refusing to take a civic stance, and refraining from condemning the crimes of one’s own government, all represent a choice in itself. Silent assent has been one of Putin’s main allies.

The response of the West

Holding only Putin responsible for Russia’s war against Ukraine raises the risk that similar criminal wars will occur in the future. To prevent this, and to achieve meaningful accountability, western policymakers must address the deeply rooted chauvinism of the Russian population.

This will not be an easy task, but the West has already embarked on this road. The suspension of visas and other restrictions on immigration rules applied by most EU members are a step in the right direction. Limiting the sale of, or completely suspending, “golden visas” for investors also serves as a good lesson that one cannot support criminal wars and still enjoy a luxurious lifestyle on European coasts or buy citizenship in democratic countries.

Some economic sanctions also have had a holistic impact on Russian society, such as banning some Russian banks from SWIFT and blocking individuals’ ability to conduct cross-border financial transactions. The decision of western countries to close their airspace to Russian flights and to limit their airlines’ travel over Russian airspace also show that the West understands the concept of collective guilt, even if it lacks the political courage to say so out loud.

Russia’s coming re-invention

However, a longer path lies ahead for the internal transformation that needs to occur within Russian society for Ukraine and many NATO countries to feel secure in its vicinity. It is evident that even after a defeat in the war with Ukraine, which would result in Russia being pushed back to its internationally recognised borders with Ukraine from 1991, Moscow will not experience complete capitulation or foreign occupation like post-war Germany. Nevertheless, Germany’s example clearly demonstrates that such societal transformations take generations and may not yield immediate results. By the mid-1950s, a third of the German population considered the killing of Jews justifiable. According to Tony Judt in his renowned work Postwar, only five per cent of West Germans felt guilt in the 1950s. This paints a gloomy picture for the short-term mental recovery of Russian society.

While external factors like economic sanctions and political isolation are necessary western measures of deterrence, they are unlikely to be the decisive factors in a significant geopolitical shift that would lead to a different Russia than the one we know today. History has shown that major internal political transformations in Russian-occupied lands throughout the centuries have always originated from within. This includes the revolution of 1904-05, the Bolshevik revolution and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. History tends to have undeniable trajectories and trends that embody a certain Zeitgeist. It is undeniable that the era of empires is a vestige of the 20th century, and Russia as a 21st-century empire is destined to follow a path of transformation. The shape this process will take and the internal developments that will trigger it remain unclear, but the West should already be preparing for various scenarios. A meaningful contingency plan is an essential tool to avoid being caught off guard by rapid developments in Russia. These plans should revolve around the question of which policies should be implemented to help change the deeply rooted beliefs of the Russian people. After all, these are the true source of Russia’s threat.

Lesia Ogryzko is Head of Analytics and Strategic Advocacy at the Center for Defence Strategies. She has previously served in the UN system, worked with the Ukrainian government on the implementation of democratic reforms, and engaged in humanitarian aid in war settings.

[1] “Image of Ukraine on Russian TV”, 2017, Hybrid warfare analytical group, UCMC, Estonian Center for Eastern Partnership


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