Le Sang de la Démocratie: Putin’s Main Course…
How a shifting truth, poor treatment of the Russian military & people, & tunnel vision with respect to the West is undermining Putin’s war.
Burning the bridge…
“Dear God, who art in Heaven, save, forgive and deliver me.”
A quote by Count Nikolai Rostov at the burning of the bridge. Taken from ‘War and Peace’ by Lev Nikolayevic Tolstoy, or Leo Tolstoy, as he is known in the West.
Rostov, who is living through a baptism of French cannon fire in his first battle, moves uneasily between clear-eyed reverence at the physical beauty of God’s world to, in the next instant, recoiling at the man-made horror at his feet, as his callous, unfeeling officers watch coldly from afar as their men are torn asunder.
War and Peace — one of my favourite books — is arguably a manifesto for a world free of the horrors of war. Tolstoy describes the Napoleonic conflicts his characters become embroiled in with consistent, meticulous and horrifying detail, yet with a stunning lack of gratuitous spectacle that make the agonising injuries and pitiless deaths seem all the more vivid, all the more real to the reader.
The two officers in question, Nesvitsky and Zherkov, watching from a distant hilltop, discuss the immense bravery and sacrifice of the Hussars being slaughtered before them with a cold indifference, that Russian elites maintain to this day as they send unprepared, poorly trained, poorly equipped recruits to their slaughter in today’s war in Ukraine.
The officers dismiss the idea that less men could have achieved the aim of burning the bridge in question as a ludicrously preposterous assertion that would diminish the glories of war.
“Oh no sir. The very idea! Send two men? He wouldn’t get the Vladimir medal and ribbon for that, would he? As things stand, if we get wiped out he’ll still be able to recommend the squadron for honours and go and collect a personal ribbon. Our friend Bogdanych knows how to get things done.”
As Count Nikolay Rostov, in his first battle, slashes about wildly with his sword, unsure what to do in the maelstrom of cannon fire, he suddenly realises he’s arrived at the bridge he’d been sent to burn without any kindling or way achieve his ends.
In Ukraine today, raw Russian recruits find themselves in the same situation. Unprepared, poorly or wrongly equipped, with officers sending them in to achieve the impossible while those in the Kremlin coldly deny the losses and lie about the wars lack of progress.
In the days leading up to the invasion a group of young Russian soldiers hunkered down in their tents, all pawing over an ‘acquired’ smartphone — banned by the Russian military — as they logged onto Western news sites.
One phoned his Mum afterwards and told her what he’d read; Western intelligence reports detailing how Russia was about to invade Ukraine. His Mum told him it was a lie; just Western propaganda she assured him.
Days later he called again and told her that he was on his way into Ukraine.
She hasn’t heard from him since and has no idea where he is.
And like many of Putin’s ideologies and beliefs, his treatment of Russian soldiers has not moved on since the days of the Great Patriotic War when Stalin threw millions of young men and women at the Wehrmacht, often without weapons, without thought and certainly without a care.
From Stalingrad (1) right up until the Battle of Berlin in 1945, just days before Hitler took his life, the loss of Soviet manpower was immense — estimates differ, but the military deaths alone were thought to be in the region of 6.75 million, and including (Russian) civilians a mind-boggling 14 million.
German diarists wrote about the staggering scale of slaughter, and yet still the Russians came on, fodder for the German machine guns, but unable to retreat for fear of being shot by their own side as cowards (2).
And Putin has continued the theme, seriously hampering his own war effort despite the billions spent on modernising his army. But in the end it all means little if he continues to abuse, misuse and maltreat his men.
“The Russian military has a long history of mistreating its personnel and their frightened families. During the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, many conscripts were not informed ahead of time that they were being sent to into combat.When they died or disappeared, Soviet authorities were curt and dismissive to grieving parents, particularly mothers who organized to get answers. In the 1990’s, the Russian military sent unprepared conscripts to Chechnya for grueling urban warfare in cities such as Grozny. Many of these troops were killed, wounded, or captured. Soldiers’ mothers looking to secure the release of their imprisoned children often pleaded with base commanders for help, only to be ignored.”
In the Ukraine, Russian troops have been poorly treated. Fact.
Whether through poor intel or Putin’s hubris, the glorious welcome they were told to expect has not materialised in the slightest. Kathryn Stoner tells how men in the 40 mile long stalled convey outside of Kyiv, pictures of which became so commonplace on the TV news during the first weeks of the war, carried their dress uniforms in their tanks and armoured vehicles for the parade they’d been told to expect in Kyiv just two days after the invasion began (3).
Why bother taking supplies or organising the logistics when the locals will feed us?
But the careless planning goes much further than just mistakenly telling troops they were going to a party rather than to a war.
Writing in Foreign Affairs Dara Massicot says trying to understand Russia’s pre-invasion strategy in difficult unless one “assumes that operational security trumps all and that soldiers are easily expendable.”
Looking at a map before the invasion explains Massicot, one might assume that a route through the Chernobyl exclusion zone offered the most direct and undefended route from Belarus to Kyiv.
“But if they cared about their troops, they could have taken a different path — or at least prepared their soldiers for what was an incredibly hazardous task. Instead, according to workers at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, Russia sent its troops through the zone without protective gear to shield them from the radioactive dust kicked up by hundreds of their military vehicles. It didn’t tell the soldiers occupying the plant about the significance of their deployment. And it had its forces dig vehicle revetments deep into some of the most irradiated soil on earth, where troops reportedly lived for a month before growing sick and being medically evacuated.”
Other soldiers developed frostbite in the first days of the conflict and were treated by Russian medics using 44 year old field dressings. Others found their commanding officers had simply disappeared from the combat zone leaving their men without food, ammo or shelter. Yet more were delivered huge sacks of perishable rations that rotted before much of it could be consumed. Others just didn’t get any rations at all or rations that were well past their expiry dates, leaving many with no option but to steal and loot food from locals. Ukrainian intelligence reported that some Russian soldiers were reduced to eating dogs they captured in the street.
Officers that did stay the course routinely stole soldiers care packages sent from home by anxious parents. Other units remain unpaid while in combat due to poor administration. This list goes on…
So, when we hear of poor morale, of soldiers deserting their equipment and surrendering en masse should we really be surprised?
And whilst nothing justifies the cold-bloodied murder, rape and torture of civilians committed by Russian troops, given how Russian commanders treat their charges the widespread and seemingly universal use of illegal means to prosecute the war becomes more understandable, especially when one considers that the units responsible for the Bucha atrocities were given special honorific status by the Kremlin.
All this said, and despite recent successes in the East, there still must be some consternation at the Kremlin for the huge number of military deaths. Losses during the first 7 weeks of the conflict alone are thought to be equal in number to 9 years of fighting in Afghanistan.
Should the rate of losses continue like this it would start to become unsustainable, leaving Putin with a narrowing band of viable options with which to exit this war with something approaching a saleable win.
A lack of foresight undermines Putin’s war…
Whilst there remains little doubt that if Putin fully mobilised he would still have the resources to inflict, what could become, a substantial defeat on Ukraine, though to do so may well further destabilise a Russia already reeling from the early months of the ‘special military operation.’
Indeed many Russians already feel Putin has consigned the country to a deep, dark hole, erasing whatever future young Russians may have been looking forward to.
But should he choose full mobilisation it would firstly mean calling the war against Ukraine what it actually is; a war and not a special operation. This on its own might invite unwanted questions as to why the operation has failed and why the war now had to begin.
But more than that, full mobilisation would require a radical change in messaging from the Kremlin, as well as a not inconsequential upending of Russian public life by demanding their full participation in a war effort very few asked for or wanted.
Sons, husbands and fathers may well be called up. Martial law could become the norm for as long as the war might then last. Food, which for some is already be hard to find, may become rationed with a return to the round the block queues seen in Soviet times.
Western sanctions, which for the moment might not be hitting home too hard, are expected to have much more severe longer term consequences, with rapidly rising unemployment and far higher inflation than we will experience in the West, shortages of simple luxury items and an burgeoning inability to replace, or even repair many household appliances, as well as many vital pieces of military equipment, due to a lack of replacements and spares.
Coupled with a fast diminishing reserve of weapons, military equipment and trained soldiers, Putin’s options going forward are becoming seriously hampered.
Mobilisation might bring initial military successes, but it would take time to organise and runs the risk then of further agitating public unrest at home, as well as depleting his already depleted reserves of weapons even faster.
However, to do nothing and stubbornly persist with the tactics and strategies that have already proved largely ineffective will, one might argue, logically run the exactly the same risks, but perhaps spread over a longer term.
With Secretary of State Anthony Blinken confirming in a live talk with Foreign Affairs on June 1st that America is determined to prosecute this war to whatever ends Ukraine deems fit, and President Biden stating uncategorically in an op-ed in the NYT that…
“America’s goal is straightforward: We want to see a democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against further aggression.”
…perhaps Putin’s best hope lay in some sort of negotiated settlement. However, I would suggest that bringing Ukraine to the table with Russian troops still anywhere on Ukrainian sovereign territory is likely to be met with a terse ‘bog off mate!’
Putin though continues to rattle his nuclear sabres from time to time, but Biden has made it clear that any such use would “entail severe consequences” for Russia, something that Blinken says has been made abundantly clear to Putin from the outset of his war.
Given that Putin did not, however, announce a full mobilisation as many had predicted at the May 9th Victory Parade, it would seem for now at least, that Putin is stuck with his current strategy, that being, one assumes, to try and take as much of Eastern Ukraine as possible before the losses of equipment and men start to seriously hamper further progress.
My guess would be that when that point is reached he would push for a negotiated settlement, though I would suggest that whilst there may be a few (brought off?) Russophiles in the West who might concur, the Ukrainians would not go for it one bit, which would then mean that Putin would need to keep a lid on what might be growing resentment at home should the body bags start coming home in ever greater numbers.
Therefore keeping hold of the initiative at home becomes even more vital, the longer the war goes on, and that means somehow increasing his control of the prevailing narrative.
There is talk that Putin may unplug Russia from the internet which will only add to the isolation of the people and the nation at large, while insisting, according to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, that it would not be for “some kind of totalitarian control, but from the point of view of the realisation of national interests.”
So how does Putin keep control of the prevailing message? Is it really just as simple as unplugging the net or is there something more profound underpinning this strategy?
The truth persists through Stalin to Putin to the Russian people & beyond…
“Wherever totalitarianism possesses absolute control, it replaces propaganda with indoctrination and uses violence not so much to frighten people as to realise constantly its ideological doctrines and its practical lies. In the face of contrary facts, that unemployment does not exist; it will abolish unemployment benefits as part of its propaganda.”
Hannah Arendt (4).
The truth is a malleable entity in Russia, and how that truth is arrived at and maintained, uses a concept that George Kennan described as the “infallibility of the Kremlin,”
The distinct lack of rigidity within Russian society, the amorphous mass of the people — as discussed in my post, Fear & Loathing in Russia— kept this way through a combination of strict oppressive measures and constant ‘educational’ and media campaigns that consistently blames the West for all their ills.
‘The hardships were all necessary to keep the evils of the West at bay’ goes the message. Securing the base at home then underpins the fight against those abroad who would seek to ‘destroy Russia.’ Thus, since no alternative voice or commentary could be brooked, unplugging from the net would certainly facilitate that trajectory.
The infallibility then permits no dissenting voices. As Kennan said, the Kremlin can permit “no focal points of organization outside the (Communist) Party itself, (and) requires that the Party leadership remain in theory the sole repository of truth,” and whilst Putin’s Russia is not (yet) a fully fledged totalitarian regime, the process of indoctrination is well established and would, without doubt, be facilitated by unplugging.
And that infallibility is maintained and controlled within the Kremlin through the rigidity of the inner circle; in Putin’s case, the siloviki — his ex-KGB hardmen — and his oligarchs, who willingly provide the discipline necessary for the maintenance of that structure.
Without the discipline the system does not function, but the effect of this Kennan explains, cannot be understood until you take into account another concept, and that is that the Kremlin — write Putin today — should be free at any time to put forward for tactical purposes any thesis at all which should be accepted by the siloviki with faithful obedience and unquestioning adherence.
And this thesis might remain as the truth for any indeterminate period of time; be it a week, a month or a year. And because the Kremlin (Putin nowadays) is the sole repository of truth, the thesis remains until such time as the tactical environment shifts, at which point the thesis may mutate, evolve or even die.
Nothing is immutable; nothing is absolute. The truth is the subjective reality at that moment, for that period of time, and adherence to that truth is maintained through the rigidity and discipline of the Kremlin sistema within the halls of power.
That truth then flows out through the siloviki into the media, into the minds of everyday Russians and becomes their truth, their structure, their repository of endeavour and faith.
Thus any external truth that appears is immediately denied, discounted as lies, or yet more deceitful, lying Western propaganda. The facts, as presented by the Kremlin, carry the “greatest weight when they have the ring of reflecting, or being backed up by, facts of unchallengeable validity.”
In other words, the Kremlin’s reality is designed to reflect the reality of the guy on the street. The West’s imperfection then, the weakness of their messaging, just shows out of touch they are with what is really happening.
If the Kremlin issued a statement saying that all oranges were not in fact orange, but black, then to indoctrinate this fact either they would only allow oranges that have rotted and turned black to become available, or they would have to remove all oranges. Either process would then carry “ the greatest weight” and would be backed up the fact that there were no orange oranges to challenge that assertion.
Any Western contradiction of that fact would then not reflect the reality that your average Russian would be seeing, thereby proving that Western propaganda is all lies.
The use of propaganda is then most often a reactive measure, used externally (i.e. abroad) in response to outside pressure. At home the response does not necessarily take the form of propaganda, it is more generally indoctrination designed to respond to the counter-narrative from the outside.
Arendt explains: …/…the greater the pressure on totalitarian regimes from the outside world…the more actively will the totalitarian dictators engage in propaganda…/…(thus) the necessities for propaganda are always dictated by the outside world and the movements themselves do not actually propagate (the propaganda) but indoctrinate (4).
Often the indoctrination process is aided by the existence of one or more truths to account for the same event. This creates confusion and disorientation at home, and a chaotic, inconsistent message abroad, which is why Russian diplomacy can at times seem incoherent and illogical to Russia watchers.
Anne Applebaum tells how after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 that multiple reasons were given for the ‘mistake’ committed by Russian sponsored Ukrainian rebels, sometimes several different and often contradictory reasons by the same TV presenter or official within minutes of each other. This confusion and sense of the unknown only brought home to Russians how difficult it was to know what really happened in such cases (5), and that Western certainties only serve to prove how distrustful outsiders can be.
This ‘flexibility’ even within the rigid inner structure of the Kremlin makes Russian diplomacy from an international perspective hard to understand. Compared to, as Kennan says, the diplomacy of say a Napoleon or a Hitler, whose openly aggressive strategy left no room for misunderstanding, and was then, easier to comprehend and quite different from the jumbled, shifting diplomatic truths that emerge from the mouths of Russian diplomats and representatives.
Russian diplomacy varies with the message of the day, and might be more forthcoming, more amicable when, for example, there is something they want from the West, but then in the next instant become openly hostile if the environment, as Russia sees it, alters in some unspecified manner.
Thus any cursory examination of the foreign policy strategy reveals only a broken, inconsistent, seemingly illogical message. But viewed over a longer term the patient persistence of Russian diplomacy becomes clearer, and movement towards the unstinting goal of Western degeneration and denigration can be discerned.
“It is clear that the United States cannot expect in the foreseeable future to enjoy political intimacy with the Soviet regime. It must continue to regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena. It must continue to expect that Soviet policies will reflect no abstract love of peace and stability, no real faith in the possibility of a permanent happy coexistence of the Socialist and capitalist worlds, but rather a cautious, persistent pressure toward the disruption and weakening of all rival influence and rival power.”
There should be no doubt that the Russians envisage a “duel of infinite duration” in which…
“…/… the palsied decrepitude of the capitalist world is the keystone of Communist philosophy.”
So beyond the never-ending duel, beyond the unstated aims of this war, where is Russia headed? Is it possible that the only purpose for Putin and his Russian elites, for all the chaos, death, lies and pain they bring, is the destruction of the West? Is everything else just a side dish besides the main platter?
Le sang de la démocratie perhaps?
Thanks for reading.
- Stalingrad; Anthony Beevor, 1998.
- Battle of Berlin series, Episodes 62–65. Battlecast podcast by Dr Luke Wolf.
- How Putin’s War has Ruined Russia, with Kathryn Stoner, May 24th 2022, on the Democracy Paradox podcast with Justin Kempf.
- The Origins of Totalitarianism; Hannah Arendt, 1951.
- Anne Applebaum on What liberals misunderstand about Authoritarianism, The Ezra Klein Show podcast, May 17th 2022.