Russia, Ukraine and Existential War
In recent months, as Russia’s army bogged down and lost ground in Ukraine, Russian pundits and officials began suggesting the war is existential.
In recent months, as Russia’s army bogged down and lost ground in Ukraine, Russian pundits and officials began suggesting the war is existential. Some Moscow commentators postulate that, unless Russia defeats Ukraine, the Russian state will disappear or there will be a third world war, presumably with nuclear weapons That is absurd. Russia can lose, and the country will survive. Such comments aim simply to unnerve audiences in the West.
The war, however, poses an existential threat to Ukraine.
At Vladimir Putin’s order, Russia launched a massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, opening the latest phase in a war that began when the Russian military seized Crimea in 2014. The so-called “special military operation” has not gone well for the Kremlin. Ukraine launched counter-offensives in September, and Moscow had to mobilize 300,000 men. Western officials estimate that Russian forces have suffered 200,000 casualties. By the end of 2022, the Ukrainian military had liberated much of the territory taken by Russian forces the previous ten months.
In January, a senior Putin advisor tried to explain the poor Russian performance by arguing “The events in Ukraine are not a clash between Moscow and Kyiv—this is a military confrontation between Russia and NATO.” On February 23, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu claimed that “the collective West seeks to break up Russia and to rob it of its independence.”
NATO provides Ukraine arms but no troops. The “fighting NATO” claim seems intended to assuage tormented Russian egos: better to be losing to NATO than just to Ukraine.
Recently, Moscow pundits have asserted that the war is existential for Russia, even comparing it to the Soviet Union’s life-and-death struggle against Nazi Germany in World War II and suggesting that a global war or the end of Russia will result should Ukraine prevail. Margarita Simonyan, head of RT, a Kremlin propaganda outlet, declared in December: “Either we [Russia] win in the way we consider our victory, or there will be World War III, sooner or later.” On February 22, Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s security council and former Russian president, said: “If Russia stops its special military operation without achieving victory, there will be no Russia, it will be torn apart.” In an interview released on February 26, Mr. Putin also speculated on the end of Russia, adding that “I do not even know if such an ethnic group as the Russian people will be able to survive in the form in which it exists today.”
Is Russia really so fragile? No, these comments are utter nonsense.
Russia can lose this war, and the Russian state will survive. (It may be a different question for Mr. Putin’s political longevity.) The Ukrainian army will not march on Moscow; it seeks to drive the Russian army out of Ukraine. Moreover, it is eminently clear that the West would not provide Ukraine the weapons it would require for offensive operations against Russia itself.
One wonders how many of Ms. Simonyan’s 143 million compatriots share her view. Surely, many—if not most—would prefer some course, were Russia to lose in Ukraine, other than a nuclear war? Russian pundits espouse this line in a bid to persuade Western audiences that what happens in Ukraine matters more to Russia than the West. They leave aside Ukrainians, who certainly care as much—indeed, more—than Russians about what happens to their country.
While the war poses no existential threat for Russia, it does for Ukraine. Mr. Putin wrote a lengthy July 2021 essay that all but denied Ukraine the right to exist as a sovereign and independent state. The large multi-vector invasion launched a year ago indicated a Kremlin goal to make that a reality and occupy at least the eastern one-half to two-thirds of Ukraine.
Ukrainians well understand what losing the war would entail. They have seen what Russian occupation means in cities such as Bucha, Irpin, Borodianka, Izyum and Kherson: filtration camps, mass graves, torture chambers, and relocation of Ukrainian children. They also watched the brutal three-month-long Russian assault on Mariupol.
Pundits on Russian state television say that Ukraine should be “erased” and “all efforts should be devoted to make sure there is not even a memory left of it” or argue that Ukrainian children who critique Russia should be “thrown straight into a river with a strong current” to drown or “shoved into huts and burned.” The latter remarks came from an RT commentator; Ms. Simonyan suspended, then forgave him. How should Ukrainians understand such comments or Mr. Medvedev’s suggestion that Russia is at war with Satan?
Russia launched an unjustified war against a smaller neighbor. It can lose, and the Russian state will remain. For Ukrainians, however, losing would mean the end of modern Ukraine. That explains why they have fought this past year with such resilience, tenacity and courage.