Russia does not have the ability to assess the course and outcomes of major historical events properly, even those it initiated itself, writes Orhan Dragas.
Orhan Dragaš is the founder and director of the International Security Institute based in Belgrade.
Eighty-three years ago, the Soviet Union attacked Poland, and the dismemberment of that country in the alliance with Hitler’s Reich began. The fact that the Soviet Union participated in the outbreak of World War II, along with Germany, only 16 days later, weighs heavily on the anti-fascist heritage that Russia carefully nurtures.
It is a stain in the biography of a nation, an unpleasant matter covered up and “buried” with subsequent interpretations and retellings for decades.
It was only an assessment that the imperial goals of Russia and the USSR could be achieved with the help of Hitler, which did not represent any ideological and moral problem for Moscow.
That assessment was bad, which will be exhibited two years later when Germany attacked the USSR. Still, if that had not happened and if Hitler’s venture had succeeded by some accident, Russia would have been, even then, on the side of the winner with whom it would have divided and tyrannically ruled Europe.
Russia does not have the ability to properly assess the course and outcomes of major historical events, even those it initiated itself. Seven months ago, Russia attacked Ukraine, creating expectations among its people that they would simply appear in Ukraine, remove the “Nazis” from the government in Kyiv, liberate the Ukrainian people and return them to their homeland in a matter of seconds.
One of Putin’s influential propagandists said at the beginning of the aggression that the greatest danger to the Russian army, which would enter Odesa, would be, for example, one of the citizens hugging them too tightly in a brotherly embrace as a sign of enthusiasm and welcome.
Putin and Russia attacked Ukraine on 24 February, convinced they were only attacking Ukraine. Since the glorious victory did not happen after five days or five months, a plausible excuse had to be found for the absence of a triumph. That excuse was always there at hand; It was even used occasionally, in passing, to convincingly describe that on the way to a final and inevitable victory, there are still things that make it difficult and slow it down.
But it was not until the collapse of the Russian invasion in the Kharkiv region that the Kremlin made casual excuses, a definition of the war, and even a kind of war goal. The war is not against Ukraine but the whole West – this slogan has been reinforced and has come to the top of the Kremlin’s advertising narrative since its army was defeated in the Kharkiv region.
In the preparations for the invasion, which he carried out in an unacceptably narrow circle of collaborators, Putin and his strategists ignored the possibility that the entire liberal Western world, with resources that Russia can’t even come close to, would stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian defense. This misjudgment resulted from a long-standing self-delusion that Europe, NATO and the West are so internally divided that they would not be able to organise a meeting regarding Ukraine, let alone send any aid to it.
Russia worked on these divisions persistently and, for a long time, invested huge money in corrupting Western leaders, business people, and the media. Unfortunately, with a lot of success.
They underestimated Western unity and solidarity until the last moment; They relied on the fact that there would be no response from the West, lying until the very invasion that there would be none. Blinded by their greatness and power, about which they created a myth and illusion decades ago, they also overlooked clear signs that the West would stand by Ukraine, for example, the fact that Britain sent certain quantities of modern weapons to Ukraine even before the start of the aggression.
The so-called “special military operation” against the drugged (Putin’s term) leadership in Kyiv turned, as time passed and the defeats continued, into a real war, then into a war against Ukraine and its people, and finally, a fight against the whole West. The enemy must present itself as a bigger force when things go badly in war. And for Russia, things started to go wrong even before its army crossed the Ukrainian border.
From day one, Russian aggression was opposed “only” by Ukraine, its army and its people. The problem with Russia’s and Putin’s perception of the war is that they underestimated Ukraine’s determination to defend its country and its independence. They entered the fight with a deep-seated belief that neither Ukraine nor Ukrainians exist, that their identity has been “forcibly changed”, as Putin wrote a year ago in his author text “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”.
An even bigger problem is that they did not understand the modern world, which was taking shape before their eyes. They did not want to accept it, blinded by the arrogance of their “Russian world” as a superior alternative.
Ukraine was looking for a place in that world because it wanted to participate as a free nation, which was unacceptable for Russia.
Therefore, the declaration of the West as the primary opponent in the war in Ukraine has a dual function for Russia. First of all, to justify shocking defeats on the front, thousands of victims, the loss of conquered territories and the daily collapse of its reputation as the “second-best army in the world”, as they proclaimed themselves for decades. Another function is to mobilise what remains of imperial sentiment.
How to convince Russians that they should not stop until they build a “Russian world” and regain their “historical Russia” if the whole enterprise fails on the first step, the Ukrainian one?
Alexander Dugin, the shaman of the “Russian World”, is working hard on this mobilisation. After the defeat in Kharkiv, he asked his compatriots to start a decisive and total battle against the West. “This time, too, we will be victorious, if only in the war against the West, and this time it will be a people’s war. Culture, information, education, enlightenment, politics, the social sphere: everything must work unanimously for war, ie for victory”, read Dugin’s call to mobilise Russian people and all their resources.
If they listen to Dugin in the Kremlin, it will be another in a series of disastrous historical assessments. And given the stakes, it might be the last.