Let there be war

The Kremlin is preparing Russians for a final showdown with the West

Let there be war

Russian paratroopers march in a Victory Day parade on Red Square in Moscow, 9 May 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE / STRINGER

Just when you thought it was all doom and gloom, a celebration! The World Youth Festival — an anti-imperialist event taking place with various degrees of regularity since its origins in the Soviet Union in 1947 — was held in Sochi last week, attracting 3,000 artists from 180 countries.

Leonid Gozman

Russian opposition politician

In keeping with the best Soviet traditions, it featured speeches by Lavrov, Medvedev, Peskov and — wait for it — Putin himself, who demonstrated his humanity and sense of humour while also sharing his important thoughts on the role of women.

The organisers themselves compared the festival to the 1957 World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow, but even without their reminder, images of similar Soviet events devoted to the struggle for peace and against American imperialism and colonialism came flooding back to me. Given Russia’s current activities in Ukraine, the hypocrisy was simply nauseating.

But Sochi was more than just a farce with a huge budget. For Russia’s leaders it was a platform from which to inform the wider world of what lies ahead.

Which is war! With the West.

Russia, of course, wants peace, but its hand has been forced. It’s been provoked. Just like Poland provoked Hitler. Those Westerners are constantly trying to bring Russia to its knees, but it’s never going to happen. They just can’t understand how hopeless their attempts are — even after a century — at interfering in the internal affairs of the greatest democracy in the world.

Russia, for its part, despises them, but remains open to constructive cooperation. Russia helps Africa and oppressed people everywhere, and is quietly confident it will prevail in the end. Russia shows maps of how Europe will look in the near future, on which only a tiny sliver of Ukraine remains, inviting Poland and Romania to help carve it up. Russia is a generous soul. Putin has said the reunification of Russia and Ukraine is inevitable. Ukrainian nationalists are just getting in the way, but Russia will beat them any day now, you can be well sure. At least we finally know what the war was for.

This is more than just political blather. As one senior Russian general wrote recently, the US intends to inflict a strategic defeat on Moscow, change the regime, and challenge Russia’s territorial integrity. He added that the end of the war with Ukraine — whatever that means — wouldn’t mean the end of the confrontation with the West. In other words, be ready for war.

And they aren’t just preparing for war. They want it. They actively crave it.

This wasn’t the first time they’ve talked about turning European cities to radioactive dust. They don’t just talk about it — they talk about it with relish! The endless military parades — Nicholas I, anyone? — the kindergarten children in military uniform — it’s all the same thing.

But why do they want war? They don’t want to die, after all. They want luxury and pleasure for themselves. Just as the leaders of Hamas and other friendly organisations do. But they want it on two conditions.

First, they’re tired of pretending and living by rules that have been imposed on them — human rights, the separation of powers, the Council of Europe and the like. They’re sick and tired of saving face and not blowing their nose on the curtains. They want to go back to, or have already gone back to, a world where things aren’t decided by stupid procedures and invented values. Who really believes in them anyway? They’re obviously pretending.

Russian teenagers participate in military exercises to mark Victory Day. Photo: EPA-EFE/SERGEI ILNITSKY

Russian teenagers participate in military exercises to mark Victory Day. Photo: EPA-EFE/SERGEI ILNITSKY

They want a simple, comprehensible world, a world of good guys, of the KGB higher school and specialist sports clubs, where everything is decided by force and might is always right. A world of war and martial law, comprehensible, the way things should be.

At long last, they’re now back in that world and have heaved a sigh of relief. They can’t achieve their goals if they have to obey all those pesky rules. While bribery and rule-breaking do get many things done, whether it be earning you the right to host the olympics, destabilising your European partners by funding populist movements or ensuring the compliance of certain Western politicians, Russia’s leaders cannot bribe their way to the one thing they desire above all — respect.

Second, though Kyiv in Three Days was a flop, they haven’t given up and have settled in for the long game. To that end, not only do they have genuinely huge resources to fall back on — money, space, oil, a disenfranchised population dulled by propaganda that can be thrown under the bus — but Western weakness and disunity to boot.

They believe a weak and weak-willed West will capitulate, giving up on its allies and making concessions, and by the time it realises it’s conceded everything there is to concede, it will be too late. 

The West’s initial united support for Ukraine was probably an unpleasant surprise, but as things dragged on, they saw more cause for optimism. The West seems to be tired of war. More and more people think they shouldn’t interfere in a dispute between Slavs. Who cares about borders in some countries far off in the East! Putin is the kind of person best not made an enemy of. They should be friends. Things could be like they used to be. Haven’t we got enough problems of our own?

The West has other concerns. The political system is in disarray. Impasse in Congress on a bill to help Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. Isolationist ideas are gaining popularity both in the US and elsewhere. It provides the perfect backdrop for anti-Western expansionism.

The Russian leadership isn’t thinking so much of the big war it openly threatens — they don’t want to sit around in underground bunkers — but more of a series of small wars, where it will gradually eat away at the West bit by bit, and receive strongly worded condemnation and toothless sanctions in response. They understand that NATO is far stronger militarily than Russia, but they hope force will not be used. That it will just be words. For then they will face no personal threat.

Only time will tell if they’re wrong, if they ever come up against real resistance. Democracies find it hard to be as unified as dictatorships. They only come together when they understand a threat is lethal. That happened at the beginning of World War II, and we know how that ended. What if that happens again now?

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