.

fter the conclusion of a book event I hosted on Russia, a small group gathered around the author and began discussing the personal culpability of the average Russian for Moscow’s war against Ukraine. One guest remarked that every Russian bears a personal responsibility for the actions of the Kremlin in Ukraine and should apologize. Others suggested that it was too much to ask and akin to holding every American responsible for the president’s foreign policy. It was a fascinating debate to watch, one that strikes at a little appreciated aspect of the war in Ukraine—the Russian public’s understanding of the “special military operation.” 

Moral culpability is not merely an abstract discussion but one that has profound implications for the end of a conflict and its legacy. Ukraine’s forthcoming counteroffensive will, it must be said, not decide the outcome of the war; it is merely the next phase of what will be a long-term conflict on the battlefield. Achieving lasting success will only be possible if the United States and its European partners understand how both the Kremlin and the Russian people see the war and, ultimately, Ukraine. The war may end, but the conditions that facilitated its conduct are unlikely to be resolved. 

Russia's War | Jade McGlynn | Polity

In “Russia’s War” (a copy of which was provided by the publisher for review), author Dr. Jade McGlynn shows how the Kremlin manipulates the public’s worldview, asks whether and why the Russian people support the war, and raises critical questions about what the West thinks it knows about both Moscow and the people of Russia. McGlynn offers compelling answers to these difficult questions, and in so doing dismantles many assumptions held by Western policymakers about the Russian people and, in turn, the potential outcome of the war.  

Divided largely into two sections, McGlynn’s book first explores the sources of Putin’s support and the tools the Kremlin uses to shape public opinion and, more importantly, provide confirmation of the public’s pre-existing notions and biases. She then turns to exploring those underlying assumptions and beliefs—the why of how the Russians view the world—and the Russian people’s views of and attitudes towards Ukraine. 

McGlynn’s book is a challenging read. This is not because of its prose or research (both of which are exceptional). It is difficult because it demands the willful suspension of incredulity and requires the reader to place themselves in the shoes of the Russian people, to see the world from their perspective. It is strategic empathy at its finest but also at its most difficult. It is ironically almost more challenging than understanding Russian policy perspectives, which are comparably more concrete—viewing Russia’s security interests is far simpler than trying to understand the cultural and historical nuances that shape views of those interests.

McGlynn is a welcome guide even as she understandably struggles to restrain her own incredulity and frustration. Her indignation is understandable and defensible—Ukrainians are dying daily, all for what to Western eyes is a fictitious, violent narrative. Had her frustrations not appeared or her humanity shown through her writing, it would have made “Russia’s War” dryly academic, but also detracted from the value of its contribution. This is a book that offers the necessary strategic empathy but abjures acceptance of the Russian world view; it is a book that acknowledges from whence these views spring but does not validate them. It is a powerful approach.

“Russia’s War” presents a complex view of the Russian people but does walk a fine line of painting all Russians with the same brush of support for the Kremlin’s actions. Undoubtedly there are the true believers like Nikolai Patrushev—the secretary of Russia’s Security Council—and turbo-patriots who believe that Putin isn’t going far enough. Equally, there are those who are thoroughly opposed to the war against Ukraine and have spoken out at great risk to themselves and their families. Yet, the vast majority or middle are the ones of most interest to Putin and his propaganda, which steadily works to erode their opposition and gain their compliance. These Russians may not actively support the war, but they are not going to oppose the conflict—it is Russia’s fight and they are in it now. In some ways it is similar to the opposition to America’s war in Iraq—there were those strongly in support of the war or the troops, those strongly opposed and actively protesting, and those in the middle who just wanted to get on with their lives. 

McGlynn takes readers through the ecosystem of the Russian political mind and dismantles many of the West’s blanket assumptions about the Russian people. She shows how polling is perhaps more accurate than the West would like to believe, and often undercounts the support that Putin and the Kremlin enjoy. The West watches Russian state-run television with mocking disbelief, laughing at the pantomime theater of extremism on display, but misses the fact that it is not about the West or even Western-oriented Russian elites. It is about creating a cognitive and psychological environment that overwhelms the senses and erodes opposition more than it manufactures consent. She writes that propaganda:

Doesn’t work by persuading [people] that this or that event is true because of this or that fact. It works by reinforcing people’s emotions and prejudices; confusing them so they think there is no truth and just fall back on what they do know, or instinctively feel is true; making them think everyone has a point so they should just stick with their side; or that there is absolutely no point in saying anything as the propaganda is everywhere and you are the odd one out.

And Russians do accept Putin’s propaganda: “Plenty of people believe the Kremlin propaganda because it is easier and preferable to admitting or accepting that you are the bad guys.” That exculpation of responsibility is, in part, the purpose of the propaganda itself. It is not so much brainwashing to create obedient subjects, so much as it is the erosion of cognitive and psychological opposition, allowing consumers to arrive at a destination toward which they are already oriented. 

The efficacy of this propaganda is because it taps into the existing views and beliefs of the Russian people and its historical memory. The tragedy of this is that so much of Russian belief is backward looking; there is no future to which the collective Russian people are working, striving, or building. It is not an optimistic vision, but one of lost prestige, power, and purpose in the world. According to McGlynn, “It leaves no space for hope, only revenge; no space for improvement, only redemption; no space for the future, only a reproducible past in which people can take shelter from the present.”

McGlynn, who has another forthcoming book on the use and weaponization of historical memory discusses how World War II is used today in Ukraine, writing “The Great Patriotic War is a useful way to change the conversation from a discussion of Russian perpetrators to one about Russian heroes and victims.”

It is also about a narrative of us versus them, of a decadent, debauched West against an upright and morally pure Russian people. The drumbeat of this story is seen on every polemical television channel. Amusingly, McGlynn touches on the irony of this obsession: “It is also the part of the media’s obsession with debauchery, as evidence of Western decadence, which often descends into such detailed descriptions that it starts to beg the question of how these moral stalwarts came to understand so much about gay sex parties or cocaine-fuelled sex workers. The salacious mind boggles.”

McGlynn’s book dismantles the assumptions on which so many Western policies about Russia, Ukraine, and the war are based. That Western policy is based on falsehoods, wishful thinking, mirror-imaging, and naivete is unsurprising. It is an unacknowledged truth, but it is a pernicious and damaging one. Regardless of the administration in office, Republican or Democrat, the ecosystem views the world as they wish it to be, not as it is, and makes policy accordingly. There are, naturally, degrees of difference between the parties and politicians, but while not a uniquely American fault, naivete is something Washington has made an art form.

Western assumptions or declarations that “the Russian people accept the Kremlin’s propaganda blindly and lack any independent faculties,” are unhelpful and don’t reflect the reality that McGlynn describes. It is a Western excuse and policy shortcut; a way of forgiving the Russian people for “they know not what they do” or what they support. To accept that, as McGlynn vividly shows, that the Russian people are supportive of the war is to eliminate any easy end goal the West may have. If the Russian people are merely mindless automatons, then simply removing Putin and his regime would allow a thousand democratic flowers to bloom. It’s what Washington policymakers want to believe, but it is a belief that will almost certainly set the West up for failure.

If, however, the Russian people truly support both Putin and the Kremlin’s “special military operation,” then true lasting peace with Ukraine is a far more difficult, if not impossible prospect. The wholesale elimination of Nazism in Germany and imperialism in Japan after World War II was only accomplished through the total defeat of each country’s military and ideological system. None but the most extreme and ill-considered are advocating such a course of action against Russia, one that would assuredly result in nuclear war. If the wholesale occupation and reformation of Russian society is not an option, then what? Will Russia transform on its own? Or must the West finally deal with Russia as it is and not as it would wish it to be?

For McGlynn, the “end will not happen until Russian elites and ordinary people alike lose or preferably surrender, in their battle against reality.” The prospects for this are not positive. Even short of that, she writes, “There can be no grand reset in European–Russian or U.S.–Russian relations that does not begin with a fundamentally different Russia professing a fundamentally different view of the world.”

“Russia’s War” is not just a valuable book about the war in Ukraine. What sets it apart are its reflections on the broader Russian psyche and by extension, what it says about the West’s understanding of that psyche. McGlynn clearly set out to offer a look at the world through Russian eyes, but in so doing she holds up a mirror to the West’s own misconceptions and assumptions. While an uncomfortable process, it is nonetheless necessary as it is surely the only way to bring about a true and lasting end to this horrific war, or, more likely, to recognize that the West’s ability to achieve a lasting end is far more circumscribed than policymakers like to assume.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

The War Against Ukraine Through Russian Eyes

Photo by Klaus Wright on Unsplash

May 27, 2023

A lasting end to conflict in Ukraine is only possible if Ukraine's Western allies can understand how both the Kremlin and the Russian people see the war, a sticky issue which Jade McGlynn's recently published "Russia's War" addresses compellingly, writes Joshua Huminski in his latest book review.

fter the conclusion of a book event I hosted on Russia, a small group gathered around the author and began discussing the personal culpability of the average Russian for Moscow’s war against Ukraine. One guest remarked that every Russian bears a personal responsibility for the actions of the Kremlin in Ukraine and should apologize. Others suggested that it was too much to ask and akin to holding every American responsible for the president’s foreign policy. It was a fascinating debate to watch, one that strikes at a little appreciated aspect of the war in Ukraine—the Russian public’s understanding of the “special military operation.” 

Moral culpability is not merely an abstract discussion but one that has profound implications for the end of a conflict and its legacy. Ukraine’s forthcoming counteroffensive will, it must be said, not decide the outcome of the war; it is merely the next phase of what will be a long-term conflict on the battlefield. Achieving lasting success will only be possible if the United States and its European partners understand how both the Kremlin and the Russian people see the war and, ultimately, Ukraine. The war may end, but the conditions that facilitated its conduct are unlikely to be resolved. 

Russia's War | Jade McGlynn | Polity

In “Russia’s War” (a copy of which was provided by the publisher for review), author Dr. Jade McGlynn shows how the Kremlin manipulates the public’s worldview, asks whether and why the Russian people support the war, and raises critical questions about what the West thinks it knows about both Moscow and the people of Russia. McGlynn offers compelling answers to these difficult questions, and in so doing dismantles many assumptions held by Western policymakers about the Russian people and, in turn, the potential outcome of the war.  

Divided largely into two sections, McGlynn’s book first explores the sources of Putin’s support and the tools the Kremlin uses to shape public opinion and, more importantly, provide confirmation of the public’s pre-existing notions and biases. She then turns to exploring those underlying assumptions and beliefs—the why of how the Russians view the world—and the Russian people’s views of and attitudes towards Ukraine. 

McGlynn’s book is a challenging read. This is not because of its prose or research (both of which are exceptional). It is difficult because it demands the willful suspension of incredulity and requires the reader to place themselves in the shoes of the Russian people, to see the world from their perspective. It is strategic empathy at its finest but also at its most difficult. It is ironically almost more challenging than understanding Russian policy perspectives, which are comparably more concrete—viewing Russia’s security interests is far simpler than trying to understand the cultural and historical nuances that shape views of those interests.

McGlynn is a welcome guide even as she understandably struggles to restrain her own incredulity and frustration. Her indignation is understandable and defensible—Ukrainians are dying daily, all for what to Western eyes is a fictitious, violent narrative. Had her frustrations not appeared or her humanity shown through her writing, it would have made “Russia’s War” dryly academic, but also detracted from the value of its contribution. This is a book that offers the necessary strategic empathy but abjures acceptance of the Russian world view; it is a book that acknowledges from whence these views spring but does not validate them. It is a powerful approach.

“Russia’s War” presents a complex view of the Russian people but does walk a fine line of painting all Russians with the same brush of support for the Kremlin’s actions. Undoubtedly there are the true believers like Nikolai Patrushev—the secretary of Russia’s Security Council—and turbo-patriots who believe that Putin isn’t going far enough. Equally, there are those who are thoroughly opposed to the war against Ukraine and have spoken out at great risk to themselves and their families. Yet, the vast majority or middle are the ones of most interest to Putin and his propaganda, which steadily works to erode their opposition and gain their compliance. These Russians may not actively support the war, but they are not going to oppose the conflict—it is Russia’s fight and they are in it now. In some ways it is similar to the opposition to America’s war in Iraq—there were those strongly in support of the war or the troops, those strongly opposed and actively protesting, and those in the middle who just wanted to get on with their lives. 

McGlynn takes readers through the ecosystem of the Russian political mind and dismantles many of the West’s blanket assumptions about the Russian people. She shows how polling is perhaps more accurate than the West would like to believe, and often undercounts the support that Putin and the Kremlin enjoy. The West watches Russian state-run television with mocking disbelief, laughing at the pantomime theater of extremism on display, but misses the fact that it is not about the West or even Western-oriented Russian elites. It is about creating a cognitive and psychological environment that overwhelms the senses and erodes opposition more than it manufactures consent. She writes that propaganda:

Doesn’t work by persuading [people] that this or that event is true because of this or that fact. It works by reinforcing people’s emotions and prejudices; confusing them so they think there is no truth and just fall back on what they do know, or instinctively feel is true; making them think everyone has a point so they should just stick with their side; or that there is absolutely no point in saying anything as the propaganda is everywhere and you are the odd one out.

And Russians do accept Putin’s propaganda: “Plenty of people believe the Kremlin propaganda because it is easier and preferable to admitting or accepting that you are the bad guys.” That exculpation of responsibility is, in part, the purpose of the propaganda itself. It is not so much brainwashing to create obedient subjects, so much as it is the erosion of cognitive and psychological opposition, allowing consumers to arrive at a destination toward which they are already oriented. 

The efficacy of this propaganda is because it taps into the existing views and beliefs of the Russian people and its historical memory. The tragedy of this is that so much of Russian belief is backward looking; there is no future to which the collective Russian people are working, striving, or building. It is not an optimistic vision, but one of lost prestige, power, and purpose in the world. According to McGlynn, “It leaves no space for hope, only revenge; no space for improvement, only redemption; no space for the future, only a reproducible past in which people can take shelter from the present.”

McGlynn, who has another forthcoming book on the use and weaponization of historical memory discusses how World War II is used today in Ukraine, writing “The Great Patriotic War is a useful way to change the conversation from a discussion of Russian perpetrators to one about Russian heroes and victims.”

It is also about a narrative of us versus them, of a decadent, debauched West against an upright and morally pure Russian people. The drumbeat of this story is seen on every polemical television channel. Amusingly, McGlynn touches on the irony of this obsession: “It is also the part of the media’s obsession with debauchery, as evidence of Western decadence, which often descends into such detailed descriptions that it starts to beg the question of how these moral stalwarts came to understand so much about gay sex parties or cocaine-fuelled sex workers. The salacious mind boggles.”

McGlynn’s book dismantles the assumptions on which so many Western policies about Russia, Ukraine, and the war are based. That Western policy is based on falsehoods, wishful thinking, mirror-imaging, and naivete is unsurprising. It is an unacknowledged truth, but it is a pernicious and damaging one. Regardless of the administration in office, Republican or Democrat, the ecosystem views the world as they wish it to be, not as it is, and makes policy accordingly. There are, naturally, degrees of difference between the parties and politicians, but while not a uniquely American fault, naivete is something Washington has made an art form.

Western assumptions or declarations that “the Russian people accept the Kremlin’s propaganda blindly and lack any independent faculties,” are unhelpful and don’t reflect the reality that McGlynn describes. It is a Western excuse and policy shortcut; a way of forgiving the Russian people for “they know not what they do” or what they support. To accept that, as McGlynn vividly shows, that the Russian people are supportive of the war is to eliminate any easy end goal the West may have. If the Russian people are merely mindless automatons, then simply removing Putin and his regime would allow a thousand democratic flowers to bloom. It’s what Washington policymakers want to believe, but it is a belief that will almost certainly set the West up for failure.

If, however, the Russian people truly support both Putin and the Kremlin’s “special military operation,” then true lasting peace with Ukraine is a far more difficult, if not impossible prospect. The wholesale elimination of Nazism in Germany and imperialism in Japan after World War II was only accomplished through the total defeat of each country’s military and ideological system. None but the most extreme and ill-considered are advocating such a course of action against Russia, one that would assuredly result in nuclear war. If the wholesale occupation and reformation of Russian society is not an option, then what? Will Russia transform on its own? Or must the West finally deal with Russia as it is and not as it would wish it to be?

For McGlynn, the “end will not happen until Russian elites and ordinary people alike lose or preferably surrender, in their battle against reality.” The prospects for this are not positive. Even short of that, she writes, “There can be no grand reset in European–Russian or U.S.–Russian relations that does not begin with a fundamentally different Russia professing a fundamentally different view of the world.”

“Russia’s War” is not just a valuable book about the war in Ukraine. What sets it apart are its reflections on the broader Russian psyche and by extension, what it says about the West’s understanding of that psyche. McGlynn clearly set out to offer a look at the world through Russian eyes, but in so doing she holds up a mirror to the West’s own misconceptions and assumptions. While an uncomfortable process, it is nonetheless necessary as it is surely the only way to bring about a true and lasting end to this horrific war, or, more likely, to recognize that the West’s ability to achieve a lasting end is far more circumscribed than policymakers like to assume.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.