Aleksandr Podrabinek: The Equality of War – on the wiles of dictatorship

28 September 2023

By Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda

There is rarely just one reason for major historical events. This is also true of the war on Ukraine. Putin’s gravest reason is the drive to consolidate his own power. A state of war allows any harsh decisions to be taken and to be justified by military expediency. A state of war unties the hands of the punitive agencies: who will notice acts of political repression against a backdrop of the many casualties of combat actions?

Another important reason is the fear of a “bad” example for Russia. If it worked for the Ukrainians, why can’t it work for the Russians? Putin’s fears on that score are not unfounded. In Soviet times, Ukraine was successful in supplying party cadres for the CPSU. People from Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhia were an influential force among the party nomenklatura. Nevertheless, Ukraine cast off its Soviet past and set off on the road to democracy.  Terror that Russia might go the same way determines many of the Kremlin’s decisions, including decisions of foreign policy.

Among the lesser reasons for the war are the attempt to unite Russian society on the grounds of hatred of an imaginary historical enemy and the obsessive desire to play the imperial card, flex its military muscles and impose terror on the outside world by its violence, unpredictability and cruelty.

The stubborn desire to prove that dictatorship and democracy are equal is not the least of these reasons. Being on the same level as the democratic countries is the ultimate dream of most dictators. For this they are prepared to make certain concessions even to the detriment of their authoritarian model. They may join international conventions that are not to their advantage, allow foreign observers into the country, release well-known political prisoners under pressure from public opinion, and, through gritted teeth, tolerate foreign correspondents and diplomats in their country. In exchange, they demand that their legitimacy and equality is recognised in the international arena. Structures like the UN completely satisfy their thirst for equality. In that strange community, the representatives of despotic regimes have the same voice as the representatives of democracies. This is balm to the dictators’ souls. 

Another means of declaring equality is war. Military actions that are carried out by both sides with the same weapons and the same consequences should, according to authoritarian leaders’ calculations, nullify the reasons for the war and establish equality between the aggressor and their victim. True, they can most often only convince themselves of this but that’s important both for them and for their propaganda machine. “Look,” they say with triumph in their voice, “they’re doing the same as us. They are just the same!” 

And, in actual fact, no-one is all sweetness and light in warfare. The methods of defence are, as a rule, commensurate with the methods of attack. The warring sides more probably adhere to the Old Testament principle of “an eye for an eye” than to the Christian teaching of “turn the other cheek”. War crimes, albeit on different scales, are committed on both sides. The history of military conflicts contains heaps of examples. The propaganda of authoritarian regimes stresses precisely this fact, preferring “to forget” the reasons for the conflict and just who was the aggressor.  Reports from the frontline crowd out memories of the invasion. The daily tragedy of war shifts analysis of the reasons for it into the background. In wars that went on for decades, few were interested in what started it. Such forgetfulness suits authoritarian leaders like nothing else. A short historical memory makes equals of the aggressor and the victim of aggression. 

In the war on Ukraine, the Kremlin is seeking humanitarian motives for its propaganda machine that could justify invading the neighbouring country. This is what gave rise to the outlandish claims of Nazism in Ukraine and of all-out persecution of the opposition and to improbable tales of a little boy being crucified and such like. The task of Russian state propaganda is to persuade gullible people of similarity in the goals and methods of Russian and Ukrainian politics. The task of the free world is to avoid becoming like a dictatorship. This relates both to methods of conducting the war and treating the civilian population and to the observance of human rights, the defence of civic freedoms and a sense of responsibility in the rhetoric of propaganda.

Translated by Melanie Moore

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