Vladimir Putin and his war machine get more respect than they deserve from the West.
This may seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, just 9 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Russia, and the International Criminal Court recently issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes.
But if you listen to a lot of the debate over Ukraine, you might be forgiven for thinking Putin’s invasion was just a bad mistake, badly implemented by an otherwise serious country. Sure, terrible things are happening in Ukraine, but terrible things happen in war. What’s left out is that the terrible things are the policy, not the unintended consequence of it.
Reports of torture and rape started pouring in from the earliest days of the invasion. In March 2022, Russian troops electrocuted the genitals of male civilian prisoners and sexually brutalized girls and women from age 4 to 82.
These weren’t isolated incidents but the beginning of a campaign of atrocities to come. Numerous mass graves full of corpses, some showing evidence of execution, rape, and torture, have been found in areas liberated by Ukrainian forces. The bodies of mutilated children have been discovered. Such horrors can distract from the more routine evils of targeting civilians, including schools and hospitals, and the stealing of thousands of children.
But the most conspicuous fact that’s absent from the public conversation is that the Russian military has been a villainous force for more than a century.
The horrendous crimes of imperial Russia were part of a pre-modern era of warfare prior to the Geneva Conventions and other laws of war. But it’s worth remembering that the armies of the czars were famously brutal even for a brutal age. Even Alexander II, the “liberal” reformer who freed the serfs also ordered the genocide of the Circassians and other natives of the Caucuses. Between 600,000 and 1.5 million people were killed, the rest deported to the Ottoman Empire. That institutional memory lived on, like a ghost in the Russian killing machine.
The Bolsheviks may have dispatched the czars, but they only amplified the czarist approach to war. Stalin’s genocides and forced deportations look more like a continuation than a break with the czarist past. And today’s atrocities extend that sinister tradition, too.
Putin has built on the Soviet effort to turn World War II into a kind of state religion, in which the messianic Red Army saved Europe from fascism. Obviously, the Russian sacrifice in World War II—after Hitler broke his pact with Stalin—was staggering. But the Soviet approach to war—using Russian soldiers as fodder for enemy guns until the enemy is exhausted—replicated in Ukraine today is nothing to be proud of.
Neither is the Red Army’s record as “liberators” in Eastern Europe, where they terrorized the population with mass rape. In Hungary, the estimates of rape range from 50,000 to 200,000. So many pregnancies resulted, that in January 1946, Hungary’s social-welfare minister requested of his superiors “to qualify all babies as abandoned whose date of births is from 9 to 18 months after the liberation.”
In Vienna alone, there were between 70,000 and 100,000 rapes. Estimates in Soviet-controlled Poland exceed 100,000. In Germany, they run as high as 2 million. Stalin dismissed complaints saying that his troops had been through so much they deserved to “have fun with a woman.”
The full scale of the mass rapes will never be known, in part because the Soviets destroyed records and kept them secret until the end. And it is now an official secret in Russia once again, as Putin has made it a crime to denigrate the military or to besmirch the memory of the Red Army. He also preemptively exempted troops committing war crimes from prosecution at home or abroad under the Geneva Convention. On Saturday, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev vowed that Ukraine will be erased.
Horrible things happen in every war. However imperfectly, the West has tried to adhere to principles of war and to minimize future horrors and crimes. The Russian military has never bothered with such views, and under Putin, who’s nostalgic for the worst aspects of both czarist and Soviet Russia, it seems to see barbarism and cruelty as part of its identity.
The invasion of Ukraine is the product of a society that, having never successfully confronted the sins of its past, has come to see them as virtues.