Pete Shmigel

13 May 2022

The Spectator

The Russians may well love their children too, but many of their views about their war on Ukraine span a narrow range from intellectually dishonest to morally bankrupt.  Ironically, it’s only overt Russian imperialists that think in a way – though abhorrent in its application – that is arguably consistent. The West’s real challenge is to defeat their imperial ambitions which threaten, not only Ukraine, but global stability.

Let me step back to a day in a hotel room between trips to Ukraine.

I spent some time watching Russian television, including its vox pops, scrolling Russian social media sites, and reading the Tweets of mainstream Russians. Not the full rigorous analysis of my past lives with pollsters and in politics, but certainly part of the process that many campaigners and communicators normally follow. One tries to see the context through many prisms. Here’s some of what’s out there.

‘There’s nothing I can do.’

This fatalistic view is patently false. If every Russian took a similar view of their own lives and their own circumstances, there would be no one getting out of bed from St Petersburg to Vladivostok every morning. While there may be a limited number of choices available to Russians living in a neo-dictatorship, there are certainly still choices, and their own history of revolutions and Glasnost prove it.  Further proof of its falsehood is that hundreds of thousands of moneyed and educated Russians have actually made a significant choice recently; they’ve hurriedly left the country and were indeed encouraged to do so.

‘I’m not political.’

One way to describe this type of position is the ‘Instagram position’ (though ironically Russian influencers actively mourn their loss of that vanity platform).  Those who see themselves as beyond politics are those that can afford to be beyond politics. They typically feel themselves as not substantially impacted by the course of world events. It’s a standpoint founded in immaturity, narcissism, and materialism. Without a hint of self-awareness, it selfishly ignores the interdependence that led us out of caves and into civilisation. Such people have replaced society with brand and, through their vanity and irresponsibility, provide the space for dictatorships to operate in.

‘I support peace – stop the war.’

This type of view might be called the ‘oligarch position’. It’s the queen of all motherhood statements – the equivalent of liking puppy pics on social media.  Safe, unsubstantive, and sterilised of all meaning, but extremely convenient for those needing to cleanse themselves of culpability and/or superficially distance themselves from their country’s war against a neighbouring country.  Oligarchs who need to protect their direct interests, including avoiding sanctions, and the small Russian upper middle class who want to protect their global access use

this type of statement as a ‘get out of jail card’ after mostly tolerating and indeed supporting Putin for decades in exchange for mafia-styled material gain.

‘The Zombie views.’

Some Russians put forward this broader set of views, or some part of it, that basically parrots Putin’s state-controlled propaganda machine.  ‘We need to deNazify Ukraine… Nato is threatening Russia… The world hates Russia… A genocide is being committed against Russian speakers…Putin is our leader and we support our leader… Events in Ukraine are false flags by Ukrainian Nazis and their Nato sponsors…’  That these folks are aligned with the Kremlin’s (often inconsistent but always untrue) narratives is obvious. What’s less obvious are their various motivations.

First, we need to accept that Russian social and cultural structures have been authoritarian and collective – as opposed to democratic and liberal – for around a thousand years. Inasmuch, it’s logical that there’s no inherent personal dishonour in going along with prevalent norms, even if they are objectively problematic, in Russia. The bandwidth of the Russian people’s capacity for cognitive dissonance is necessarily narrowed by their history, cultural mores, and socio-economic development.

If we then go to a purely emotional level, and that’s where 80 per cent of our decision-making resides, the motives for Russians buying into Putinism as a worldview could variously be:

  • Protecting themselves from the perceived authoritarian threat of persecution for dissent.
  • Giving themselves the ‘benefits of belonging’ and group identity in a vast, multi-ethnic and relatively poor country that is actually short of a modern unifying ideology.
  • Isolating themselves from information that destabilises their view of themselves.
  • Taking queues from those they culturally trust – for better or for worse – to run their country.


‘Ukraine is not a real country and is part of Russia.’

While this is a historically and objectively false statement at every level, it is distinct from all those above. Namely, for those who (mistakenly or intentionally), hold it, it is arguable that it is intellectually and morally consistent whereas the positions above are built on one form of dust or another.  In some respects, those who are open about the fact that Russia is pursuing an imperialist agenda to crush and colonise Ukraine are, ironically, the most ‘honest’ Russians. They don’t try to dress up the unprovoked aggression and brutality of their dictator, government, or military with some false construct. It’s the no-bullshit approach.

Think of the difference between America’s ‘destroying weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’ to ‘we need to protect our strategic energy interests and key ally’.

Indeed, this group of Russians are the ones who most acknowledge a state of war and an expanded invasion, intentional full-scale violence against civilians, and the enormous costs to their own society. However, because of their foundational belief – that Russia should be ‘restored’ as an empire and a global power – this set of people logically see all actions, no matter how monstrous or bestial, as justifiable steps toward, in their view, a positive objective. It is a disgusting view, but it is not a lie or a fiction.

And, we would do well to treat it as the well-spring current events. Russian imperialism and all the forms it takes is the true opponent.

For as long as the West builds its support for Ukraine and its strategic endgame in response to fake, flawed, and intentionally diversionary constructs, the longer and bloodier the war will be. Alternatively, if Western leaders proceed with clarity – that it is in their societies’ and combined interest to eliminate Putinist authoritarianism and Russian imperialism as a force – a new peace will be more within their reach.