By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
Remember the bombing of the theater and hospital in Mariupol? Or the destruction of Severodonetsk, Lysychansk and Kharkiv? Or the mass executions in Irpin and Bucha? The daily rapes? The bombing of the shopping mall in Kremenchuk and the city center in Vinnytsia? And, most recently, the destruction of over 50 Ukrainian POWs and the online castration of a soldier?
Don’t the Russians ever tire of committing atrocities? Evidently not. Indeed, one has the distinct impression that they are acting with purposeful glee, perhaps because engaging in brutality offers them some kind of psycho-cultural satisfaction, while enabling them to thumb their noses at the West and assert their sense of historical uniqueness and righteousness.
Students of the Holocaust point out that war can brutalize a population and make it more inclined to tolerate and engage in brutality. That dynamic is surely at work in Russia. But the Nazis intensified their extermination of Jews in 1944 and 1945, even when it was manifestly clear that killing Jews was reducing their military capacity to fight on both fronts. Historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen attributed that strategy to an “eliminationist anti-Semitism” that effectively perverted Nazi understanding of reality and made them incapable of seeing their true interests.
A similar “eliminationist anti-Ukrainianism” appears to be present in today’s Russia. Russia’s political elites have been perfectly open about their goal of destroying Ukrainians as a nation and Ukraine as a state. Many ordinary Russians, just like the ordinary Germans discussed by historian Christopher Browning, likely have been brutalized and desensitized by the war, to the point of becoming indifferent to or supportive of atrocities. Many appear to derive genuine satisfaction from the regime’s pursuit of genocide.
Why? Ultimately, there is no escaping the disturbing fact that Russian political culture — or perhaps even Russian culture, pure and simple — bears as much responsibility for the dehumanization of Ukrainians as does Putinite fascist ideology. Just as genocide was not only the handiwork of Adolf Hitler, so, too, the ongoing genocide of Ukrainians is a function of deeper cultural stereotypes that reduce Ukrainians to the equivalent of Nazi images of Jews. Russian culture requires a thorough house cleaning before it will become fit for normal human consumption again.
But killing Ukrainians — and especially killing them brutally — also gives Russians the opportunity to assert themselves in polar opposition to the decadent West that claims to stand for human rights, tolerance and mutual respect. Better still, it gives them the opportunity to expose the West’s hypocrisy when it comes to European and American behavior in many former colonies. It’s as if the Russians are saying, “We don’t care what you think and, in any case, don’t think you’re any better.”
In fact, the West is worse, as far as Russians are concerned, because its real or supposed moral values are passé and unsuitable for the new world, within which Russia will play a leading role as a kind of Nietzschean Übermensch that rejects all ethical constraints and alights the historical stage as a uniquely endowed civilization that will act as it wants to and not as the rest of the world expects it to act. In essence, the new, emergent Russia will be a 21st century equivalent of the Thousand-Year Reich. Not a bad prospect for a country that still regards itself as the Third Rome.
Ironically, although much of the world expresses outrage at Russia’s instrumentalization of brutality, much of the world — in particular, the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America — appears indifferent to the ongoing genocide. They should know better. After all, they were the victims of an equally reprehensible brutality that should lead them to condemn Russia’s indifference to modern norms. One can appreciate their geopolitical reasons for staying on the sidelines. Unfortunately, their silence makes them complicit in Russia’s brutality and nullifies their case against European colonialism.
Not that their outrage would make any difference. Vladimir Putin’s fascist regime and the Russian population that adores it will continue to engage in brutality no matter how many fingers are wagged, tears are shed, and declarations of condemnation are produced.
The only way to stop Russians’ love affair with killing Ukrainians is to deprive them of the ability to kill Ukrainians. Peace treaties and ceasefires won’t stop Putin and his narod, just as they didn’t stop Hitler and his Volk. Only a humiliating and thorough military defeat will.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”