A conversation between Tom Nichols of the Atlantic magazine and Nick Gvosdev an expert on Russian history at the University of Oxford:
Tom Nichols: Nick, international-relations experts will hash out the “great power” dimensions of this war, but at the ground level of the actual fighting, why is the conflict so brutal? Is it really enough to say that the Russians are reacting to the humiliation of losing almost from the start?
Nick Gvosdev: To some extent. At all levels of Russian society, from the cab driver in the street to the Kremlin insider, there was a strongly held belief that Russian forces would be greeted as liberators, especially in the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine. Indeed, the initial Russian military plan was based on the assumption that Ukrainian soldiers would refuse to fight and Ukrainian politicians would defect. This turned out not to be the case. Even more striking, it was the two largest Russian-speaking cities in Ukraine—Kharkiv and Odesa–which proved to be focal points of the successful blunting of the Russian invasion.
Nichols: That last point seems to be important.
Gvosdev: Yes. Western Ukraine—at least those areas that were never under Russian imperial rule and were part of the Habsburg realm—stressed their separateness from the Russians and were always the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism. But almost all the atrocities we’ve seen have targeted people precisely in those parts of Ukraine that are part of the Russian-speaking world. There does appear to be a strong undercurrent of giving these “traitors” their due recompense.
Nichols: I don’t think this is fully understood in the West. The Bucha massacre, for example, was aimed at Russian speakers—almost as if they infuriated the Russians more than Ukrainian nationalists did.
Gvosdev: Bucha was a special target, for sure, given its position as a bedroom community for Ukrainian government workers and military officers. But this is all a direct outcome of appropriating a World War II narrative in which the Ukrainian government is routinely described as a Nazi regime and those fighting the Russians are fascists. Meanwhile, Russian social media routinely uses the term “Allied forces”—with all the connotations from the Second World War that description carries—to characterize the Russian military and the militias of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics. So, think about it: If the Ukrainian military and government are the modern-day successors of the Nazis, then of course no quarter should be given to those who fight on the side of the fascists—and especially those who’ve betrayed their kin.
Nichols: What about the Russian military? Is there something in their training and background that makes them harder to control? They certainly haven’t improved since the Soviet days in their effectiveness as a fighting force.
Gvosdev: Russia tried to create a professional all-volunteer army, but it’s still living with Soviet-era “traditions,” including brutalizing its own recruits—the so-called dedovshchina—and a strict hierarchical command structure. Add to this the ongoing problem of corruption within the military and you create an ethos where brutalizing others is preferable to being subject to it yourself. One other point: The Kremlin is anxious to avoid calling for a general mobilization, and so, as the U.S. did during Vietnam, a number of soldiers fighting in the Russian military in Ukraine chose military service rather than prison.
Nichols: I almost didn’t believe that when I saw it.
Gvosdev: Worse, Russians have also been relying on mercenaries and militias, another place where people with criminal records can end up. In many of these cases, atrocities were the result of some of these people being allowed to run amok with no particular supervision or discipline from the top other than general directions to punish “traitors” or eliminate “Nazis.”
Nichols: Ukraine, by contrast, figured out that having a solid and reliable noncommissioned-officer corps works wonders in the field.
Gvosdev: Absolutely. Ukraine’s military reforms over the last several years, along NATO standards, also allowed its military to carry out more decentralized operations.
Nichols: It seems like the most powerful “force multiplier” in the Russian military is resentment: You’ve betrayed us, you live better than we do, you’ve elected your own government, and so … you’re Nazis and we can do to you what we did in World War II.
Gvosdev: That’s the logical outcome, and how you get from “brothers and sisters” to wholesale carnage. Ukraine, in Russian eyes, has turned its back on its brother Russia, and by seeking to integrate with the Western world, has driven a sword into the heart of the “Russian world.” Russian politicians and pundits hammer those themes every day. This “betrayal” narrative is linked to the overall Russian resentment of Europe and the West. Some of it is connected to living standards, to be sure, but it is also driven by the sense that Europeans—and now Ukrainians as well—look down on Russia as not quite European, definitely not Western, and maybe not even civilized. And that resentment leads to a Russian determination to make others share in Russia’s misery, whether by bombarding Ukraine or by sparking an energy and economic crisis in the rest of Europe.
Nichols: I’m feeling an uncomfortable parallel here with events in the U.S. and some other countries.
Gvosdev: The politics of resentment are always the doorway to legitimizing mindless fury and anger—and ultimately violence—against those you deem to be traitors or evildoers as being a justifiable response to “being looked down on.” Russians don’t have a monopoly on this.