It's been a while since I've been able to write about this awful war, but I think now, five months in, we are in a position to say what it is not about, and indeed never was about.
In my next post, I will write about what I think the real stakes of the war are, and then about what I believe is happening on the battlefield. For now, though, I want to banish three specters.
"Nazis," "nukes," and "NATO" have been Putin's three "N"s from the beginning of the war. His three propaganda slogans have their origins in Soviet or Russian trauma. They emerge as excuses for the war not because they have anything to do with Putin's motives or Russia's interests, but because they summon Russian fears that can be usefully directed outward, against the rest of the world.
Even if Russians do not understand why they are fighting, or even what these three slogans have to do with the war, their simple evocation makes it clear that they are to keep their heads down.
Russian propaganda reaches us for much the same reasons it reachers Russians. The three “N”s give us no analytical purchase on what is actually going on; we cling to them for the reasons that Russians do, which is that they touch deeper emotions. If your default inclination is guilt about the world, and you are inclined to believe that America is responsible for all evil, then your “N” is NATO.
If you are fearful and looking for a reason to do nothing, then you are best served by "nukes." And if you like to look down on others as barbarians, or have the urge to be seen as the most radical person in your pack, you will be susceptible to Putin's characterization of his chosen enemies as "Nazis."
It is easy to demonstrate that none of this makes any sense, nor has any bearing on Russia's war aims. But unless we are able to say about ourselves: "oh yes, I have that vulnerability" or "sure, I might fall for that sometimes" or "I can see how I could be led down that rabbit hole" such a demonstration will make no difference. And this, one hopes at least, is the fundamental difference between Russia and America at the moment.
We still have the institutions and, one likes to hope, the inclination to reflect, to reconsider. Tyranny at some late stage is based on nothing more than the backwash of violent action: it must have been right because we did it at the tyrant's behest. Democracy depends upon the ability to catch ourselves halfway, before we internalize the slogans and defend them just because we defend them.
Russia's war in Ukraine, right now, is chiefly based upon that backwash of violence: “we invaded and killed a lot of people for no reason we can give, but we cannot withdraw because that would be to admit that we invaded and killed for no reason; and therefore we must remain in Ukraine and continue to kill for no reason.”
Russian propagandists at this point are working chiefly to convince us that Ukraine is losing, or that we are losing, or that we lack the will to get through the fall and winter.
This is for a very simple reason: Ukraine is not in fact losing the war, and the one way Ukraine loses is if it is not supplied with Western weapons, and the one way it is not supplied with Western weapons is if people in the West lose hope. No one in Moscow is trying very hard with any of the three "N"s at this point. They are now a minor part of the attempt to make people lose hope.
Analyzing the three "N"s, though, can help us to see things as they are. NATO cannot have been the issue. NATO was unpopular in Ukraine until Russia invaded in 2014. Ukraine's treaty obligations to Russia would have prevented NATO membership for decades. In violating those obligations by invading the country in 2014 and 2022, Russia made the alliance seem necessary to Ukrainians.
The 2022 invasion persuaded Swedes and Finns that their countries should join NATO. Putin says that this does not matter -- although Finland has a long border with Russia, the two militaries are quite significant, and decades of neutrality have now come to an end. There is a simple reason for this reaction: Putin is not actually afraid of a NATO invasion of Russia, and never has been. He simply wants to conquer Ukraine, and a reference to NATO was one form of rhetorical cover for his colonial venture. Indeed, Russia is now withdrawing troops from the Finnish border (the future NATO border) so that they can fight in Ukraine.
This war is not about NATO but about destroying Ukraine.
The war is certainly not about destroying Ukrainian "Nazis." It is a little tiresome at this point, and I hope unnecessary, to rehearse the basic facts of Ukrainian political life. The far right is much less present in Ukraine than it is in Russia (where it holds power) or for that matter in the United States or almost any European country.
Ukrainians elected a Jewish president with more than 70% of the vote. The claim that Ukrainians are "Nazis" is simply hate speech, designed to justify killing them. Indeed, the choice of that particular term exemplifies two fascist policies: it is a big lie as Hitler proposed; and it begins politics from the arbitrary choice of an enemy, as Carl Schmitt (the Nazi legal theorist) recommended. And it distracts us from the obviously fascist features of the top of the Russian state system.
Nor does this war have much to do with nuclear weapons, except in the sense that Russia's continual invasions of Ukraine will likely make them more popular around the world. Russia's claim that Ukraine was building one was an obvious lie and has been abandoned. Ukraine actually gave up its nuclear weapons by agreement in 1994, in exchange for security assurances from the United States, Great Britain, and the Russian Federation.
The fact that Russia has twice invaded Ukraine since then is an advertisement for nuclear proliferation: small countries will believe that nuclear weapons will protect them from larger neighbors. In this precise sense, the Russian invasion has increased the chances of nuclear war. But it is not a real danger in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict itself. Russia lost the Battle of Kyiv and de-escalated rather than escalated.
There will be no greater shock going forward than that unforgettable defeat. What the war shows (as a host of earlier conflicts have already shown) is that nuclear weapons do not prevent great powers from fighting -- and losing -- conventional wars.
Russia is fighting a war of destruction with the goal of eliminating the Ukrainian nation. Anyone who spends much time watching Russian television knows this. Putin systematically denies the existence of a Ukrainian nation and the legitimacy of a Ukrainian state. Wherever Russia controls Ukrainian territory, it has carried out genocidal policies of mass deportation, rape, and executions.
Putin has some interest in winning this war because it is his war. Russians have some interest in winning because many of them have committed themselves to the propaganda tropes; a defeat would challenge their beliefs. But that is all.
Ukrainians, by contrast, have an existential interest in winning this war, because it is about their survival: not only in the physical sense but in the social sense of being permitted to be the kinds of people they wish to be.
Those are the stakes of the war, and they are simple enough and certainly high enough. They direct us to simple conclusions: Russians will fight until they are defeated; Ukrainians will fight on, regardless of what we believe, and regardless of what we do. They can win. If we decline to be manipulated by the three “N”s, remain firm and patient, and arm the Ukrainians, the war can end the right way, and its horror can be contained.
This column was first published on Substack. NV is republishing it with permission.