As their country enters the third month of aggression against Ukraine, rich and respectable Russians, businessmen, bankers, business owners, are beginning to add a new expression to the discussion on social networks. They support the Russian invasion, but have recently begun to speak of it as an “existential” issue for Russia.
This is not what the defeatists are saying. Proponents of aggression, mostly supporters of Vladimir Putin, but also those who have objections to his “lack of national”, say that the war in Ukraine is to be or not to be for Russia, although they support the war campaign. Given the business and even political pedigree of some of them, it would not be a surprise if they served as a channel for Russian intelligence services to insert the word “existence” into public speech.
This is an attempt to raise the support of the Russian public for military aggression to the level of an existential issue. The position is more than clear – Russia must win, because defeat will also be its end.
How did a mild, almost peaceful definition of “special military operation” reached a point that IT in Ukraine became a question of Russia’s survival? Why were thousands of people arrested on the streets of Russian cities just because they talked about the “war”, and today rich and influential speak about the “existence” of the state and the nation and do not feel any consequences? And finally, why talk about survival, if everything is going according to plan and if military successes follow one another?
Something is wrong from the beginning. At that time, Putin marked the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine as war goals, which the Russians enthusiastically accepted as an inscription on their war flag, although they were not completely sure what that meant. They understood that what the president told them actually meant the occupation of Ukraine and they had nothing against it, nor did the media and propaganda assure them otherwise. There was talk of removing the leadership in Kiev, which was also well received, because occupation means overthrowing the regime. Why not, when Putin, personally, called on Ukrainians to take power from – “drug addicts and neo-Nazis” in Kiev?
A month and thousands of dead Russian soldiers later, the “liberation” of Donbass was proclaimed as the new goal of the invasion. It was something easier to understand than “demilitarization and denazification”, but still far and difficult to achieve. Even thousands of casualties, huge losses of military equipment and the withdrawal of troops do not make these narrow goals too realistic in the eyes of the Russians. The hesitation grows every day of the war, because at the beginning it was believed that the victory would be fast as lightning, and the victorious army would all be there.
The survival of the country and the nation is becoming a topic that is not only thought about in Russia, but also talked about publicly. And rightly so. One reason comes from the increasingly difficult everyday life, from the ruined economy, from the thousands of layoffs due to the withdrawal of Western investors, from shortages and the complete blockade of all ties with the world. People rightly wonder if and for how long they will be able to endure life in an almost hermetic isolation that they did not hope for.
The second reason has much deeper roots, and they go back to the mental image of every Russian about their country and nation and the expectations that each of them has from their motherland. Those images and expectations have been instilled for centuries, and in Putin’s era, they got the adrenaline with which they could start a campaign in Ukraine.
The supporting pillars of that belief are badly damaged, hence the story of the endangered existence. One of those pillars is the army and the myth of its invincibility. Ukrainians are destroying this myth day by day. One of the pillars is the deep-rooted feeling that Russia is – equal to – territories over which it has control. The Kremlin is horrified by the idea that some territory (state) it controls could even think of choosing its own path and opting for an alliance with someone else without its permission.
They never survived the departure of the whole of Eastern Europe from their (steel) embrace, and the undisputed leader Putin reminded them of that historical pain, and the collapse of the USSR which was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” for him. And when, even after 30 years, they cannot digest the loss of half of Europe, which voluntarily moved to the other side, how could they “survive” the loss of Ukraine? The state that Putin told them does not exist, and that it is, in fact, Russia.
And that is why part of the Russian elite is publicly saying that today in Ukraine is, in fact, being decided – about Russia and whether it will exist after Ukraine or not. They believe that if Russia loses Ukraine, it will lose itself. They are raising their voice because they do not want to lose the kind of Russia they have lived in so far and Russia they want to preserve, which is – the empire that controls the territories. They can’t imagine a different one, because a different Russia has never existed.
This is a particularly important warning for the West as well, because if its main rival is already thinking about the danger of its survival, then it means that it can be ready for anything. This is a message not only to the West, but also to all who see themselves as part of that civilization, that they must think about their own existence. First of all, Ukraine, but also every other nation that sees Ukraine’s struggle as its own. The stake is existence, because if Russia achieves its war goals, or whatever it calls them, it will not forget its dreams about the territories it controls and its right to do so. It will not stop there, no matter how weakened. The response in Ukraine must therefore be strong, clear and final, so that “existence” would no longer be a topic that states and nations are talking about.