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KRAKOW — Four and a half months after Russia invaded Ukraine under the Orwellian guise of displacing a “Nazi” regime — a regime that enjoys a democratic legitimacy that has been absent from Russia for two decades — what have we learned on and in the Russian way of war?
We have learned that the Russian mode of warfare is strategically, tactically and logistically inept: an army using inferior equipment, devoid of competent non-commissioned officers and full of poorly trained conscripts; an army that relies on brute force to fight its way to its objectives.
We have learned that the Russian mode of warfare deliberately obliterates cities and deliberately destroys economic infrastructure. We have learned that the Russian mode of warfare targets hospitals and schools, cultural and educational institutions, churches, synagogues and mosques with the aim of eradicating a culture and a nation which, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has no right to exist except as a Russian vassal.
Thus, the 21st century Russian mode of warfare exudes the spirit of 18th century imperialism, with President Putin comparing himself to that quintessential Russian imperialist, Peter the Great, and telling schoolchildren who were asked to name the borders of Russia in a geographic bee that “Russia’s borders don’t end.”
We have learned that the Russian mode of warfare is insensitive to casualty rates, those of its own army and those of Ukraine. We have learned that the Russian way of war includes abandoning Russian dead or disposing of their remains in mobile cremation units, so that body bags do not flood the home front and raise questions about the wisdom of Mr Putin and his generals. We have learned that the Russian mode of war includes the humiliation, torture and probably execution of prisoners of war.
We have learned that the Geneva Conventions on the humane treatment of prisoners of war mean no more to the Russian military and its political masters than the Fifth Commandment.
We have learned that the Russian mode of warfare includes the use of cluster munitions and unguided missiles specifically prohibited by international law. Thus, the Russian mode of warfare systematically violates the two in bello (combat) principles of the just war tradition: proportionality of means (no more force than necessary to achieve a legitimate military objective) and discrimination (immunity of non-combatants ).
We have learned that the Russian way of war involves widespread rape, robbery and summary execution of civilians, as well as the abduction of civilians from Russian-occupied territories, their relocation and attempts to coerce them into giving up their Ukrainian allegiance.
We have learned that the Russian mode of warfare includes illegal blockades of Ukrainian ports to prevent grain shipments, thereby threatening Third World countries with starvation. We have learned that the Russian way of war includes energy blackmail, threats to use nuclear weapons, and blatant intimidation of other countries, including Lithuania and Kazakhstan.
The Russian mode of warfare makes it impossible to imagine Russia, in its current state and under its current leadership, as anything other than a force for violent disorder in a world in search of a certain order.
We have learned that the Russian mode of warfare involves the corruption of Russian religious leaders, starting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’, who recently described contemporary Russia as ” a miracle of God”.
We have learned that the Russian way of war is to deprive Russians of independent information and commentary, to arrest thousands of Russian anti-war protesters, and to flood the Russian information space with propaganda and disinformation from a virulence that might make Dr. Goebbels blush (if only because that sophisticated liar would recognize how absurd such profanity makes the assailant seem).
In sum, what we should have learned is that the Russian mode of warfare makes it impossible to imagine Russia, in its present condition and under its present leadership, as anything other than a force of violent disorder in a world looking for some order. .
Foreign policy “realists” argue that this corrupt and brutal kleptocracy must be appeased because Russia is all that stands between Europe and an aggressive China. It’s crazy realism, and it’s at least as dangerous as Panglossian idealism. Is Vladimir Putin, who blessed Xi Jinping’s miserable Olympics, an obstacle to Xi’s geopolitical ambitions? Please. Is Russia, a Third World country in terms of public health, a bulwark against Chinese expansionism?
Please. The only Russia that can “balance” China on the Eurasian landmass is a reformed Russia that has faced what it has never faced since the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991: the false historical history that has supported Russian imperialism for centuries, and the utter failure of Soviet communism to create a humane society.
This confrontation, a prerequisite for Russian reform, does not begin with a Western-invented exit strategy for Putin’s aggression. It starts with the defeat of Russia in Ukraine.