On the night of August 31, 1939, a team of commandos in Polish uniforms slipped across the German border and attacked a radio tower at Gleiwitz, in Silesia. The raiders killed a handful of German soldiers and broadcast a brief anti-Nazi message (in Polish) before slipping back into the darkness.
The next day, Adolf Hitler claimed that “Polish regular soldiers fired on our territory” while proclaiming to the German Reichstag, “I have resolved to speak to Poland in the same language that Poland for months past has used toward us.” In this telling, Poland was the aggressor, and Germany the reluctant but valiant defender. In fact, German forces had already launched their long-planned invasion at 5 a.m. that morning, commencing a brutal campaign that subjugated Poland within a month, leading to tens of millions of deaths and Germany’s own total defeat, six long years later, in the Second World War.
The Nuremburg War Crimes Trials confirmed what many had suspected at the time—the attack on Gleiwitz had been a “false flag” operation, carried out by German operatives in fake Polish uniforms. Like many similar incidents at the same time—the shelling of German border villages, alleged atrocities against ethnic German civilians, sabotage to minor infrastructure—these attacks were fabricated by the Germans themselves, though sometimes realistically enough to kill some of their own people. Few foreign observers believed that the Poles—outnumbered and outgunned as they were—would be so foolish as to attack their formidable German neighbors, who had been threatening war for months. But Hitler’s propaganda machine did not care—the border incidents created just enough smoke and fog around the war’s origin to confuse the gullible abroad and reassure the nervous at home.
“You Furnish the Pictures, and I’ll Furnish the War”
When a country launches a war (or even a “special military operation”), it must have a story to tell—to its own people, and to the world. To foreign nations, it must speak the language of law—of rights and justice, treaties and resolutions. It must claim to be acting to uphold the correct order of things. Regardless of whether anyone is persuaded, it must have something to say.
For the domestic audience, the appeal is more emotional. The nation has been attacked—or it is about to be attacked. It has been encircled, victimized. Its friends have been threatened. An innocent people needs rescue from tyranny and oppression.
Most people do not want to believe that their own nation has launched an unprovoked war of aggression. They will accept almost any story, however absurd, to avoid confronting the truth. They will continue to believe it, in many cases, long after every element of the story has been falsified.
We should try to make sense of Russia’s case for invading Ukraine in light of these two distinct audiences.
Let’s be clear from the outset: Russia’s case is a bad one. It is, perhaps, the most cynical set of legal arguments, the most pathetic set of grievances, the most deceitful claims offered by a strong country to brutalize and conquer a weaker one, that the world has heard since 1945. Even in a world with many unjust wars (often waged by countries with an unjustifiably high opinion of their own motives), this one stands out for its blatant disregard for international law.
Nevertheless, it is worth examining what Russia is saying in its own defense, and how far it diverges from reality. It is also worth comparing Russia’s arguments to those made on behalf of other countries (including the United States) that have embarked on questionable military ventures. Do all great powers disregard international law when it suits their “vital interests”? Are they always accurate and truthful when evaluating foreign threats (like Iraq and its illusory “WMDs”)? Or is Russia especially deserving of opprobrium and isolation for its actions? Most importantly, why do arguments that seem ludicrous to a world audience appear so persuasive to a Russian one? These are questions that, regardless of the outcome of the fighting in Ukraine, will linger over Russia—and the world—for decades.
Stirring the Stew: Some Early Red Flags
Russia’s buildup to the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was eerily reminiscent of Germany’s game plan against Poland in 1939. A public airing of overwrought grievances and extreme demands, coupled with talk of negotiations. A massing of troops on the border, disarmingly described as routine maneuvers. Repeated threats of force and pleas for peaceful settlement. Breathless accounts of peaceful initiatives met with indifference and hostility. Talk of conspiracy and encirclement by foreign powers. And, finally, a drumbeat of reports of atrocities and threats against Russian speakers in Ukraine and against Russia itself. In this sense, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s television address on February 24, 2022 announcing the “special military operation” can be read side-by-side with Hitler’s harangue to the Reichstag launching the Second World War—it’s almost as though the two men shared a speechwriter.
The Biden administration made two key adjustments that scrambled the Russian game plan. First, rather than investing excessive hope in a negotiated outcome, Biden accepted U.S. intelligence findings that Russian President Vladimir Putin had already resolved on war. He publicly shared this conclusion with the world in January 2022, and frequently reiterated it up to the eve of the invasion. When this prediction—widely disputed at the time—turned out to be deadly accurate, almost to the day, it exposed the insincerity of Putin’s diplomatic overtures.
Second, the U.S. government revealed, in considerable detail, the false-flag operations that Russia was preparing to justify its forthcoming invasion. These included the shelling of border villages, attacks on ethnic Russians, and allegations of sabotage—all familiar elements from Hitler’s 1939 playbook—with some twists designed for the social-media age.
False-flag operations are easy to suspect, but difficult to prove. It may be years before the truth comes out, if ever. And false claims of false flags—often by the perpetrators of an atrocity to deny their own responsibility—further confuse the picture.
But the Biden team found a way out of this trap by detailing Putin’s false-flag attacks in advance. This left the Russians with the choice of going ahead with their plans—and looking absurd—or abandoning them. They did a little of both. But their half-hearted claims of Ukrainian attacks and atrocities naturally fell flat in the international media.
Putin evidently intended to use border incidents and concocted atrocities as his principal justification to intervene in Ukraine. But when both his invasion plans and the false-flag provocations were revealed publicly by the American president, Putin’s frustration was evident. Some other grounds for war needed to be found—and quickly.
Following a Half-Baked Formula—to a Point
To do so, Putin’s underlings in the Russian Foreign Ministry had their work cut out for them.
Article 2 of the United Nations Charter says, “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state….” Over the past decade, even before launching the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s Russia violated virtually every word of this provision: seizing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, funding and arming separatists in predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas area of Eastern Ukraine, interfering repeatedly in Ukrainian politics to install a pliable government and, when that failed, and leveling a constant barrage of threats to attack Ukraine.
Even in light of this bleak prologue, Putin’s February 24 television address marked a violent escalation of rhetoric. In a strange but characteristic flourish of projection, he accused Ukrainian leaders of having “embarked on the path of violence, bloodshed, and lawlessness” and failing to “recognize any other solution to the Donbass issue, except for the military one.” Accordingly, he proclaimed Russia’s “long overdue decision to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of” two breakaway regions in Donbas. Putin further announced the imminent conclusions of treaties of “friendship and mutual assistance” between Russia and what he referred to as “the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.” In justifying Russia’s use of force, he even went so far as to invoke Art. 51 of the UN Charter, which refers to the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations.”
This argument did not pass the laugh test—primarily because the Ukrainians had not attacked anyone, but also because Donetsk and Luhansk are not members of the United Nations or, by any stretch of the imagination, independent nations at all. The citation of Article 51 should remind everyone that another of Russia’s grievances—Ukraine’s so-far unrequited desire to join the NATO alliance—creates no legal grounds whatsoever for a Russian attack. The right to form such regional defensive alliances is also recognized by Article 52 of the Charter.
Nevertheless, it didn’t take any imagination to see what Putin planned next: it was the same playbook he used to seize Crimea in 2014. First, recognize a separatist movement as an independent republic. Then, intervene militarily to “defend” that putative nation from supposedly imminent attack. Finally, conclude a treaty of annexation with the newborn state, swiftly adding it to Russia’s territories. In the case of Crimea, its fictitious independence lasted all of two days (March 16-18, 2014).
Such a procedure may seem farcical—a scam. So why did Russia even bother to do it? Well, even Putin understood (at least in 2014) that directly invading another country to seize its territory would be a clear violation of international law. Hence the charade of Crimea’s brief flash of independence—scarcely longer than some of the more unstable elements at the heavy end of the periodic table.
Many observers expected Putin to make a similar move in Ukraine—threaten to invade the entire country, but settle for a two-step recognition/annexation dance that would formalize Russian rule over the two separatist republics. Such a move would have met with some international outrage, but probably not very serious sanctions—as the Crimea experience demonstrated. It would have also been consistent with Putin’s modus operandi for most of his 22 years in power—to push for every advantage, but to take calculated, incremental risks, often based on a careful assessment of how far his opponents were willing to go to stop him. The answer had always been: not far enough.
But this time, something was different. Putin had already queued up a military operation much bigger than a limited set of objectives in the Donbas region would require. And his military timetable would not allow further delay, not even enough time to let a localized dispute over Donbas metastasize into a larger war with Ukraine. The plan to use false flags attacks was disarmed in advance. So Putin—unable to articulate a very convincing case for war on behalf of separatist republics that were already under Moscow’s control—let the mask drop and showed his true intentions.
“One People”: A Recipe for Trouble
Ukraine, Putin declared, was not a real country. “Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood,” he told the Russian people. Putin claimed that Ukraine—understood for centuries as a distinct region if not an independent state—was somehow a completely artificial entity. He attributed its creation to “Bolshevik policy” under Lenin—when, in fact, it was the Bolsheviks who extinguished Ukraine’s brief independence after World War I by absorbing it into the Soviet Union. Imagine a British politician dismissing the separate national existence of Ireland—citing the centuries of British rule there, the widespread use of English, the glorious common history and culture of these intertwined peoples—and you can guess how such claims must sound to Ukrainian ears. It’s not that these assertions lack any element of truth, but that they use the effects of centuries of domination as arguments in favor of more oppression.
And as for Ukraine’s 30 years of post-Soviet independence, recognized by the United Nations and every country in the world, including Russia? Well, it’s all an illusion, a bad dream. Putin argued that Russians and Ukrainians constituted “one people”—part of whom had been led astray by false consciousness: “From the very first steps they [the Ukrainians] began to build their statehood on the denial of everything that unites us. They tried to distort the consciousness, the historical memory of millions of people, entire generations living in Ukraine.”
Who was to blame for this deception? “Extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis,” according to Putin, announcing the goal of “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.” Through the wildly tendentious equation of contemporary Ukrainian nationalism with Nazism, Putin evoked the most sacred, unifying moment in the history of the Soviet Union—the defeat of Germany’s horrific WWII invasion. He then threw in the language of humanitarian intervention, but in a way that Hitler himself would have recognized, vowing to bring “to justice those who committed numerous, bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.”
The Fat Hits the Fire: Collapse of the Russian Blitzkrieg
Russia’s claims to be acting to protect the Ukrainian people ran into two insuperable obstacles. First, the Ukrainians wanted nothing to do with Russia’s proffered salvation. Instead of finding a welcoming population, or even internal divisions to exploit, the Russian invaders were met with fierce, unified, and unyielding resistance. Ambitious plans to quickly occupy Kyiv and other cities, and to replace the Ukrainian government with pliable puppets, were thwarted, and then crushed.
Second, Russia’s response to this development could hardly have been less calculated to win Ukrainian hearts and minds. Unable to win by dash and maneuver, they resorted to bludgeoning Ukrainian cities with indiscriminate firepower and raping, looting, and massacring their way across the countryside. Instead of recognizing that the entire premise of the campaign was flawed, and that it was destroying whatever fraternal feelings remained between the two peoples, the Russians doubled down. What if it was not just the Ukrainian government that opposed Russia, but the Ukrainian people as well? Well, then the Ukrainian people would simply have to be “de-Nazified” as well—and if that didn’t work, replaced. Russian state media began to feature commentators calling for decades of military occupation, the flattening of Ukrainian cities, deportation and re-education of civilians—a whole panoply of measures that can rightfully be characterized as a program of genocide, and which show every sign of being put into practice.
Most of the world has reacted to this program with horror. Public opinion polling shows strong support for Ukraine across the globe, with rare exceptions. Dozens of countries, including most of the world’s leading economies, have imposed sanctions on Russia and its leaders and oligarchs, while providing financial and military aid to Ukraine. International institutions have reflected this consensus. While Russia’s veto blocked action in the United Nations Security Council, the General Assembly condemned the Russian invasion by a vote of 141 to 5 (with 35 abstentions), and later voted to remove Russia from the UN’s Human Rights Council. The Council of Europe, which administers the European Convention on Human Rights, expelled Russia from the membership it had held since 1996. Even the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague—not previously known for its speedy or effective responses to crises—managed to issue a preliminary ruling rejecting Russian claims against Ukraine and calling for Russia to suspend military operations. It’s safe to say that the invasion has brought Russia’s international reputation to an all-time low since it became an independent state in 1991.
That’s not how it has been perceived in Russia, however. Although public opinion polling in an authoritarian regime should be taken with a generous serving of salt, Russians appear to be rallying around the flag—and around the Kremlin’s underlying narrative. That resulting support may be soft, it may be conditional, and it may not last forever. But so far it seems real. It’s not simply a matter of censorship, though that is a factor. Russian public opinion has been prepared by decades of relentless anti-Ukrainian propaganda, layered onto a culture that, even at its best, has a deeply chauvinistic tendency, particularly towards its neighbors. The propaganda is effective not because government sources are trusted, but because all sources of information have been discredited, leading to an information environment in which “nothing is true and everything is possible” (a phrase that the journalist Peter Pomerantsev adapted from Hannah Arendt). Accordingly, stories about Russian atrocities are effortlessly recast as (you guessed it) staged incidents and false-flag attacks. Russia’s military disasters are not evidence that Putin underestimated Ukraine, but rather that he was a sage to perceive it as a threat.
Russian state media’s escalating rhetoric is thus extraordinarily dangerous—and not only because of the atrocities it continues to inspire. A wide gap has opened between the objectives Moscow can realistically still achieve and the expectations it has raised with the Russian people. Military setbacks have forced Putin to abandon (at least temporarily) his goal of occupying Kyiv and ousting the Zelensky government. Putin is now struggling to save face by making gains in southeastern Ukraine that he can leverage into some kind of declaration of victory. In essence, this would represent a return to the “limited” goals in Donetsk and Luhansk some foreign commentators mistakenly thought were Putin’s true objectives before the war. But instead of moderating Moscow’s course, each military defeat appears to further radicalize Russian state media (and with it, Russian public opinion) toward acceptance of still more gruesome actions in Ukraine if needed to avoid a humiliating defeat.
The Perils of Eating Your Own Dog Food
Even if Russia can wrest more territory from Ukraine in the short term, it is difficult to foresee an end to the war it has started. At some point, Putin will likely offer a ceasefire, with the aim of locking some gains in place before his armies are completely exhausted. But as long as Ukraine can successfully defend its independence and continues to receive support from abroad, it has no reason to permanently cede territory to Russia in exchange for what would seem like a fragile peace with a murderous and insatiable enemy. On the other hand, even in the best-case military scenario—where Ukraine succeeds in pushing the Russians back as far as the pre-February 24 lines—it is difficult to imagine the current regime in Moscow making a peace that truly accepts Ukraine’s independence and chosen orientation toward the West. The Russians have invested too much in demonizing the Ukrainian people to hit the reset button now. So, tragically, the war is likely to grind on for some time.
What can one say about a propaganda campaign that fails to persuade its targets, but nevertheless mesmerizes its own advocates? It’s not a success, but it can’t exactly be called a failure yet, either. Putin’s case for war disgusted the world, but so far the Russian people have found it all too palatable. Until they sour on it, they will continue to dish it out.