No world leader has successfully fought alone against a united world

Nurturing connections, support and understanding across borders should always be a priority for civilized societies, but in the face of the horror unleashed by Putin, it is also an act of resistance. And will be key to his defeat.

Putin and his soldiers have no respect for the international rules of war and are trying to destroy Ukraine and the spirit of its people with a deliberate and targeted campaign of atrocities against civilians.  At the John Smith Trust we are holding space for our Fellows across the region to connect and share perspectives on the war, as we each play our part in working towards peace and protecting democracy. It is something to which we all can and must contribute.

Here, one of our Russian Fellows shares their thoughts on the war and the things that we can do to stay connected and to help Ukraine. For obvious reasons, we are protecting their identity.

A Russian Fellow’s perspective on the war in Ukraine

“Although the battles over Ukrainian cities are getting fiercer, the tactical operation is already lost at this point. The fast blitzkrieg tactics have not succeeded. And atrocities carried out by the Russian army have forged a Ukrainian statehood – even pro-Russian politicians and civilians are now united in their desire for a Ukrainian nation.

Within days of Putin’s attack, it became clear that the world is standing with Ukraine. And historically there was no world leader who succeeded in fighting alone against the whole world. But Ukrainians are paying a heavy price in their determination to defend themselves and their sovereignty. The conservative count of losses since the war first started in 2014 up until 25 February 2022 is around 13 thousand people, with around a further 2,100 civilian casualties since the more extensive invasion in February, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCR). And UNOHCR believes that the actual figures are considerably higher. Either way, this is more than Russia lost in the two Chechen wars and close to the figures of the ten-year invasion of Afghanistan in the early 80s. As for Russian casualties since invading Ukraine this year, the numbers are even harder to corroborate, but on 24 March NATO estimated between 7,000-15,000 deaths.

In the 21st century, war runs fast. Within two weeks of military operations beginning we saw the progress from Russian offensive and attempt to lay siege to Kyiv, to the counter attack of the Ukrainian army and global sanctions against Russia. It took just a few weeks to ruin the Russian economy.

How Zelenksy’s leadership threatened Putin

Although president Zelensky was originally brought to power on electorate expectations to de-politicise routine life and normalise relations with Russians, for Putin his model of leadership was a threat. A comedian without any political upbringing, successfully forging non-voting electorate to support him, making his agenda viral – Zelensky is the opposite to the empire oriented, fear based, patriarchal model of power Putin has pursued for decades.

The “small victorious war” has been a trap for many Russian tsars in our past and Putin is doomed to follow their path. The last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, waged the Russia-Japan war in 1904 to curb the rising civic unrest inside the Russian Empire and its loss paved the way to Russian involvement in the first world war, which was followed by the socialist revolution in 1917. Putin is very much aware of it. And researchers here in Russia all agree that his primary goal was to assure the issue of political transit in 2024 when his presidential term expires, through mobilisation of the right-wing electorate. Strategically, this is about the idea of uniting the nation and satellites in hard times around a leader.

But with the war in Ukraine failing to go according to Putin’s plan, we see a war inside Russia also intensifying, with the campaign to identify and punish “dissidents”, new laws pursuing “foreign agents”, the shutdown of independent press and bloggers and criminalising even use of the word “war” in news reporting.

How the West can help Ukraine now

The West must increase its support for Ukrainian fighters with more modern military equipment. And more must be done to help set up protected corridors for civilians to escape and to provide humanitarian aid for those who don’t want to or can’t leave.

Right now, there are a number of Ukrainian politicians ready to provide infrastructure to receive and disseminate aid. It was logistics at the time of the 2014 Maidan Revolution which made CEO of Roshen Pyotr Poroshenko the president of Ukraine. Distribution of aid will become the strongest political issue in post-war Ukraine.

And we need to encourage leaders of public opinion to voice their support for Ukraine – just as John Smith Trust Fellow and Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko did with her call for President Joe Biden and Prime minister Boris Johnson to visit Ukraine and see the atrocities for themselves. Besides the obvious impact to strengthen Ukraine’s resistance this also gives tremendous support to war protesters in Russia. Conformity is a key feature of Russian psychology – they prefer to be in the majority, and opinion leaders can play a key role.

Supporting Russian protesters and independent media

Russian anti-war protesters can be imprisoned for up to 15 years. I have testimonies from 18-year-olds telling how they were nearly raped by police for taking part in peace protests. Like Ukrainians, they are also the hostages of Putin. And you can get three years for publishing “fake stories” which includes simply using the word “war”.

Right now we need to be fighting government propaganda in Russia by setting up mechanisms for proliferating the facts about the war in Ukraine. We should support and fund independent media and bloggers, and help create information networks and groups. But Europe is stopping visas for Russians which makes it impossible to safeguard agents of change – top bloggers, independent journalists, and opposition leaders. Soon it will be impossible to escape Russia.

We need a strategy to help safeguard these Russians who are likely to become agents of change and help curb the regime. We must set up advocacy for them and legal support. The sanctions will start moving Russians out of their comfort zone amid the strengthening of the police regime inside of Russia. Civic unrest will be a powerful incentive for Putin to stop the war.

Russian responsibility and planning for after the war

Ilya Krasilschik, the former publisher of Medusa (the largest non-governmental Russian news outlet) recently wrote an article in the New York Times outlining why we Russians – even those of us who have opposed Putin – need to take responsibility for this war.  And it’s true, that though many of us tried, we failed to stop Putin.

It is clear however, that Putin’s regime will eventually fall – and we need to have new leadership capable of picking up the power when it goes down. We need to start thinking about a post-Putin era now and ensure we don’t make the same mistakes again. We need to set up leadership programmes to work with the new generation of leaders.

I’ve seen how the John Smith Trust can bring together Fellows from different countries of the former Soviet Union and facilitate discussions and foster connections with people who sometimes have very different points of view. I hope the Trust will play a key role in promoting alternative scenarios for post-Soviet states and help define a post-Putin Western Europe. But that’s more than just politics and economy – we should understand how to make inevitable the psychological transit to overcome dependence on authoritarian and patriarchal mindsets. We should eradicate military competition as even a possibility of success in a 21st century world. That’s a big task, but unless it’s done the boomerang will keep returning.”