June 26, 2024

A War Against Falsehood and Fear

A leg-amputee Ukrainian serviceman, patient of the Unbroken National Rehabilitation Centre, attends a session at a shooting range in the city of Lviv on April 26, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A leg-amputee Ukrainian serviceman, patient of the Unbroken National Rehabilitation Centre, attends a session at a shooting range in the city of Lviv on April 26, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Myths that are tenaciously held produce realities of their own. If they are to be discredited, they need to be combatted, and those who combat them, kinetically as well as rhetorically, must possess their own sense of reality and purpose.

Despite the fact that Ukraine’s morale has been severely battered in recent months, reality brooks little argument, and collective purpose continues to withstand the tests of privation, slaughter and the erosion of confidence in others.

This, unfortunately cannot be said of those who only recently promised to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” From the start, those who made this promise hedged it with reservations and self-imposed constraints (e.g., Joe Biden, New York Times, 31 May 2022, “What America Will and Will Not Do in Ukraine”). Today, their policies are contested by internal opponents who, without equivocation, have long argued that this promise never should have been made in the first place. Those, like this author, who argued that the West should support Ukraine “by all means short of war,” have never won the argument, either in 2014 or in 2022.

In the view of the USSR’s leading authority on military cunning (and its last Chief of the General Staff), Army General VN Lobov, “all war is based on deception.” Under Vladimir Putin, this cornerstone of Soviet wisdom has enjoyed a resurgence, not least in relations with the West, which the state intellectual, Dmitri Trenin, characterised in May 2022 as “total war, so far hybrid.” In April 2024, one of Germany’s most senior diplomats described the “sophistication and impact” of Russian disinformation and influence operations in Europe as unprecedented.[1] To this stock, one must add the entire inventory of measures encompassed by information war: intimidation, crime, sabotage, and all other actions designed to force the adversary “to make decisions in the interest of the opposing party.”[2]

This said, the paramount feature of Russia’s war against Ukraine is the relentless effort to destroy Ukrainian statehood, even if this means destroying the country itself. To this end, long-standing priorities — notably energy pre-eminence in Europe and privileged ties with Germany — have been sacrificed. Their place has been occupied not by a vacuum but a fundamental reorientation to “the majority of humanity” interested, inter alia, in “strengthening Russia’s positions on the international scene.”[3] In Trenin’s words:

“Russia has ended its long and tiresome efforts to adapt to the US-led world order […] For the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution, albeit in a very different way from then, the country has de facto become a revolutionary power.”[4]

Tellingly in a document that is not shy of naming names, Russia’s latest Concept of Foreign Policy (2023) mentions Ukraine only once — and in connection with the West’s policy, not Russia’s. In the section on the “Near Abroad,” it is not mentioned at all, in contrast to Belarus, which is. The message is simple: Ukraine is not foreign policy. When Putin speaks of those who “betray their civilisation” (Valdai Club 2023), he is speaking of Ukrainians as much as Russians. In his seminal article of July 2021, Putin compared Ukraine’s “coercive change of identity” to the “employment against us of a weapon of mass destruction.”[5]

Russian Mythology

Russia’s policy, foreign and other, is underpinned by greater and lesser mythologies that combine to produce an alternative reality, reminiscent of the darkest years of the Cold War. As this veteran of ten Valdai Club meetings can affirm, this alternative reality was immersive even in less threatening times, and it required mental discipline and deep memory to find antidotes to it. It is yet more immersive to Russian citizens who live with it on a daily basis, and this includes those who are lured or coerced into military service. The looming imperative of war is one reason why, from 2020 onwards, these mythologies acquired an increasingly Manichean form. But another reason is the lasting imperative of preserving power and tightening the mechanisms of exercising it.[6] At home, the absolutism, if not crudity of these myths, the eradication of shading and nuance, is not a deficiency, but a part of their purpose: to eliminate debate from the public space, if not the dinner table and the mind. It marks a rite of passage from authoritarianism to totalitarianism and, pace Trenin, from an elite composed of a “cosmopolitan group of self-serving individuals” to “a more traditional coterie of privileged servants of the state.”

The principal myths (authorised beliefs) that underpin Russian policy today are the following:

  • Russia is a distinctive civilisation, with a coherence, integrity, and dynamic of its own. Metrics, standards and values that originate elsewhere cannot be applied to it;
  • Ukraine is an organic part of this civilisation and part of a historical unity. This is a long-standing orthodoxy, first given doctrinal substance by Tsarist advisers in the nineteenth century;
  • The attempt of Ukrainian ‘nationalists’ and ‘Nazis’ to rupture this unity and transform Ukraine into an ‘Anti-Russia’ is not a homegrown phenomenon but the product of an aggressive Western policy pursued (pace Putin) by heirs of ‘Austrian-Polish ideologists’ who sought since Mediaeval times to create an ‘anti-Muscovite Rus.’
  • Ukraine has become a state hospitable to neo-Prussian militarism and Naziism. In the words of former President Medvedev, Ukraine “has mentally transformed itself into the Third Reich and is destined to suffer its fate”.[7]
  • Russia’s victory in the Second World War has demonstrated for all time that it cannot be dismembered, defeated or deprived of its independent and determinant role in world affairs.

Underpinning these myths is a contentious and unpalatable truth: those who sit at the apex of power in Russia not only propagate them but believe in them.

Western Myths and Fallacies

From a Western perspective, the distinction matters. Myths and dogmas do not dissolve on contact with facts. Fallacies and misconceptions are usually more responsive to evidence. From a Russian perspective, the distinction is largely irrelevant. Russia, in the words of Putin’s former counsellor, Vladislav Surkov, is “messing with your mind,” and myths and misconceptions are simply raw material for exploitation. Minds are open to exploitation, particularly by an adversary who understands that the signature weakness of liberal democracy is doubt.

The nativist conviction that NATO drains resources from the defence of US national interests does not axiomatically spring from Russophile sentiment. The credo of America First makes all relationships with foreign countries transactional and implicitly antagonistic. The Kremlin will do everything to strengthen these sentiments. NATO institutionalises the presence and power of the United States in Europe, granting it an extra-territorial dimension that Russia not only resents but regards as the most enduring obstacle to its own template of European security. NATO’s opponents might not love Russia, but Russia loves them.

Well beyond nativist and nationalistic circles, a number of perceptions have proved particularly resistant to revision. All of them show inattentiveness to history and fact. Notably:

  • Ukraine is a flawed state, divided between Russophiles and ‘nationalists.’ How many European states are not divided: the United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy, Spain? The latter are home to authentic separatist parties and movements. Yet in Ukraine, the only persistent separatist sentiment has resided in Crimea (which was never under Russian jurisdiction before the rule of Catherine the Great, and whose pre-war population was not overwhelmingly but 58 percent Russian by ethnicity). Even there, support for joining Russia was only 42 percent in 2013. In other eastern oblasts, it did not exceed 27 percent. Were Ukraine a basket case as widely alleged, it surely would have collapsed within weeks of the start of the 2014 war. Yet before Russia threw its battlegroups into the conflict at the end of that year, Ukraine’s armed forces had regained control of 23 of the 36 districts seized by the ‘separatists’.[8]
  • The cause of the war was NATO enlargement. To the contrary, it lay in Ukraine’s refusal to accept Russia’s requirements of ‘good neighbourliness’ and Russia’s inability short of war to rectify this. “These two nations are branches of the same tree,” Gorbachev informed George H.W. Bush in October 1991; “no one will be able to tear them apart.” From the moment the Russian Federation recognised Ukraine’s independence as a legal fact, it set out to be the arbiter of what independence meant and how it was to be pursued. After the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Ukraine’s accession to NATO was a dead letter, yet even its own adoption of non-bloc status in 2010 increased Russian pressure to synchronise its development with its neighbour. In July 2021, Putin himself focused his apocalyptic warnings on Ukraine’s “coercive change of identity,” not NATO. On the eve of the 2022 invasion, a collegium of Russian military officers saw no external threats to “vital interests […] NATO force groupings are not being built up, and there is no threatening activity.”[9]
  • Russia cannot be defeated. In absolute terms, this is a doctrine rather than a truth. But with respect to the present war, it is a fallacy. So is the underestimation of Russia. Following its battlefield disasters in 2022, it has done what it does best: adapt, learn from failure, and turn its demonic energy to mobilisation, not only of armed forces, but the economy and the collective psychology. But characteristically, this effort has been accompanied by shoddiness, waste, venality, and malfeasance at all levels. Russia’s force superiorities are considerable, but its forces are poorly trained and badly led. Its incremental territorial advances are unrelenting, but it has not demonstrated the ability to employ forces at an operational scale or sustain momentum. It is ramping up defence and security spending by 38 percent, but so far, to surprisingly limited effect. As András Racz has recently noted, limitless Russian resources is a myth: “This is the full weight of Russia.” If Ukraine can successfully wage defensive operations in 2024, the trend lines are likely to reverse in 2025.
  • The only solution lies in a negotiated settlement. Why? The record of negotiation thus far offers miserable precedents. The West’s performance during the Minsk process provides no basis to suppose it will react swiftly and sharply if the exercise is repeated. Before signing any fresh agreement, Russia will exact a weighty price. Even a limited relief of sanctions will stimulate fresh circumventions by those who have circumvented them before, not to say newcomers, threatening whatever coherence remains of the sanctions regime. Territorial compromise will be even more dangerous. As the Baltic governments understood after 1940, Ukraine would be better off abandoning territory than agreeing to abandon it.

Fear and its Companions

The restoration of “fear in geopolitics,” has secured handsome dividends for Russia, allowing it to impose its own rules and deter the West.[10] In February 2021, President Biden declared that “the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions are over.” Only two months later, in response to an abrasive Russian warning, he declared, “it is time to de-escalate” and cancelled a lawful freedom of navigation operation in the Black Sea. Fear works. It has imposed damaging delays and constraints on the supply of weapons urgently needed for the prosecution of the war. As Sir Lawrence Freedman has noted, these constraints were set not only by Russian red lines but “presumed Russian red lines.”[11]

Yet the effects of fear of escalating tensions with Russia are arguably wider. A year-long joint investigation by The Insider, 60 Minutes and Der Spiegel, now taken up by the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, raises worrying questions about US government knowledge (and apparent white-washing) of a pattern of non-lethal acoustic weapons attacks (aka Havana Syndrome) on over one hundred US government employees abroad. Documentary evidence now confirms earlier indications that these attacks were carried out by GRU Unit 29155, descendent of the KGB Department of Special Tasks. The Unit, “infamous within the US intelligence community” and global in scope, is “responsible for conducting lethal operations and acts of sabotage.” Their mission, according to one senior retired CIA officer, “is to find, fix, and finish.” According to The Insider:

“Of all the cases examined […] the most well-documented involve US intelligence and diplomatic personnel with subject matter expertise in Russia or operational experience in countries such as Georgia and Ukraine.”


“multiple CIA officers who had worked cheek-by-jowl with HUR [Ukrainian military intelligence] a decade or so ago were affected by Havana Syndrome later in their careers.”[12]

Should these attacks be conclusively tied to Russia, they might be viewed by Congress and the American people as prima facie acts of war. Many victims of these attacks believe as much and suspect that this is reason enough for US government reticence.


Avoiding escalation is not only a pillar of US policy. It has become a reflex. That baleful fact should not obstruct recognition that within its self-imposed constraints, the Biden administration has provided indispensable support to Ukraine. As the adamant refusal of Chancellor Scholz to supply Taurus missiles to Ukraine demonstrates, fears of escalation are not confined to the United States. Within its own constraints, Germany’s support to Ukraine is impressive in itself.

With regard to the US, the six-month Congressional blockage of the US Supplemental, appears to have been a jolt to the system. In February, the Administration secretly agreed to supply the long-range version of the ATACMS missiles that it hitherto withheld. According to US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Russia’s increased attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and its employment of North Korean missiles means that these systems are no longer considered escalatory. Yet this decision only alters the parameters of what remains a reactive policy, consistent with not losing, but not consistent with winning. Ukrainians can plainly see that not losing is a form of dying. One is left asking when this truth will become plain to everybody else.

This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference special issue of ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

[1] Sam Jones, ‘Russian disinformation on Ukraine has grown in scale and skill, warns Berlin’, Financial Times, 1 April 2024

[2] ‘Conceptual Views Regarding the Activities of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in the Information Space’ [Kontseptual’nye vzglyady na deyatel’nost’ Vooruzhennykh Sil Rossiyskoy Federatsii v informatsionnom prostranstve], RF Ministry of Defence, 2011, p 5.

[3]The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation’, 31 March 2023

[4] ‘Dmitry Trenin: Russia is undergoing a new, invisible revolution’, Russian International Affairs Council, 3 April 2004

[5] President of Russia, “Article by Vladimir Putin ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’,” Kremlin.ru, 12 July 2021

[6] James Sherr and Igor Gretskiy, ‘Why Russia Went to War: A Three-Dimensional Perspective’, ICDS, 30 January 2023

[7] Maria Domanska, ‘Medvedev escalates anti-Ukrainian rhetoric’, Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), Warsaw, 5 April 2022

[8] For a fuller discussion, see James Sherr, ‘A War of Narratives and Arms’ in The Russia Challenge, Chatham House, June 2015

[9] Sherr and Gretskiy, op.cit., p 13.

[10] Dmitry Trenin, ‘Restore Fear!’ [Vernite Strakh!], Russia in Global Affairs, 26 February 2022

[11] Lawrence Freedman, ‘Escalations, Red Lines, Risks, and the Russo-Ukrainian War’, 18 April 2024

[12] Roman Dobrokhotov, Christo Grozev, Michael Weiss, ‘Unraveling Havana Syndrome: New evidence links the GRU’s assassination Unit 29155 to mysterious attacks on U.S. officials and their families’, The Insider, 1 April 2024

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