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"You can see what happens when the armed forces become separated from ethics"

Professor Behrends, let’s start by briefly looking back to the beginning of the Ukraine war. At the time, many were surprised not only by the Russian attack, but by the level of brutality in the conduct of the war. Did you feel the same way?

First of all, it is always horrifying to see such images, and of course you wish that something like that would not happen. But from a professional point of view, I have to say that it didn’t surprise me, having studied the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya in some detail in recent years – including Russian war conduct and questions of military violence. I see very strong continuities in the use of force against civilians, and in the failure by Soviet and later Russian forces to follow the rules of the international law of war – especially since the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The “wiping out” of entire cities like Mariupol is similar to the actions in Syria since 2015 or even in the Chechen capital Grozny from 1999 onwards.

Let’s move on to the reasons. One possible explanation is that this is simply about spreading fear and terror. What is your view on that?

It is partly about terror, I think, especially when you actually want to subjugate and subdue the population in an occupation situation. They did a similar thing in Chechnya. But the brutality and war crimes in general also stem from a lack of professionalism in the Russian army. For some of the lower ranks, the international law of war is not even part of their training, which means there is also ignorance. Of course this does not excuse what is happening, but it does perhaps explain it to some extent.

Furthermore, we can also observe an escalation of violence especially when the Russian army is under pressure – i.e. when the enemy is fighting particularly successfully, as in Chechnya or toward the end of the Afghanistan war.

This unprofessionalism was also evident in the troops’ apparent frustration at the poor conduct of operations and unexpected resistance.

Apparently, at the beginning of the war, you had a paradoxical situation where even the Russian troops weren’t being told what Russia’s plans were. Keeping them in the dark like that no doubt produced insecurity, which can flip into aggression. By and large, this has to do with the fact that the Russian leadership did not call this war a war. It has been termed a “special military operation” – the course of which, incidentally was imagined quite differently. If your own troops suffer very high losses, there will be a desire for revenge. This is also true of other wars and conflicts.

Plus there has been a lack of medical care and logistical support …

… and plenty of corruption. Of course the Russian army is generally a mirror of Russian society and of phenomena that we can describe there, such as violence in social relationships, including domestic violence; but also the use of public goods for private purposes, to put it in very broad terms. If our information is correct, then just a few days before the invasion, for example, the troops were still selling diesel on to the local population, and didn’t have enough for their own trucks and tanks.

But why is this the case? Isn’t there a risk of essentializing if we say “the Russians” or Russian society is that way? Or is violence simply a means that people use to cope with everyday life?

I would say that every society can change; the best example of this is Ukraine, which took the path to civilization, so to speak, after the end of the Soviet Union. Russia also tried to follow this path, for a few years, but then it was deliberately abandoned by its leadership. In recent decades, especially under Putin, a strong remilitarization and also legitimization of violence in social relationships can be observed. This has gone so far that domestic violence is no longer always punishable in Russia. Of course these are signals that are sent to society. This has little to do with essentialization; rather, it is a culture that is becoming more entrenched, in which the rules of civility are not only not being enforced, they are being broken.

Does the display of machismo all the way up to the highest levels of leadership also play a role in this?

Yes, but not only the cult of masculinity around Putin and others. There is also the war cult around May 9. It is no longer about commemorating those who died in World War II; now it is about mobilizing society for war and desensitizing the population to the victims of war. In other words, even this holiday has acquired a new meaning under Putin, to the point of glorifying war, violence and victory. Signals like this feed into these phenomena of increasing brutalization.

So this means that violence is not only sanctioned, it is actually desired?

In principle, violence is an everyday resource that we all have at our disposal. But we also know from research on violence that it is especially likely to be used when it is not punished, or when it is even rewarded. The units that committed war crimes in Bucha, north of Kiev, were decorated in the Kremlin a few weeks later. In other words, the act of violence, the violation of borders, ultimately also violence against civilians, rape, murder and so on, is followed in the end by the reward. That is – and let’s be clear about this – the criminal pattern that we observe here. We know this from the Second World War, for example: If soldiers or other armed units are basically encouraged to act in this way, then that is what will happen.

Regarding conditions in the military, there is the well-known quote by the Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin who called the Russian army a “school of slaves”.

It is well known that new recruits to the army are terrorized by those who have been there for some time, they have to do menial work, they are humiliated … this so-called dedovshchina is part of the culture in the Russian armed forces.

And then this finds expression in the conduct of war against others?

To some extent, yes, but on the other hand it is also reflected in the fact that their fighting capacity may be pretty limited and they are more interested in taking another washing machine from the next Ukrainian village than winning the war. This army, like many other institutions of the Russian state, is a deeply dysfunctional institution.

Why can’t the military and political leadership in Russia see that this will ultimately have the opposite effect, i.e. it will boost the will to fight that has been there since the beginning in Ukraine? They seem to have no ability to change strategy at all.

I think firstly there is an information deficit in the Russian leadership, which is quite typical for dictatorships. Nobody dares tell the boss what’s really going on. Apart from that, the people in Putin’s circle – all of whom are now aged between 65 and 75 – have a very stable Soviet world view, dating back to the Brezhnev era. They think of Ukraine as an integral part of Russia. The fact that a lot has changed in Kiev since 1991 and that Ukraine has always had its own identity simply does not fit. If you read Putin’s essays on this subject, which he published last year, the paradox becomes quite clear.

Despite the evident brutality, Ukraine does not seem to be responding with similar violence. Do you have an explanation for this?

To be honest we don’t know everything that is happening on the Ukrainian side either. But it is very significant, in my view, that the Ukrainians themselves want this difference. They want to fight like a NATO army and not like a Soviet army. Seeing themselves as part of the West and gaining legitimacy to join the European Union or NATO – that definitely has an influence on how they fight this war as well. Moreover, since the 2014 attack this army has increasingly turned away from the Soviet model and become professionalized by the many NATO advisors, but also through its own efforts.

Can ethical considerations and also ethical education help to curb excessive military violence?

In this war, you can see what happens when the armed forces become separated from ethics, as has happened in Russia. These are phenomena that, unfortunately, are all too familiar to us from European history. One can only keep urging that the effort to regulate and contain war should not be given up. Violence can always be unleashed, including by states – and modern states have an enormous potential for violence. When this potential is put to use, it can lead to situations like the one in Mariupol, which turned genocidal. In some circumstances, we have the opportunity to prosecute those responsible and hold them accountable. Even if this is not always successful, these methods are important and right.

In view of all the outrage about the war atrocities and the feelings that surface as a result, is it important to communicate that ethical considerations don’t put you at a disadvantage?

Absolutely. Even though Ukraine has imposed more “constraints” on itself, if you like, than Russia has, Ukraine’s fighting strength is evidently much greater. Brutality is not the same thing as the successful achievement of military objectives; it is precisely not the indiscriminate use of force that counts. It is simply not professional to fire shells into apartment blocks – that is nothing for a soldier to be proud of.

Professor Behrends, thank you very much for the interview!

Questions by Rüdiger Frank. The interview was conducted on 12 September 2022.

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Prof. Dr. Jan Claas Behrends studied history, literary studies, and philosophy at Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the University of Wisconsin, and Moscow's Lomonosov University. In 2005, he received his doctorate from the University of Potsdam. After holding positions at the Center for Contemporary History Potsdam, the Berlin Social Science Center, and the University of Chicago, he has held the professorship "Dictatorship and Democracy. Germany and Eastern Europe from 1914 to the Present" at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder since 2022.