A constant war waged in the name of peace and running in the background. This is what the Russian ruling class needs to preserve itself in power, especially if its involvement only amounts to air strikes—some precise, some less so.
The television series named “War” must keep on changing in space and time. In recent years, we have had the accession of Crimea, seized as per the example of Catherine the Great, without a shot being fired. Next came the hybrid war in Donetsk and Luhansk, expanding the zone of quasi-state formations around Russia’s perimeter. Now we have Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, which is nostalgically Cold-War-like in spirit.
Soon, I believe the Kremlin’s official historians will prove that all of the wars that Russia has waged, whether openly or covertly, have been three things: righteous, fought in self-defense and preventative in nature.
Seen in this way, the favored slogan of successive Soviet and Russian generations, “Anything but war,” does not sound so paradoxical. By this logic, even the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland (1939-1940) was a “preventative” one. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already argued as much at a meeting with military historians, in flagrant disregard of that war’s disgraceful nature, senselessness, horrific casualties, and ultimate failure.
The goal of maintaining power requires that the show must go on, like a triumphal victory banquet. Once set in motion with Crimea, Donbass, or Syria, the machine cannot stop. There are rational motives: the need to deflect attention away from the economic crisis onto victorious air strikes, to sustain a wave of patriotism and presidential approval ratings at current levels through at least 2018. But there is also the irrational self-perpetuating cycle of mass military hysteria.
It is worth noting that intervention in a conflict in a Muslim country does not instill in the Russian authorities a fear of retaliatory domestic terrorist acts. No terrorist attack in post-Soviet history has ever affected the ruling elite, at least not physically. The most defenseless members of society—hospital patients, children, parents—have paid the price. And the moral trauma of tragedies such as the hostage seizures in Budyonnovsk in 1995, in Moscow in 2002 or in Beslan in 2004 can be healed quickly with the remedies of silence and oblivion.
Efforts to make sense of tragedies like these are drowned in an endless white noise of information. Moreover, the history of the Putin era shows that a terrorist act can serve as an excuse to tighten the screws under the guise of “anti-extremism” and “security.” This is precisely the excuse spin doctors and government ideologists need as they plan parliamentary and presidential election campaigns.
So, Russia will keep on finding new enemies and new targets. Next, it may send attack bombers to Afghanistan, or increase its military contingent in the Arctic. The exercise keeps the military-patriotic spirit of the Russian people in good working order without their ever stepping away from their TV screens.
The key is for war to become the default, the ever-present hum, a simple but always-inspiring tune in a noisy cacophony of information. It is the background that will allow Russians to choose and be chosen—and I am not referring to the Bible but to the next elections.
This article originally appeared in Russian in Vedomosti.