There’s an old saying that “war is the health of the state.” Though it was coined by an anti-war leftist during World War I, it has since taken on a certain currency among libertarians. And there is a lot of truth to it.
Historically, war has served as a ready excuse for bigger government spending, more debt, and more economic controls, all in the name of supporting the war effort. Even worse are the cultural effects. Private citizens have been conscripted and made to live under the regimented unity of military or paramilitary organizations. Above all, civil liberties have been curtailed and criticism of the government has been treated as tantamount to treason.
I can’t help pointing out that in America, this best describes the wartime administrations of the two great heroes of the “progressive” left—Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. War is a lot healthier for the state when the commander-in-chief is already looking for an excuse to expand government power.
But while this is used as a slogan by anti-interventionists, it’s worth observing which state is thriving most during the current crisis in Ukraine: the Putin regime in Russia.
War is definitely the health of Putin’s state.
We’ve been focused on Putin’s ambitions abroad, his attempt to reconstitute a neo-Soviet sphere of influence anchored by the Eurasian Union. But his invasion of Ukraine has given Putin an opportunity to reshape the Russian state at home. He had been slowly moving his country toward authoritarian dictatorship, with only the show and outward forms of representative government, and this crisis has allowed him to go the rest of the way.
Following his previous appeals to a narrow traditionalist conservatism—bashing gays and courting the Russian Orthodox establishment—Putin’s appeal to a jingoistic Russian nationalism has been widely popular.
It’s become something of a mantra in Moscow to say that Russians are so pleased with the way their macho leader is “standing up to the West” and “defending compatriots abroad” that they are prepared “to forgive him everything”—from widespread poverty to endemic corruption and police brutality.
To be sure, some Russians don’t approve and a brave core of the opposition has rallied against the war. And much of Putin’s support is artificially maintained by his use of state-controlled media to shut out all contrary views. Consider the upside-down reporting in the Russian press on a deadly pro-Russian riot in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Bystanders and Western reporters recorded video that clearly shows pro-Russian protesters attacking a pro-Ukraine rally and viciously beating the Ukrainians, one of whom died. Yet the incident was reported in the Russian media as an attack by the Ukrainian protesters against the Russians. We are back to the “black is white” propaganda of the Soviet era.
Here is how Putin has used the Ukraine crisis as a way to consolidate his dictatorship.
First, he has shut down the last significant vestiges of a free press. The last non-Kremlin controlled television news channel, Dozhd, has been squeezed out of business, and the editor-in-chief of one of the last independent news websites was replaced with a Kremlin loyalist.
Second, he has shut down the last of his independent political opponents, like Alexei Navalny, who is under house arrest, and Garry Kasparov, whose website has been blocked in Russia along with Navalny’s and several others.
He has consolidated a state-backed cultural elite, on the old Soviet model of “writer’s congresses” and the like, who have been deployed to issue approving statements in favor of Putin.
He has narrowed the leadership in the Kremlin to a core of former KGB men, cutting out the “technocrats” who favored greater integration with the West.
Putin has been cutting his economy off from the West, which sanctions will accelerate. This makes Russia’s “oligarchs,” its clique of politically connected billionaires, more dependent on Putin than on trade with Europe or the U.S.
War, it seems, is healthier for some states than others. And that is very relevant for the question of why we should care about Ukraine and whether American interests are at stake.
To the extent Putin succeeds in bringing Ukraine under the Russian boot, and to the extent the Western response is weak, appeasing, and ineffectual, it supports Putin’s image at home as the shirtless manly-man nationalist hero. Which, in turn, helps him consolidate his dictatorship. But having built his dictatorship on the basis of jingoistic nationalism, he will need to prop it up, from time to time, with further military adventures and foreign policy brinksmanship. So we get a whole new Cold War to deal with.
To the extent that we thwart Putin in Ukraine—humiliate him, even, as I have suggested—we suck the wind out of his attempt to re-establish Russian dictatorship. If nothing succeeds like success, nothing fails like failure. So we have a strong interest in Putin’s failure and good reasons to help bring it about.