Western media has laid out Russia’s gains, losses, and future prospects based on their performance on the battlefield. And while losing a war is a solid indication of a nation’s foreign policy potential (or lack thereof), the media has turned a blind eye to what Russia also loses in the long run: Legacy.
In May 1945, the world witnessed the end of World War II in Europe, with the US, UK, and Soviet Union leading the Allies to victory. Much like the United States, the Soviets (particularly Russia) shaped a lot of its image and foreign policy foundation off of their experience during “The Great Patriotic War.” Preserving that image would be central to notions Soviet glory and strength.
Why is that though? Well, at that time, the Soviet Union had emerged alongside the United States as one of the preeminent world powers. A new type of great power competition emerged; one between two giants — not colonial empires with altering allegiances.
That great power competition was the Cold War, and it really redefined the ways in which nations could engage one another. Afraid of nuclear catastrophe and another World War, the US and USSR engaged in what we now simply call “competing.”
Competing exists on the plane between true, perpetual peace and total war, much like what World War II was. The question that shaped policy during the Cold War was essentially “how can I best my enemy without spurring a kinetic conflict?”
You need to understand that for the Soviet Union, perpetually shaping the image of Soviet might and communism as the superior ideology was not just a passion; it was an existential baseline. Survival of the USSR meant upholding such perceptions, true or not (spoiler alert: it wasn’t).
And so, new ways of pursuing superiority emerged: the Berlin airlift, the Berlin Wall, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Race. The US and USSR entered into a realm of gray zone competition, and within the tyrannical, closed society of the Soviet Union, Moscow was playing its long game. The Soviets relied on a tool that they had mastered during the days of Bolshevism; propaganda.
Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets sought to improve their image behind the Iron Curtain. And if their image couldn’t be improved, their story of might and struggle could.
All across Eastern Europe, Moscow raised hundreds of monuments — big and small — in commemoration of Soviet sacrifice during WWII. As the Cold War waged on, the Soviets erected other monuments that commemorated Soviet greatness (or at least grandiosity).
Monuments are a bid at generating passive buy-in, patriotism, and passion from your populace. In the Soviet Union’s case, especially early on, the greatness of the USSR was ever present in the WWII generation. Triumph over the West, however, would be where the future’s heroes would be made. And so, such sentiments remained within Soviet borders.
Now today with the USSR long gone, whatever legacy remained is also fading. And with that legacy fading, so too is any hope for Putin’s vision for Russia. All across the former Soviet Bloc, monuments have been struck down, removed, and vandalized.
Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine — all of these places and others have engaged in such historical revision. And with it, any hope Putin had for a pan-Slavic movement, a new Russian Empire, or a revitalized USSR have all faded because of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.
It is an important facet of foreign policy to understand. Media tends to focus on whatever can be sensationalized, but true empires form policy that will pay off in generations, not in a handful of years. It is a big deal to wake up in your city, and suddenly the memorial your grandparents saw erected is gone. Is it right? I don’t know. Recognizing such complexity is necessary when we begin to look at policy for after the war.
So while you are fixed on the notion that Russia is made or broken by its actions on the battlefield, remember that it has also lost that already bloody, dark “legacy” it was riding on.