Why Putin Can’t Tap Fascism’s Greatest Resource
The Italian Empire had some 56 million people in the 1930s, compared to modern Russia’s 140 million, but Mussolini’s 20,000 Blackshirt assault troops quickly grew to 115,000 in 1935-36 for the Ethiopian campaign, wrote Pier Paolo Battistelli and Piero Crociani in “Italian Blackshirt 1935-1945. There was no shortage of volunteers.
Germany, with a population of around 85 million, saw the Waffen SS, the Nazi Party’s own army, grow from a peak of 28,000 to 150,000 in the first year of World War II. world, wrote George Stein in “The Waffen SS: Hitler’s Elite Guard at War, 1939-1945”, despite the still extreme selectivity of SS troops at the time.
Both in Germany and in Italy, the professional military were jealous of the troops of the party of the dictators, who signed up voluntarily for terms of service much longer than those decreed for ordinary soldiers. Both Hitler and Mussolini had to compromise, limiting the number of combat-ready Waffen SS and blackshirts and placing them under regular military commanders in the field. But even the regular troops – at least in Germany – were steeped in Nazi ideology. There is ample evidence of the ideologically motivated atrocities of Wehrmacht soldiers, even though its conscripts may not have been members of the Nazi Party.
Putin can only dream of the number of volunteers that the fascist regimes of the 20th century could muster. Months into the war, the combined strength of volunteer battalions trained in Russian regions barely numbered in the tens of thousands, and it was hard to tell whether many volunteers were motivated by patriotism in the sense that Putin or the Russian far right understand. this. On the contrary, the main attraction of the battalions for able-bodied men was the promise of salaries they could not count on in their home regions. The message that the Wagner Group’s private military company conveys in its advertisements is of a testosterone-fueled romantic adventure as an alternative to boring factory work – but its real promise is also a high, reliable income. Even the prisoners Wagner recruits to flesh out his private army are offered a substantial sum of money in addition to a pardon after six months on the front lines.
It could be said that the Russians did not join Putin’s war in numbers similar to Nazi Germany simply because they feared for their lives, or because they heard stories about the lack of equipment and command of the Russian army, or simply because Russia does not appear to be winning. But one could also argue that a strong ideological motivation could push these concerns to the background. The ever-growing Waffen SS was an all-volunteer force until 1942. Belief in the superiority of the German Volk and the “Aryan race”, and thus in their eventual victory, prevailed for many months after Hitler’s armies had ceased to be unbeatable.
Russians don’t believe in anything like that, and they don’t hate Ukrainians either. In August 2022, the Levada Center, one of the last pollsters still trying to get objective results in Russia, reported that 68% of Russians had a positive opinion of Ukrainians – up from 83% in October 2021, but still an overwhelming majority , especially given the realities of an oppressive regime. Many respondents would be hesitant to tell a pollster — who could be a secret police official or some other type of informant — that they like the people the Russian military has been fighting for seven months.
Attitudes towards Ukraine as a state had been mostly negative long before the war: only 34% of Russians were sympathetic towards it in February 2019, according to Levada, and that percentage had fallen to 23% by August 2022. This, however, is hardly a solid basis for genocide: a Russian soldier, after all, must shoot real Ukrainians, not an abstract state or government.
The affinity for money has been the only real ideology of the Russian regime throughout Putin’s reign. According to the latest wave of the World Values Survey, a plurality of Russians – 48.8%, compared to 37.9% in the supposedly more materialistic United States – see economic growth as the most important goal of the country. Russians learned to be self-sufficient in the 1990s when the paternalistic Soviet state collapsed, and they reveled in that self-sufficiency as the country’s economy was gradually restored. “Everyone for themselves” has been the nation’s unofficial motto, first a refrain for survival, then a recipe for well-being. So when the regime needed something resembling nationalist and imperialist revival a la Mussolini or Hitler, the regime found it difficult to offer its volunteers anything more compelling than money.
Russian ultranationalists are aware of the dearth of killer ideas and hard-hitting stories. Philosopher Alexander Dugin, whose daughter recently died in a terrorist attack that Russian authorities blame on a Ukrainian woman, wrote in an article on the nationalist website Tsargrad.tv:
Russia is in a state of ideological war. The values championed by the globalist West – LGBT, the legalization of perversions and drugs, the fusion of man and machine, the pervasive intermingling caused by uncontrolled migration – are inextricably linked to its military and political hegemony and to the unipolar system. Western liberalism and the global military, political and economic domination of the United States and NATO are one. Fighting the West and at the same time accepting (even if partially) its values, in the name of which it is waging war on us, a war of extermination, is simply absurd. Our own full-fledged ideology is not just welfare. If we don’t develop it, we will lose.
There is nothing here that Putin would dispute. A few days before the publication of Dugin’s article, he signed a “concept of humanitarian policy” which claims that Russia is in a “battle for cultural supremacy” against the West.
The difficulty in selling a kind of post-fascist pseudo-conservative ideology to the Russians is twofold. First, propagandists need to get people to internalize the idea that the current war is not really against Ukrainians (who, remember, more than two-thirds of Russians actually like) but against the United States and Russia. NATO, which supply their weapons to the Ukrainians. This narrative is already being spread on state TV channels and pro-Kremlin Telegram to explain recent Russian setbacks. The flaw, however, is that there are no NATO boots on the ground – and the other support Ukraine receives was predictable before the invasion, so the decision to invade despite it seems less and less defensible. Both Putin and Dugin said Russia had no choice but to go to war. Yet neither has convincingly explained why some sort of preemptive strike against a clearly stronger adversary – and not just the presumed weaker Ukraine – makes practical sense.
Even if the Russians accept this narrative, however, the survivor and individualist in them will no doubt wonder why it makes sense to die in this war. Is banning gay marriages or marijuana worth the ultimate sacrifice? Would I take a bullet to prevent the “merger of man and machine”? Do I care so much about global migration? None of the “traditionalist” ideas that Dugin and Putin would have Russians defend with their lives are as powerful as the evil constructs that 20th century fascist leaders were so good at instilling in their nations. Neither has the charisma to keep people from asking the most basic practical questions: “Why is this supposed to be a matter of life and death for me?” And, more importantly, Putin did not achieve the momentum of military victories that made Mussolini’s and Hitler’s rhetoric much more appealing than it should have been.
At this point in the conflict, any ideological overhaul on the fly looks and feels like an attempt to justify defeats. Putin missed his chance to become an ideological and populist leader years ago – when he was still winning.
It is also worth remembering that, for all their superior populist skill and strong connections with millions of their compatriots, neither Hitler nor Mussolini ended up ruling the world – or even successfully defending Germany’s place and of Italy in this one. As the less capable Führer, Putin stands to do at least as badly for Russia.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Frustrated and snubbed, Putin is running out of options: Clara Ferreira Marques
War in Ukraine shows US military not ready for war with China: Hal Brands
• Punishing the Russians will not end the war in Ukraine: Ian Buruma
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky, former Europe columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team. He recently published Russian translations of “1984” by George Orwell and “The Trial” by Franz Kafka.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion