The Ukraine war has become an existential crisis for Russia. Its senior leadership now appears to be talking in apocalyptic terms about the risk of Russia’s very survival, and to be on a messianic mission of which Ukraine is only part of the picture. The Kremlin’s framing sees Russia not only pitted against the West, but acting as the vanguard and protector of a collective civilization under attack, through the retelling of historical memory that casts Russia as the aggressor. The current situation is no longer about which parts of Ukrainian territory Russia is willing to cede, but a fundamental reimagining of Russian national identity.

More moderate forces within the Kremlin have lost the tussle over state narratives to the hardliners – beyond the hawkish views on Ukraine that have become de rigueur, important members of Russia’s senior leadership are now talking in terms of the destruction of Russia. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that the West has declared ‘total war’, not just on Russia but on the ‘entire Russian world’. Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Security Council, declared that the war is an attempt by the West to influence Russia’s spiritual and moral values, with the aim of containing and ultimately destroying Russia. In this narrative, Russia was forced to take action, otherwise its very existence (sushestvovaniye) would be under threat. For him, the war is a symptom of a much wider conflict with the West that began years before. In his view, the US’s aim is to weaken Russia, and Ukraine is a vehicle to do this. Among his list of grievances, Patrushev maintained that Russia had been forced to give up not just its sovereignty and independent foreign policy, but more fundamentally what he referred to as its ‘self-consciousness’ (samosoznaniye). This idea of samosoznaniye is part of a long-standing academic debate about Russia’s awareness of itself as a socio-cultural community and its place in the world, as it tries to contend with its civilizational identity.

All of these statements seem to be grappling somehow with the idea of Russianness. In Patrushev’s framing, Russia’s self-consciousness, and the very idea of what it means to be Russian, is under attack. The cross that Russia must bear is not only ensuring Russia’s survival, but taking on the yoke of responsibility for the fate of the entire world. If the collective Russian political community views itself in these apocalyptic terms, this has serious implications, not only for the course of the Ukraine war, but for any political engagement with Russia.

First, these statements somewhat account for Russia’s insistence on framing the Ukraine war as a battle against Nazism. It is hard to believe that the Kremlin truly thinks that Nazis in the traditional sense control Ukraine, or that the far right poses a pressing security challenge. But the Nazi trope plays a useful role in embodying what Russia sees as a challenge to its samosoznaniye.

Kremlin narratives about the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War are uncritical, mythologized by the authorities. They have become an identifying feature of Russia’s foreign and domestic policy, based mostly around the Soviet Union’s heavy losses and military greatness, with 9 May – Victory Day – touted as a public holiday in service of this military acknowledgment. Through its commemorative events, marches and other forms of soft power, Russia has encouraged a recasting of its role in the war, promoting a selective view of the world.

In the Ukraine war, Russia has taken this reframing of the Second World War one step further, and cast the memory of Nazism as a justification for invasion, with Ukraine as the catalyst of what Russia sees as a civilizational clash with the West, which is waging war on the historical truth and values of Russia’s sovereignty.

These frictions have been present for a long time. Russia’s National Security Strategy (NSS), updated in 2021 from the previous version in 2015, laid the framework for this burgeoning conflict with the West, showcasing a new priority: defending Russian ‘traditional values’. The NSS indicated that Russia’s cultural and historical memory were front and center of the Kremlin’s security concerns, framed as being under attack from Westernization. It also highlighted the importance of historical memory, expressing concerns that the West was seeking to achieve geopolitical goals by casting Russia as the aggressor through retellings of history, manipulating people’s ‘consciousness’ (soznaniye). History is an inextricable part of Russian national identity and for the Kremlin, attacking Russia’s version of it constitutes an attack on all Russia.

There are real-world implications for a senior leadership that holds – or says it holds – these views.

First, it suggests that Russia is in for the long haul in Ukraine. There is little evidence Russia would be content with the territory it has already taken over. It also suggests that punitive measures alone such as sanctions are unlikely to be sufficient to alter Russia’s behavior. Demonstrably, Russia’s understanding of calculated risk has changed – the Kremlin viewed the situation as worth going to war over, even at the risk of severing relations with the West. This raises currently unanswerable questions about how to approach Russia, if the country views itself as fighting for its very existence, in a parallel but invisible civilizational war that the West is unable to fathom.

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