The evil within: a Wagner tank on the streets of Rostov-on-Don this June. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Russia’s evil is being turned back on itself

By starting the war in Ukraine, Putin triggered a feedback loop of political nemesis. Every action he takes now contributes to his own destruction
July 19, 2023

Before launching his ill-fated mutiny, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian warlord, said: “The evil embodied by the [Russian] military leadership must be stopped.” Since he failed to stop it, we are left to guess who will. The Ukrainian Armed Forces play the leading role in this undertaking, and the Ukrainian people make huge sacrifices. Besides their courage and determination, however, there is another factor at play: evil’s ultimate self-destruction. Things are not just falling out of the hands of the Russian leadership; time after time, they are turning into the opposite of what these rulers had declared and intended. Driven by fears and errors, the actions of the Russian leaders work against their stated goals and ambitions. This is nemesis, which is as fundamental for politics as mimesis is for the arts.

In February 2014, Vladimir Putin started the Russo-Ukrainian war by invading the Crimean peninsula. He said he wished to save the people there “from the drum roller of nationalism”. In fact, the invasion rolled out all kinds of militant nationalism, a drummer unheard-of since the 1930s.

By annexing Crimea, the Russian government promised its dwellers an economic boom with sweeping growth of incomes—500 per cent growth in seven years. In fact, real salaries in Crimea have barely increased since occupation, and three-quarters of the regional budget now consists of subsidies from Moscow. Life in Crimea depends on a major canal coming from the Dnipro River, which has historically supplied the peninsula with 85 per cent of its water. Since Russian troops destroyed the Kakhovka dam on 6th June this year, this canal has dried out.

When Putin annexed Crimea, he stated his desire to create “the Russian Mecca” there: in his personal version of history, Russian statehood had started in Crimea, and he imagined huge crowds of new pilgrims travelling to the region. In fact, the tourist industry has plummeted. Nine million people used to visit Crimea each year (five times its own population), mostly for its beaches. Before the invasion, visiting Ukrainian Crimea as a Russian tourist was cheap and easy. No visas were needed and the border barely existed. Now, aeroplanes no longer fly, railways have other things to carry and, if a loyalist tries to come by car, military searches on the Crimean Bridge will stop them for five hours or more. Every year since 2014, Russian tourism to Crimea falls by about a third. Still, there remain those who wish to spend their vacations on the occupied land.

Do we care about those bigots? Not very much, but they illustrate the key issue. Simply put, there are two kinds of evil: smart and stupid. They are usually mixed, but there is a difference. A smart evil could be stopped only from the outside. A stupid evil destroys itself by making multiple errors that bring it to failure. But such nemetic self-destruction takes time. Many suffer in the process. The outside forces should play on the mistakes of evildoers, amplifying them. The work of nemesis is difficult to predict and sometimes even to explain. But there is hope in it. If evil’s force is overwhelming, this is the only hope. 

Also in 2014, Putin ordered his troops to spread Russian operations to the vast areas of Donbas on the eastern Ukrainian mainland. To justify this new invasion, he alleged that the Ukrainians had committed genocide, eliminating the Russian population and its culture in the region. These fabricated allegations had no legal consequences. In 2022, Russian troops started another invasion and committed multiple crimes in the areas they occupied near Kyiv. The British prime minister at the time, Boris Johnson, said that these crimes fit the definition of a deliberate massacre “not far short of genocide”. Human Rights Watch said Russian forces had shown “contempt and disregard for civilian life and the most fundamental principles of the laws of war”. Putin was accused of organising an illegal deportation of children; an arrest warrant was issued for him. When they committed their despicable acts in Bucha and Mariupol, the Russian soldiers had no idea that they had materialised those very claims of genocide that their leader had earlier directed at the enemy. This is nemesis: an action that is redirected from its object back to its actor. Mourning the victims, we hope that Putin and other criminals will get what they deserve. Nemesis gives hope, but only justice provides a resolution.

In nemesis, the evildoer creates exactly what he fears, only bigger and more horrifyingly than he could ever have imagined.

The Russo-Ukrainian War bursts with examples of political nemesis. Putin was so afraid of Nato that he ended up bringing it to the gates of his hometown of St Petersburg. Finland joined Nato because of Putin’s war and Sweden has since followed. With their accession, Nato will be much closer to Russia’s vital centres than it would have been if (and this is a big if) Ukraine had succeeded in joining the alliance.

The same tale of nemesis unfolded with the gas pipelines. Putin wanted Russian gas to bypass Ukraine so much that, with Germany’s cooperation, he built two hugely expensive pipelines under the Baltic Sea. In September 2022, somebody—maybe the Russians, maybe their enemies—blew up these pipelines. In the meantime, Russian gas keeps flowing through Ukraine, which has only recently announced that it will stop this flow next year. Having reportedly spent between $2bn and $20bn since 2022 on Prigozhin’s activities, the Russian leadership watched as his armed paramilitaries left the front and marched across the unprotected provinces of central Russia. Largely consisting of convicted criminals, these troops were determined to take Moscow by force. Their aborted mutiny laid a precedent for future evildoers. 

Putin and his people were very concerned about the status of the Russian culture and language in Ukraine, Europe and the world. As a result of the war, many Ukrainians who spoke native Russian have switched to Ukrainian. In Russia and abroad, Russian cultural figures—both allies and opponents of Putin—have been deprived of their jobs and audiences. Concerts have been cancelled, exhibitions suspended and projects put on hold. Russian culture has never been so unpopular, and the Russian nation has never been so detested.

Extremely conservative, Putin and his followers worry about the influence of what they see as the LGBT-infested and drug-addicted European culture on the purportedly more moral, Orthodox Russia. In fact, through the conflict, Russia will have created for itself a large number of military veterans—several hundreds of thousands—who will have endured severe trauma and numerous addictions, having both experienced and perpetrated horrors. From Prigozhin, we have learned what these soldiers think about their superiors. There is no plan to get these men sophisticated treatment, retraining and resettling programs, akin to the American GI Bill that supported the education of returning veterans. Former Russian fighters will play havoc in the few places where they can get money and excitement, in Moscow and other big cities.

The biggest fear of Russian leaders is dismantling their country, the Russian Federation, into its constituent parts. They know how it happens—they saw it when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. They are so afraid of this disintegration that they call their political party, which has been ruling since 2001, “United Russia”. But they recruit their soldiers mostly from the Russian peripheries, giving another boost to these regions’ traditional hatred towards Moscow. To stop Prigozhin, the Kremlin sent a Chechen private military company—clearly, they trust it more than the Russian troops. Like an overheated melting pot, the Federation is about to implode. We do not know what will emerge from its ruins, but it will be something deeply foreign to the current structures of Moscow’s power.

All this would not have occurred if Russia had not started its war. The country has a long history of violence, exploitation and imperialism; but rarely, if ever, have things looked as irrational and ugly as in the current war. If Putin did not start his war in 2014, Russians would not be committing genocide on Ukrainians. Finland and Sweden would be neutral countries. Russian gas would have continued to flow through Ukrainian pipes for another decade. Prigozhin would be managing military canteens, gold mines and troll factories; many of his soldiers would be completing their terms in penal colonies. Russian culture would be engaged in dialogues and debates with its Ukrainian and other peers. Trading in oil, weapons and culture, Moscow would hold its power over its exploited provinces. But in nemesis, the evildoer creates exactly what he fears, only bigger and more horrifying than he could ever have imagined.

Nemesis is different from revenge and far from justice. They both require external agency, but in nemesis the evildoer destroys itself in the very process of making evil. It is a loop where action is directed against its actor. It grows out of fear and greed—fear of the Other and greed of its agency. In attempting to deprive all other actors of their agency, the evildoer turns the whole action against himself. 

As he tries and fails to grasp that agency, he meets resistance and revenge. Coming from others—victims, survivors or descendants—this revenge restrains evil, but also creates a vicious circle of violence, directed back onto the evildoer. Heroic resistance facilitates the nemetic effects of self-destruction. Together, they pave the way for what happens next. Only justice stops the proliferation of evil, and its time will come.