April 22, 2022 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

Putin’s cronyism in Russia produced war crimes in Ukraine

To look tough back home, soldiers are murdering civilians.


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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is now more than two months old. At first, the Russian army seemed poised to blitz the nation’s capital. But then its convoy stalled out, for long stretches of time, enough time for the rest of the world to realize that Moscow’s war machine is terrible at war.

It was funny at first. 

Not anymore. 

Russia’s incompetence has meant its military had to take positions from which its artillery could flatten whole cities. When one of the world’s largest armies can’t defeat a band of roughneck holdouts, there’s only thing it can do to save face back home: murder civilians.

To get us up to speed on a war restructuring the liberal international order, I reconnected with Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a PhD student and presidential fellow in the Department of History at Penn. She’s now the go-to authority for US media trying to understand this war.

“Testing an ICBM is a way for Putin to adjust the narrative, so we’re not talking about all the ways in which the Russian military has underperformed. It’s the second or third largest military in the world, yet look at how it’s performed against Ukraine’s little military.” 

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon

“You harm civilians to make yourself look strong,” she told me. “At the same time, you’re creating a population that’s going to hate you even more. In Ukraine, it’s hard to get people to hate Russians even more. 

“That’s what the invasion has done. 

“It’s unified Ukraine.” 

Do you think NATO’s position on a no-fly zone is right?

I think it’s the right position for NATO and the United States. It doesn’t bind their hands to maintain a no-fly zone, which would mean active NATO engagement with Russian airplanes. But also I think establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine would lend credence to the argument that this war is about NATO expansion – when we all know that it isn’t.

Do you agree with those who say that if the US and NATO established a no-fly zone, it would be a sign of direct conflict with Russia?

I don’t think it would be a sign of direct conflict with Russia, but I think it puts us in a position in which we have to be willing to have direct engagement. If a Russian plane is shot down, that’s direct engagement. What will NATO be willing to do? What will the US be willing to do? 

I also think about how Russia would react. 

You have to understand that before you have a no-fly zone.

What kind of reaction would there be?

This is the question, right? 

Putin is not crazy. He’s not an irrational actor. Avoiding direct conflict with NATO is key to understanding how Russia does what it does in Ukraine, but also how Russia has engaged with Ukraine since 2014. 

Putin does not want direct engagement with NATO, because Russia cannot win. Putin understands that. If there were direct engagement, I think Russia would find an off-ramp relatively quickly. Russia cannot defeat NATO. Its military doesn’t have the training and skill needed. 

We can think broadly about the saber-rattling, the threats to Finland and Sweden after joining NATO. But what would the consequences be?

Putin’s not willing to say what they would be.

No. The idea that Putin is mystical – “We’ll never understand him – that’s a narrative beneficial to Putin, not western intelligence.

Going back to the saber rattling, they tested an intercontinental ballistic missile yesterday. That seems to be a pretty good and sizable saber to rattle. What do you read into that? Why did he do that?

I’m trying to figure out the most diplomatic way of putting this.

Please don’t.

You’re testing an ICBM. OK. But that doesn’t distract us from the fact that the Moskva is at the bottom of the Black Sea. It doesn’t distract us from the fact that high-ranking Russian military generals have been captured or that Russia has had to scale back its total invasion. 

This is a way for Putin to adjust the narrative, so we’re not talking about all the ways in which the Russian military has underperformed. It’s the second or third largest military in the world, yet look at how it’s performed against Ukraine’s little military. 

It was a successful test, but who exactly is he threatening?

It’s a demonstration of strength for people back home.


Foreign Affairs had never been my purview until Russia’s involvement in American politics and its invasion of a struggling democracy. I don’t know anything about anything military. Even so, it seems to me Russia’s awful. It’s so bad it’s just shelling cities. 

There’s been an interesting conversation happening since about 2017 about the functioning of the Russian military. Russia’s strength is not in the military. It’s in the security services, Putin’s henchmen. 

The military is kept weak on purpose. If the military is weak, underpaid and underserved, it can’t engage in a coup against Putin. 

Most of the Russian military is recruits. They are very young. Most come from poor places. They can’t pay to get out of service. These are kids who don’t know what they’re doing. They’re not battle-tested. 

So you have a very young military, a very poor military and you have a military that has been permanently weakened over 20 years. 

This is what happens when you have cronyism that uses military spending. It’s getting siphoned off to support the security services and the oligarchs. The performance of the military isn’t shocking, though.

Now that they brought in General Aleksandr Dvornikov, the Butcher of Aleppo, I think that’s a signal of the kind of tempo and atrocities against civilians that we have to expect in the Battle of Donbass. 

When you start attacking civilians, what does that mean? 

It means you’re not being effective militarily, as you expected. So you harm civilians to make yourself look strong. At the same time, you’re creating a population that’s going to hate you even more. In Ukraine, it’s very hard to get people to hate Russians even more. 

That’s what the invasion has done. It’s unified Ukraine. The war unified Ukraine in ways that we could not have imagined in January 2022.

I wanted to move on to the question of sanctions. Some believe applying them is a way of punishing Russia for the invasion. It seems to me Putin is weathering them pretty well. Others say sanctions are a deterrent used to keep countries like China, especially China, from doing what Russia is doing. If Putin can weather sanctions well enough, anyone can. So what are we doing with sanctions?

With sanctions, it was too-little-too-late. Putin has squirreled away over $600 billion for the past 10 years in preparation for any sanctions that would prevent the Russian economy from trudging along. 

But it’s also laughable to talk about how sanctions are hurting Russia when Europe has still been spending $235 million a day on Russian oil and gas. How effective can sanctions be? Europe has to deal with this.

But this isn’t new. This should have been expected. People warned that dependence on Russian oil and gas means in a situation where Russia is being belligerent – ie, now or in Syria – you can’t respond fully because now your domestic politics are tied into international politics. 

That’s exactly what we’re seeing right now.

I did a piece a while back about United States tax law. It’s very friendly to criminal oligarchs to hide their money in real estate and other assets. I see talk of cutting off Russian oil here in the United States, but nobody’s talking about changing the US tax code. 

Russia is hyper-capitalist. When capitalism was introduced in 1991, it learned quickly the benefits of capitalism. That’s where the oligarchs come from. The oligarchs have taken advantage of every tax loophole. 

Now their money is embedded in so many of our government functions – economic growth – we can’t sanction too many things because it’s going to do harm, too. The war is showing us just how perverse capitalism is right now. It’s the only way I can describe it.

The rot is deep. It’s so deep as to be invisible to normal people. What do we do? What has been done in history to take care of corruption?

Every time people try changing the tax code, people act like defending billionaires is somehow going to help normal people – the middle class or lower-middle class – like it helps you financially in some way. 

We have a perverse understanding of economic exploitation. 

When you look at the American tax code, but also Britain’s, you see the ways in which oligarchs have used loopholes to hide their money in real estate. If you close those loopholes, it’s not just going to hurt Russian oligarchs. It’s going to hurt American oligarchs and British oligarchs. 

People think of oligarchs as a post-Soviet phenomenon. 

They’re not.

I’ve heard reports, unverified reports, of the kidnapping of Ukrainian children and bringing them to Russia. What are the facts?

The Russian state media has talked about Ukrainian kids who “don’t know their native language,” meaning Russian, or “don’t know Russian well enough.” It’s Putin’s logic: Ukrainians are Russians who don’t know they’re Russian or who have denied they’re Russian. So I believe it. 

There are reports of American fundamentalist groups going to Ukraine and adopting Ukrainian children. This sheds light on the greater problem of human trafficking, but also child endangerment in war.

I totally believe those reports, because even the Russian state media is talking about it. “Oh, these poor Ukrainian orphans, they’re Russian, they just don’t know. Look at what Ukraine has done, how perverse.”

When people talk about negotiating an end to this war, what does that mean for these children? I think that’s really terrifying. Whole cities in Ukraine have been flattened. Official records are gone. There might not be any way of tracking these children or accounting for them.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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