The budget for the next three years (2024-26), which Vladimir Putin signed Monday, increases defense spending for 2024 by almost 70%. Industries related to the war have seen spectacular growth. But that will be difficult to sustain without a fall in living standards, and any reduction in military spending would lead to a massive structural shock.
In an interview on Rossiya-1 television, Mr. Putin said that 99.9% of Russians would be willing to sacrifice their lives for the country. In a televised message to schoolchildren on Sept. 1, the first day of school, Mr. Putin said that he “understood why we won the Great Patriotic War,” as Russia calls World War II. “It is impossible to defeat such a people with such an attitude. We were absolutely invincible and still are.”
The death toll is rising, but Russia is celebrating. The once-insignificant budget for “military patriotic education” has been dramatically expanded and is being used for constant patriotic meetings in schools and stadiums. On Sept. 30, Putin announced a new holiday, the “Day of Unification,” to mark the 2022 annexation of the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizha regions of Ukraine. Russians celebrate flag day on Aug. 22 and the Day of National Unity on Nov. 4, which marks the previously ignored liberation of Russia from the Poles in 1604. It was celebrated this year for several days in major cities.
Inflation has taken a toll, but Russians are accustomed to growing food and bottling it for the winter. At the same time, the war has created new opportunities. The pay for soldiers in Ukraine is 195,000 rubles a month, or about $2,100, nearly 14 times the median salary in the poorest regions of Russia. When a soldier is killed, his family receives a payment of some $55,000, a fortune by Russian standards.
Historian Sergei Chernyshov describes what he saw when he visited the small city where his parents live: “Tens of thousands of soldiers did not return from the front, but hundreds of thousands returned, and with so many millions of rubles that they previously could not have imagined it. In the villages of Russia, there are constant funerals, but there is a sense of taking part in something great—defeating Nazism in Ukraine and finally settling the score with gays, Jews, and the collective West.”
In one year, the Wagner mercenary group recruited 49,000 prisoners to fight in Ukraine. The late Yevgeny Prigozhin, the group’s leader, told prisoners, “We need your criminal talents,” and said that he preferred convicts who had committed more than one murder. The recruits were used in human-wave attacks, but the survivors returned as heroes to the communities they previously terrorized. According to the BBC Russian Service, former Wagner fighters are suspects in at least 20 serious offenses committed since their return, including rape and murder. The real number is probably much higher because many crimes aren’t recorded.
History, meanwhile, is being rewritten. Russia is depicted as a besieged fortress, defending not only itself but all of civilization. New high-school textbooks claim that Russian forces entering Ukraine found evidence of the mass murder of civilians, that the U.S. and other Western countries are using Ukraine as a “clenched fist” aimed at Russia, and that the West is fixated on destabilizing Russia.
Military instruction in the schools is being introduced as early as kindergarten. The training includes teaching children to kill “enemies” using weapons. Morning rituals in elementary schools include patriotic talks by soldiers who have returned from the front and the unveiling of memorial plaques for those who were killed.
At the same time, reminders of Russia’s real history are being eliminated. Since May, dozens of plaques marking the last residences of persons who died in Stalin’s purges in the 1930s have disappeared, and at least 18 monuments to victims of Soviet repression have been reported stolen or vandalized. In the town of Velikiye Luki, the private Russian Knight Foundation inaugurated a 26-foot-high statue of Stalin and argues on its website that the monument is crucial in that Russia is fighting a “real patriotic war.”
The transformation of Russia into a military machine presages future conflict in the event of a peace agreement with Ukraine. Moscow won’t honor any agreement. In 1997 Russia signed a peace treaty with Chechnya. Two years later, four apartment buildings were blown up in Russian cities and Russia launched a new invasion of Chechnya. All evidence shows that the buildings were blown up not by Chechens but by the Russian Federal Security Service as part of an operation to bring Mr. Putin to power.
Perhaps more important, Russia is looking for any sign that the West will shrink from defending its principles. In this respect, references in Congress to an unwillingness to support a “forever war” are not only disgraceful but dangerous.
In a television show marking the Day of Unification, propagandist Sergei Mardan said that the annexation of Ukrainian regions was the start of Russia’s journey to restoring its empire. He said that Russia had lost its purpose after the fall of the Soviet Union but had been reborn with the war in Ukraine. That, he said, is “something wonderful, something frightening.”
Russia’s position in the world is defined by the personal interests of its rulers. Under wartime conditions, they have made national fanaticism the key to their hold on power. A Russian victory would reinforce a war psychology that has gripped the population and can’t be abandoned without the leaders themselves being threatened. Allowed to win in Ukraine, they would defend their positions by looking for new conquests, creating a massive and long-term security threat for the West.
Mr. Satter is the author of “Never Speak to Strangers and Other Writing from Russia and the Soviet Union.” A second volume is scheduled for release in February.