If George W. Bush had a second chance to look into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and see his soul, I would be curious to know if it were in any way saddled by guilt. My guess is that it would not be. This afternoon, Putin again hinted at the prospect of nuclear war with the West while surrounded by a covey of smiling Aeroflot stewardesses.

Again, projecting the unburdened man.

Many years ago, I was coaching one of Russia’s opposition leaders on political communication and told him something I thought was wise: Voters are always motivated by one of three things: fear, greed or guilt. He looked at me mischievously and asked me, “What’s guilt?” Russians, he told me, are not moved by guilt.

Today I scan the Facebook pages of my many Russian friends, a few of whom are posting the word “Shame.” On balance, my friends are pro-Western intellectuals, so that’s a limited sample to be sure. The Russians who live in Russia, even if they are ashamed of their government’s unprovoked war on their historically linked neighbor Ukraine, are afraid to say so.

This past week, the Kremlin shut down both Ekho Moskvy, a long-standing independent radio channel, and TV Dozsht, another outlet for Russians who question their president or his war on Ukraine. Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper run by recent Nobel Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, has come under similar pressure from a regime now quashing the remaining free media it once allowed only for optics.

Even in the face of this tightening autocracy, some Russians still believe getting beaten up and thrown in jail is a more meaningful form of protest than posting on social media, and there they are probably right. Putin’s best-known critic, Alexey Navalny, sits in prison on an absurd conviction for trying to save his own life.

When it comes to owning up to the sins of the past, Russians are woefully under-prepared. I watched in David Satter’s documentary Age of Delirium a beautiful description of a man who had been wrongly institutionalized in a psych ward for attempting to flee the Soviet Union, and returned to the hospital years after the dissolution of our old foe. He confronted the nurse who had force-fed him various pills, and she denied having done so. When she did, her face became a grim, blank slate.

Her reaction was fascinating. It was beautiful only because it was honest and real, qualities the communist regime brutally suppressed. Survivors of Soviet tyranny learned to practice cognitive dissonance and pretend the evil around them was not happening to them. For people now evacuating their homes and communities in Ukraine, similar disassociation helps them survive.

Now, as before, the memory of the Russian citizen is under attack. Last year, the Kremlin shut down the Russian nonprofit Memorial, a cataloguing effort to remember the crimes of the past. It served as a sort of volunteer conscience for a nation in sore need of one. The group was called a “foreign agent” because of its contacts outside Russia.

One convenient deflection for Russians pressed with the question of guilt is to fall back on the martyr complex that comes with their brand of Orthodox Christianity. When NATO bombed the Serbs (rightfully, I’d argue) in the ’90s, Russians commiserated with them as kindred Slavs being mistreated by a cruel West. “What about-isms” now help them distract from the question of their guilt. Just look what America did to Iraq!

Amazingly, the Russian state will use this mentality to justify their aggression against Ukraine. Already, their state-run media dutifully reports that brave Russians are liberating Ukraine from anti-Semites and fascists. (Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish.) Russian-speaking people in Ukraine are being martyred by lovers of the West, and perhaps even witches.

Even if only the least educated Russians believe this false narrative, it is still useful to Putin. It’s a moral foil, and the one he is using to explain his campaign against Ukraine. It helps transfer their anger to the decadent West and the outside world for the pain of new sanctions. Putin’s blustery talk about sanctions being an act of war reflects someone losing their grip – even Saddam never said that. After all, it was public resentment at the West for “humiliating” them in the ’90s that did motivate Russians into electing Putin three times.

Putin’s ominous referencing of nukes has got many wondering whether we pushed him too far. Global opinion has brand him a criminal, which is a little worse than the James Bond villain rap he had before. Right now, he is behaving in a way a Russian who negotiated with the Chechen terrorists holding a Moscow theater hostage described them then as “drunk with power.”

Unplagued by the concept of guilt, Putin will nonetheless one day pay for what he’s doing to Ukraine. What about Russians in general? No one has been held really accountable for Stalin’s murder by starvation of four million Ukrainians and 15 million other Soviets. But in the ’80s, the Soviet war on Afghanistan backfired and led to an irrecoverable retreat.

Even if Russians consciously resist guilt, consequences will catch up with them. It will be worse than just always being cast as the bad guys in film. Ordinary Russians have been less tortured than Raskolnikov about their guilt until now, but something tells me that’s about to change. Americans who hated Trump were not quiet about it. Now Russians who hate what their president has done are going to have to decide whether they really matter at all.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.