This was a creative framework given that President Vladimir Putin himself prefers to justify Russia’s aggression with a more isolated rhetoric. He has said that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, while Kremlin propaganda, especially the poisonous TV talk shows, promotes the idea that those who support the country’s genuine independence from Russia are a bunch of Nazis.
But whether it’s Biden’s war “or Putin’s, the Russians have rallied around the flag, and it’s most likely because the Kremlin has made them see the war as an existential choice: either you win it or you want your life. be destroyed. .
The Russians do not hear the truth about Putin’s war. The CIA can help.
The available evidence shows significant support for the war, as well as an increase in patriotism. According to the Levada Center, a respected independent pollster, the number of Russians who believed the country was moving in the right direction rose from 52 percent before the invasion to 69 percent after, and Putin’s personal approval rose to as much as 83 percent. But these numbers come with a big caveat. New legislation makes “discrediting the armed forces” a crime that can be punished with up to 15 years in prison, and it can include all sorts of things, including calling the war a war – circumstances that cast doubt on whether the polls are representative or the answers truthful. As an experiment staged by researchers at the London School of Economics showed, support for war drops by 15 percentage points when people are encouraged to have their say.
Regardless of the true level of support, it is clear that the Russians are not necessarily buying Putin’s justification for the invasion. In a joint project with the Ukrainian pollster KIIS, the Levada Center has for years asked the Russians what kind of relations they envisioned between their country and Ukraine. In a poll conducted in December, only 18 percent of Russians said they wanted the two countries to become one, while 51 percent said they wanted Russia and Ukraine to be independent countries with an open border, and 24 percent said they wanted independent countries with a hard border.
In a poll by the Levada Center published on the day Putin launched the invasion, only 25 percent of Russians supported Russia’s expansion of its borders to include the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics – the Donbas, where much of the toughest fighting is concentrated now – while 33 per cent. wanted the region to become independent, and 26 percent wanted it to remain part of Ukraine.
It does not sound like a people who believe, as Putin does, that Ukraine is part of Russia and that Ukrainians are Russian. However, it is hard to deny that the war is fratricide, and that seems to make it harder to sell it to the public. How can you flatten Ukrainian cities where millions of Russians have relatives and friends? Consider Russia’s own leadership: No. 3 in the official hierarchy, Valentyna Matviyenko, is from Shepetivka in western Ukraine; Russia’s current chief negotiator for Ukraine, Vladimir Medinsky, was born in Smila, not far from Kiev; his predecessor Dmitry Kozak grew up in a predominantly Ukrainian-speaking rural district of central Ukraine, rather than one of its Russian-speaking regions. Or look at people directly involved in Russian aggression against Ukraine: Dmitry Sablin, like Zhuravlyov, is a member of the Duma native of Mariupol, a large city now virtually razed by the Russian army; Sablin is responsible for the Russian parliament’s connection with Donetsk. And a general whom Putin awarded a medal for “for the return of Crimea” is also the father-in-law of Pavlo Klymkin, who headed Ukraine’s foreign ministry for five years after Russia’s first attack, in 2014.
Putin’s case for invading Ukraine rests on false complaints and age-old myths
The pattern of deeply intertwined relations extends into the wider Russian society. Having some kind of cross-border connection is the norm, not the exception.
So how does the Russians justify support for what has so far been a series of crimes against humanity committed against a people that is the transnational relationship equivalent to relatives?
The Kremlin uses two related narratives here. The first paints the enemy as the West, not Ukraine. This framework makes Russia the smaller, weaker side of the conflict – a victim, not a perpetrator. The war in this scenario appears to be the climax of an escalation driven by the West, as NATO has gradually expanded toward Russian borders over the past three decades.
Negotiator Medinsky, better known in Russia as an architect behind the historical narratives promoted by Putin’s regime, expresses the next best thing: “Russia’s existence is at stake now,” he said last month. In this narrative, Russia is going through a period like the one that led to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, or the one where the Soviet system was falling apart in the early 1990s.
Messages aimed at triggering the survival instinct are extremely powerful in Russia, where various invasions from the West, including Adolf Hitler’s attempts to exterminate Eastern slaves as a race, define the historical experience. There is a form of Russian collective behavior in the face of danger to life: People forget their old complaints and gather behind the leader, even one hated by many. That is what happened in 1941, when the victims and perpetrators of the communist genocide united under Joseph Stalin to reject the existential threat from the Nazis.
The Russians, of course, do not face an existential threat now. Rather, it is their own country that poses an existential threat to a neighbor. But the human tendency is to resort to comforting, rather than truthful, tales. It takes something along with Germany’s defeat in World War II to accept reality. It also takes decades instead of years or months.
Freed from its totalitarian prison in 1991, Russian society emerged severely traumatized by a century of direct genocide and gloomy Soviet existence. It was re-traumatized by the unrest of the 1990s. Even under the current circumstances, people seem to intend to resist further re-traumatization. They remain unaware that the more they deny reality, the worse the future trauma will be. Unlike Ukrainians, the Russians do not even have the illusion that the West is embracing and integrating them after this conflict. Pro-Putin Russians assume that all the West wants is to punish them so they will do their best to postpone this punishment or completely prevent it.
Meanwhile, opposition-oriented Russians see the massacre that Putin has brought to Russian-speaking cities in Ukraine, and realize that he can clarify the same in Russia if people rise up against him. They get the message. When Putin says that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, and then – in the next breath – start slaughtering these people en masse, he is triggering civil war according to his own logic. For now, it is limited to a neighboring country. But some pro-Kremlin commentators, including the editor of an important history magazine and a well-known writer, have recently begun to label members of the Russian opposition as “internal Ukrainians.” The implication is that anti-Putin Russians must be treated with the same cruelty as Ukrainians because they want to destroy Russia. Sergey Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, clarified. Russians who did not support the “special operation” in Ukraine could expect the fate of Ivan Mazepa, an 18th-century Ukrainian leader who sided with the Swedes against Peter the Great, lost the war and died in exile.
The Russians face few choices that do not lead to self-destruction. The West may think that increasing economic and military pressure will bring about a change in behavior and perhaps even a collapse of Putin’s regime, but it may just as well cause the opposite to unite people in what they see as an apocalyptic struggle for survival.
Putin was not a rising totalitarian star when he triggered the war in Ukraine. He was a declining authoritarian leader who extended his political life by promoting conflict and polarization. This war bought him another few years in power. He paralyzed opposition to his regime by turning his supporters into accomplices in war crimes and those who oppose him into enemies of the state. He does not really need to occupy Ukraine; he needs the war in itself.
The West will not win this conflict unless it gets Russians on board. But without a clearly defined vision of a post-Putin Russia fully integrated into the West – the kind of vision that inspires Ukrainians to fight Putin – the vector of Russian society will remain fratricidal and increasingly suicidal. This is bad news for everyone on the planet, given that Russia’s nuclear arsenal is capable of destroying humanity. As Putin once put it: “Why do we need the world if there is no Russia in it?”