A year on from launching its invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s many challenges include trying to maintain the support of its people for what has become a long and deadly conflict.
As the war grinds on, and more and more Russians are sent to lose their lives on the battlefield, it becomes increasingly difficult for the war to be described as merely a “special military operation” as it initially was.
And yet most sources continue to suggest that public opinion remains on President Putin’s side – albeit this opinion is difficult to measure in a country where free speech is being increasingly limited.
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What did the papers say?
According to the independent Russian polling organisation the Levada Centre, Putin’s approval rating has remained around 80% for some time, although it did take a hit when he announced a military mobilisation in the country.
In March 2022, 80% of Russians “definitely supported” or “mostly supported” “the actions of Russian military forces in Ukraine”. By December this figure was down to 71%. The number who said they definitely supported the war dropped from 52% to 41%.
Even independent polling is cast into doubt by some analysts, with many pointing out that it is impossible to know who is being honest.
“Many who study and report on Russia, me included, believe a small percentage of people actively support the war, and a small percentage actively oppose it,” said the BBC’s Andrei Goryanov. “Most ordinary Russians are in the middle, trying to make sense of a situation they didn’t choose, don’t understand and feel powerless to change.”
The confusion is intensified by the fact that the idea of “victory” for the Russian government, let alone its people, has taken many forms during the last year, said Stanislav Kucher on Grid. Conceptions range between the “demilitarisation” and “denazification” of Ukraine, the permanent annexation of illegally occupied parts of eastern Ukraine, and a westward pushback of Nato military assets.
Among nearly 100 pro-war Russians he spoke to, Kucher received wildly different answers. “One man said victory would come with ‘the collapse of NATO.’” Another said: “Ukraine’s becoming a part of Russia.” For others victory was “bringing to power pro-Russian governments in the West” and even to “Stop gay propaganda.”
Of course by no means everybody in Russia supports the war, and dissent continues despite draconian punishments.
In 2022, 20,467 people were detained on political grounds, mainly for expressing antiwar sentiment in public, and 378 people were prosecuted for “discrediting or spreading fake news about the Russian army”, said Foreign Affairs.
The government also passed 22 new laws last year aimed at “enhancing the state’s repressive powers”. Meanwhile, authorities blocked more than 210,000 websites and the vast majority of independent media was shut down.
“Those who fear Putin have either fled the country or are silent.” And given the arsenal that can be used against dissent, “most Russians have made clear that they prefer to adapt” than to dissent.
One thing we must understand, said Jade McGlynn on UnHerd, is that “the Kremlin is offering a different reality: a nicer version, in which Russians are victims, not villains, and their sons and husbands are warriors, not war criminals”,
It is also a misconception, she continued, to assume all of Putin’s supporters have simply been “zombified by a totalitarian regime”. Despite continuously tightening crackdowns, there are ways for people to access independent news – via a VPN, which one in four Russians use, or via the messaging app Telegram, the use of which has tripled since the war began.
And yet demand for propaganda remains very high. Reliance on advertising revenue means “producers schedule shows because they’re lucrative, not just because they uphold state propaganda (although they do need to stay on the Kremlin’s good side).
“Such was the demand for war propaganda following Russia’s invasion – from on high and below – that some channels ran pro-war content for up to 10 hours a day,” said McGlynn.
There is another crucial and oft-ignored part of the Kremlin strategy, said Maxim Alyukov, a postdoctoral fellow at King’s College London’s Russia Institute, in Time magazine. This is “not only to control a single story, but to sow confusion about the truth and cast doubt on whether any information – from a Russian news source, a foreign organisation… can be trusted”.
Working in this way allows an authoritarian government to “harness distrust”; in many cases even the Russian media flip-flops between narratives disconcertingly. “Many people don’t really trust state television, but they also don’t trust alternative sources. They end up not trusting anything. And when you don’t trust anything, you don’t act,” said Alyukov.
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