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Vive L’Indifférence: Why Russians Keep Supporting the War in Ukraine

Pekka Kallioniemi explores the parallel universe of Kremlin propaganda and how Russia is evolving from an authoritarian into a totalitarian state

Photo: Dmitry Bezrukov/Alamy

Vive L’IndifférenceWhy Russians Keep Supporting the War in Ukraine

Pekka Kallioniemi explores the parallel universe of Kremlin propaganda and how Russia is evolving from an authoritarian into a totalitarian state

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During the reign of its President, Vladimir Putin, Russia has transformed into a totalitarian country where its leader changes the constitution so that he can remain in power indefinitely, and where the opposition is got rid of with nerve agents, exile, and imprisonment.

The silent assent of the majority is key to authoritarianism, according to the sociologist and philosopher Ralf Dahrendorf. Those who refuse to stay silent need to be persecuted, imprisoned, or exiled. To transition from authoritarianism to totalitarianism, a nation needs to be mobilised – instead of being silent, the masses must be persuaded or coerced to support a common cause or ideology in the interest of a small ruling clique.

The symbol Z and the phrase “We do not abandon our own” quickly became the symbols of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Stifling Dissent

To understand how totalitarian regimes are born, we must look at Russia’s leaked strategic plans for taking over Belarus and Moldova. These plans emphasised the need to control three distinct sectors inside a country:

This level of domination happened in Russia a long time ago, and the results can now be seen in the attitudes of Russia’s population.

In the media, television is still the most popular source of news and entertainment, with two-thirds of the population watching national TV channels, most of which are owned and controlled by the government or by state-owned companies. Television is Russia’s main propaganda channel and the highest level of support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, 86%, comes typically from the elderly who get their news mainly from TV.

For young people, the main source of information comes from online (82% of 18-24-year-olds). This has led to Roskomnadzor, the Russian agency responsible for monitoring, controlling, and censoring the country’s mass media, preventing access to some 210,000 websites.

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For some reason, so-called ‘milbloggers’ – military or war bloggers – have been allowed to criticise the conflict and Russian war strategy rather openly. For example, Igor Girkin, a Russian army veteran who had a key part in shooting down the MH17 flight and in constructing the puppet state of Donetsk People’s Republic in Ukraine, has been highly critical of both Putin and his war effort in Ukraine.

In a now-deleted panel discussion that took place on 11 March 2023, Russian Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed that Putin has “largely ceded the Russian information space over time to a variety of quasi-independent actors”, and that he is unable to regain its control anytime soon. Some have suggested that this might be a hint of further online censorship actions regarding the milbloggers and their online discussions and commentaries on the war.

Russia’s draconian “foreign agent” laws have forced journalists and political commentators such as Ekaterina Schulmann and Vladimir Kara-Murza to leave Russia or be arrested, and those investigative journalists who are critical of the government or the war remain under constant threat of being arrested or even killed.

In 2022, more than 20,000 people were detained for demonstrating anti-war sentiment in public, and of those more than 50 have been sentenced to prison. For example, Ilya Yashin, one of Russia’s most prominent opposition figures, was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for condemning the Russian war crimes in Bucha.

Mobilising Assent

As the “three-day special military operation” has dragged on into a war of attrition, Russian propagandists have rebranded it as a “war against NATO”. The new narrative is that the “special operation” simply had to be initiated to prevent an attack on Russia.

In a February 2023 survey by the independent and internationally respected Levada Center, 30% of the respondents thought that this was the reason for Russia’s full-scale invasion. And a very large part of the Russian population is still in support of the war: 77% of the respondents support the actions of Russia’s military in Ukraine. On the issue of peace negotiations, 50% supported peace talks and 43% were in favour of Russia continuing the fight.

The support for peace talks increased drastically in September 2022, after Russia announced its partial mobilisation and after Putin had announced the annexation of four Ukrainian Oblasts.

Conflict with Ukraine: Assessment for February 2023 by Levada Center.

And even though people have strong views on the war and its continuation, only one in five respondents consider that they can influence what is happening in their country. Instead of protesting, ordinary people in Russia have decided to try to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances.

In many cases, even fleeing the country is simply a pragmatic solution to prevent being sent to the front, to meat grinders like Bakhmut, where the chance of dying is extremely high. Many who have decided to stay are afraid to speak and resort to a Soviet-era tradition of “kitchen democracy”, discussing these issues only at home.

The majority of Russian soldiers come from poor areas like Buryatia, and the war has little to no effect in Moscow and St Petersburg, especially among the upper classes. Recently Russian legislators introduced a new law that pushed back the age of conscription to military service to 30 years, suggesting that another mobilisation wave might be happening soon.

When the zinc coffins started flowing into the big Russian cities during the second war in Afghanistan in 1979, the general morale and support for the war inside the Soviet Union collapsed. The biggest resistance to the First Chechen War came from the soldiers’ mothers who protested the conflict.

So far, Putin’s worst difficulties have come not from the wars he has waged, but when he had to confront the mothers of the soldiers who died in the Kursk submarine disaster. Putin learned from that ordeal and tightened his grip on the media. As long as the state-controlled media can tell their own version of the events and any contradicting narratives can be silenced, the support for Putin and for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will remain high.

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