Opinion: Russian public buys into Putin’s propaganda and supports his war
Russians must start to reimagine what it means to be Russian and take their damaged identity into their own hands
Published: July 19, 2022 in The Irish Times
By Noah Buckley, Assistant professor in political science, Trinity College Dublin
The world’s hopes that the Russian public would join Ukraine in the fight against Vladimir Putin’s war machine have been bitterly dashed. Poll after poll has shown that domestic opposition to the vicious invasion of Ukraine begun in February 2022 is limited to a quiet minority of Russians. Indeed, Putin’s approval ratings have risen significantly.
Our horror over the atrocities committed by Russian troops in Bucha, Mariupol, and elsewhere in Ukraine is joined by a disgust that Russians have joined their president in support of the brutal war being waged in their name.
That same Russian public is living under a repressive authoritarian regime. This can cloud our understanding of their role in the war:
Are Russians victims of brainwashing by Putin’s propaganda-spewing misinformation factories? Are they hard-hearted, complicit partisans of a “might makes right” state? Neo-imperialists thirsting for annihilation of Ukraine and the defeat of the West?
Reality lies somewhere in between these possibilities – and beyond them. This war was started by Putin and is unlikely to be stopped by the Russian public. Nonetheless, Russia’s future is in the hands of its people.
Many observers have dismissed public opinion polls showing clear Russian support for the war in Ukraine. We are right to be wary of such measurements conducted during wartime, some by organisations cosy with the Russian state. But there is much we can learn from them.
As an observer of Russia for over 20 years and a scholar studying Russian public opinion, I firmly believe that Russians do approve of Putin and the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. Response rates to polling remain at typical levels. Techniques that give respondents cover to tell the truth produce findings in line with expectations, as do demographic breakdowns of support for the war. Independent and state-affiliated pollsters alike find similar results.
Most Russians accept this war in Ukraine. Part of the reason many of us in the West hurry to dismiss this fact is that we don’t want to believe it can be true.
Seeing Russians buying into Putin’s propaganda is disorienting and painful. Many Russians themselves are struggling to manage the cognitive dissonance and traumatic realities that have come with a war they did not ask for.
Since the end of communism, Russia has not reckoned with the imperialist aspects of its history. In recent years, Putin’s regime has steered Russian society away from owning up to the many failures, crimes, and errors in its past.
At times, Russia was actively seeking a new idea of what it means to be Russian – what the country is for. That search is over. Putin has provided some answers: the exercise of power, belief in Russia’s greatness for its own sake and an us-versus-them worldview in all things have crystallised into Russia’s new ideology.
Full participation in the modern world today requires ever more co-operation, nuance and introspection. Putin has chosen for Russians a more brute way of interacting with the world: coercion and victimhood.
Over the years I have spent in Russia, I have watched these perspectives being inculcated in the Russian public. One can begin to see why Russians may seek out the comfort of propagandistic pro-war messaging, rushing to protect themselves from responsibility for the war’s violence.
It will be difficult for Russia to turn away from self-righteous grievance and zero-sum thinking towards co-operative interaction with a global community it neither understands nor trusts.
The tens of millions of people living in Russia today have little say in defining how their society looks. In such an authoritarian regime, it is often easier to adapt yourself to the system than to seek out change in that system. The resulting feelings of helplessness and subordination feed on themselves while reinforcing narratives of isolation. Feeling correct – blending in with the crowd – may be the best of several unpleasant options.
Cascades of self-determination
Yet this disaffected, complacent satisfaction with being a mere “cog” in a great machine is fragile. Small cracks in paternalistic authoritarian regimes such as Putin’s can suddenly begin to replace helplessness with a renewed sense of ownership over one’s future. The popular uprising in Belarus in 2020 and Ukraine’s “Euromaidan” revolution in 2013 are powerful examples of such cascades of self-determination.
Russians have not yet seen the full extent of the economic and societal damage that the war they are waging in Ukraine will bring upon their country. Cold realities of death and loss have a way of intruding on both official and popular narratives.
At the same time, Russia contains people with a multitude of ethnicities, religions, cultures and perspectives. Moscow can neither dictate the views of such a population nor omnipotently suppress the diversity and dissent that human nature inevitably generates.
How Russians reckon with this war and their place in Putin’s dictatorship in the years to come will shape both their country’s path and the nature of security in Europe. Ukraine will remain a sovereign, independent nation in the global community. Russia’s own participation in that community is at stake.
Neither Russians’ support for the tragedies of the war in Ukraine nor their inaction should soon be forgotten – this is a stain that will last. We must hope that Russians will begin to reimagine what it means to be Russian and will seek to take their battered futures into their own hands.