Authentic Attitudes Reflect Support For Putin’s Actions
Nearly a month ago, on the morning of Feb 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his armed forces were launching a massive operation against Ukraine. The conflict will now enter its second month. Media outlets recently highlighted that Putin’s March 18 speech at Moscow’s main football stadium being telecast by state TV was cut-off abruptly in the middle, few reported that massive crowds of over 200,000 people had gathered to demonstrate support for the ‘operations in Ukraine.’ The event, held at a prominent national venue the Luzhniki Stadium, was held to officially mark the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Crowds were seen waving flags emblazoned with the letter Z, a branding used by Russian troops in Ukraine, which has become a shorthand symbol of public support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.In the main Vladimir Putin has praised Russian “unity” over what the Kremlin is calling its special operation in Ukraine stating that “the country hasn’t seen unity like this in a long time.” Prior to this speech Putin’s Feb. 21 televised speech stressed Russians’ and Ukrainians’ shared history, and played a galvanising role for ordinary Russians.
The event at Luzhniki Stadium, was attended by prominent Russians across the board, including many sportspersons. Several Olympic medalists were seen at the event, including Alexander Bolshunov, who won three golds at the Beijing Winter Games. As many sportspersons displayed support for Putin’s actions in Ukraine, international sports federations reacted by banning Russia from major sporting events. Russian sporting federations told the outlet ‘Inside the Games,’ “Given the unprecedented external pressure from the West, which for eight years condoned the flourishing of Nazism in Ukraine, today we clearly understand that the special operation was just an excuse to replicate Russophobic sentiments and escalate the situation around Russia and everything Russian.”
As tensions mounted since late 2021, there has been a steady rise in Putin’s popularity. Public opinion polls in Russia show support for the war in Ukraine. According to Russian polling agency the Levada Center, approximately 71% of Russians now approve of Putin, compared to the 61% who approved of him in August 2021.Most (60%) blamed the US and NATO for the escalation of tensions in Eastern Ukraine, while only 4% blamed Russia. Disapproval ratings for Putin amongst Russians also went down from 37% in August 2021 to 29%.
In Russia President Putin’s popularity has averaged relatively high at 79% in some measure due to his “personal charisma and public image” and Russians’ preference for a “strong ruler.” Russians largely trust that the Kremlin is defending Russia by standing up to the West. Survey evidence suggests that the majority of Russians believe Moscow’s military is being unfairly targeted with international sanctions. WSJ quoted a woman from rural Russia, “Russians have always been for peace,” she said. “Warmongering is coming from the West. They don’t want Russia to be a strong state.”
A British agency, Savanta ComRes’s survey for CNN also indicated strong sentiments, with half the Russian respondents agreeing that “it would be right for Moscow to use military force to prevent Kyiv from joining NATO.” Surveys conducted by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), FOM provide the clearest indication of Russian popular support for the war in Ukraine. While there is a tendency to brush off these polling agencies as Russian state linked thus lacking authenticity and argue that the Russian public is simply being deprived of accurate information. But this is intellectually dishonest as a report in the Washington Post also confirms that the majority of Russians (58%) approved of the invasion. Besides, Russians can easily access alternative sources of information if they are so inclined. After all, the free cloud-based messaging app Telegram which has surfaced as one of the most important channels for information about the situation in Ukraine was created in 2013 by a Russian-born tech entrepreneur.
This is not to say that a domestic opposition to the invasion does not exist. Russia’s most prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny called for protests against what he calls ‘invasion of Ukraine’ as against Russia’s phrase ‘special operations in Ukraine.’ But the protests have been largely underwhelming and have failed to attract any significant crowds.
Former President Donald J. Trump called the wartime strategy of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia “pretty smart.”Security analyst Vladimir Solovyov, told his viewers this was an historic day. In reference to the presence of far-right neo-Nazi elements in Ukraine’s political and military set-up, he said, “Today is the day on which the righteous de-Nazification of Ukraine begins. A most important day, a day which decides the course of our history.” Several groups on Telegram and Facebook, like ‘The Patriot Voice’ ‘Texas for Donald Trump’ criticised President Biden’s handling of the conflict and expressed support for Russia.
From the start of the military operations, Putin stated that the purpose was to “demilitarise and denazify” Ukraine and protect civilians, including Russian people, from the “genocide” being carried out by the Ukrainian government. And the fact is that Ukrainian neo-nazi far-right militia like the Azov Battalion have been integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine (NGU). Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. Andriy Biletsky, who pulled together the neo-Nazi groups creating the Azov Battalion is now a member of Ukraine’s parliament. The NGU tweeted a video showing Azov fighters coating their bullets in pig fat to be used allegedly against Chechen Muslim, who are allied with Russia. For many people the West’s supply of weapons and training to ultranationalist right wing groups is reminiscent of American actions in Afghanistan where they supplied similar resources to the mujahideen.
According to a review by ‘The Times,’ pro-Russian narratives have flourished in dozens of Telegram channels, Facebook groups and pages and thousands of tweets.Some of the Telegram channels have more than 160,000 subscribers, while the Facebook groups and pages have up to 1.9 million followers. According to Emerson T. Brooking, a resident senior fellow for the Atlantic Council, in the west the support arises from the sentiment that “Putin embodies the strength that Trump pretended to have.” Polls conducted by the Economist, YouGov and YahooNews, indicated appreciation for Putin and that 62 percent of Republicans believed Mr. Putin was a “stronger leader” than Mr. Biden.
A propaganda war is raging on social media. The comedian-turned-president Volodymyr Zelensky who was the winner of Ukraine’s ‘Dancing with the Stars’ (Tantsi z zirkamy) in 2006, has been portrayed as an international symbol of courage and duty. A 2015 Ukrainian TV show banally tired “Servant of the People,” starring Zelensky which told the story of a high school history teacher who gets elected to the country’s highest office, is now featured on Netflix. Meanwhile pro-Russian YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and other social media perches, disappeared and Russia Today (RT) is now inaccessible in most parts of the world. In the main West has resorted to its old tactic of attacking Russia’s democracy. Many strategic thinkers and leaders had previously warned and now reiterate that Putin’s actions are reactive to NATO’s unrelenting eastward expansion. Yet the vilification of Putin continues unabated. Unlike the Western leaders, Putin has a reputation as an action-oriented man, not as a strategist. Yet Russia’s detractors are going so far as to compare Putin’s actions to Adolf Hitler, despite the fact that Ukraine has a neo-Nazi problem, simply because Zelensky is Jewish. The reality of the war itself is blurry; Zelensky calls for a Russian ceasefire almost everyday at the same time claiming that Ukrainian forces have destroyed scores of Russian tanks, fighter aircraft and helicopters. The former intelligence agency imbued President of Russia Vladimir Putin is portrayed as an autocratic leader with wealthy oligarchs in tow. The US is hoping that given enough propaganda, freezing Russian assets and unrelenting sanctions will eventually lead to regime change. But this is easier hoped for than possible. Several countries China, India and other African and Middle Eastern countries accept that Putin’s actions are justifiable and do not wish to jeopardise their relations with one of the world’s largest weapons and energy supplier.
(Vaishali Basu Sharma is an analyst on strategic and economic affairs. She has worked as a consultant with the National Security Council Secretariat for nearly a decade)