Putin's support from Russian society may decline fast

Russians are already split in their views on Ukraine, which means a sanctions strategy must be carefully used to prevent alienating those against the invasion.

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While the position of Vladimir Putin – and the political elites controlled by him – regarding the assault on Ukraine is clear and has been repeatedly articulated, there are differing assessments about the views held in Russia’s wider society.

Some believe most Russians support the Kremlin’s military action against Ukraine and therefore are fully responsible for the evil being committed in their name. But it is also the first time in Putin’s Russia that there have been so many individual and collective protests against Kremlin actions.

Russian society is no liberal utopia, but it is a divided, largely atomized, and disoriented society which has existed for many years under increasing pressure from an authoritarian regime.

Public support for the Kremlin’s military adventure, which is far from unconditional even now, will decline rapidly and steadily as the high price becomes clear

The authorities have deliberately falsified and vaguely formulated the goals and methods of the invasion against Ukraine, saying only that the aim was ‘support for the people of Donbas’ and that ‘demilitarization’ and ‘denazification’ of Ukraine was required for this end to bring about the ‘liberation’ of Ukrainians from ‘Nazis’ who had seized power.

Hiding the realities of the invasion

It is forbidden to even use the word ‘war’ in the official Russian media – it must be called a ‘special military operation’– and reporting on the conflict is strictly controlled, while information is issued in small doses and little has been said about any losses on the Russian side. As with previous battle zones, to avoid the public seeing returning bodies of dead Russian soldiers, they are not sent to Russia, instead mobile crematoriums on trucks are used.

Before the invasion began, half of Russians (51 per cent) were afraid of the possibility of war with Ukraine according to a survey by the Levada Center. But also 60 per cent of respondents considered the US and NATO to be the initiators of the escalation in eastern Ukraine, while 14 per cent blamed Ukraine and only four per cent said the Russian leadership was responsible.

Russian society appears to be split into two almost equal parts according to other fragmentary data – with the war ongoing, polls are no longer particularly relevant, but a significant minority strongly opposes Putin’s war and has achieved disproportionate influence in the public discourse despite the cleansing of the media carried out by the Kremlin over the past year.

A petition conducted in Russia against the war collected more than one million signatures in its first four days, and many writers, journalists, artists, and scientists have also demanded an end to it. There are dozens of appeals from individuals and various groups, companies, and organizations on social networks, signed by tens of thousands of citizens.

And, although organized street protests are prohibited by the authorities, around 6,000 people were detained by police at informally organized ones which took place during the first five days.

It is unrealistic to expect mass organized protests to pose a threat to the government as the Kremlin has destroyed the infrastructure which would have supported potential protest actions in advance of the war, such as Alexei Navalny’s headquarters, the Open Russia foundation, and even the attempts to establish cooperation between municipal deputies.

Russian society is no liberal utopia, but it is a divided, largely atomized, and disoriented society which has existed for many years under increasing pressure from an authoritarian regime

But public support for the Kremlin’s military adventure, which is far from unconditional even now, will decline rapidly and steadily as the high price becomes clear, both in human lives and the complete upending of normal life by the state.

This means Putin is working to a tight timeframe, counted in weeks, even when applying the full force of his repressive machinery because he has neither the socio-political support nor the military capabilities to continue the invasion for much longer.

Impact of sanctions cannot be avoided

Once the war ends, Russia must face the question of how to deal with tough sanctions already imposed by the US, the European Union (EU) and the international community as a whole, as these will affect all Russians without exception.

Putin's support from Russian society may decline fast 2nd part

For the half of society which considers the West to be the main aggressor, they could mobilize support to rally around Putin but, for the other half who did not want this war, sanctions may demoralize and demobilize them. Sanctions are necessary as punishment and, to change the calculus and limit the room for manoeuvre, the pressure must be as tough and fast-acting as possible which means unfortunately hitting ordinary Russians as well as the state and those who enable it.

But, if the purpose of sanctions is not just to punish Russia but to achieve a change for the better, then continuing with full sanctions after the war is counterproductive. Longer term thinking is essential to ensure the new generations of Russians are not automatically ‘anti-western’ in their world view.