Reality of war: Why many Russians still support Vladimir Putin

Many Russian families, after months of detachment, have had to confront the ugly face of war, a full 210 days into the full-scale invasion.
A woman holding a poster that says “U.S., NATO, Hands Off Ukraine” in front of the United States Embassy in Moscow.
A woman holding a poster that says “U.S., NATO, Hands Off Ukraine” in front of the United States Embassy in Moscow.

By GULNAZ SHARAFUTDINOVA

NEW YORK: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, an old English proverb says. Its Russian counterpart advises you to count your chickens in the fall. In Russia, fall starts looming in August and is often revelatory.

The August 1991 putsch burst open the cracks within the Soviet elite, accelerating the country’s implosion, and the August 1998 financial crisis exposed the bankruptcy of the new Russian state.

Terrorist bombings in 1999, the Beslan massacre in 2004 and even the revolution in 1917 all took place in the fall — as if not only nature but also social and political forces ripen and bear fruit this season.

In the fall of 2022, Russians have been forced to face the reality of war. Vladimir Putin’s decision in September to mobilise Russians lifted the final flimsy veil from what the government continues to call a special military operation in Ukraine.

Many Russian families, after months of detachment, have had to confront the ugly face of war, a full 210 days into the full-scale invasion.

Almost half of Russians felt “anxiety, fear and horror,” while 13 percent were angry, according to surveys conducted by the independent Levada Center after the announcement.

A bitter war of revenge, borne with stunning resilience and moral courage in Ukraine, has been further underlined by Russia’s escalatory assault on civilian targets.

Yet for all the emotion it has inspired, the escalation hasn’t seemed to affect most Russians’ views of the war.

According to one recent study, 43 percent of Russians support the bombing of Ukrainian cities and overall support for the war has not changed much.

Given the parlous state of the country — internationally isolated and economically precarious — and the dawning realisation of what the war in Ukraine entails, such a sturdy bank of support for the Kremlin’s actions might seem surprising.

But it emerges from a deep well of collective feeling, nurtured in recent decades, that conflates individuals’ interests with those of the state, embodied by Putin. That support may dim, but it won’t disappear.

When the war started, hopes that Russians would rise up and challenge the senseless cruelty of their country’s leadership were quickly disappointed.

Some courageous Russians, often from younger generations, took to the streets or engaged in more clandestine opposition to the war. But the protests, while attended by thousands in the initial days after the invasion, never really snowballed to a grand scale. The main factor was fear.

After the Kremlin made criticism of the war punishable by up to 15 years in prison, protests understandably dropped away. After all, people have one life and want to live it, rather than spend it being tortured by a police officer and left to rot in jail.

If a minority of Russians were roused to anger by the invasion, the majority were in a state of shock. In days, Russia had become a pariah, cut off from international travel and targeted with deep sanctions.

It was profoundly disorienting. To navigate this uncharted territory, Russians in the main reached for familiar moral ground: collective national identity. “My country, right or wrong” was the default reaction. One message from a popular movie star resonated intensely: “You don’t criticise your own folks in war, even if they are wrong.”

Instead, people blamed President Joe Biden, NATO expansion and the West, as well as Ukrainian nationalists.

As of now, like their leader, many Russian citizens are invested in victory in Ukraine — whatever that is deemed to mean.

Yet this fall, though it may take some time for Russians to admit it, has been similarly revelatory. It marks the point at which Mr. Putin started to slide, slowly but surely, from Russia’s national pedestal.

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