Do Russians Want War?

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches honor guards passing by during a ceremony to mark the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin walls, Moscow, May 9. Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

This article first appeared in Carnegie's Moscow Centre website. This is abbreviated an extract.

War and terrorism have become increasingly routine facts of life in Russia. Since 2014, this reality has become an essential tool for stimulating popular support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The mechanics of how this support is cultivated and mobilized are now fundamental to the Kremlin's day-to-day agenda. At the same time, Moscow's new (and sometimes novel) approach to warfare, which runs through the conflicts in Georgia, Crimea, the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, Syria, and now Turkey, have become central to the future development of Russian domestic and foreign policy.

It is difficult to overstate the impact that war has on the mass consciousness of the Russian public. The memory of the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War, continues to provide a powerful basis for national unity. Ideological differences aside, successive Soviet and Russian governments have sought to legitimize themselves through mythologized interpretations of the war. Themes that were developed during the Soviet era are being recycled in an entirely new context.

Peddling threats, external and internal, including the threat of war, to the Russian people is a key tool of the Putin regime's political strategy. At the same time, the Kremlin has embraced the so-called virtualization of war. For a large majority of the Russian population, war is experienced solely through mass media. Meanwhile, the appeal of modern war is driven largely by the absence of significant losses on the Russian side, something that directly plays into the level of popular support for the government.

Russia's recent military operations in Crimea, the Donbas, and Syria, as well as the information and trade war with Turkey, serve as a form of symbolic compensation to the Russian populace for swelling economic hardships. However, public opinion data suggest that Russians continue to perceive these contemporary wars differently from earlier conflicts. Most Russians don't regard Russia's recent wars as real or big wars, on a par with earlier conflicts like Afghanistan. Likewise, because of its continued reliance on state media for information about Russia's military operations, the public's interpretation of war remains distorted.

The Kremlin's mythmaking regarding war relies on three key elements, some of which have clear antecedents in the Soviet-era discourse about war:

  • Moscow's wars are just, defensive, triumphant, and preventive
  • Nearly all of Moscow's modern wars are linked, thematically or otherwise, to the Great Patriotic War. By blurring realities on the ground, government propaganda is able to portray any domestic opposition to war as inherently immoral.
  • War is now part of a so-called marketplace of threats from which the Kremlin can choose on a whim, helping mobilize popular support for the regime.

Focus groups held at the Levada Center on December 21, 2015, confirmed all this. 1 And the focus groups, selected according to the professional rules of the only independent sociological organization in Russia, highlighted the fact that the public is unable on its own to readily grasp the logic behind Moscow's military moves; participants tended to simply regurgitate the Kremlin's propagandistic clichés. The Syria operation, for instance, is supported by the general public because it is a preventive war that will, as one of the participants in the focus groups said, "destroy terrorists in their hole."

The political class's continued grip on power depends on the Kremlin's ability to sustain current levels of political mobilization. That suggests that the permanent war against perceived enemies who are supposedly besieging Russia will have to continue. But before the September 2016 Duma elections, the Kremlin is likely to focus primarily on wars against internal threats—namely, opposition activists and nongovernmental organizations that are not controlled by its political machinery. At the same time, the general public remains decidedly skittish about a real or big war, which highlights the intrinsic limits on the Kremlin's militarization and heavy-handed propaganda.

Andrei Kolesnikov is Senior Associate and Chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center.