Why Russians still embrace the war – Asia Times

Why Russians still embrace the war - Asia Times

Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, arrived in Beijing for a two-day visit on May 15, 2024, and Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed him with a dark floor greeting.

The two officials pledged a “new age” for the Russia- China marriage, building on their” no limits relationship” struck only before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s first overseas vacation since winning election in March was a case in point, highlighting both his and Russia’s unwavering support of the Ukrainian conflict.

Putin won 87 % of the vote from a record-high voter turnout despite Russia’s election in 2024 being marked by widespread persecution of severe alternative events and candidates and decades of brazen remarks about Russia’s “managed” politics.

Yet with some self- censorship and a small drop in approval, the Russian public also generally backs the war, despite a mostly static frontline, the severance of ties with Europe, declines in living standards, and the deaths and injuries of hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers.

Ukraine, a country that Putin and some Russians consider to be a brotherly country and the family tradition of Russia, has a remarkable number of casualties.

In comparison, a few years after the problems began, US local support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began to decline significantly, and there were signs of a drop in Soviet public support for the war that soon followed.

However, although the costs of Russia’s war in Ukraine continue to rise and it appears far from finish, various reasons have compelled Russian citizens to maintain supporting the war and the senator who initiated it.

Russia’s opposition to war faces unique difficulties not experienced in the US, but convincing a populace that war is inevitable is crucial for any government to carry out a war effort.

The Kremlin’s military exercises represent a noble effort by the country to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers from Kiev’s fascist regime, a claim that has been shared by many Russians and the country’s involvement in World War II.

Highlighting growing restrictions on the Russian language in Ukraine furthers this message while Russia’s excuse that they were answering cries for help in Ukraine echoes their 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In addition, Russian media uses the country’s forces to question President Volodymyr Zelensky’s legitimacy because Ukraine is accused of killing civilians in Russia and Ukraine’s failure to hold scheduled elections in 2024 has been used to undermine its legitimacy.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, is described as illegitimate in Russia. Image: X Screengrab

Putin has used a historical and patriotic lens to interpret the invasion by portraying Ukraine as the mother culture of Russia. The conflict is seen as an internal struggle to reaffirm Russian dominance over the country’s ancestral homeland, which gave birth to the Russian language, religion, and political roots against an illegal Ukrainian government that is currently occupying the nation.

Russian nationalism can be rallied by invoking ethnic unity, territorial patrimony and the need to rectify Ukraine’s separation from Moscow, making it easier to dismiss Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Russia has also deflected its UN Charter violations against non-aggression by portraying itself as an aggrieved party that was forced into war by the US-led West and its vassal states. It is a sentiment that is supported by well-known figures like Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico, who declared that Ukraine was under Washington’s total control in January 2024.

On May 1, 2024, an exhibition of captured Western weapons, vehicles and equipment since the start of the war opened in Moscow – much like Kiev’s in May 2022 which showed captured Russian equipment.

The Kremlin makes a strong connection to the conflict, not the least of which is the most recent ISIS attack in Moscow. The American public, however, started to think that US leaders had misled them into supporting the War on Terror, particularly the Iraqi conflict, which it believed could have been avoided.

Russians ‘ support for the war has manifested as the culmination of decades of “patriotic mobilization” that has taken place since Putin’s first term. Since the invasion, there has been a significant increase in the spread of nationalist sentiment, which is pervasive across all forms of media, culture, and politics.

Russian identity is increasingly woven into the existential need to defend Russia from NATO, boost Russian military might, and protect its reputation abroad.

Preparing and instilling confidence in the Russian armed forces ‘ ability to sustain a major conflict has been ongoing for decades. In the 2000s, Russian forces carried out counterinsurgency operations in the restive region of Chechnya and supported a limited conflict in the neighboring Georgia in 2008.

In 2014, Russian forces seized Crimea from Ukraine and fought a limited conflict to support Ukraine’s tense border region with Russia. In 2015, they launched a major military operation to rescue Syrian President Assad in 2015.

The significant escalation of Russia’s conflict in Ukraine in 2022 did not come as a surprise because Syria had been relatively successful. This contrasts with the perceived failures of Western military engagements in the twenty-first century, which have resulted in domestic confidence in the US military declining.

To alleviate domestic concerns stemming from severing Russia’s historical connections with Europe, as well as distancing by other countries to comply with Western sanctions, Putin has embarked on a series of foreign trips to show Russia’s resiliency.

Visits to Belarus and other former Soviet Union nations in Central Asia and the Caucasus have helped to stabilize its regional influence. Russia has hosted dozens of foreign leaders from the Global South, as well as those of Hungary and Austria, and visits to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have served as a way to demonstrate its enduring influence in the Middle East.

However, Russia’s ties with China form its most crucial bilateral relationship. Putin’s May visit to China confirmed Moscow’s strategic relationship with Beijing despite the power imbalance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are each other’s brothers.

Russia’s capacity to confront the US and collaborate with other major powers offers reassurance that has erased much of the pain of the geopolitical decline that accompanied the Soviet collapse. Moscow has also aimed to counteract any Western moral superiority in Ukraine by highlighting Washington and Kiev’s continued support for Israel.

The Kremlin hopes to legitimize its policies and expand Russia’s appeal to the Global South by framing it as part of Russia’s struggle with the West for a new multipolar world order.

Following the Nigerien government’s expulsion of US troops in May 2024 and the invitation of Russian forces, images of Russian troops entering the same airbase where US military personnel were stationed further underscored Russia’s assertive struggle with the West and wider geopolitical ambitions.

Additionally, Russian citizens have received subsidies for fuel, food, and other essential resources to protect them from the effects of the war’s economic effects. The presence of significant foreign reserves and gold has helped to fund the war and stop prolonged currency volatility, while the imposition of severe sanctions on foreign companies considering leaving Russia has dissuaded many Western companies from leaving or forced them to pay significant costs.

Russia’s major economic partners, most importantly China and India, have helped maintain stability in Russia’s exports and imports. By design, sanctions from the West have not severely affected the Russian economy, as preventing Russian resources from reaching global markets would cause prices to rise.

Additionally, the public of Russia has been largely spared of destruction. Ukrainian attacks within Russia have mostly been limited to small flareups in border regions and attacks on energy and transport facilities while Ukrainian forces are still restricted from using Western weapons. Despite rising sabotage attacks, the situation is manageable in Russia.

No Russian civilians have been vehemently engaged in combat, in contrast to Ukrainian citizens. The 2022 partial mobilization called up reservists, while recent changes to laws have meant Russia has been more easily able to offer generous contracts to annual conscripts soon after their training has concluded.

Russian media can assert that it only employs volunteers and those who are already enlisted in the military in comparison to the forced conscription videos in Ukraine. Russian soldiers who are injured, as well as the families of Russian soldiers who lost their lives while serving, are paid a lot of money.

Though payment is often delayed, the modest backgrounds of most Russian soldiers mean that these funds can be life- changing. Regular Russian soldiers have also been shielded by the use of prisoners in particularly risky military operations, with Ukraine only considering this aspect earlier this year.

Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed and hundreds of thousands more have been seriously hurt, though. This tests the casualties hypothesis, which states that the public’s willingness to remain engaged in a military intervention declines as casualties mount.

In the war, hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers have been hurt. Egmont Institute, Facebook, or Screengrab in image

The Soviet Union’s 10- year war in Afghanistan saw 15, 000 Soviet troops killed and eventually helped lead to the downfall of the country, while the deeply unpopular Iraq War saw 4, 500 US soldier deaths and saw the Bush administration’s popularity decline considerably.

Official casualty figures are undoubtedly distorted by the Russian government. However, it is crucial to situate Russia’s losses in Ukraine in light of recent events. The Covid- 19 pandemic claimed more than 400, 000 Russian lives, far surpassing the casualties in Ukraine.

Additionally, the large number of deaths of prominent Russians since the start of the war may have influenced the Russian public’s stomach in the face of such significant losses.

The conflict and its effects have been documented in Russian media as evidence of a sense of collective sacrifice among the country’s most powerful individuals who are able to be killed and have their assets confiscated.

Amid the chaos of the war, dozens of Russian oligarchs and political figures have been killed in suspicious circumstances both in Russia and overseas, in a public settling of scores, opportunism and punishment from the Kremlin for disobedience.

Alexander Tyulyakov, a senior executive of Gazprom’s corporate security, was discovered hanging in his garage a day after Russian forces entered Ukraine.

In September of this year, Ravil Maganov, the chairman of Russia’s oil giant Lukoil, allegedly fell from a hospital window. In December, businessman Vladimir Bidenov died of heart problems at the Hotel Sai International in India – two days later his business associate and deputy in the Legislative Assembly of Vladimir Oblast, Pavel Antov, fell out of a window at the same hotel.

While the deaths of oligarchs and politicians may provide some comfort to regular Russian soldiers stationed in Ukraine, there has also been a significant loss of senior military figures.

Some, like Lieutenant General Vladimir Sviridov, were killed as well in ominous circumstances, such as in an unknown location. However, the necessity for high- ranking Russian military officials to remain near the frontlines, owing to a more top- down decision- making military structure and the risk of electronic eavesdropping by Ukrainian and Western advisors, contributes to their higher casualty rate.

Russia has confirmed that seven general officers had been killed in Ukraine by 2024, with Ukraine claiming more than 14 had already been killed by the start of 2023, in addition to hundreds of other high-profile deaths.

No US general has lost his life in combat since the Vietnam War’s last fatal encounter occurred in 2014 when an Afghan service member opened fire on NATO personnel in Kabul.

With this backdrop of sacrifice and solidarity among Russian elites, Russia’s “rally -’round- the- flag” effect may sustain itself longer than expected.

Russians appear to believe that time and demographics are in favor of them. After decades of emigrating, the share of Russians who wanted to move abroad hit a record low, partially as a result of many of those who wanted to leave already did so. According to a March 2024 poll by Russia’s Levada Center.

However, according to Finion, a Moscow-based relocation company, 40 to 45 % of Russians who fled abroad have since returned, as a result of factors like tighter regulations for remote work, visa issues, reduced fears of conscription, and general desire to return.

And while tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have perished in occupied areas of Ukraine, along with thousands of more ethnic Russians, millions of those who reside in those occupied territories have already been incorporated into the Russian Federation’s 144 million citizens before they are over.

Conversely, Ukraine, with 37 million people before the war, has faced a population exodus compounding already challenging demographics.

By the early 2024 period, the general opinion was that Russia had a fragile advantage. Although potentially pyrrhic, history appears more and more likely in Russia, if loosely defined. Yet, as the conflict drags on, sustained by a Russian economy increasingly geared toward the war, the pursuit of victory may wane as casualties and other costs mount.

In the Voronezh Region, Russia, service members of the engineer-sapper regiment take the military oath. Press release from the Russian Defense Ministry

The Kremlin’s anxieties are now focused on Western nations, led by the UK, France and Poland, allowing Ukraine to use Western weapons in Russia, which would further bring the war home to Russian civilians and internal infrastructure.

Tensions are unquestionably high in the Kremlin despite the public’s perception of calm. Estimates of Russia’s ability to sustain the conflict in its current state typically range between two and three years.

Yet unwavering support for Putin, coupled with the absence of viable alternatives, may extend his strong personal commitment to the war indefinitely. Russia appears capable of and determined to fight the war, but its uncertain future will continue to put pressure on the country’s conceited support for it.

In the West, Putin’s willingness to keep the war is seen as something to exploit. Western policymakers have witnessed Russia increasingly commit its domestic resources to the conflict, as well asrecently shift from calling it a” special military operation” to a war.

Russia’s Soviet arsenal and foreign arm deployment will continue to wear down as a result of Russia’s steadily advancing technological capability to fight a war of attrition, demonstrating the weakness of Russia’s production and advanced weapons systems.

It is anticipated that a second major convulsion across the former Soviet Union will further reduce Moscow’s geopolitical influence by provoking a Russian defeat.

Russia’s protracted military campaign and the West’s strategy of prolonging the conflict through escalation management will keep exacting a catastrophic toll on Ukrainian lives and infrastructure.

John P. Ruehl, a journalist from Australia and the United States who works for the Independent Media Institute, is a correspondent for the Independent Media Institute on world affairs. He contributes to several other foreign affairs publications as well as contributing editor to Strategic Policy. His book, Budget Superpower: How Russia Challenges the West With an Economy Smaller Than Texas ‘, was published in December 2022.

This article first appeared on Independent Media Institute, and it has since been republished with kind permission.