by Francis Farrell
March 27, 2023
The Kyiv Independent
In the second year of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, Moscow has shown its intent to fight and win the war without regard for the lives of its servicemen, or the damage caused to Russia’s economy and social fabric. The Kremlin’s choice to announce “partial” mobilization in late September 2022 marked a turning point, a signal to ordinary Russians that the war could and would directly affect them.
The move was met by sparse protests and a mass exodus of military-age Russian men from the country, with estimates of those who fled ranging from 300,000 to 700,000.
On the stroke of New Year, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov appealed directly to Russians in a rare video address, warning of an imminent second round of mobilization. No such large-scale announcement has been made by the Kremlin, although reports abound of “covert mobilization” continuing in many regions.
The Kyiv Independent spoke to Dr. Ian Garner, Canada-based historian and specialist of Russian and Soviet wartime culture, on the trajectory of attitudes to the war of the Russian population, how they could shift over the next few years, and how this might affect Moscow’s pursuit of the war in Ukraine and at home.
Released in December, Garner’s book “Stalingrad Lives: Stories of Combat and Survival” explores how Soviet Union memory policy transformed the astronomical losses in the battle into a cult of heroism, while his upcoming title “Z Generation: Into the Heart of Russia’s Fascist Youth” will look at the interaction between top-down and bottom-up social processes spurring on support for the war against Ukraine in the youth of today’s Russia.
The Kyiv Independent: There is ongoing speculation that in the future Russia could not only launch a second round of mobilization, but also close the borders for men of military age. What do you think of the likelihood of that happening?
Ian Garner: We’ve seen these rumors on the speculation around this circling for months now. The idea of bigger and bigger mobilizations, the idea that Russia will close the border, stop people fleeing. But they didn’t need to do it last time, in September. There was talk of 700,000 men leaving but I’d be really dubious about that number, because that doesn’t take into account the number of people who came back again. What I suspect now is that those who want to flee and those who can flee will have already done so.
The chief means of avoiding military service is not just leaving the country, it’s bribing the recruiters, bribing doctors to write you off, so I’d be really surprised if they do close the border. I just can’t see what the benefit would be to the state, because they hit their recruitment target of 300,000 last time quite easily. Now, if the new target is 500,000, they’re probably going to be able to do it as well.
There is every sign that Russia is becoming a more and more totalitarian, more closed off country and that the government is willing to do everything, including totally reforming its culture, totally reforming the economy in order to support not just this war, because the concept is now that Russia is a country continually at war and the threat isn’t restricted to Ukraine.
Throughout the war there has been talk of Russia’s potential use of existing serving conscripts doing the regular military service, is the Kremlin worried that something like that might be a step too far?
I do think that there could be a kind of creeping frustration, especially as bodies are continually expended. The way that Russia is fighting around Bakhmut suggests that the strategy hasn’t really changed to one of pure frozen conflict and stagnation. (Editor’s note: The interview was recorded in January). But the government is doing some things to wrest back that narrative. We’ve seen some groups of soldiers’ mothers, soldiers’ widows coming out of the woodwork in support of the war. Lately, we’ve seen Putin supposedly meeting soldiers’ mothers, some of whom turned out, of course, not to be mothers at all. The state is trying to say that, as regrettable as the fighting is, as regrettable as the sacrifice is, the state cares. The state is doing the best it possibly can for those who are dying and their families. It seems ludicrous from our perspective, but when you’re on the inside of this propaganda world and you do have some sort of—if not complete trust in—respect for the Russian state more than the Western media, it’s effective.
Can you paint a picture of the mentality of the mainstream masses in Russian cities at the moment, is the Russian government successful in fighting a battle to win the hearts and minds?
I think that in a subtle and strange way, it is working. We know that there are still opposition elements within Russia. I know that social media would have you think that nobody in Russia cares, and everybody is completely indifferent to the suffering of Ukrainians, but that’s not true. The problem that the opposition has, if we are saying that probably 15 to 20% of the population are deeply uncomfortable in some way with what’s happening, is that who are they following? Nobody. There is no opposition leader because the state has jailed, slandered, libeled them so effectively over the last few years. Even online, I would argue that there is very little sense of any opposition movement, if you can even call it a movement.
On the other hand, there is a radical demographic that’s probably the same size as the opposition, but on the other end, maybe a little bit bigger. This group seems full of life, full of ideas and impetus right now, because many people on this side, including amongst the youth, really feel like they are entering a kind of apocalyptic conflict where Russia has to fight the war against the West, against liberals, against homosexuals, against Ukrainians, against all of these things that are somehow diseasing Russia.
And in between we have something of a murky middle made up of around 50% of the population. Time after time in opinion polls, in focus groups anyway, these people show they are willing to follow the state, to do what they think or what the state thinks is best. That’s why you get these quirky opinion polls where 60% of people say that the war should end, but 60% of people say that the war should continue if Putin says so. Those are the people that the opposition needs to win over but cannot because the state is doing such an effective job.
Through social media groups, through material that just permeates the culture of persuading people that “Things may be bad now, you may have to make some sacrifices now, but remember
the 1990s? Remember how America abused us? Remember the Soviet period when America was trying to destroy us? They’re trying to do it again now. So, if you hate us, think how much worse it could be.” And those people are thoroughly unmoved.
Where is Russia’s anti-war opposition?
Do you see any potential alternative trajectories that this kind of frustration, fear, or panic could manifest along? Mass social disobedience, violent riots, strikes in workplaces, illegal border crossings, or just a new subculture of young men who stay at home all the time and stop going outside?
The answer might be that it’s a combination of all of these things.
But more realistically, change is going to come from the top rather than the bottom. There is no promise that that change is going to be moving Russia in a more liberal or a more pacifist direction. Even change from the bottom may actually coalesce around the nationalist extremists, those who want to use even more firepower against Ukraine. And we’re seeing some of that emerge on some of the more extreme right-wing telegram groups. Those people have a far greater reach than the opposition in Russia today, and the state tacitly permits them to criticize the state in certain ways. And they’re playing a more dangerous game there than they are with the opposition. And so, in a sense, you have to be careful what you wish for, because we may see more widespread protests that are actually revanchist in nature, especially when we’re thinking five, 10 years in the future rather than five or 10 weeks in the future.
We’re at a really, really dangerous point. Over 2023 and 2024, the war will most certainly still be being fought very fiercely with high casualties on both sides. On one hand, the Kremlin is trying to foster this dominant kind of bottom-up agitation. On the other, the moment could come where suddenly the Kremlin’s interests and the interests of those groups stop aligning.
There are so many different factions wandering around in Russian society. There is Dugin and his crowd, then there is Prigozhin who seems to be completely, almost brilliantly amoral. But the issue for the state begins when these factional disagreements, both with the regime and with each other, start to threaten the ability of the state to make and execute decisions.
Hypothetically, what happens if Dugin calls his youth fascist crowd to go out to protest in the center of Moscow? On the same weekend, Prigozhin decides, actually, I’m not going to attack Bakhmut, I’m going to go off and do something else. Whether it’s refusing to fight, whether it’s bringing all the troops back home again, we just don’t know what’s going to happen.
You talk in your work about the cult of the dead and the war heroes as part of the rapid militarization we have seen in Russia. Do you see a potential limit to how far they might push the narrative in this unhinged direction if they feel they need to?
I think logically there must be some limit. But here is the conceptual danger that I lay out in the “Z Generation” book. So much of this thought exists in social media bubbles, where there is always this pressure to one up each other. Every time bad news hits, the pro-war crowd aren’t rationally reassessing the way that the war is being conducted, they’re simply fishing for clicks and rage baiting each other to say that we need to go one step further. We need to go one step more, it doesn’t matter that people are dying, they say.
For these people, we have to understand that there is no conceptual difference between Russia and Ukraine. They are fighting a war in Russia to save Russia and Russians. They are genuinely
convinced of this, it’s a sort of quasi-religious fact of life. It’s a cult-like mentality, and cults don’t respond to facts in the way you expect them to. When you challenge them with reality, they are more likely to actually double down deeper into cult-like thinking.
With the population so juiced-up on propaganda, if, one day, the Kremlin has had enough and wants to remove itself from this war, could this cult-like state of society be exited quickly?
It can be reversed, but the longer it goes on for, the harder it’s going to be as you have new generations, new young Russians entering the public who know only how to speak this language of war and sacrifice and death, to see the West as something irrevocably tainted with vindictive Russophobia.
But the great failing of the Russian political project over the last 20 years has been, in a sense, instilling this sense of passivity because there are still vast numbers of Russians who mostly wish that the state would just butt out of their lives. I don’t think the answer is in promising people new Western lifestyles because the West is just so associated with this, this Russophobia even into the murky middle. People are distrustful of the West, so it can’t be a repeat of the ways that things were handled in the early 1990s, even if it would be rational.
What could have a really wide appeal is someone who represents a Russian alternative to Putin who says we’re going to stop fighting these ground wars, we’re going to leave you to live your life, we’re going to promote private enterprise within a crackdown on criminals. Such change will have to come from the top, though, and it will require state reform.
Right now, I don’t see any of the elites in Russia having any interest in doing that whatsoever, because they’re all making pretty well out of the corruption of the state. And of course, many of them are genuinely attached to this ideology of Russia’s historical messianic mission.
From the state’s perspective, if you have this war that drags out and takes more and more lives while the only success they can talk about is taking Soledar or Bakhmut, how will the ideology evolve over time, when you have this proud country that’s getting weaker and weaker, whose only remaining reason for existence seems to be to destroy Ukraine?
Well, I’ll tell you very shortly that the answer is that the raison d’etre is not destroying Ukraine, it is saving Russia.
There was a story in Russian media just this morning (Jan. 16), saying that Ukraine has been shelling refugees with phosphorus weapons. The story is not “Look how well we’re doing in Bakhmut,” it’s “If we don’t continue fighting, then Russians, your brothers, your sisters are going to be killed.”
It goes back to this understanding that there is no difference conceptually between Russia and Ukraine, which is completely distorted. But when you understand that Russia’s under attack, it means we need to save ourselves. We need to save our people. Well, it is worth going and fighting, we don’t have a choice but to keep pushing. Russia is fighting this isolated, lonely battle against a world that is against it and that has a real appeal to people.
I suspect at some point that this incredibly bloody, body-heavy form of warfare will start to draw to a close. Russia will pick some boundaries, declare a semi-victory, and say we are now protecting all of the people in the territory we’ve claimed. The narrative will be that Ukraine is occupying the parts of Russia that we’ve unilaterally declared to be ours. And Russia will just keep arbitrarily shelling and bombing Ukraine.
Could mobilization, battlefield defeats cost Putin his regime?
Suppose society is only pushed more in this extremist direction, but Ukraine is still advancing on the battlefield, and suddenly we’re talking about the capture of Donetsk or something like that. What do you think would break first internally in Russia?
We could absolutely see more escalation. I’ve been cynical and pessimistic so far, but a more positive reading of it would be to go back to the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, which everybody expected the Soviets would do very well. Sound familiar? Then, who would have thought what we would have in 1990? And the war became symbolic of this flailing nation that just wasn’t really going anywhere. Everybody went about doing and saying the things that they believed were Soviet, but increasingly behaving in the opposite way. It is entirely possible to see a scenario where this war drags on for another 10 years, where Russian boys continue dying at the front and in this very underwhelming, disappointing way.
Everybody gets sick of the war, sick of the state. The elites grow frustrated because they can’t enjoy the European vacations anymore. The middle classes are annoyed because those holidays in Dubai and Egypt and Cyprus become inaccessible to them. Consumer goods start drying up. Russia falls behind in a technological arms race, and eventually the periphery starts to break. We see protests around the edges of Russia, discontent amongst the more poverty-stricken regions of the country. Maybe we see protests in Moscow as well. Things could change really quickly, and then we could reach a tipping point.
But it’s not coming tomorrow. We’re talking five years, 10 years, or 15. But we have to understand that the state can get out of the war intact. There is no guarantee that Russia could collapse, but it is also unlikely that it will be able to continue to wage the kind of war that Putin seems to want.
Francis Farrell is a reporter at the Kyiv Independent. He has worked as managing editor at the online media project Lossi 36, and as a freelance journalist and documentary photographer. He has previously worked in OSCE and Council of Europe field missions in Albania and Ukraine, and is an alumnus of Leiden University in The Hague and University College London.