The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russians are told they have two choices: Win this war or be destroyed

They justify Putin’s fratricide because the West, and ‘internal Ukrainians,’ present an existential threat

A bus in Kashira, Russia, displays the hashtag "#heroes Z” as it rolls past a mural of President Vladimir Putin painted on the side of an apartment building. Putin's war in Ukraine appears to have broad support in Russia, where the letter Z has become a nationalist symbol. (Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

On April 1, Aleksey Zhuravlyov, a member of the lower house of the Russian parliament, put a Kremlin spin on the war in Ukraine for the millions of viewers of an influential Russian talk show. Russia wasn’t really fighting Ukraine or Ukrainians; the real enemy was the American-led Western bloc. “We need to introduce a new term,” Zhuravlyov said. “Biden’s war.”

This was creative framing considering that President Vladimir Putin himself prefers to justify Russia’s aggression with more insular rhetoric. He has said that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, while Kremlin propaganda, especially the toxic television talk shows, promote the idea that those who advocate for the country’s genuine independence from Russia are a bunch of Nazis.

But whether it is “Biden’s war” or Putin’s, Russians have rallied around the flag, and most likely that’s because the Kremlin has led them to see the war as an existential choice: Either you win it, or your life is going to be destroyed.

Russians don’t hear the truth about Putin’s war. The CIA can help.

The available evidence shows significant support for the war, as well as a surge in patriotism. According to the Levada Center, a respected independent pollster, the number of Russians who thought the country was going in the right direction rose from 52 percent before the invasion to 69 percent after, and Putin’s personal approval rating soared to a whopping 83 percent. But these figures come with a major caveat. New legislation makes “discrediting the armed forces” a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison, and that can encompass all sorts of things, including calling the war a war — circumstances that cast doubt on whether the polls are representative or the answers truthful. As an experiment staged by researchers at the London School of Economics showed, support for the war goes down by 15 percentage points when people are encouraged to speak their mind.

Whatever the true level of support, it’s clear that Russians aren’t necessarily buying Putin’s rationale for the invasion. In a joint project with the Ukrainian pollster KIIS, the Levada Center for years has asked Russians what kind of relations they envisioned between their country and Ukraine. In a poll conducted in December, only 18 percent of Russians said they wanted the two countries to become one, while 51 percent said they wanted Russia and Ukraine to be independent countries with an open border, and 24 percent said they wanted independent countries with a hard border.

In a Levada Center poll published on the day Putin launched the invasion, only 25 percent of Russians supported Russia’s expanding its borders to include the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics — Donbas, where much of the heaviest fighting is concentrated now — while 33 percent wanted the region to become independent and 26 percent wanted it to remain part of Ukraine.

That doesn’t sound like a people who believe, as Putin does, that Ukraine is part of Russia and Ukrainians are Russian. It’s hard to deny that the war is fratricidal, however, and that would seem to make selling it to the public more difficult. How can you flatten Ukrainian cities where millions of Russians have relatives and friends? Consider Russia’s own leadership: No. 3 in the official hierarchy, Valentyna Matviyenko, is from Shepetivka in western Ukraine; Russia’s current chief Ukraine negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, was born in Smila, not far from Kyiv; his predecessor Dmitry Kozak grew up in a predominantly Ukrainian-speaking rural area of central Ukraine, rather than one of its Russian-speaking regions. Or look at people directly involved in Russian aggression against Ukraine: Dmitry Sablin, like Zhuravlyov a member of the Duma, is a native of Mariupol, a large city now practically razed by the Russian army; Sablin is responsible for the Russian parliament’s liaison with Donetsk. And a general to whom Putin awarded a medal “for the return of Crimea” is also the father-in-law of Pavlo Klymkin, who headed Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry for five years after Russia’s first attack, in 2014.

Putin’s case for invading Ukraine rests on phony grievances and ancient myths

The pattern of deeply intertwined relationships extends into broader Russian society. Having some kind of connection across the border is the norm, not the exception.

So how do Russians justify support of what so far has been a series of crimes against humanity committed against a people who are the transnational-relationship equivalent of next of kin?

The Kremlin employs two related narratives here. The first paints the enemy as the West, not Ukraine. This framing turns Russia into the smaller, weaker side in the conflict — a victim, not a perpetrator. The war, in this scenario, emerges as the climax of an escalation driven by the West as NATO gradually expanded toward Russian borders in the last three decades.

Medinsky the negotiator, who is better known in Russia as an architect of the historical narratives promoted by Putin’s regime, expresses the second framing best: “Russia’s very existence is at stake now,” he said last month. Russia, in this telling, is going through a period like the one that led to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, or the one when the Soviet system was falling apart in the early 1990s.

Messages aimed at triggering the survival instinct are extremely powerful in Russia, where various invasions from the West, including Adolf Hitler’s attempt at exterminating eastern Slavs as a race, define the historical experience. There is a mode of Russian collective behavior in the face of mortal danger: People forget their old grievances and rally behind the leader, even one hated by many. This is what happened in 1941, when the victims and perpetrators of communist genocide united under Joseph Stalin to repel the existential threat posed by the Nazis.

Russians are not facing an existential threat now, of course. Rather, it is their own country that’s posing an existential threat to a neighbor. But the human tendency is to grasp for comforting, rather than truthful, narratives. It takes something along the lines of Germany’s defeat in World War II to accept reality. It also takes decades, rather than years or months.

Freed from its totalitarian prison in 1991, Russian society emerged badly traumatized by a century of outright genocide and bleak Soviet existence. It was re-traumatized by the turmoil of the 1990s. Even in the current circumstances, people appear intent on resisting further re-traumatization. They remain oblivious to the fact that the more they deny reality, the worse will be the future trauma. Unlike Ukrainians, Russians don’t even have the illusion of the West embracing and integrating them after this conflict. Pro-Putin Russians assume that all the West wants is to punish them, so they’ll try their best to postpone this punishment or prevent it altogether.

Meanwhile, opposition-minded Russians are seeing the carnage Putin has brought to Russian-speaking cities in Ukraine and realizing that he may exact the same in Russia if people rise against him. They get the message. When Putin says Russians and Ukrainians are one people and then — in the next breath — begins slaughtering these people en masse, he is unleashing civil war, by his own logic. For now, that is confined to a neighboring country. But some pro-Kremlin commentators, including the editor of a key history journal and a well-known writer, have recently taken to branding members of the Russian opposition “internal Ukrainians.” The implication is that anti-Putin Russians should be treated with the same cruelty as Ukrainians, because they want to destroy Russia. Sergey Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, spelled it out. Russians who didn’t support the “special operation” in Ukraine could expect the fate of Ivan Mazepa, an 18th-century Ukrainian leader who sided with the Swedes against Peter the Great, lost the war and died in exile.

Russians face few choices that don’t lead to self-destruction. The West might be thinking that by increasing economic and military pressure, it will achieve a behavioral change, and perhaps even a collapse of Putin’s regime, but it may just as well cause the opposite, uniting people in what they see as an apocalyptic battle for survival.

Putin wasn’t a rising totalitarian star when he unleashed the war in Ukraine. He was a declining authoritarian leader who prolonged his political life by promoting conflict and polarization. This war bought him a few more years in power. He paralyzed the resistance to his regime by turning his supporters into accomplices in war crimes and those who oppose him into enemies of the state. He doesn’t really need to occupy Ukraine; he needs the war per se.

The West will not win this conflict unless it gets Russians on board. But without a clearly spelled-out vision of a post-Putin Russia fully integrated into the West — the kind of vision that inspires Ukrainians to fight against Putin — the vector of Russian society will remain fratricidal and, increasingly, suicidal. This is bad news for everyone on the planet, given that Russia’s nuclear arsenal is capable of destroying humanity. As Putin once put it: “Why do we need the world if there is no Russia in it?”

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