For Russian leader Vladimir Putin, public opinion acts as both a constraint and a license. He is constrained to avoid actions that drive down his job approval. There might have been no invasion of Ukraine had Putin anticipated a serious loss of public support as a consequence. In contrast, when the Russian people decline to withdraw support when Putin poisons or murders opponents or invades a neighboring sovereign nation, they are renewing Putin’s license to carry out his dark deeds.
Putin cannot use his election “victories” to prop up his regime’s legitimacy. The world knows that the Kremlin decides who can be on the ballot (if the candidate is not in jail or in exile at the time), and even then, the vote count is manipulated, Soviet style, to ensure the desired results. Therefore the Russian leader relies on job approval ratings from public opinion surveys to stake his claim of regime legitimacy. These surveys are conducted by governmental and private organizations, and by and large they tend to agree. Under this reckoning, any Kremlin policy that drives down public support weakens a claim to legitimacy and should be avoided if possible.
On February 24, the day Russian forces invaded Ukraine, Putin’s job approval was in the low 60s. In the first post-invasion surveys, his approval rose to between 70 and 83 percent. (The post-invasion boost fell somewhat short of the public-approval landslide following the Crimea seizure of 2014.) When polling organizations close to the Kremlin ask directly about the Ukraine war itself (described as a “special military operation”), 65 to 71 percent of respondents approve. In private surveys, one-quarter to one-third disapprove of the invasion.
Presumably, Russian respondents might have answered differently if public and social media were open and uncensored. With free media, respondents would know that the February 24 action was a full-scale invasion (“invasion” and “war” were removed from the Kremlin’s public dictionary), not a special “humanitarian” operation limited to East Ukraine. Informed respondents would have known that Ukrainian civilians were being targeted from the air and that the war had high casualties on both sides. They might be horrified by images of Ukrainian civilians executed, with their hands tied behind their backs, in the township of Bucha.
It is tempting to accept the widely held view that ordinary Russians are not to blame for the Ukrainian tragedy. As captives of Kremlin information technology, they are only responding to the lies that are drummed into their heads every hour of every day. As victims of Kremlin propaganda, we cannot accuse them of collective guilt. Rather, we should feel sorry for them.
Not so fast.
In contemporary Russia, 80 percent of families are connected to the Internet. Presumably, those with Internet access can reach forbidden sites using virtual private networks (VPN), which establish secure, encrypted online paths. Computer-literate Russians with an active curiosity can figure out that Russian forces are the aggressors and are committing horrific war crimes. Until recently, curious Russians could even consult the few low-circulation media outlets (TVRain, Novaya Gazeta, and Ekho Moskvy) that were allowed to deviate from the Kremlin line. (These have now been shut down.)
Nor is the Internet the only source of information that can pierce the Kremlin’s propaganda wall. More than seven hundred thousand Russian-passport holders live and work in Europe. A similar number live and work in the United States. There are nearly one million “ethnic Russians” who live in Ukraine, and a high percentage of Ukrainian families have relatives in Russia. Although conversations with friends and relatives who live in Russia can be tense, they are a vehicle for countering Kremlin propaganda.
If there is an “information iron curtain” separating the Russian people from alternative sources of information, it is full of gaping holes. Nevertheless, a considerable portion of Russians appear prepared to believe that Ukrainian neo-Nazis bomb their own people, commit genocide against Russian speakers, and, in Bucha and other formerly occupied townships, stage dead civilian bodies they have murdered, execution style.
Ordinary Russians thus find themselves in a situation akin to that of ordinary Germans during the Third Reich. Presumably, the majority of Germans did not know about the Nazi concentration camps and campaigns of genocide. Nevertheless, after the war the German people carried with them a “collective guilt” as they went through the process of denazification and confronted their participation, to whatever degree, in the works of an evil ideology.
In this age of instant communications, the Russian people do not have to wait for the end of the Ukraine war to begin bearing collective guilt. From the richest oligarchs on London’s Belgravia Square to Russian school kids returning home with bloody noses, Russians who come into contact with the outside world are learning they are not Wilkommen just about anywhere that international airwaves carry images of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Here are some examples of what it is like to be a Russian (or perceived as a friend of Russia):
- Oligarchs Pytor Aven (London) and Vladimir Potanin (New York) had to surrender board positions on prestigious charitable foundations.
- A colleague of mine with a flourishing international engineering business has been removed from the board of an international engineering association.
- A German restaurant posts a notice that it will not serve Russian customers.
- In Munich’s tolerant Schwabing borough, Russian schoolchildren are called Scheiss Russen and mobbed on the playground.
- Ordinary Russian are denied visas to travel to Europe and, moreover, find that European carriers have ceased flights to Russia.
- Some three-quarters of Germans want former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a friend of Putin’s and a board member on Russian energy companies, to be expelled from his SPD party and his pension canceled.
- A Democratic member of the US House Intelligence Committee has proposed “kicking out” Russian students from American colleges.
- Famed conductor Valery Gergiev had to step down as music director of the Munich Philharmonic because of his support for Putin’s war.
- Some German doctors refuse to treat Russian and Belarussian patients.
- European banks suggest that Russian customers take their business elsewhere.
Russians are persona non grata in most parts of the Western world, and they are paying a price. Will they blame the West in a sort of “rally round the flag” reaction? Or will they blame the source of the problem: the fact that Russia is led by an international pariah and has become a rogue state that threatens not just Ukraine but the world?
The world awaits an answer.