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‘We’re making a snowman. Never mind it’s the summer, we have our orders.’ Political scientist Kirill Rogov on disappointment with Putin — among ordinary Russians and the ruling class alike
A shift of public opinion is underway in Russia, following the Russian-orchestrated pseudo-referendums, the annexation of Ukrainian territories, and finally mobilization in Russia itself. The last event in particular has shocked the public opinion. Now that 25 million Russians are facing the direct threat of being drafted, the prior consensus among people who once supported the war has fractured. New polling data suggests that the public may be on its way to consolidating in its disappointment with Vladimir Putin as a president. Meduza discussed the latest public-opinion data and its implications with Kirill Rogov, a Russian political scientist and founder of the Re: Russia analytical center, who gave an extended Russian-language interview about Putin’s crumbling image, ferment in the upper rungs of power, and what future scenarios are possible for Russia under these conditions. This article is a condensed version of Rogov’s analysis.
‘To have all of Russia bound by blood’
Based on recent studies, we can isolate three different factions within the mass of Russians who support the war.
The first of them can be described as the faction of “total war.” They think that the West cannot deal with Russia’s existence in principle. They believe that the West was getting ready for an offensive on Russia, and is now trying to destroy it by the hands of Ukraine.
Next, there is a “just war” faction, which thinks that this war is a matter of justice. Their idea is that the Russian and Russian-speaking residents of Eastern Ukraine were persecuted by the “nationalist Ukrainian government,” and that Russia has a duty to defend them. This narrative corresponds to the international doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” which justifies external interventions when there’s a threat of genocide, or some other humanitarian cause to intervene. This faction believes in a localized “special operation” which doesn’t entail a total war against the whole West.
The third faction are the “conformists.” These people would cancel the “special operation” retroactively, if only they could change the past. They’re not so sure about the arguments used to justify the war; they think that it could have been avoided. But since it’s happening anyway, they “support it,” since the leadership knows better. And, perhaps more often than not, they feel that it would be dangerous not to show their support. What they definitely don’t want is to confront the regime or its manufactured “majority” public opinion.
The Russian propaganda represents the first two factions best. If you turn on “60 Minutes,” the talk show run by Olga Skabeyeva, or Vladimir Solovyov’s show, everyone there will be shouting that Russia is at war with the entire “collective West” and NATO, and that we must all rise to defend the Fatherland. But, at the very same time, ordinary news programs on the main channels are talking about Russia’s highly localized and very careful “special operation,” conducted by our highly-professional armed forces to liberate our compatriots suffering under the nationalist Kyiv regime.
The general mobilization was a shock to the “just war” party and the “conformists” alike. It threatens the consensus that had been, until then, established if pushed down everyone’s throats. The change reflected immediately in the post-September 21 polls. Even the Public Opinion Fund (which mainly conducts polls for the Russian President’s Office) has registered this. Before mobilization, their question “What is the mood you notice most among the people around you?” was answered with the word “anxiety” just over 30 percent of the time. Following the mobilization decree, this answer doubled in frequency — people now mention “anxiety” 69 percent of the time.
The public is in shock from mobilization, but it has not yet worked out whom to blame. Putin, meanwhile, is an experienced manipulator of the public’s fears and other “mass emotions.” Presently, he is trying to expand the total-war faction at the expense of the moderates. Putin’s idea is to have all Russians bound together by the blood on their hands — to unite them as jointly culpable in the eyes of the world. In his criminal logic, people who lost their loved ones, friends, or relatives in the war, must join the party of revenge and total war. They must become involved and committed. Consider the contrast: at the beginning of the war, Putin was clearly getting ready for a 1945 “cosplay”: here we are, watching a victory parade. Instead, his rhetoric today reenacts 1941: enemy at the gates, Fatherland in peril, brothers and sisters “rise up one and all.”
But the shock of mobilization can do the opposite — and turn the two moderate factions away from supporting the war at all. Before the mobilization, the cost of resistance and protest was higher than the cost of conformity. Now, the reverse is true. It’s the future behavior of these former moderate war supporters — whose worldview has just been shattered — that will decide the future of public opinion in Russia.
What about the Russian ruling class?
Among the different factions within the Russian leadership — and even within Putin’s innermost circle — the “war party” is a definite minority. Few people watched the broadcast of the Security Council meeting that preceded Russia’s recognition of the “DNR” and “LNR” last February, triggering the war. The key speakers at that meeting were Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, and Sergey Naryshkin, the director of foreign intelligence.
Putin asked them a question: “Americans don’t want to negotiate with us; talking to them is useless. Shall we move on to decisive actions, recognizing the LNR and DNR?” Every single one of those five speakers said that the president is right, but we could try again, and give the West another chance. This got Putin very nervous, so he began “trolling” Naryshkin. Then Lavrov and Shoigu piped up again — and suddenly they had a different idea.
It’s Putin who dragged the elites, and the people, into the war — he simply put everyone before the fact. And Elvira Nabiullina’s attempt of silent protest at that meeting — by sitting at the table with her arms crossed, looking down — only led to Putin’s demonstrative appointment of Nabiullina as the head of the Central Bank. Everyone else understood that the situation rules out resistance and protest: the rest of that circle don’t even have Nabiullina’s courage.
This doesn’t mean that all division has vanished. Lately, Russia’s military failures have been encouraging ferment at the top. Its main evidence is not so much what Kadyrov and Prigozhin are saying, but that Putin himself has changed his conception of the war — not once, but two times.
‘Bulldogs under the rug’
Putin’s first conception of the war — the way in which he framed it — was “Blitzkrieg,” or “Kyiv in three days.” This failed, due to the absolute incompetence of those calculations.
He then moved on to the second idea, which was to limit the “special operation” to the south-east of Ukraine. This failed, too — due to the West’s cooperation with Ukraine on the one hand, and the Russian contract army’s inability to keep up with its losses by replenishing itself. It became clear that the Russian army could not hold on to such large occupied territories.
The third conception of the war finally embraced by Putin is “mobilization.” And here, too, we see more of the same organizational incompetence of Putin’s system. Even the key propagandists are now pointing this out — though without criticizing Putin personally.
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The failure of all three Putin’s war conceptions, one after another, is definitely something that undermines his image. For the past 20 years, this image had two key aspects. First, Putin’s governmental machine was supposed to be competent and relatively effective. Second was the idea that, one way or another, in the end Putin wins. If he finds himself in a losing situation, he will escalate — and he will win. This is the basis of his public image as a powerful and successful leader. But today, the elites are witnessing him fail — three epic fails in a row, in fact. This confronts them with a choice, and what they’re choosing is not a “winning strategy” — but the preferable strategy for losing.
Nuclear war is a big and complicated subject, where few people can say anything of value about the real possible scenarios. The one thing we can say is this: there’s no limit to Putin’s fear of defeat, his terror of having to acknowledge it, and his desire to avoid a public admission of incompetence. He has built his entire career and his personal image on the idea that his government machinery is flawlessly effective. This is very dangerous. But we must remember that nuclear calls cannot be made unilaterally. And since the elites have seen that prior escalation steps only made things worse, it’ll be hard to convince them to embrace yet another round of escalation.
In this setting, Putin’s sudden (hypothetical) death would overjoy and thrill the elites, while at the same time causing a huge fight among the “bulldogs under the rug.”
The faulty government machinery
Putin’s government machine contains an internal bloc — the President’s Administration, which often plans different political campaigns. This bloc spent two months on internal polemics about how to conduct the Ukrainian “referendums” to make them convincing. Then, suddenly, someone stepped in and said: “That's it. We’re doing it the day after tomorrow, and the annexation in another couple of days.” This is clearly out of character, since this very same machinery has previously planned elaborate political campaigns, and always very thoroughly. In this case, the situation was clearly forced, and in the rush to get things done no one cared any longer about making the “referendums” as much as appear convincing. “We’re making a snowman: never mind it’s the summer, we have our orders.”
Same thing with mobilization. It looked like some late-Soviet campaign: the party bosses come up with something, local governments rush to execute the orders — and it all ends in some monstrous embarrassment.
The cause of all this rushing around is the collapse of Putin’s second conception of this war as a “special operation.” He didn’t respond to emerging threats: the loss of artillery advantage thanks to the Western weapons supply to Ukraine, and the difficulties with replenishing the Russian army. His failure became clear when Ukrainians began to advance along two different directions, and everyone understood that the front was collapsing.
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