Talks do not stop tanks: critics on Western diplomacy are rising as the Russian military is operating in Ukraine. But are the Kremlin’s tactics backed by the public? The first signs of Russian citizens’ anti-war opposition become visible.
Democratic peace needs a democratic audience
We are living in dangerous times again. Europeans rub their eyes, stunned by pictures of troop manoeuvring so close to their homes for so long not marred by … what is it called again – the absence of peace?
“The civil constitution of every state should be republican“, claimed philosopher Immanuel Kant in the first definite article in his writing “On perpetual peace“. Translating Kant’s historical understanding of republican into democratic, modern theorists in international relations still refer to a simple but promising idea: democratic states don’t fight against each other.
The argument behind this hypothesis is simple: if a state’s citizens need to consent to waging a war, its outbreak is unlikely since the citizens themselves are not willing to bear the costs of a conflict.
So are Russian citizens ready to bear the costs of a war?
Mourning. Soldiers’ mothers object
Here are those who have the highest losses making the clearest stance against the war in Ukraine: the mothers and relatives of Russian servicemen killed or detained during fights. The head of the Russian Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, Valentina Melnikova found clear words against a secret military mission in the interview with Anna Nemtsowa at The Daily Beast. Melnikova told that she felt “personally humiliated as a citizen of the Russian Federation by our commander-in-chief’s pure, direct crime” and that Putin by “violating not only international laws, not only the Geneva Convention, [he] also is breaking Russian Federation law about defense”.
Complaints of relatives demanding information on the destiny of servicemen are piling up and give sad evidence on the use of regular Russian troops on the Ukrainian territory. Lyudmila Bogatenkova, who presides the Soldiers’ Mothers branch in Stavropol, South Russia, told the BBC that they had already listed 400 names of wounded and dead soldiers.
The Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees was founded in 1991 as a reaction to a widespread maltreatment of recruits in the Russian Army and now consists of a network that spreads over the whole Russian Federation. Since the early days of protest against the Soviet-Afghan war in 1989, the organisation has enjoyed high credentials among Russian citizens. Their opposition against the war in Chechnya saw a landslide support culminating in the “March of Mothers Compassion“ from Moscow to Grozny in 1995, eventually stopped by the Russian military.
Recent nationwide opinion polls of the independent Moscow based Levada research centre show that the idea of Russia entering a war with Ukraine becomes unpopular with the Russian public. Whereas in March this year almost one third of the public was backing the Russian intervention, the trend seems to be changing: a narrow majority of 43 per cent says “No” to the question “Would you support the Russian leadership in the event of an open military conflict”. The key word is of course “open”, since in the same study it is revealed that only 26 per cent of respondents do see that Russia is at war with Ukraine.
Statistics are not moving emotions. The death of a son, brother or husband does. With the intrusion of regular troops into Ukraine, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine is all the more challenged by reports of missed soldiers, who were silently buried in unmarked graves, giving no notice to their relatives – all that remains is an inactive profile in social media (see also Novaya Gazeta).
No news is good news? Silence forced on media and critics
“For less sophisticated people, he relies on brainwashing, [f]or more sophisticated but less honest people, he needs to bribe them. For honest, sophisticated people, he uses repression” – that is how Sergei Guriev, professor and former rector at the New Economic School in Moscow, sums up the different ways of suppression at Putin’s command. These are also the methods that compelled him to leave Russia after he openly criticised the imprisonment of Khodorkovsky.
Coverage on the whereabouts and destiny of Russians killed during fights are hard to be found in the Russian media and obviously hindered by officials – as investigations of the independent Russian newspaper Nowaya Gazeta showed earlier this year. Attempts to create an oppositional public sphere on the Internet challenging the official media – as the blogger Navalny famously did – have been met with stricter legislation against the blogosphere. In April the Duma passed a law that obliges websites with more than 3 000 daily readers to register with the mass media overseer, Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media), and abide to stronger regulations.
The growing public dissent to the dispatch of Russian citizens to the war zone in Eastern Ukraine is silenced at the very beginning with a “foreign agent” law suit against non-government organisations such as the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee. The most drastic example of whistle blowers becoming objects of aggression is the assault on the journalist Lev Shlosberg on 29 April. Shlosberg, leader of the Pskov branch of the liberal democratic party Yabloko, had published data gathered during an investigation on the death of Russian paratroopers in eastern Ukraine. In the eyes of Yabloko chairman Sergei Mitrokhin, the anonymous attack “is the direct consequence of the state propaganda mobbing people with a different point of view and labelling them enemies and ‘the fifth column”.
Using a hybrid mix of direct repressive measures and more subtle ways of controlling its citizens’ views, the Russian leadership once again gives testimony to its quality as a hybrid regime. Internal factors are highly relevant in external confrontations, even though we tend to be distracted by the haze of media coverage on war fare and troop manoeuvres.
Citizens vs Government: Russians’ Trust Game
In Milan foreign ministers of the EU member states struggled hard to find a joint answer to the Russian aggression. Europeans’ endless search for compromises conveys an image of weakness strongly contrasted by Russian assertiveness. “We need to call a spade a spade. This is the 2nd Russian invasion of Ukraine within a year” are the alarming words of Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt who calls on Europeans to face the facts. But is the Russian leadership as determined as its military operation in Ukraine suggests? The large efforts invested in masking its actions and the constant denial of all evidences show the Kremlin’s mistrust in unfavourable public opinion and social movements.
Western diplomats’ recent demands to “play with open cards” suggest a certain respect for Putin’s scrupulous power game. But in Russia itself people might now rightfully ask: how powerful is a country’s government if it needs to lie to its own people?