Who are the everyday Russians rallying behind Putin’s war?

A recent survey by the independent pollster Levada showed more than 80 percent support the Russian military’s actions in Ukraine.

A protester paints the "Z" sign on a street, in reference to Russian tanks marked with the letter, during a rally organised by Serbian right-wing organisations in support of Russian invasion in Ukraine, in Belgrade March 4, 2022. - Around a thousand Serbian ultra nationalist supporters marched in Belgrade in support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The 'Z' has become a rallying sign to show support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine [Andrej Isakovic/AFP]

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been criticised by protesters who took to the streets, Russian priests, academics, and cultural figures.

Thousands have been arrested for participating in anti-war rallies, and many have fled the country amid a growing crackdown and worsening economy as Western sanctions pile up.

But how representative these critics are of Russia as a whole is uncertain.

A recent survey by the independent pollster Levada showed that more than 80 percent support Russian military’s actions in Ukraine. As some observers noted, opinion polls might be skewed by the political climate. Prison terms for spreading “disinformation”, for instance, may have left respondents less-than-honest.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to dismiss these numbers entirely.

Back in 2014, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, President Vladimir Putin’s popularity surged to a record 89 percent – although that was a relatively bloodless and less messy campaign.

The black-and-orange St George’s ribbon, a symbol of the victory in World War II – and more generally, Russian military glory, became a ubiquitous sight.

This kind of boost is what political scientists call the “rally round the flag” effect, when a crisis supports an otherwise unpopular leader.

“The [current] rise in Putin’s popularity was expected because of the dynamics of collective identity and its salience during any foreign confrontation, and war is the ultimate means of bringing the national identity to the centre of Russians’ worldview,” political scientist Gulnaz Sharafutdinova told Al Jazeera.

“While the early days of the war [in Ukraine] saw some confusion, the consolidation in society grew with each day. Sanctions and how they were perceived and conveyed also played into hardening of a defensive stance vis-à-vis the West.”

Sharafutdinova argued that Russians are frustrated with new sanctions and feel resentful towards Western nations, which may have strengthened a sense of group identity.

Putin’s popularity

Putin has in the past enjoyed popularity for bringing stability and relative prosperity to Russians after the chaotic, crime-ridden 1990s.

At the same time, many Russians have been increasingly dismayed by Western nations. In their view, their country, once a superpower that had sent the first man into space, has been increasingly disregarded on the international stage.

They have accused their Cold War rivals, which have crept up to their borders, of meddling in the 1996 presidential election – when Boris Yeltsin defeated Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov, and of breaking international law two years later to bomb its ally Serbia into submission.

And Putin is seen as challenging the US’s self-appointed role as the world’s policeman.

According to 68-year-old Valentina, an academic from St Petersburg, Ukraine is just another one of the United States’s projects.

“After the coup d’état in Ukraine in 2014, which took place with the participation of the United States, the country came under external control,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to the Maidan revolution that led to the removal of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, which critics like Valentina have dismissed as a Washington-orchestrated coup.

“Over the years since the coup, Ukraine has become the poorest country in Europe and is flooded with all sorts of weapons, including biological. For Russia, this is a dangerous and aggressive neighbour. I believe that Russia was forced to take this step.”

Russia has repeatedly accused the US of developing biological weapons in Ukraine. US officials have acknowledged bankrolling laboratories in Ukraine for the study of deadly pathogens, for the purpose of disease control.

US officials openly supported the 2013-14 revolution, and leaked conversations revealed then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland picking her favourites for Ukraine’s new government, including hardline anti-Russian politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk. A few weeks after that leak, Yatsenyuk was appointed prime minister.

Valentina considered the current Ukrainian government to be entirely a puppet of the United States and believed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy could not compromise with Russia, even if he wanted to.

The White House, she believed, is willing to sacrifice Ukraine to wage a proxy war against Russia.

“Even if he had made such an attempt, he would probably have been able to claim the Nobel Peace Prize, but obviously he would not live to see it as he would be eliminated immediately,” she said of Zelenskyy. “The United States will wage war in Ukraine to the last drop of Ukrainian blood.”

Russians who back their country’s so-called “special military operation” also believe the Ukrainian government has been captured by neo-Nazi elements, which ties into a long history of Ukrainian nationalism being seen as hostile to Russia.

Superputin comic depicts the Russian president as a karate-kicking sensei fighting terrorists and zombie-like liberals
Sergey Kalenik’s ‘Superputin’ comic depicts the Russian president as a karate-kicking sensei fighting terrorists and zombie-like liberals [Courtesy of Sergey Kalenik]

But despite Ukrainian nationalists constantly asserting themselves against Russia, even collaborating with Nazi forces during World War II, many agree with Putin and see the two nations as one of the same.

“Every Russian has relatives in Ukraine, and also every Ukrainian has relatives in Russia – it is impossible to distinguish them. They are physically one people speaking the same language,” said Sergey Kalenik, a 36-year-old PR professional in Moscow whose comic series “Superputin” casts the Russian president as a hero.

“Ukraine is an integral part of Russia, just like Wales is for the UK, and anyone who thinks otherwise is not a Russian person.”

Back to 2014, Ukrainian ultra-nationalists took an active part in street fighting with the Berkut riot police during the Maidan revolution.

The following year, dozens of pro-Russian activists were burned alive in a trade union building in Odesa, and the notorious paramilitary group Azov, which attracted neo-Nazis, was formed to combat pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east.

The narrative that Ukraine is a country overrun by Neo-Nazis has often been touted by Putin, whose stated war goals include “denazifying” the country.

Kalenik considered the “special operation”, as the invasion is officially called, a calculated, precise, preemptive strike to knock out an opponent and force them into an agreement.

Conflict, it seems, was inevitable.

“The turning point in attitudes towards Ukraine was on May 2, 2014, when in Odesa nationalists herded unarmed Russians into a building and burned them alive,” Kalenik told Al Jazeera.

“The people who did this were not punished, the act was not condemned and instead, Nazis with swastikas like the Azov Battalion remained in power. So, the whole system needs to be changed.

“Ukrainians are held hostage by nationalists – after all, what did Ukrainians vote for in the last elections? Zelenskyy promised to end the war [in Donbas], restore democracy and free entrepreneurship.”

He accused Zelenskyy of destroying Ukraine’s economy, banning opposition parties and cracking down on independent media – which hold some truth. Leading up to the invasion, Zelenskyy shut down several TV stations seen as pro-Russian and had opposition oligarchs arrested, raising concerns about freedom of speech.

“Most importantly, [he] began to gather atomic weapons and Nazi battalions,” said Kalenik. “Does this look like the will of the people? No, it’s a totalitarian dictatorship.”

In Russia, the state has regularly been accused of pressuring independent media and since the war began, all non-state media outlets have either been forced to shut or suspend their operations.

Kalenik was not too worried about them, calling such newspapers and websites “disgusting fascist establishments” peddling “naked propaganda”.

But he still managed to access a variety of news sources despite the crackdown, and is particularly disappointed with Western media coverage – and its emphasis on alleged Russian war crimes.

“Unfortunately, almost everyone has fallen for primitive military propaganda,” he said.

“They cannot even make fakes. The Mariupol maternity hospital, a drama theatre with children, looting by Russian soldiers, Zelenskyy stood in front of a green screen – these cheap productions do not stand up to criticism,” he added, agreeing with the Kremlin’s claims that war crimes have been staged by the Ukrainians.

Source: Al Jazeera