Why do Russians support intervention in Ukraine?

Russia’s actions in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea have been backed predominantly by the older generation.

Putin's core electorate perceive his actions as morally justifiable, writes Minina [Reuters]

In explaining Putin’s drastic moves in Ukraine, commentators have highlighted domestic support for the intervention, stressing Putin’s soaring approval ratings since the start of the conflict. With 94 percent of Russians supporting Russia’s annexation of  Crimea, there is no doubt that the overall perception of the Ukrainian crisis in the country is a product of remarkable mass media fear-mongering campaign, which utilised the image of the neo-fascist to taint democratic developments in Ukraine and to discredit the new Ukrainian leadership.

However, we are yet to understand the specific cultural reasoning behind popular support. Beyond the importance of the propaganda machine, what are the interpretative frames that drive the public’s seemingly unproblematic support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine?

To answer this question, let’s focus on what one would call “ordinary Russians” that fall into the demographic of Putin’s core electorate: the 50+ (my parents’) generation of middle to lower class people whose education is the product of Soviet-era conceptualisation of history, citizenship and identity. Their adamant support for Russia’s takeover of Crimea reflects Russian President’s triumphalist rhetoric of “regional stability”, “rendering a helping hand to the fraternal nation” and “fighting fascism”. 

These people would often see Russia’s actions as justified on two levels. Firstly, appealing to the union between Russian and Ukrainian people, they stress Russia’s “moral” obligation to help the brotherly nation being pulled apart by “ultranationalist thugs” and their Western backers. Secondly, they argue that Russia needs to “be strong” in protecting its own sovereignty and putting an end to the indiscriminate meddling of the West in world affairs.

Listening Post – The Cold War narrative

As someone who condemns Russia’s intervention in Crimea, I have been grappling with the cultural logic that guides their thinking, allowing for a selective filtering of hard facts and connecting the loose ends of the state-instilled narrative. Below I discuss three overarching interpretative frames that underlie their narrative and explain the wider public support for the official line on the Ukrainian crisis.

The union of Russia and Ukraine

The undercurrent paradigm for the interpretation of the events in Ukraine is that of Russians and Ukrainians being essentially the same people, sharing the same cultural identity and the same worldview. Rooted in the Soviet-era nation-building, cultural affinity to the brotherly nation of Ukraine is seen as part of Russia’s own national identity, with Ukrainian history perceived as a microcosm of Russia’s own .

“The idea of Ukrainian identity being separate from the Russian one cannot be conceived of in Russia unless Russia changes its own conception of self-identity formed in the second half of the 19th century and preserved under the Marx-Leninist ideology,” writes Ukrainian historian Vladimir Kravchenko. Within this logic, to recognise Ukraine’s emerging civil identity, especially in its extreme manifestations of an armed conflict, would require significant adjustments of one’s own national identity.

In reality, Ukrainian modern-day national identity is largely construed in opposition to Russia, emphasising the “free spirit” of the “new Ukraine” and contrasting it with the political anaemia of contemporary Russia. In positing its European orientation, the popular national discourse in Ukraine emphasises its historically unique individualistic and democratic foundations, including a deep respect for individual rights, individual dignity, personal freedom, self-governance and the hegemony of popular rule. The Russian society is widely seen as passive, dogmatic, backward-looking and predisposed to blind obedience to state authorityThe sentiment is captured in the bitter lines of a young Ukrainian poet:

We will never be brothers

Neither by motherland nor by mother

You have no free spirit inside you

You are not even a step-sibling to us

You say, “Silence is golden”

While we light up Molotov cocktails

Our blood is boiling

We have no use for a blind relative like you.

In the eyes of Ukrainians, civil dignity and freedom from political dictatorship are basic human rights worthy of human sacrifice. In the eyes of my parents’ generation, such forms of political engagement as civil protests and violent uprisings, are new and unchartered domains with no frames of reference for interpreting them other than that formulated by Russia’s greatest writer, Alexander Pushkin: “God save us from seeing a Russian riot, senseless and merciless.” While the revolutionary Ukrainian poetry portrays the hurling of Molotov cocktails as a symbol of a free democratic spirit, to Russia’s older generation violent clashes on Maidan signify nothing but pointless violence that needs to be stopped.

Counting the Cost – Russia: The threat of sanctions

The US has crossed the red line 

In the symbolic domain, the Crimea crisis undoubtedly epitomises the struggle between Russia and the West, as represented by the US. “Essentially, the re-attachment of the Crimea (…) is a result of 20-odd years of Russia-USA relationships,” argues Vladimir Pozner, a world-renowned analysts of the Cold War mentality.

In justifying Putin’s “firm fist” politics, the popular discourse appeals to the need to stand up to two decades of US’ perceived indiscriminate meddling in the global status quo, including instigating political instability in the neighbouring Ukraine, pushing for the eastward expansion of NATO and encroaching on Russia’s geopolitical interests.

“They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. […] But there is a limit to everything,” stated Putin in his recent address to the State Duma. Echoing his rhetoric’s for redressing post-Soviet historical injustices and defying the double standards exercised by the West, the narrative of my parents’ generation carries a strong sense of historical urgency and conveys the sense of “enough is enough”. The US has crossed the line in the Ukraine affair and Russia has a “moral” obligation to act.

Russia has a ‘moral’ mandate to act

Rooted in traditional notions of morality, Russia’s perceived mandate for a military response is justified through moral, rather than political categories, including “fraternity”, “betrayal”, “justice”, and “sacrifice”. The underlying cultural logic dictates that Russia knows what is right and wrong and has the power to do the right thing.

The monopoly on the moral truth implies that inaction would not only be a display of political weakness but a fundamentally immoral thing. To borrow Vladimir Putin’s terminology, “abandoning”  Crimea at this “historical turning point” would equal a “betrayal”. Just like the US does not need a “permission slip” to defend the security of its people worldwide, Russia does need international support to do what’s “morally right”.

This kind of moral appeal is irrational and runs counter to both hard facts and people’s self-interests. It is largely immune to the international discourse of territorial sovereignty of an independent state or threats of economic sanctions against Russia – neither of which feature in the older generation’s interpretation of events.

It is the interaction of these conceptual frames that results in the interpretation of what is globally seen as an “incredible act of aggression” in terms of “helping a fraternal nation”. It also reconciles the imperative for peace and non-violence with the justification of the “firm fist” politics, including military action.

As was the case with Vladimir Putin’s anti-American rhetoric and the vote-winning narrative of stability, Russian state propaganda does not generate these frames but merely taps into the existing ones by presenting half-truths and carefully choosing the language that picks the desired frame of reference. While it is unsurprising that my parents’ generation interprets the relationship between Russia and the United States within the classic Cold War paradigm, the lack of political consciousness and cultural awareness in filtering through the state propaganda and understanding the nature of Ukraine’s grassroots protest activism is deeply disconcerting.

It will probably take a generational change before Russian society can learn to respect Ukraine’s unique national identity and recognise Ukraine’s struggle for freedom as a progressive democratic force.

Dr Elena Minina is a researcher with Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki. She holds a PhD from the University of Oxford and specialises in post-Soviet Russian studies.