It Is Not Only Putin’s War

September 14, 2023
You can come across the phrase “Putin’s aggression against Ukraine” in the info space, which can lead to a false perception of its nature.
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The Russian population bears collective responsibility for this crime. Why?

UkraineWorld asked Lesia Ogryzko, the head of analytics and strategic advocacy at the Center for Defence Strategies.

Four key factors can explain why Russia's aggression against Ukraine is not just Putin's war, but the war of Russia and its people.

  • The most profound factor that serves as the backdrop for everything else is the Russian population's centuries-old mental constructs.

These are deeply ingrained Russian ideological frameworks within both Russian elites and the general population. First and foremost, there are two major Russian nationalist movements: Slavophilia and Euroasianism.

Both movements propagate Russia’s so-called "special path" and special rights that other nations cannot claim. Thus, the notion that Russia is to lead all Slavic, or as Russians refer to them, Eurasian people emerged.

This ideology underpins Russia's emphasis on resolving the"Polish issue" in the last century or the "Ukrainian issue," as well as its denial of Ukraine's right to independence. Given the long history of such mental constructs, it is incorrect to claim that Russia's current aggressive policies are solely the result of Putin's 20-year reign.

  • The second factor is Russia’s media landscape, which is full of propaganda.

It is also the basis of the Russian world-view, and it is inextricably linked to the first factor.

On the one hand, Russian propaganda is effective because the state has complete control over the expertly crafted propaganda machine. On the other hand, the above-mentioned mental constructs, which are rooted in social consciousness, make propaganda even more effective. It’s a vicious circle.

According to a study conducted in 2017-2018 by the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center and the Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership, the ratio of negative to positive coverage of Europe on three major Russian television channels was 85% to 15%. In Ukraine, this ratio was 90% to 10%. It is important to note that for the vast majority of Russians, television remains their primary source of information.

It means that the information background for the full-scale aggression against Ukraine started being prepared long before 2022.

Generalising the detected narratives, Europe was portrayed as a territory of disorder, constant terrorist threats, the migration crisis, and weak institutions. Ukraine was presented as a failed fascist state. Both were marked as spaces of eroded moral principles.

Yet, Russia was portrayed as a power capable of restoring order.

The population, ready to accept or influenced by these narratives, becomes complicit in the crime of aggression, either directly or indirectly, as reflected in the following two blocks.

  • The third factor has to do with statistics.

It reflects the level of support from the Russian population for Russian aggression and Russian war crimes against Ukrainians, as well as their hostile attitude towards the West and Ukraine in general (even before the full-scale invasion). According to the latest Leveda Center poll (August 2023), 70% of Russians still support aggression against Ukraine.

Even before the full-scale invasion, more than half of the Russian population supported a potential military operation against Ukraine. In the earlier period of Russian aggression, in 2014 Russians massively supported the occupation of Crimea (86%).

There is a counter-argument to the claim that statistical data from authoritarian states should be treated with caution because people are afraid to tell the truth.

The Russian Public Opinion Research Center conducted a survey on the influence of the West on Russian culture in August 2022. The questions about Western values and principles were phrased in such a way that respondents faced no risk if they answered truthfully. As a result, 60% of Russians see nothing positive in them, 26% see them as harmful, and only 2% support them. It is a reflection of the Russians’ world-view.

  • The fourth factor is general trends in Russian society and distinct social groups.

It’s reflected in the everyday behaviour of Russians, including their behaviour on social media (genocidal calls in comments and posts, support for aggression). It’s the interception of conversations of the Russian military with their families, who endorse the actions of their relatives.

This can’t be called anecdotal evidence, as it shows a cross-section of attitudes in Russian society. And these are not isolated incidents.

There are numerous social groups that are directly involved in the military aggression against Ukraine. Millions of military personnel are involved in the aggression, as are millions of defence industry workers. The propagandists' community (pseudo-journalists, pseudo-experts) also falls into this category.

It’s a bureaucratic apparatus, a cultural stratum that supports and promotes war, a business community that financially supports the actions of the army, public organizations, and groups of volunteers.

Thus, Russian aggression isn’t only the action of Putin and his inner circle. It’s a wide circle of people who support the aggression or are directly involved in it. That’s why those who are trying to present this idea as an emotional reaction of Ukrainians should take note of this evidence.

Lesia Ogryzko, head of analytics and strategic advocacy at the Center for Defence Strategies