The Battle for People’s Minds in Russia
“Do you support the war or do you want to go to prison for 15 years for opposing the war?”
How would you respond if you received a phone call from a public opinion agency asking for your response to these two questions: “Do you approve or disapprove of President Putin’s job performance? Do you support or oppose the war in Ukraine?”
The overwhelming majority of Americans would undoubtedly register their disapproval of Putin’s job performance and their opposition to the war in Ukraine. But results of a poll of Russian citizens reported very different results. According to data released by a respected independent Russian polling agency, 83 percent of the Russian public approves Putin’s job performance and 81 percent support the war in Ukraine.
How can we explain and interpret the results of this opinion poll? One possible answer is that the majority of Russians are unaware of Putin’s egregious misjudgments and the atrocities being committed by the Russian army. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is spending millions on state-run television channels to convince the Russian public that their country must defend itself from neo-Nazis in Ukraine and imperialists in America. Given their steady diet of misinformation, the Russian public is rallying around their flag by supporting President Putin and their armed forces.
Many analysts caution that the poll numbers must be viewed with great caution. For example, Masha Gessen is a noted journalist who has written a highly regarded biography of Putin. In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Gessen reminded viewers, “Russia is a totalitarian society where the regime survives by terror.” Gessen dismissed the poll numbers as “meaningless” pointing out that the question should have been phrased, “Do you support the war or do you want to go to prison for 15 years for opposing the war?” In an interview with Michael Smerconish, Ivan Nechepurenko, a Russian journalist living in Istanbul, explained the dilemma confronting many Russians: “For many the more psychological reaction is to accept the situation and rally round the flag because if you do not accept it, then you have to act, and the cost of action in Russia is now very high.”
The battle for the people’s minds in Russia is an ongoing process. There are many unknowns. For example, we do not know how deep Putin’s support actually is. The economic sanctions are only now just beginning to affect Russian consumers. The Russian people are still unaware of the full extent of their army’s battlefield casualties. Although Putin’s popular support appears to be strong, it may actually be brittle.
Textbooks often make historic events seem dry and packaged. The Ukraine crisis illustrates that historic events are actually fluid and unpredictable. The Ukrainian crisis will have momentous consequences and raise difficult questions. Will Putin successfully save his grip on power? Will the Ukrainian people successfully save their country? And will the world’s democracies successfully defend freedom from the world’s ruthless autocracies?
FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION AND WRITING
- Do you think the poll numbers are an accurate reflection of the Russian public’s opinion of Putin and the war in Ukraine? Why or why not?
- Do you think President Putin’s grip on power is solid or brittle? Write a short position paper explaining your answer.
- “The cost of action in Russia is now very high.” – What factors could reduce the cost of dissent in Russia?
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Today’s Commentary drew upon information from the following sources: “Shaken at First, Many Russians Now Rally Behind Putin’s Invasion (New York Times), Smerconish (April 2, 2022) and Meet the Press (April 3, 2022)
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