Millions of people have now watched a video of a Russian coast guard vessel ramming a Ukrainian tugboat in the Kerch Strait.
For some Russians, this show of force undoubtedly aroused a sense of pride, much to President Vladimir Putin’s pleasure. But for many others, the footage evoked feelings of fear at the prospect of a full-blown war in Ukraine. Most Russian parents, like parents everywhere, would prefer to send their 18-year-old children to study, not to fight.
The narrative that Russia is under attack has long dominated Kremlin propaganda, with Putin positioning himself as the commander of a fortress besieged – militarily, economically, and even in the domain of international sports – by a hostile West. This propaganda, already building in volume in 2012, after Putin won his third presidential term, reached a crescendo in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.
So far, there has been no diminuendo, and there is unlikely to be one so long as Putin’s siege narrative strategy continues to yield political dividends. Prior to the annexation of Crimea, his approval rating had dropped to record lows; afterwards, it surged to more than 80%.
But, since last summer, Putin’s approval ratings have again dropped precipitously, to 66% in October and November. Beyond “making Russia great again” on the international stage, Putin was supposed to improve Russians’ standard of living. Instead, after four years of falling real incomes, the government announced deeply unpopular pension reforms, which included an increase in the retirement age.
Addressing Russians’ economic grievances will not be easy. Russia’s economy is under severe strain as a result of the sanctions imposed by the West over Crimea. More important, Russia’s state-capitalist model has led to weak competition and declining incentives for private investment and entrepreneurship.
With few options for rallying public opinion, Putin may well have decided that it is time to “remind” Russians that they are under attack. (Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, may also benefit politically from escalating tensions as he seeks to lift his dismal approval ratings ahead of his re-election bid in March.)
To be clear, Ukraine is not attacking Russia. The Ukrainian naval vessels were in full compliance with a 2003 bilateral treaty governing access to the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov. But, by asserting that the vessels entered Russian waters illegally, not to mention escalating tensions with the West, Putin may be hoping to breathe new life into the siege narrative, thereby inspiring the kind of primitive patriotism on which he has long relied.
This could involve direct provocations and potentially even armed clashes. But Putin is likely also to draw more public attention to Russia’s military-industrial complex and weapons development, while celebrating past glory, especially the mythologized version of World War II that he has established as a component of his own legitimacy.
For example, the veneration of Stalin, with whom Putin shares more than a few traits, has no doubt contributed to many Russians’ greater willingness to accept repression. The grand military parade commemorating the anniversary of the end of the Siege of Leningrad, planned for January 29 in St. Petersburg, may inspire patriotism, but it will in no way reflect the real drama of the city’s starving inhabitants.
Still, Putin’s nationalist appeals may well be insufficient to rally public opinion this time, not least because, among Russians, animosity toward the West – which is now linked to Ukraine in the minds of many – has waned. In this sense, another glory-drenched commemoration planned for January in Novgorod might turn out to be more true to history than intended.
In the “Great Waltz” of July 1944 – which the Novgorod event will reenact – 57,000 German prisoners of war were marched through the streets of Moscow, Stalin’s goal being to humiliate the Germans and remind Muscovites of their hatred for their enemies. But, in the event, many Russians pitied the prisoners, and some even threw bread to them.
When sociologists from the Levada Center recently asked 20-year-old Russians to identify the country they view as a model for others, they chose Germany, followed by China and Putin’s favorite villain, the United States. While these young people support Russian greatness, they define greatness not only in military terms, but also on the basis of economic prosperity and social progress.
It does not help that Putin’s foreign policy gambits have become increasingly dubious. It is hard for many Russians to see why their leaders have channeled so many resources to Syria when there are such pressing challenges at home. Watching a Russian boat ram a Ukrainian boat is no substitute for economic opportunities.
For a long time, the slogan “we can repeat” – a reference to the Soviet Union’s WWII victory – was popular in Russia. But the truth is that we cannot. We lack not only the resources, but also the will to let our young people die fighting another country’s young people. Indeed, the last thing Russians want is to repeat a war that left 27 million of their countrymen dead.
Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior associate and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Copyright: Project Syndicate 2018.