Russian President Vladimir Putin has control of the airwaves in Russia. Photo: Screengrab

SAINT PETERSBURG – “What Putin is doing is absolutely right, they left us with no other choice. We had to stop the genocide of Russians in the Donbass,” said Li, a Saint Peterburg taxi driver. “Oh, you are Italian? I saw that in Milan people are rallying for Putin right now,” the driver continued. 

Considering the unified condemnation of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in the West, I found it hard to believe there were any significant rallies in Milan in favor of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. I wasn’t that surprised to hear that from the taxi driver, though. He was listening to Channel 1, one of the main sources of Russia’s state propaganda. 

While most of the West united in condemnation of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the Russian President can count on the support of a significant portion of the population that believes in the Kremlin’s official narrative: Putin is conducting a rightful “special military operation” to free Ukraine from a fascist regime. 

About 65% of Russians approve of the “special military operation” in Ukraine, according to a recent survey by state-owned pollster VTsIOM. The survey shows that most citizens believe the government’s narrative on the operation, which is aimed at “protecting the Russian-speaking population of Donbass.”

According to this narrative, the conflict pitting the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 has been a “genocide” of ethnic Russians perpetrated by Kiev. Hence, Russia’s right to intervene and put an end to it. 

“Russia is not starting a war. It is ending it,” wrote Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in a Facebook post. 

Since the beginning of the conflict, the level of public trust in Putin has jumped from 60% to 71%, according to another local poll

A similar trend was noticeable when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Then, the annexation was framed as necessary to protect the Russians of Crimea from the nationalist regime that took power in Kiev. Back then, Russians “rallied around the flag” and Putin’s popularity skyrocketed. 

The Kremlin’s propaganda machine has been key for creating consensus: according to a survey by independent News Media Levada Center, state television is still the main source of information for 64% of Russians. 

Russian media including RT is the main source of information for most Russians. Image: Screengrab

For years, the Kremlin has been promoting the image of Russia as a “besieged fortress” surrounded by enemies, mainly identified as a corrupt West led by the US.

“We remind you that Russia has never attacked anyone throughout its history,” Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in a recent interview on the Russia-1 television channel. 

Ukraine, on the other hand, is described as a failed state governned by neo-Nazis that survives on Washington’s paycheck.

Around 60% of Russian citizens think that NATO and the US are responsible for the escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine. According to these views, Russia tried its best to find a peaceful agreement but the West pushed Russia towards war by ignoring its security concerns. 

Russia is not Putin

Yet not everyone in Russia subscribes to the Kremlin’s line.

“I am against this war. Putin is hiding his personal ambitions with propaganda slogans. Essentially he is an occupier,” said Pavel, a young video editor from Saint Petersburg. 

According to the same government survey, about half of Russians under 30 do not support the invasion of Ukraine. Most of them have Western-oriented, liberal views and use the internet to get information.

Some are already leaving or considering leaving out of fear of growing repression and economic turmoil. Others are bravely challenging the authorities’ crackdown, gathering in city squares across the country to protest the invasion. Over 13,500 protesters have already been detained all over Russia since the conflict started.

“It is not safe to be here, anything can happen now. I may be forced to serve in the army,” said Pavel, who is about to leave the country for Armenia, leaving his wife and newborn son in Saint Petersburg. They will join him later once they get the necessary documents, he hopes.  

“Things are getting very bad, no one is going to benefit from this,” said Pavel. 

Analysts agree that the above-mentioned survey results should be taken with a pinch of salt. According to political analyst Abbas Galliamov, most Russians are still processing the idea that Russia is fighting its neighbor, with which it shares deep historical and cultural bonds.  

“Public opinion is still under shock,” Galliamov said. 

A demonstrator holding a placard reading ‘No to war’ protests against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in central Saint Petersburg on February 24, 2022. Photo: Screengrab / Fox / Getty

Considering the growing level of repression and government censorship, real support for the military operation in Ukraine is likely to be lower than indicated in the polls.

Authorities have been cracking down on independent media and all kinds of dissent, online and offline, is being persecuted. A recently approved law introduces jail terms for people who spread broadly defined “fake information” on the operation in Ukraine. 

“When the majority of the population is afraid of reprisals and authorities’ arbitrariness, they are no longer willing to express a critical point of view,” pointed out Galliamov. 

The “rally around the flag” rhetoric is effective in creating consensus in the short term, but unlikely to be sustainable for long, he says. Unlike the bloodless blitzkrieg in Crimea, Russia’s current military operation will be far more costly both in terms of casualties and financial fallout. 

“As the military operation drags on, as the economic difficulties will grow, the level of support will sharply decrease,” predicted Galliamov.