SUZDAL, Russia — Sasha isn’t the type of person you’d usually expect to espouse Kremlin talking points. An IT worker from the town of Suzdal, a three-hour drive from Moscow, he’s an opposition-minded Russian who eschews state media in favor of the handful of independent journalism outfits left in the country.
And yet, as the showdown between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the West kicked into a higher gear this week, Sasha, like many of his countrymen, found himself feeling ambivalent about the messages coming from capitals like Washington and London. Warnings of an imminent invasion that never quite materialized caused him to question their credibility. Worse, he worried that the alarmist language was propelling Russia towards, and not away, from war.
“It has felt as if, all around there are carnival mirrors,” said Sasha, who asked to be identified only by his first name to speak more freely about a politically sensitive topic. “Russia certainly is the guilty party here, but the West has been fanning the flames with all of these outlandish claims.”
As millions around the world have watched Putin’s escalations with alarm, Russians have been treated to an entirely different show.
During the months leading up to this week’s crisis, Russian state media has offered viewers and readers a narrative that could not differ more from that being recounted in the West. Through December and January, as Western media documented troop buildups on Russia’s border with Ukraine, the dominant tone in Russia was of mockery. Warnings of invasion were dismissed as “fake news.”
The derision peaked in the middle of this month, after unnamed U.S. officials provided a specific invasion date, which came and went without incident. The day, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote in a Telegram post that was widely circulated by Russian media, “will go down in history as a day of failure of Western war propaganda. Humiliated and crushed without a single shot fired.”
If polls are to be believed — and in unfree societies like Russia, they can give important, but limited insight — the Kremlin strategy is working.
In a survey conducted in late November by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent pollster, fifty percent of respondents blamed the United States and NATO countries for the escalation in tensions; sixteen percent blamed Ukraine — and only four percent Russia itself.
The view of the West as an aggressor is especially prevalent among the cohort aged 55 or older, Putin’s core electorate. But even among the youngest respondents aged 18 to 24, a quarter blamed the West. (Almost an identical number found the question “difficult to answer.”)
‘NATO is to blame’
Nikita — a 27-year-old culture worker in Moscow who also asked only to be identified by his first name — holds what seems to be a typical view. On Monday, he watched with a cocktail of emotions as Putin gave a speech to the nation widely seen in the West as justifying an invasion of Ukraine.
There was boredom: the president’s digressions into Russian history were no easy fodder for someone of the Netflix generation. Then, there was the fear that Putin was about to declare a war, which would lead only to bloodshed, additional sanctions and economic pain for ordinary Russians like him.
But he also felt himself agreeing, especially the part that placed the responsibility for the Ukraine crisis on the West.
“NATO is solely and entirely to blame for the tensions,” Nikita, 27, said unwaveringly. “Even in the noughties, when it was clear that Russia did not have any particular imperial ambitions, NATO continued to push the narrative of Russia as a threat, and actively deployed its weapons in countries neighboring Russia.”
According to Denis Volkov, head of the Levada Center, there is a collective idea in Russia that the U.S. is out to weaken the country — “and that a war of some sort, be it hybrid or cold, has been going on for a long time,” he said.
“The apprehension Russians feel now is that there’s a risk that this conflict is entering a new phase by flaring up to the surface. But since Russians see themselves as the responding side, there is a sense of inevitability: ‘We might not want this, but we’re being dragged into it.’”
The feeling of helplessness is compounded by a lack of political participation at home. “People feel that Putin and his officials take the decisions, and there is no way to influence that, either,” said Volkov. He said the Levada Center detected a similar sense of fatalism during the 2008 Russian invasion of parts of Georgia.
The seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 was at first greeted with ambivalence by most Russians he said — until it became clear that Putin had gotten away with it and worry gave way to a surge of euphoria about the peninsula’s “return home.”
“It was only after Crimea had been annexed swiftly and with no bloodshed, and a huge information campaign was unleashed on state media, that public sentiment turned,” he said.
As Putin has ratcheted up the tension with Ukraine, state media has similarly gone into overdrive. In the past couple of weeks, anchors and pundits have amplified the Kremlin’s depiction of Ukraine as a fascist, Western puppet state that is carrying out “genocide” on Russian speakers in the country.
“What are we waiting for? Until they build concentration camps there? Or gas their population?” Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia’s state-controlled RT television network, asked on February 14, spearheading a change in tone from mockery to alarm.
Since separatist leaders announced a forced evacuation of their regions on February 18, the airwaves have been dominated by images of anguished women, children and the elderly “fleeing” to Russia. Other reports have warned of increased Ukrainian shelling of the separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk that Putin recognized as independent countries this week.
The goal of this kind of propaganda campaign isn’t so much to convince Russians of a given set of facts, as much as it is to drown out dissenting interpretations.
“Even if it looks like indoctrination, what is propelled by Russian propaganda is a deafening ‘jamming,’” said Vasily Gatov, a Russian media expert. “The idea is to suppress all alternative points of view and make the expression of any other point of view except that voiced on state television marginal.”
For some Russians, the breathless tone of state propaganda since the annexation of Crimea has put them off paying any attention at all. “I generally don’t follow the news, it’s more peaceful to live that way,” said Irina, a twenty-something marketeer from Irkutsk.
“The two sides will shoot at each other for a couple of months, or years, they won’t achieve or agree on anything, but will then go back to their own corners, where they will continue to think of various schemes and sling mud at each other,” she said.
She held up an image of a graph on her phone showing the plummeting trajectory of Russian stocks. “Things are about to get tough,” she said. “Time to hoard up on buckwheat.”