There is a paradox at the heart of Putin’s Russia.
On the one hand, there is a tendency to involve an ever-increasing number of people in the war and to present the state’s naked aggression as a “people’s liberation.” On the other, the authorities understand that people who have risked their lives for Putin’s regime are beginning to fight more actively for their own rights. It is the military and military reporters, for example, who allow themselves to criticize Putin’s initiatives, while no one else in Russia dares to do so.
The more men the regime mobilizes, the greater this risk, and yet without more troops at the front it will be impossible for Russia to utilize its greater population (142 million versus 43 million) to complete its all-out invasion of Ukraine.
It is noteworthy that even sources close to the Kremlin do not deny the rumors that a fresh mobilization effort is imminent. For example, the Telegram channel Nezygar, associated with the presidential administration, reported that the mobilization of an additional 300,000-400,000 people was possible by the end of the summer. Even though the authors claimed that those joining the ranks will be volunteers, the experience of earlier mobilization efforts showed a huge number of conscripts were forced into signing the contracts under threats and torture.
Yet pro-Kremlin sociologists warn the authorities against the excessive mobilization of the population. For example, Maria Fil, the CEO of the Institute of Sociology, notes that “from the point of view of maintaining stability, the atomization of society . . . is rather a positive factor, since it implies low political activity.” In Fil’s view, indifference to war, which prevails in regions not affected by military operations, is quite natural and normal.
“There is always a war on the borders of empires, but the idea of war is not a system-forming principle of social organization, it does not lead to total mobilization, which always remains only partial. Empires collapse precisely when society comes into motion, and one of the many ideas becomes the idea of the majority. Atomization is the friend of empires,” declares Fil. In other words, don’t poke the hornet’s nest.
It must be said that so far, the regime has been quite successful in combining the incompatible and involving large segments of society in the military discourse without significantly disrupting familiar ways of life. This effect is achieved through the illusion of participation in the cause of “bringing our victory closer.” This is an extremely important idea for many ordinary people, considering that propaganda has successfully instilled in Russians the belief that the only way to end the war is to win it (otherwise Russia will inevitably be destroyed.)
One such illusory contribution is informing on the opposition and dissent in general. In recent weeks, journalists and human rights activists have talked about an epidemic of denunciation from informants, even forcing the president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, to comment on the situation.
Informants themselves admit that their main motive is the fear of a future defeat, which — again according to the pro-Kremlin propaganda script — would mean ordinary people having to pay reparations to Ukraine from their taxes.
The same issue arises when Russians seek a quick and “clean” end to the war. Some demand a nuclear strike on Ukraine. The well-known publicist Vladimir Pastukhov noted that in Russian society, “there is a clear demand for the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine.” The publicist called this trend “another step towards a global catastrophe” and warned that with such a level of propaganda, it will be more and more difficult for the Kremlin to explain to the layman why it can, but won’t, use nuclear weapons to bring about Russia’s long-awaited victory.
Nuclear destruction and dissident denunciation provide an illusion of winning cost-free. These would also allow Russia’s atomized society to plod along without challenge and might even strengthen it. Civic activity can be confined to patriotic flash mobs in support of the war, including the participation of children, holding various “patriotism lessons” in schools, organizing volunteer movements to collect aid for the mobilized, and so on.
Influenced by the Kremlin propaganda that the war’s only possible outcome is victory, it is probably understandable that society seeks a shortcut to triumph.
So far, the Kremlin has been able to combine the incompatible – the simultaneous participation and non-participation of ordinary people in the war. However, sooner or later, these two opposite forms of behavior will come into conflict, and the outcome of this clash is currently unpredictable.
Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. The author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.