As part of this summer’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russian analysts presented a report on social cohesion which said that a sharp drop in employment coupled with falling faith in the authorities could weaken Vladimir Putin’s regime. Public confidence in the state’s ability to explain what is happening is crucial to the sustainability of the regime, they said. 

One author of the analysis, the former Russian intelligence officer Andrey Bezrukov, argued that when the government announced a “partial mobilization” for its war in Ukraine in September it risked straining this relationship. On that occasion, the Kremlin was helped by the Russian people’s high threshold for pain, which allows them to ignore even highly stressful situations, he said.  

Over the course of many decades, Russians have become accustomed to having no influence over what happens in their country. The absence of honest elections and an independent judiciary mean ordinary people are unable to effect change. The result is a syndrome of  “learned helplessness,” leading to acceptance of any step by the authorities, and people convincing themselves the decisions are correct. 

This is accompanied by a belief in a looming threat. Within Russia’s borders, this threat is completely real, and, in the absence of any lawful mechanism for self-defense, the average citizen has become totally dependent on the state. Russians are more afraid of the arbitrariness of the authorities than they are of death, according to a 2019 sociological survey, and the only way to avoid this is to remain loyal or build personal “contractual” relations with government representatives. 

The illusion of a threat from outside the country is artificially sustained with the help of propaganda. As a result, since 2014 Russian society has been accustomed to feeling like a besieged fortress under constant attack both from the West and neighboring Ukraine. Throughout, Putin has positioned himself as the only shield against external aggression, and in the eyes of the majority of Russians this has worked; he is seen as absolutely necessary for the preservation of the country – even though people are deeply suspicious of state interference in their private lives. 

The cultivation of this external threat creates a distorted perception of reality in which other countries not only threaten Russia but dream of destroying it. The propaganda emphasizes that in this existential war, the enemy will resort to any means, including nuclear and biological weapons, and is constantly ready to do so regardless of Moscow’s conduct. 

On the one hand, such a worldview supports the necessary level of anti-Western sentiment and imminent danger, and on the other, it helps to normalize abnormal things in people’s minds. Having become accustomed to living in this aggressive militarized world, Russian citizens are convinced the West thinks the same way and cannot imagine another way of thinking. 

The idea that it is necessary to have a strong government as the basis for national identity has deep historical roots and leads to a fear that any protests or rebellions risk a “loss of statehood.” It teaches the population to rely on the state and trust its decisions in extreme situations. 

This means that the likeliest threat to the Putin regime would be a failure to act as a protector (recent drone strikes in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia play on this), combined with a sharp growth in its interference in daily life. This happened, for example, in the Coronavirus pandemic, when the actions of the authorities elicited a sharply negative reaction from groups previously loyal to the state.

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While the Russian majority’s need for plausible explanations for what is happening has decreased somewhat since the first months of the war, it could become critical if there is serious interference in the domestic sphere. A sharp drop in the standard of living is certainly capable of making this combination a risk for the regime, but it has not yet reached that point.  

Firstly, there is currently no broad understanding that the government is failing in its function of defending the people. Even though the regime brought war onto Russian territory, the real consequences of the conflict are felt mostly by the inhabitants of the frontier Belgorodskiy Oblast and vacationers in Crimea who compose an insignificant percentage of the population. (See also the drone attacks mentioned above, which could make a difference if more frequent.) At the moment, the average Russian doesn’t feel the consequences, so has no sense of insecurity, and the fall in living standards has not yet reached a critical level. As for the relatives of dead servicemen, the Russian authorities have so far managed to tamp down the problem with money

Second, the hope for social justice, traditionally high in Russian society, has not been completely exhausted. Action against elites, and the constant promise of further crackdowns, maintain the illusion of impending reprisals against “traitors and corrupt officials” and a belief that the elites will be brought much closer to the people

Third, despite the high level of repression and growth in denunciations, there is still a minimum level of internal freedom. While a person can end up in prison for criticizing the authorities on social networks or in a café, in Stalin’s time the denunciation of a private conversation was enough for arrest and sometimes death. It is currently possible to criticize the authorities “in the kitchen,” in conversations with friends and relatives, and denunciations for such conversations do not automatically result in punishment unless supported by other evidence of “unreliability.” 

But there are clear signs the authorities are compressing this free space and further encroaching on people’s privacy as the war marches into its 18th month with no end in sight. The sharpest encroachment would be a new round of mobilization, for which preparations are already underway. The authorities have expanded the draft age, raising the upper limit and, contrary to previous promises, not raising the lower one. The age group affected is now 18 to 30, rather than 27 as it was previously. 

Still, another encroachment on private life would be a ban on abortion. Minister of Health Mikhail Murashko has proposed banning terminations at private clinics and establishing strict control over medical abortion drugs, seemingly to appease demands from the Orthodox Church. 

It is highly likely such measures will evoke popular discontent, and, by further increasing the gap between people’s lives and the government narrative, could help loosen Putin’s once iron grip. 

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.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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