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Why Russians Still Support The War

Despite some Western expectations of an imminent decline in Russian backing for the conflict in Ukraine, akin to the fading public support observed in recent Western conflicts, Russia’s civilians and soldiers exhibit an unwavering determination to sustain their support.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Beijing for a two-day trip on May 15, 2024, and was greeted with a red-carpet welcome by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders pledged a “new era” for the Russia-China relationship, building on their “no limits partnership” struck just before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. As Putin’s first foreign trip since winning reelection in March, the visit showcased his and Russia’s enduring stature amid the war in Ukraine.

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Despite Russia’s 2024 election being marked by systemic repression of serious alternative parties and candidates and decades of brazen statements about Russia’s “managed” democracy, Putin captured 87 percent of the vote from a record-high voter turnout. Even with some self-censorship and a slight drop in approval, the Russian public still largely backs the war, despite a largely static frontline, the severance of ties with Europe, declines in living standards, and the deaths and injuries of hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers. The staggering number of casualties is mirrored in Ukraine, a nation that Putin and many Russians consider a brotherly nation and the mother culture of Russia.

In contrast, U.S. domestic support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began to decline markedly a couple of years after the conflicts began, and predictions of a collapse in Russian public support for the war emerged soon after it began. Yet although the costs of Russia’s war in Ukraine continue to escalate and it appears far from conclusion, several reasons have compelled Russian citizens to continue supporting the war and the President who initiated it.

Opposition to war in Russia faces unique challenges not encountered in the U.S., but convincing a population that war is unavoidable is essential for any government to sustain a war effort. The Kremlin has framed the nation’s military actions as a noble fight to save ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine from a fascist regime in Kyiv—a narrative that resonates with many Russians and the country’s history in World War II. Highlighting growing restrictions on the Russian language in Ukraine furthers this message, while Russia’s excuse that they were answering cries for help in Ukraine echoes their 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Russian media also portrays their forces as minimizing civilian casualties, as Ukraine is accused of targeting civilians in Russia, and Ukraine’s failure to hold scheduled elections in 2024 has been used to question President Zelensky’s legitimacy.

By portraying Ukraine as the mother culture of Russia, Putin has cast the invasion through a historical and patriotic lens. The conflict is framed as an internal matter of reasserting Russian dominance over the ancestral homeland that birthed Russian language, religion, and political origins, against an illegitimate Ukrainian government that currently occupies the country. Russian nationalism can be rallied by invoking ethnic unity, territorial patrimony, and the need to rectify Ukraine’s separation from Moscow, making it easier to dismiss Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Russia has also deflected its violations of the UN Charter against non-aggression by depicting itself as an aggrieved party, forced into war by the U.S.-led West and its vassal states, sentiment reflected in national polls, and supported by notable figures like Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico, who in January 2024 stated that Ukraine was under the complete control of Washington. On May 1, 2024, an exhibition of captured Western weapons, vehicles, and equipment since the start of the war opened in Moscow—much like Kyiv’s in May 2022 which showed captured Russian equipment. The Kremlin connects everything to the war—including the recent attack by ISIS in Moscow. In contrast, the American public increasingly began to believe that U.S. leaders had misled them into the War on Terror, particularly the War in Iraq, which it felt could have been avoided.

Russians’ support for the war has manifested as the culmination of decades of “patriotic mobilization” that has taken place since Putin’s first term. The cultivation of nationalist sentiment, pervasive across media, culture, and politics, has intensified significantly since the invasion. The Russian identity is increasingly intertwined with the existential need to protect Russians abroad, shield Russia from NATO, and bolster Russia’s status as a great power.

Preparing and instilling confidence in the Russian armed forces’ ability to sustain a major conflict has been ongoing for decades. Russian forces engaged in counterinsurgency operations in Russia’s restive region of Chechnya in the 2000s and supported a limited conflict in support of two restive regions in neighboring Georgia in 2008. Subsequently, Russian forces seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and supported a limited conflict in support of Ukraine’s restive border region with Russia. In 2015, they launched a major military operation to rescue Syrian President Assad in 2015. With relative success in Syria, the significant escalation of Russia’s conflict in Ukraine in 2022 did not come as a surprise. This contrasts with the perceived failures of Western military interventions in the 21st Century, causing domestic confidence in the U.S. military.

By John P. Ruehl

Author Bio: John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C., and a world affairs correspondent for the Independent Media Institute. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. His book, Budget Superpower: How Russia Challenges the West With an Economy Smaller Than Texas’, was published in December 2022.

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