It is impossible to know what ordinary Russians think about Putin’s onslaught against Ukraine. Under conditions of increasing domestic repression, opinion polls are unreliable. On topics that are sensitive for the Kremlin, they are a guide to the level of popular fear, not to popular attitudes.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the Putin regime has invested vast resources in shaping the attitudes of its own people. Over the past two decades, it has created a sprawling apparatus of propaganda institutions that were built up, step by step, as Putin’s rule became more dictatorial.
The origins of this system can be traced to the ‘information wars’ of the 1990s, when oligarchs competed for influence by fabricating stories that defamed their rivals and political adversaries. Ultimately, many practitioners of these smear campaigns served the Putin regime as information warriors.
From the moment of his appointment to the presidency on New Year’s Eve 1999, Putin set out to control the chaotic information space left behind by Yeltsin’s decade of democracy. One of the new president’s first victims was the television station NTV, a bastion of independent news reporting, which had exposed atrocities in Chechnya and mocked him in a satirical puppet show.
A more fundamental transformation took place in the wake of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2005. To insulate Russia against the contagion of pro-democracy protest, Putin unleashed a ‘preventive counter-revolution’ — a set of measures that were both repressive and mobilisational. On the one hand, many opposition activists found themselves on ‘Stop Lists,’ which barred them from appearing on television.
On the other hand, the state-mobilised anti-Western militants to create the illusion of popular support. These proxies ranged from pro-Kremlin youth movements like ‘Nashi’ (’Ours’) to football hooligans and neo-Nazis, whose purpose was to control public space by crowding out anti-regime protesters. Some of these groups also challenged the opposition’s sway over the internet by funding a small army of pro-regime bloggers.
At the same time, the authorities enlisted a cohort of loyalist ‘experts’, who came to dominate television commentary. In the political talk shows that served as the regime’s principal propaganda platforms, these experts enacted furious debates in which almost everything could be disputed except what mattered. Underlying their shadow-boxing was an authoritarian consensus that Putin was legitimate and that his opponents were Western pawns.
This system sustained Putin’s ascendancy until the final months of his interval as premier in 2011-12, when mass protests against fraud in parliamentary elections shook the foundations of the regime. The result was a renovation of the regime’s counter-revolutionary strategy. State propaganda, both on domestic television and on its international platforms like RT, became significantly more vitriolic. Its central narrative pitted a virtuous regime against a decadent, treasonous opposition. While the regime upheld Orthodox Christian values and the traditions of the Russian people, the opposition worked for Western paymasters and staged acts of blasphemy like Pussy Riot’s ‘punk prayer’ in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral.
No less important was the upgrading of the Kremlin’s campaign to manipulate the internet. In 2013, the oligarch Evgenii Prigozhin (’Putin’s cook’) launched the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a troll factory that aimed to subvert the protest movement’s sway over social media. Working in 12-hour shifts, the IRA’s trolls created thousands of fake identities on Livejournal, Facebook, Vkontakte and Twitter. Their standard technique was to work in groups of three. One was the ‘provocateur,’ who expresses an idea critical of the authorities. The second disputes the criticism, and the third clinches the argument with supporting evidence and links.
This more aggressive approach helped the regime to regain control of the streets and to subjugate the protest movement. It also made possible the information war that the Kremlin unleashed during Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. As unmarked soldiers and Kremlin proxies flooded across the border, the Russian propaganda apparatus went into overdrive. In the studios of talk shows and on the keyboards of trolling factories, the message was the same: Ukraine had been taken over by neo-Nazis, Russians faced genocidal annihilation, and Putin’s critics were ‘national traitors.’
The Russian political scientist Kirill Rogov suggests the effect was not only the indoctrination of the gullible but also the intimidation of skeptics. According to him, the intensity of the regime’s war propaganda set in motion a ‘spiral of silence,’ a term coined by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann to explain how dictatorships curtail free expression by reducing political debate to a choice between good and evil, between membership of the community and ostracism.
As the effects of this crisis dissipated, the Putin regime came to rely increasingly on repression. Using draconian legislation against ‘extremism’ and ‘foreign agents,’ it has pulverised the independent media and civil society. Many independent voices are now in jail or in exile. Censorship of the internet has been expanded by legislation forcing internet service providers to install equipment that enables the authorities to block content and reroute traffic.
But suppression is not persuasion. There is little evidence of popular enthusiasm for Putin’s rush to war. By now, Aleksei Navalny’s two-hour documentary investigation of Putin’s personal corruption and his grotesque ‘dictator kitsch’ palace at Gelendzhik has been viewed over 121 million times, making it the most-watched Russian language video on Youtube.
As Putin prepares for war and fulminates about Ukrainian Russophobes and neo-Nazis, he has more reason than ever to fear his own people.