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The Kremlin doesn’t have a blank check from Russians for its Ukraine policy

- September 26, 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a State Council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
The following is a guest post from Thomas Sherlock, a professor of political science at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Military Academy, the United States Army or the Department of Defense
Shortly before the start of the current cease-fire in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly told the head of the European Commission that Russian forces could occupy Kiev in two weeks.  At the same time, the Kremlin has consistently refused to admit that Russia is involved in combat operations in Ukraine. This posture reveals as much about Russian domestic politics — and particularly Russian nationalism — as it does about Russia’s foreign policy.  In recent surveys by the Levada Center, Russians expressed support for Putin and opposition to western policies in Ukraine, but also revealed deep reservations about Russia’s military involvement in southeastern Ukraine. In short, most Russians have not given Putin a blank check when it comes to handling the crisis in Ukraine.
The cautious attitudes of the Russian public underline the weak attraction of aggressive nationalism, challenging the perspective that most Russians long for restored empire and are willing to bear the cost of a neo-imperial project. In recent surveys on nationalist values, Russians for the most part do not exhibit ethnic chauvinism. Xenophobia, often associated with the rise of belligerent, expansionist nationalism, is actually in decline in Russia compared with previous years.
This development does not necessarily mean that civic elements of Russian national identity are more salient than ethno-cultural ones.  A majority of Russians have long supported, in some variant, the idea of “Russia for [ethnic] Russians.” Only 27 percent of respondents in a recent poll considered this position to be “modern fascism.”   Yet Russians who are extremists on this issue (“it is time to implement such a policy immediately”) are fewer today (18 percent) than 10 years ago (22 percent in 2004).
By contrast, most Russians are now hostile toward the West. Anti-American views, fueled by the Kremlin’s control of television, are at their highest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As for Russian attitudes toward Ukrainians, the Kremlin’s media war against the government in Kiev has influenced an increasing number of Russians to embrace pejorative stereotypes of their neighbors.
Significantly, hostility toward the West has not produced a groundswell of aggressive nationalism in Russia, probably due to growing fears of war. In a recent survey, 66 percent of respondents saw “significant” or “some” danger that combat involving Russian volunteers in Ukraine could lead to war between Russia and Ukraine. Fifty-two percent saw “significant” or “some” danger of a “third world war.”  In an important example of rational prioritization, a poll in August found that 55 percent of Russians believed the Kremlin should focus on “Russia’s social and economic problems.” In another survey, barely 5 percent said they would support the intervention of Russian troops into the Donbas.
Only 55 percent of respondents in a late July poll said they would “definitely” or “probably” support the Russian government if military conflict broke out with Ukraine.  In March, the level of such support was 74 percent.  Most important, the number of respondents who would “definitely” support the Kremlin fell to 13 percent in August from 36 percent in March.  This shift was driven by growing public anxiety that a Ukrainian quagmire would exact a high cost in Russian blood and treasure and in family and personal ties. Forty-six percent of respondents say they have relatives, friends, or acquaintances in Ukraine, a country with strong cultural, social, and economic links to Russia.
These responses suggest that the formation of mass political attitudes in Russia, while subject to extreme regime manipulation, still preserves some autonomy. But does the Kremlin take public opinion into account in its deliberations over policy?
Henry Hale and others convincingly argue that the stability of the Russian regime rests to an important extent on maintaining public support, which assumes some responsiveness to mass preferences. It is likely that the Kremlin leadership is aware that the popular support currently generated by its anti-western campaign can suddenly and unexpectedly decline. Putin also knows that a policy of open warfare against Ukraine will weaken his approval ratings, perhaps significantly, at a time when he will need them the most – in order to blunt the approaching political effects of chronic economic stagnation and western sanctions. It is notable that the population centers least supportive of intervention in Ukraine are the villages, towns, and small cities in Russia’s “heartland” that Putin has sought to mobilize as conservative counterweights to the wave of political protests in 2011 and 2012.
Russia’s military escalation of August 28th in southeastern Ukraine helps clarify the relationship between public opinion and government policy. Up until that point, the Kremlin had blended a narrative of Russia as a besieged fortress with public assurances that it respects Ukraine’s sovereignty. Despite western condemnation of Russia’s incursion in late August, the Kremlin issued more denials. Although Russia’s intervention forced back the advancing Ukrainian army, it was sufficiently limited to control for Russian casualties, suggesting that the Kremlin was balancing foreign policy goals against domestic political concerns, particularly the perceived need to conceal from the public the battle deaths of active-duty servicemen.
These efforts at concealment, driven by the leadership’s sensitivity to adverse public opinion, often fall short. Not long after the Aug. 28 incursion, the head of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, a respected advocacy group for soldiers, publicly accused Putin of committing a “crime” by secretly invading Ukraine.  Other elements of Russia’s atrophied civil society challenged the Kremlin’s narrative of non-involvement. Members of the Presidential Council on Human Rights appealed to the government for information about reported deaths of Russian servicemen in Ukraine, prompting swift retaliation. Assailants have attacked investigative reporters, and military officials have pressured bereaved families to remain silent.  The editorial committee of a respected Russian newspaper argued that the Kremlin, through its subterfuge, was repeating the same mistakes as did the Soviet Union in its secret operations against the United States in Korea and Vietnam, and in its own war in Afghanistan. On September 22, approximately 25,000 Muscovites participated in an anti-war demonstration that accused the Kremlin of warmongering.
Despite this reaction, the Kremlin may risk new incursions or even open warfare if the pro-Russian rebellion in southeastern Ukraine is unable to consolidate its recent gains.  Undisguised intervention would probably fail to stimulate a robust protest movement in Russia, given the current wave of patriotic fervor, the effectiveness of political repression, and Russia’s low capacity for social mobilization. Nonetheless, open aggression against Ukraine would likely weaken popular support for Putin and also divide Russian society horizontally. Vocal exponents of chauvinistic nationalism would clash with the majority of Russians who favor the re-emergence of Russia as a great power that is often at odds with the West, but also fear the costs of military conflict with Ukraine and its western supporters.