Truth and Consequences

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Renowned historian Timothy Snyder recently warned in his Substack newsletter that giving Russian President Vladimir Putin an “off-ramp” to quit the war in Ukraine after, say, a military challenge or a diplomatic or economic inducement, is folly. If he wants an off-ramp, argued Snyder, Putin can concoct one himself and compel Russians to consume his version of the truth at any time.

“The Russian media and political system (are) designed to keep Putin in power regardless of what happens in the outside world,” wrote Snyder. “Russian politics takes place within a closed information environment…[Putin] does not need our help in the real world to craft reassuring fictions for Russians.  He has been doing this for 20 years without our help.”

Accordingly, American intelligence officials don’t foresee public opinion undermining Putin’s regime, CNN reported. In fact, public support for the invasion is high in Russia despite the country’s surprisingly painful losses on the battlefield.

But it would be wrongheaded not to expect that many Russians – perhaps more than Russian polls would show – are suffering from war-weariness as the death toll mounts and economic sanctions undercut the Russian economy.

As the Washington Post explained, middle-class Russians have had to cancel vacations, forego Netflix videos and eschew foreign cars, fashion brands and foods. Those sacrifices might seem minor compared to the suffering of the people of Ukraine but these ordinary Russians are fearful that Putin’s “special operation” will result in them losing their jobs, defaulting on their mortgages and losing their life savings.

But many Russians understand that 100 days is too long for a special operation, as it is only allowed to be called in Russian media, argued Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Senior Fellow Andrei Kolesnikov. And many are starting to feel the moral responsibility of citizenship in a nation whose leaders have launched a war that they know involves incredible brutality and violence despite the Kremlin’s propaganda.

Cato Institute Senior Fellow John Mueller posited that public support for the war in Russia has plenty of room to plunge downward, however, as time goes on. As the US experienced in Iraq and elsewhere, sustained fighting yields sustained casualties that the public won’t ignore forever.

As Russia Matters wrote, one could see a potential harbinger of that perspective in the comments of retired colonel Mikhail Khodarenok in May, when he cast serious doubts on Russia’s military competence in Ukraine. He later backpedaled.

The next few months will be a test of Putin’s inhumane foreign policies and his obsessive domestic control. Russia, say researchers, is more split than the polls show.

“The divisions are clear,” said Alexei Titkov, writing in Meduza, an independent Russian news outlet banned in that country and operating from Latvia. “Around half of people are fairly convinced supporters of (Russia’s invasion) albeit without any bloodlust or militance. The rest feel differently.”

He says that about one-fifth or one-sixth are openly against the military operation, while a quarter feels overwhelmed and confused about their feelings and would say they support the war, “but without any joy, they’re not proud of it. They are just anxious and waiting for it all to end.”

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