Anti-war protests have broken out in scores of cities across Russia, and many have taken to social media to express their shock and anger at the decision to attack a nation whom Russians consider kindred, and where many have family ties.
Despite assertions of a long-planned attack, the domestic audience had not been prepared for the rapid escalation to military confrontation, which is presented domestically as a ‘special military operation’ to tackle neo-Nazism and oppression of Russian-speakers in the Eastern regions of Ukraine. The media clampdown means that many are unaware of the full scale of what is happening there, and see developments from a very different perspective.
Yet many Russians have a reflexive European identity, and being cast as belonging to a pariah state as a result of the aggression, virtually overnight, is deeply uncomfortable. Moreover, President Putin built his authority at home as a guarantor of stability and a bulwark against the economic crises of the 1990s that hurt ordinary Russians deeply. The economic collapse looming as a consequence of the sanctions imposed by Western states erodes popular consent for his rule, potentially even among those who rely on state-sponsored media for information.
Although patriotic elements, even those with a stake in cooperating with government institutions, have expressed dismay at the Kremlin’s military encroachments, the Western narrative of Ukraine pursuing its right to freedom and democracy does not enjoy full acceptance. Thus the regime may yet rally the population around the notion that it is the West that has pushed Putin to extremes by expanding its security at Russia’s expense. However, among those Russians accessing global media, Moscow will find it harder to push back against the narrative of a confused, unpopular and illegitimate military campaign as it has largely ceded control of how events are perceived in the Western media to the Ukrainian side.