Most Russians Didn’t Expect This War — And Could Soon Turn Against It

Both official and liberal media in Russia told the population that war wasn’t coming — until suddenly it did. Vladimir Putin’s failure to mobilize public opinion has drawn him into a potentially long and unpopular war.

Riot police officers detain a man during a protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in central Moscow on March 2, 2022. (Kirill Kudryavstsev / AFP via Getty Images)

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last Thursday shocked even its own citizens. In previous days, a joke went viral with the response Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration gave to Biden’s latest warning: “It’s the third time this week.” But on the night of February 24, the Kremlin crossed the borders of Ukraine — and of common sense.

Conflict has been rumbling in Ukraine for the past eight years, and unlike the alarm in international media, the societies most directly involved had remained remarkably passive in recent weeks. True, everyone reacted in their own way, and some were hoarding food and preparing suitcases. But most people on either side of the border did not fall into patriotic exaltation as in 2014. Western journalists expecting to find panic in areas near the front line often ended up disappointed.

A fake screenshot from Moscow city’s municipal app went viral in the Russian segment of the Internet less than two weeks ago: “Unfortunately, enrollment in February’s invasion of Ukraine is over. If you want to take part in the occupation, please try again in March.”

So, the social mechanisms in charge of mass mobilization for Russia’s war were undoubtedly out of order. And this fact itself needs to be understood, regardless of how the situation on the battlefronts unravels.

Liberals and Patriots

While Russian policy-makers long denied they planned to invade, government-controlled media were no pacifists. TV presenter Victoria Skabeeva formulated the mood of loyalist outlets by commenting, on air, “We’re being accused of invading soon to recreate the Soviet Union . . . Can’t wait!” Talk shows constantly discussed the splitting of Ukraine, with Russia supposedly “taking back” its South-Eastern half, known to nationalists as “Novorossia” or “New Russia.” Each news broadcast was accompanied by shots of armored vehicles and missile launches, demonstrating Russian military might. Belarusian agitprop joined the military-patriotic hysteria, with President Alexander Lukashenko at the helm, generating aphorisms such as “All will stand to protect Russia, even the unwilling.”

All this has been typical of government propaganda since 2014. But unlike eight years ago, it had become perceived as a familiar refrain, void of particular meaning. Society was not receptive to anything on this “wavelength.” Stirrings of patriotism were replaced with apathy and demoralization, not least given the effects of economic stagnation and falling popular incomes.

The forceful suppression of the Left and even nationalist forces who supported Kremlin policies in 2014–15 had played an important role. Moscow’s bureaucracy didn’t want allies and enthusiasts who are hard to control, including in the unrecognized Donbas republics, where some allies who caused too much trouble were physically eliminated. But up until the last moment officials refused all accusations of aggressive plotting. Tellingly, not only did they cast the alarmist warnings of Western politicians and media as empty propaganda, but even pro-Westerners in Russia did not believe that invasion was in the cards.

Russia does not have a “two-party system” in the US sense, institutionalized in the policy arena. However, the society is split into two large camps, respectively aligned behind Putinite nationalism and a more pro-Western liberalism. Each is backed by its own group of influential businessmen, an ecosystem of influential media and their own set of values and ways of framing political issues. All social or political conflicts throughout the past twenty years were accompanied by a mobilization of both camps.

Contemporary Russian liberalism had been born in the 1990s, becoming the ruling class’s sole form of legitimizing the rejection of socialism and the Soviet past. Indeed, Putin himself came to power as the representative, heir, and guarantor of this tradition. His systematic break away from it, instead entering into conflict with it, reflected contradictions in the global liberal order into which Russia had been firmly built in a subaltern, semi-peripheral position. The louder Putin’s administration asked for a seat of honor at the table of the planet’s CEOs, the more irritation it caused in Western capitals.

The Kremlin’s ideological weapon in this argument was the postmodern mixture of national chauvinism and the badly digested narratives of American ultraconservatism and the alt-right. But Putin’s worsening relations with the West disgruntled Russian business elites and its middle classes, who instead found their voice in liberal media.

The liberal camp consistently opposed the war in Chechnya, the politics of “strengthening the vertical line of power,” and the crackdown on dissent. Liberals criticized Putin for not following the Western “road of civilization.” But with no other issue did this dispute reach such intensity as with Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. When in 2014, Crimea held its referendum on joining Russia, a so-called “Peace march” was held in the center of Moscow, thousands-strong, whose participants chanted “Glory to Ukraine, glory to Heroes.” Liberal media fully supported the Ukrainian Maidan and Western governments back then, condemning “annexation of Crimea.”

The logic of escalating conflict with the Kremlin oligarchy gave liberal discourse a taste of near-revolutionary heroics. With each passing year, the government further curbed freedom of speech and scaled back the remnants of electoral democracy. Taking an oppositional stance required ever more courage. In 2021 came the breaking point with the jailing of the most popular liberal politician, Alexei Navalny. His movement was shattered. And most liberal media, including the largest ones, such as the online media company Meduza and TV-channel Dozhd were officially labeled “foreign agents.” In them the Kremlin saw the West’s “soft power,” anticipating that in the moment of an acute phase of the geopolitical struggle, the liberal media and opposition would become the foundation for the mobilization of internal protests.

Yet something went askew. For in the buildup to the invasion of Ukraine, this binary model suddenly stopped working, for the first time in decades. There was no political mobilization around the issue of loyal patriotism — but nor was there a response on the liberal side.

Pro-Westerners Who Don’t Trust the West

In 2014, Russian state TV called Maidan a “coup,” and liberals labeled it a “democratic revolution.” Official propaganda blamed warmongering on the United States and “Ukrainian nationalists,” and Russian liberals solely on the Putin government. The emotional polarization from both sides reached an extreme stage of affectation, barring all possibility of dialogue. The two camps and their descriptive languages almost never intersected. However, amidst the war agitation over winter, Russia’s largest liberal-opposition media seemed far less willing to believe that the buildup was happening.

An expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, Andrey Movchan, published an article in the Russian Forbes, insisting that an exchange in threats was beneficial “for Kremlin and Western politicians alike: the Kremlin gets enough attention and boasts of its importance in front of the population (USA wants to speak with us!), American and European politicians use this as an opportunity to switch the discussion from the complicated economic agenda to something remote and harmless for local voters.”

The hosts of the popular podcast run by Meduza — declared a “foreign agent” last year — Andrey Pertsev and Konstantin Gaaze claimed, “Now it’s not just our ‘dear leaders’ upping the ante, but our American colleagues have joined them.” According to the opposition journalists, the war hysteria was kindled by Western media at the behest of the intelligence community, which did not even bother showing proof of the upcoming Russian aggression. “Then the arms deliveries started to Ukraine, which also upped the ante,” Gaaze determined. They even blamed the heightened rhetoric on Biden attempting to distract attention from difficulties surrounding his infrastructure bill.

Novaya Gazeta’s editor in chief received the Nobel Prize in December 2021 for the paper’s “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.” Some journalists at Novaya even paid with their lives for criticizing the Kremlin (for instance, Anna Politkovskaya). On the eve of Joe Biden’s notorious announcement predicting Russia’s imminent invasion on February 16, Novaya published a lengthy analytical piece, dedicated to analyzing the arguments of Western leaders. “If we look at Ukrainian and European media from 2016–18, we’ll see the numbers of Russian troops by Ukraine’s borders at the same level — eighty to a hundred thousand people. Why hadn’t it become a reason for crisis in the past six years then?” the author of the article asked. He assumed that Kremlin also bore a load of responsibility for the events, but his focus was mostly on the Western role. “The new doctrine is the potential to use intelligence as an information operations weapon,” the newspaper cited former director of US National Intelligence James Clapper, concluding: “Therefore, intelligence takes an active part in the government’s current campaign, which exudes principles of war propaganda.”

Another so-called “foreign agent,” the opposition channel Dozhd, published an article called “Invasion of Ukraine by Russia didn’t happen. What new dates are proposed by the world’s media.” The article quoted the words of David Arakhamia, a Ukrainian deputy in Volodymyr Zelensky’s ruling Servant of the People Party: “I think that when the phase will be over in two-three weeks, we must carry out retrospective analysis to find out how exactly large, very prominent media started disseminating information in ways worse than [notorious Russian state TV presenters known for their crude propaganda] Skabeeva and Solovyev. Glaring fakes on CNN, Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal. We must study these, because those are all elements of a hybrid war.”

The Russian liberal media’s unexpected qualms with the trustworthiness, veracity, and sincerity of “the collective West” were almost unprecedented. Journalists hard to accuse of pro-Putin sympathies suddenly came to see the familiar traits of war propaganda in the dominant Western narrative — and recognized it quite well as the signature style of the Russian regime. Even Ukraine’s own president Zelensky had doubted, several times throughout the past month, the reports on Russia’s imminent invasion.

From Mongoose to Cobra

A fresh round of war-escalation started last weekend when the heads of the two puppet republics in Donbas announced the evacuation of civilians to Russia’s territory. Buses were loaded with refugees and all men of conscription age were mobilized. This gave the Kremlin a pretext to officially recognize the two republics and became a prologue to the invasion that followed on the Thursday.

All the parliamentary parties virtually dissolved in the Kremlin’s official rhetoric. Even the largest opposition party — the Communist Party (CPRF) — couldn’t formulate a particular position different from Putin’s. Moreover, it was the CPRF that introduced a bill to the parliament on the recognition of the self-proclaimed republics. Unlike liberals, who immediately condemned the intervention, the Duma’s opposition fully lost any subjectivity and independence, becoming gears of the current regime.

The video recordings of leaders of pro-Russian separatists making announcements were uploaded online from a folder with the name “Operation Mongoose” as Bellingcat hacktivists found out after analyzing the metadata of the recordings. The alarmist proclamations seemed like a carefully planned special operation, with the clue to its meaning hidden in the name itself.

When fighting a snake, a mongoose lands fake blows, making the snake react. If a mongoose doesn’t make any mistakes, the cobra gets tired, it loses concentration and speed of reaction, its body lengthens. Then the mongoose lands the final blow and kills the enemy. Vladimir Putin must have read about it in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

In one of the novellas, a cobra wants to kill an English child living in India, but the mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi saved the family of his European friends by taking out the dangerous “aborigine”— the snake. Putin has claimed frequently that Russia is the defender of traditional “European civilization,” which is now in the hands of anti-European powers. He apparently, considers himself a noble mongoose, protecting Europe from a poisonous “liberal hegemony” and American domination.

“The heart of the matter is that each side considers itself the mongoose and waits for the enemy-snake to throw itself forward,” the editor in chief of the Ukrainian opposition media, Ihor Huzhva, wrote. As it raised the stakes in the dangerous political game around Ukraine, the Russian government always had a response to the steps of its Western opponents. The “false blows” served to tire the opponent out and make them into a useful target for the final blow. But caught up in their game of “snake-fighting,” Russia’s politicians seemed to have forgotten the need to explain the situation to their own society.

For three months, Russian leaders had been talking about peace, alluding to common sense and the interests of the people. Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press secretary, had called all mentions of the war in the Western press “maniacal informational madness.” Yet then, suddenly, the population was informed that Russian tanks were headed toward Kiev, Odessa, and Kharkiv. As an explanation for this incredible move, the state media repeated Putin and Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov’s abstract claims about the “denazification” of Ukraine and the need to protect Russia from existential threats.

Such propaganda cliches remain completely obscure to the public. How did Kiev threaten Russia’s existence? Why was it necessary to carry out “denazification” with the help of tanks and aircraft after eight years of negotiations and trading with this supposedly unacceptable “regime”? The strongest argument of the pro-Kremlin media was “the need to protect the people of Donbas” from endless shelling. But is this a goal worth pursuing through the shelling of Odessa, Kharkiv, Kherson, and Kiev?

This blatant contradiction made some politicians from the Communist Party walk back. “I believe that the war should be stopped immediately. When voting for the recognition of DLPR [i.e. the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics], I voted for peace, not for war. I voted for Russia to become a shield, for Donbass  to not be bombed, and not for Kyiv to be bombed,” CPRF Duma deputy Mikhail Matveyev tweeted on February 26. The Russian policy-makers must be happy with their artful conspiracy, which allowed for a military, political, and psychological surprise. But it will also have unpleasant consequences for Putin.

Millions of Russians feel cheated and despondent. The unfolding events don’t fit into the basic human understanding of peace, moral norms, national security, and justice. The country is nowhere near any sort of patriotic mobilization.

The lack of popular support for the war became evident. “The hostilities in Ukraine that began today came as a surprise to Russian society and created a situation of mass shock,” warned the pro-Kremlin Nezygar telegram channel, supervised by RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyan, “Analysts draw attention to the fact that people were not ready for a military confrontation.”

The reaction to this was the introduction of strict censorship. Roskomnadzor (the agency that controls the work of the media and social networks) officially announced that journalists writing about the war are required to refer only to “official Russian sources of information.” On the third day of the war, the department forbade calling what was happening a “war” altogether. Instead, everyone was ordered to use the euphemism “Russia’s operation in Ukraine.”

A register of “information traitors” was also published, which included not only all opposition media, but even the “patriotic” site Free Press, which is close to the Communist Party. Then, “a slowdown of Facebook in the Russian Federation” was announced. But even the introduction of wartime censorship is not capable of erasing people’s growing disappointment.

The War Is a War

Despite the shock, liberal media, too, instantly recognized their mistake. “Please forgive us, we were wrong,” said Konstantin Gaaze before announcing that new episodes of the podcast would not come out until the war was over. Despite the direct government ban on using the word, the liberal media call this war a war. Even faced with the prospect of being silenced, they publish reports about the bombing and shelling of Ukrainian cities and news about civilian casualties daily.

Their prognoses about the future of the Russian economy under sanctions are very pessimistic. But the main emphasis in the liberal media is on the moral condemnation of the reckless invasion. Left-wing antiwar activists go further: they claim that Putin’s bloody war became the logical denouement of the evolution of all post-Soviet statehood, with its inherent soaring inequality, authoritarianism, and ethnic nationalism.

Even if the outcome most beneficial to the Putin government did occur, the war remains unpopular as well as unfair. In the eyes of millions of Russians, behind the features of the aging “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” one can clearly see the poisonous snake attacking an innocent victim.

An important factor preventing antiwar mobilization are the Russians’ fears that the only thing worse than a “victorious war” will be a “war lost” — that Russia’s defeat will turn into its occupation and dismemberment. Such attitudes are already being actively speculated upon by propaganda that shows how ordinary Russian citizens are bullied and discriminated against abroad. To stand against the war started by our own government, our people must know that residents of this country will not bear collective blame for the crimes of Putin’s government. That’s why we desperately need international solidarity against the war.