Has Putin’s Russia become a mobilization regime? A common assumption is that the Kremlin is becoming or has become dependent on a heady mix of paranoia, militarism and public spectacle, and war is a great way of supplying it. There is some truth in this, and certainly the Kremlin is pushing a nationalist line for all it is worth. However, we should not assume the Russians are wholly taken in by it, let alone that this means Putin needs to manufacture crisis after crisis to keep his action show topping the ratings.
The war will be televised
Of course, Moscow is making much of its latest adventure. However, the black and white cockpit camera footage of bombs hitting targets, the to-camera pieces shouted over the scream of jet engines, the shots of cruise missiles streaking from warship launchers, are all long-established staples of techno-war. They could as easily be drone footage from US operations in Afghanistan, or reportage from Balad Air Base in Iraq as American F-16s headed off for another mission. What modern war is not turned into a blockbuster, especially in the early days, before friction, fate, and the ingenuity of the perfidious enemy bring to an end illusions that it can be managed and choreographed?
Meanwhile, the cast of nationalist ideologues and propagandists continue to ply their trade, smoothly pivoting from Ukraine to the Middle East. Veteran writer Alexander Prokhanov – who first hit the big time in the 1980s with hearty accounts of Soviet heroism in Afghanistan – is now telling young Russians to stop watching TV game shows and undertake their own “personal mobilization” for a clash of civilizations. And when not noting the “ideal” conditions for bombing in its weather forecasts, television news is delivering a stream of accounts of successful missions and grateful Syrians.
However, there is a world beyond Perviy Kanal news and Rossiya 24, and one has to ask just to what extent ordinary Russians really feel mobilized or respond to such PR blitzes. According to a recent Levada Center poll, 72% of Russians are supportive of the air campaign against Islamic State, but that does not equate to any blanket approval of a wider military operation.
An earlier survey had found 69% opposing direct military action, and while a combination of wall-to-wall media coverage and the inevitable initial appeal of what seems a “nice, victorious little war” explains this apparent flip-flop, the underlying concerns are unlikely to go away. It is noteworthy how often the spectre of the Soviet war in Afghanistan – a “six month” and “limited” deployment that ended up lasting ten years and costing more than 15,000 Soviet lives – crops up even in the more supportive media.
Moderately quiet on the eastern front
Besides which, Russians are no more simplistic in their perspectives on the world than anyone else. They can be excited by the thought that their country is again shaping global events; some of them at least can enjoy the videogame pyrotechnics as jihadists and rebels are hammered by the might of the Russian military. But that does not mean they cannot keep that in context, that they want to see their boys coming home as “cargo 200” casualties. It also does not mean that they need to hold these feelings especially deeply, or indeed that they are not also savvy enough to know what responses are expected of them when surveyed.
For that matter, just how mobilized do Russians feel? Life has become harder – salaries have dropped in real terms for the last ten months – but most have adapted. Finland, for example, is suffering because the Russians who tended to come to shop now spend only two-thirds of what they did before the current crisis. But this is only in part because they are buying less overall, and in part reflects a shift to cheaper online suppliers instead of coming to Finland to buy in a bricks-and-mortar shop.
Meanwhile, Russians continue to live their lives largely in blissful ignorance that they are supposedly locked in economic and geopolitical conflict with the West. Airliners, trains and buses still shuttle back and forth across the notional front line, and while the numbers travelling abroad look set to fall by 40% this year, surveys show this is a product of the ruble’s decline, not any disinclination to visit the outside world. On a personal level, Russians seem to respond more with sorrow than anger when discussing the crisis with Westerners.
More generally, much of the outside world’s coverage of Russian hyper-patriotism comes from Moscow, a city admittedly festooned in St George’s ribbons and wallpapered in nationalist billboards. But how universal is this? A trip to St Petersburg this summer, for example, revealed a city far less burdened by all the paraphernalia of mobilization. How far is it really the case that Moscow is the face of a Potemkin patriotism as much as anything else driven by an apparent eager to present its lords and masters – how many of the movers and shakers of today’s Russia venture far outside the A107 ring road? – with what they want to see?
Neither master nor captive, but bit of both
Patriotic mobilization is used in a bid to distract Russians from their current troubles and delegitimize any efforts to pin blame on the Kremlin. In some cases, actively dissenting voices are persecuted as backsliders, even traitors, but this is the rarity, not the norm. Instead, it is rather that quieter voices of uncertainty and misgiving are drowned out by the official clamour.
For now, at least. Being 72% comfortable with the current arm’s-length operation is one thing, especially when Putin reassures his people that the government has been able to fund it out of the military’s existing budgets. However, this is based on consumption of an official narrative that presents the Syrian adventure as having three crucial virtues: as highly successful (hundreds of Islamic State “mercenaries” are fleeing the war zone, according to the official accounts); wholly safe for Russians; and well received everywhere but in the White house.
This will not last. If Moscow wants to change the ground truths of this war, it will take a lot more than 30 aircraft and some cruise missile strikes: brigades of combat troops, not a few “volunteers” and technical advisers will be required. In due course, there will be casualties, whether to accident or enemy action, and the risk of an upsurge in terrorism at home cannot be discounted considering that many North Caucasus cells have pledged their loyalty to Islamic State. And the operation is unlikely to win any long-term plaudits other than from Tehran and Baghdad, and is already complicating relations with Ankara, a potential regional ally.
So the shine will soon dull and if anything the Kremlin – as with Ukraine – may well find itself the hostage of its triumphalist propaganda. However, that does not mean that it will have to pick some new war with which to replace it. Given that the present patriotic mobilization is actually rather less powerful and pervasive than might seem at first glance, with Russians not quite so quick to be taken in, it also means, mercifully, that its failure is going to be less critical for the regime, and Putin is unlikely to feel an imminent need to pick another fight.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University and Director of its Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows (http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/) and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.