Russian Society Disfigured and Degraded by the ‘Long War’ – PRIO Blogs

Russians still do not call the full-scale invasion of Ukraine what it actually is — a war. Now in its third year, the war continues to be referred to in Russia by its awkward abbreviation SVO, short for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s so-called “special military operation.”

Citizens stroll along the city streets, passing by a woman beggar in St. Petersburg, Feb 2024. Photo: Artem Priakhin / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Russian war propaganda pushing this narrative is everywhere.

In February, participants in an annual Moscow ski race were arranged at the starting line in the shape of the letter Z — a pro-war symbol (Afisha Daily, February 11). Meanwhile, international skiing competitions, figure skating tournaments, and soccer matches are no longer shown on television as Russian athletes have been banned from participating. These realities highlight that the Kremlin’s ongoing war has increasingly disrupted the lives of everyday Russians and further isolated Russia in the international arena.

Moscow’s dual narratives of trumpeting Russian heroics and denying the reality of war resembles the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was officially labeled as a “performance of international duty.” A darker resemblance comes with Joseph Stalin’s repressions in the mid-1930s, a time when state oppression was camouflaged with comedy films and songs about life full of joy. Today, Russia’s list of censored authors, films, and theater productions continuously grows. Nowhere was the repressive regime more visible than in the murder of Alexei Navalny in a Gulag-like Arctic penal colony (Re:Russia, February 19).

Navalny’s murder was timed to coincide with Russia’s seizure of Avdiivka, a crucial city on the warfront whose defeat marked Russia’s first significant success since May 2023 (Meduza.io, February 14). Putin praised this hard-won tactical gain, presenting it as a major strategic success (Izvestiya, February 20). Moscow’s “patriotic” commentators have been eager to predict further offensive operations, but the heavy casualties suffered from the advance have left scant reserves for sustaining pressure (TopWar.ru, February 21; Meduza.io, February 24). Ukrainian long-distance strikes on Russian logistical hubs and Black Sea Fleet ships undercut Russian offensive capabilities even further, and the destruction of a second A-50U early warning and control aircraft delivered a heavy blow (The Insider, February 23).

Kremlin propaganda suppresses any news on casualties and tries to boost jingoist belligerence to rally the shrinking group of Russians who support the war (Republic.ru, February 24). Public opinion shows a clear preference for starting peace talks and views the costs of the SVO as too high (Levada.ru, February 6; Forbes.ru, February 24). Putin has attempted to address these feelings by declaring a readiness to negotiate the terms of Ukraine’s surrender and to counter such sentiments by suppressing the anti-war opposition. Navalny’s murder was supposed to deliver a crushing blow to the opposition by driving a wedge between the remnants of Navalny’s team and the other groups that gathered for the 12th Free Russia Forum in Vilnius (Svoboda.org, February 21; Delfi.lt, February 24). The Kremlin’s plan backfired when Yulia Navalnaya stepped forward to take up her late husband’s brave cause (Moscow times, February 19).

The Kremlin also timed Navalny’s murder with the Munich Security Conference, which turned out to be a terrible miscalculation. The conference provided Yulia Navalnaya with a perfect podium to make her case (Novaya gazeta Europe, February 22). Putin had reasons to expect that a combination of the victory at Avdiivka and the decimation of the anti-war opposition would undermine European resolve to support Ukraine (Rossiiskaya gazeta, February 15). In fact, the opposite has happened as European leaders have felt compelled to join efforts to support Ukraine and expand investments in their respective defense industries (Kommersant, February 18).European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and three prime ministers — Giorgia Meloni of Italy, Alexander de Croo of Belgium, and Justin Trudeau of Canada — visited Kyiv on February 24 to confirm their commitment to Ukraine’s victory (MK.ru, February 24).

US Congressional approval of an aid package for Ukraine remains pending. US President Joe Biden announced a new set of sanctions following Navalny’s murder that target many vulnerabilities in the Russian military-industrial complex. The military-industrial complex in Russia remains highly dependent on the import of high-tech components, which these sanctions will further target (RBC.ru, February 24). Russia’s economy has been seriously distorted to support the demands of war, and each Ukrainian long-distance strike, such as the attack on the Lipetsk steel plant on the third anniversary of the invasion, further disrupts supply chains (Republic.ru, February 21; Forbes.ru, February 24). Russia’s successes only come by overexploiting its resources and economy. The sustained news stream of technical failures, like the explosion at the Votkinsk missile plant, indicates that soon Russia will no longer be able to keep up with its demand for artillery production (TopWar.ru, February 9).

Russia has sought to distract from its illicit economic activities by taking a more “self-righteous” approach to its posturing in international forums, including the G20 (Rossiiskaya gazeta, February 22). Russia’s vicious anti-Western rhetoric aimed at drumming up support in the Global South rings hollow, not only because Russia fails to offer any tangible stimuli, but also because this diplomacy is a clear attempt to cover up the country’s cruel domestic repressions (Carnegie Politika, February 19). Broad international support for bringing the war to an end has progressively translated into elaborations on the basic Ukrainian peace plan. Switzerland has become the main hub for merging initiatives between influential “neutral” countries, such as Brazil or South Africa (RBC.ru, February 24).

Moscow’s war has horribly damaged Ukraine, but Kyiv’s resolve to emerge as a proud European state remains unshakable. Russia, on the other hand, is sinking deeper into a hopeless acceptance of war as a way of life. The Kremlin’s determination to pursue confrontation with the “hostile” West condemns the unsettled domestic population to further degradation. As Europe embraces Ukraine, Russia finds it harder to deny that every effort to keep the war going makes its future more forlorn and grim. The war’s course will be determined not only by the balance of military capabilities but also by the clash of hopes for a better future. Every bit of Western solidarity adds to Ukraine’s edge, and every twist of Putin’s repressions diminishes Russia’s stamina.

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