To many Russians, defeat remains inconceivable despite mounting setbacks in Ukraine
By Anatoly Kurmanaev
The Russian military losses are mounting, the economy is under pressure from Western sanctions and NATO troops may soon be expanding their presence along Russia’s borders.
But to many Russians, defeat in the war in Ukraine remains inconceivable.
The majority of Russians, especially the older generations and the working classes, believe state propaganda, which fills their television screens with images of seemingly unstoppable columns of Russian tanks advancing through Ukrainian countryside and virulent talk shows that paint the conflict as a new chapter in their country’s struggle against Nazism.
Even among the more educated and younger Russians, unease about the economy and military failures has yet to crystallize into a sense of national catastrophe, said a half-dozen residents in Russia’s capital, Moscow, and provincial Siberia. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of laws that criminalize any criticism of war — or use of the term war — to describe what their country is doing in Ukraine.
Western and Ukrainian officials say that thousands of Russian soldiers have already died in the conflict. But reports about deaths have been heavily censored by the state and concentrated among working-class families, precluding local tragedies from coalescing into national grieving.
The Russian government’s ability to shield the population thus far from the worst impact of the increasingly draconian economic sanctions is another major reason why the vague unease has not spilled into panic or sustained protests, according to those interviewed.
Prices are rising steadily, but despite the pullout of many Western firms from Russia, basic goods remain widely available. Currency controls introduced by the government have artificially shored up the ruble, creating a sense of stability even as Russia heads toward economic isolation.
The longer the war goes on, the stronger the ruble becomes, a small-business owner in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk said, referring to the Russian central bank’s emergency measures that propped up the ruble by making foreign currency exceedingly difficult to obtain.
Much of Europe’s airspace is closed to Russian aircraft, and Russian banks have been disconnected from Western payment systems. But after the initial pause, wealthier Russians have found ways to resume vacationing in popular destinations such as France and Italy, compounding an apparent sense of normalcy.
And even some Russians who say they initially opposed the invasion are now saying their country has been left with no choice but continue fighting until victory, even if that raises the risk of nuclear war.
Many Russians believe the war is no longer against Ukraine but has morphed into a proxy conflict with the United States and NATO, who, they say, are exploiting the conflict to destroy their nation.
Emboldened by Western support and successful counterattacks, Ukrainian officials are increasingly calling for the expulsion of Russian forces from all of Ukraine’s territory — including Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014 and which most in Russia view as an integral part of their state. At the same time, NATO is poised to expand along Russian borders after Finland’s decision to apply for membership in the Western military alliance.
This has allowed Kremlin propaganda to begin portraying the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine as a defensive war for the survival of the Russian state, an emotive theme in a nation that has prided itself on coming together to repel foreign aggressors over the centuries.
If pushed into a corner, Russia will always fight on, said another resident of Novosibirsk, who opposed the invasion.