Staunton, July 10 – Russian public opinion “is being prepared for a change in Kremlin policy” toward Ukraine, Moscow commentators say, with central government media now downplaying the need for and utility of force and playing up the ways in which Vladimir Putin can serve as “peacemaker.”
But this shift in tone, which reflects increasing popular skepticism about Moscow’s approach to Ukraine and elite fears about sanctions and international isolation, does not represent a change in strategy as a shift in tactics because the Moscow media continue to attack Ukraine and Putin equally clearly wants to weaken Kyiv and re-subordinate it to Moscow.
Instead of continuing to set the stage for Russian intervention, an article in yesterday’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta says, state-controlled media and especially television have shifted the tone and even content of their coverage of events in Ukraine and thus reinforced Russian fears that the situation might be headed “out of control”.
Thus, the widely-reported poll numbers showing that two-thirds of Russians are now against military intervention are the product not only of questions that would likely inevitably arise in any conflict where an indefinite situation extends for some time but also of Kremlin policy of shifting popular views.
According to the Moscow paper’s Aleksandra Samarina, “the Kremlin is preparing the population for new approaches” by reducing television coverage of victims in southeastern Ukraine and providing more information showing that the pro-Russian forces there are not winning quickly and easily as Russian media had projected earlier.
Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Center polling agency, says that Russian attitudes about Ukraine and the use of force are “really changing.” Most Russians aren’t yet that concerned about sanctions, but the most educated, informed and active are worried about where things may be heading.
“People are concerned,” he says, “that the situation in Ukraine is shifting out of control and they do not want to bear responsibility for that,” something they fear could happen if Russian forces were to cross into Ukraine overtly.
At the same time, the sociologist notes, “the anti-Ukrainian campaign is continuing,” but he adds that “the wave of euphoria is beginning little by little to decline and growing doubts, skepticism, concern and troubled thoughts are appearing: should citizens have to pay for all this?”
At the same time, Gudkov says, the Kremlin itself is worried about new sanctions and is “preparing an exit strategy,” one that will involve less a change in ultimate goals than in the presentation of “Putin as peacemaker,” as someone who wants to prevent “a humanitarian catastrophe.” That will only add to his standing in the polls.
Nikolay Petrov, a Russian political analyst, agrees. He says that the Kremlin now is proceeding more carefully, “lowering the temperature of propaganda” in the hopes of avoiding a new round of sanctions and preventing more Russians from asking themselves whether they want to get involved in real fighting and not just a short triumphant march forward.
Putin is thus engaged in a complicated balancing act, Petrov continues. On the one hand, he doesn’t want greater confrontation with the West, but on the other, he doesn’t want to be viewed by Russians as someone who sacrificed pro-Russian groups. Presenting himself as a peacemaker is thus a way out.
And Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Politics Foundation, says that this shift is creating cognitive dissonance among Russians as they struggle to find their way between a rational understanding of the risks of using force as compared to the uncertain benefits and their desire as shown by earlier polls to play the role of a great power that does what it wants.
Although none of the Russian commentators draw this conclusion, it appears that Putin is attempting to update Clausewitz, the German theorist who said “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” In place of that, the Kremlin leader appears set to try to demonstrate that “peacemaking can be a continuation of war by other means” — and a more successful one too.