Staunton, June 29 – Russian attitudes toward Ukraine are appear to be shifting in response both to changes in the Kremlin’s approach and to changes in the coverage Moscow television has given to them. Only a few weeks ago, both were beating the drums for war; now, they are talking about finding a way to avoid more conflict.
This shift underscores that Russian public opinion is anything but an independent variable and that if it can be moved in one direction by the Kremlin and its media at one point, it can be moved in a very different one by the same forces at another. And consequently, it is impossible to know whether the current shift will last or is only temporary.
In an article on the Svobodnaya Pressa portal yesterday, Andrey Ivanov notes that throughout the crisis, “the attitudes of the people practically completely correspond with the treatment of events in Ukraine by Russian official media” and that when the Moscow media line changes do too does Russian public opinion.
Only a few weeks ago, Ivanov notes, Moscow television focused “mainly on the successes” of those fighting against the Ukrainian central government. “Now,” he continues, “the accent is on sympathy for the victims of the punitive operation and for the refugees.” The main message now is the need “to stop the violence.”
Ivanov spoke with four experts and commentators about this shift, its causes and its meanings.
Aleksey Levinson, a sociologist at the Levada Center, said that in his view, the shift in Russian attitudes reflects not only the impact of changes on Russian television but also the effect of changes in the direction of Moscow’s foreign policy. At present, he continued, public opinion is moving from one place to another.
The way this is happening is important, Levinson says. Russians are not so much changing their attitudes toward the secessionists as paying ever less attention to them and instead “supporting those ideas which on the whole present Russia in a positive light.” If viewing Russia as a peacemaker contributes to that, then the Russian public will support “that point of view.”
Were the Russian government to make a radical shift in its position very quickly, Levinson continues, that could cost it support. But if it does so step by step and stresses popular themes like “our country always supports peace,” public opinion will follow right along because “for the foreseeable future, the people will consider the actions of the president correct.”
The only Russians not likely to follow the majority will be those who “support consistent ideological positions. But mass consciousness [on the whole] does not require ideological consistency from the authorities,” the Levada Center researcher said.
Boris Kagarlitsky, head of the Moscow Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, offered a somewhat different view based on his conviction that many Russians find the social program embodied in the Novorossiya project “more important than the information policy” of the Russian state.
“If the information paradigm of our television will be changed, Russians all the same will support the popular movement in the South-East of Ukraine. The current propaganda success of the Kremlin is connected with the fact that the line that has been carried out by the authorities corresponds with public attitudes. They re-enforce one another.”
“But if the Kremlin tries to change course in a radical way, then it will become the victim of its former propaganda,” Kagarlitsky said. And as a result, he suggests, the Kremlin will not make any dramatic moves, even if parts of the Russian elite now would like to see them in order to revive relations with the West.
Aleksandr Buzlagin, a professor at Moscow State University, said that Russian public opinion on Ukraine is being manipulated, but he argued that there are real limits to this process. It affects, he said, “only that part of the citizens who do not have definite views, ideological values and positions.”
Moreover, he suggested, those without such views are in fact declining in number because the Ukrainian events are forcing ever more Russians to think about who they are, what they want and what they are prepared to do to get it. To the extent that they find answers, they will be less subject to manipulation in the future.
At the same time, Buzlagin continued, “there is another side of the coin.” The rise of “’hurrah patriotism’” by itself has had an impact on many because it creates the sense that there is more unity than may in fact be the case.
And finally, Vladimir Rogov, coordinator for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Ukraine, said that in his view support by Russians for those challenging Kyiv’s rule is broader and deeper than some think and therefore is not as subject to manipulation as others currently believe.
That is shown, he suggested by the assistance ordinary Russians have provided for Donetsk and Luhansk, and consequently, he concluded that one ought not to “over-estimate the influence of the mass media” on Russian attitudes. They are not infinitely malleable but rather something the regime must take into account.