Commentary

Not Paying the Full Price: Russia’s Continued Support for the ‘Special Operation’ in Ukraine

Many Russians have not had to send their children, husbands, or relatives to fight in Ukraine, and as a result, they continue to tacitly support Putin’s “special operation.”

On September 21, 2022, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin declared partial mobilization calling up 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine. While the move seems menacing, this is not all bad news for Ukraine.

First of all, immediate issues with training, morale, and logistics in the face of approaching winter might mean that the new force would not be ready for the battlefield quickly.

But more importantly, partial mobilization means that the war in Ukraine will finally reach the broader Russian population. And this has explosive potential.

Conflict in Comfort of Living Rooms

Over half a year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, life in Russia has not changed much. While Ukrainians have been fighting for survival, Russians have largely been able to go about their lives without paying much attention to the war.

The share of Russians following the events in Ukraine has significantly declined, and many Russians have been able to successfully “tune out” the “special operation.” At the same time, popular support for the war has not wavered, and President Putin’s approval rating remains high at 83 percent.

What explains such continued support is the fact that the Kremlin has successfully shielded the Russian population from the full impact of the war. Most Russians have experienced the conflict in the comfort of their living rooms in front of the TV and have hardly paid the full price for Putin’s war.

Ukrainians fleeing Russian shelling in Irpin
People cross a destroyed bridge as they evacuate the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, during heavy shelling and bombing on March 5, 2022. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP

Circumventing Sanctions

To begin with, Russians so far have not felt the full extent of economic consequences of Western sanctions. In the first months of the invasion, the Kremlin was able to soften the impact of the sanctions by capitalizing on rerouting oil sales.

The government used oil revenues from sales to China and India to prop up the economy and thus slow down the effect of the sanctions. As a result, the ruble has not collapsed, and the only impact the majority of Russians have felt is inflation.

“Nothing has really changed,” one woman told The New York Times. “Sure, the prices went up, but we can endure that,” she said.

In a way, some Russians see inflation as the continuation of the economic decline that started during the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, government propaganda has been successful at framing the sanctions as a Western attempt to undermine Russia, rather than a response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Consequently, Russians have not yet experienced the full brunt of the sanctions, nor do they necessarily associate economic troubles with the situation in Ukraine.

No Direct Human Cost in Russia

In addition to softening the economic blow, the Kremlin has shielded the Russian population from bearing the direct human costs of the war in Ukraine. President Putin avoided a large-scale mobilization.

Instead of war, he opted to call his campaign a “special operation” – a peacetime status that allows the government to pick and choose what information to share with the citizens and which details to protect as state secrets.

For instance, recently, multiple Russian media sources were compelled to remove references to the names of Russian soldiers who died in Ukraine. This was in compliance with a court ruling stating that such information should be classified.

Firefighters remove rubble following a Russian airstrike in the central city of Vinnytsia
Firefighters remove rubble following a Russian airstrike in the central city of Vinnytsia that Ukrainian officials said killed more than 20 people and injured dozens more, July 2022. Photo:
Sergei Supinsky/AFP

President Putin is well aware of the powerful effect military casualties can have on public opinion in his country. He came to power in the wake of the first Chechen war, the war in which public outrage against the actions of the Russian military in the North Caucasus pressured the government to a peace agreement with Chechen separatists.

Remembering the humiliation of the de facto defeat in that was, then newly elected President Putin launched the second Chechen war as a “special counterterrorist operation.”

Since then, to prevent any popular protests against military action, the Russian government has been careful in presenting military campaigns as surgical special operations that involve only a tiny number of well-trained professional military and not the general public.

Recruitment Efforts

The same principle applied to the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Russian population has been generally insulated from military casualties as the government has relied on hidden mobilization to man the Ukraine campaign.

For instance, at the outset of the operation, the Kremlin advertised its determination to use foreign combat forces. Thus, President Putin appealed to foreign fighters from the Arab World, mostly Syrians, to come help the Russian cause.

Since then, the Russian government has conducted recruitment activities in multiple countries including the Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Domestically, the government has focused its recruitment efforts on remote rural areas, as well as areas with ethnic minorities. Many contractors fighting in Ukraine come from small cities and villages on the periphery – places that are unlikely to start mass anti-war protests.

Additionally, many come from ethnic minorities who are also less likely to participate in political protests than ethnic Russians. For example, reports from Chechnya indicate that individuals are forcefully recruited to depart for Ukraine as “volunteers.” In such cases, Chechen authorities are reported to use threats to coerce people to fight in Ukraine.

Further yet, Russia’s infamous Wagner Group has engaged in a shady recruitment campaign. In one instance, recruitment posters appeared in the city of Yekaterinburg with slogans “Orchestra W is waiting for you.” The posters included a phone number and a link to a Wagner-affiliated website.

In more sinister news, Wagner recruiters have been spotted in prisons. Wagner agents have reportedly recruited some 300 inmates from the North Caucasus Republic of Adygea alone. Visiting prisons in St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod, Wagner recruiters would promise to inmates that they would “be in the vanguard helping detect the Nazis, so not everyone will come back.”

Wagner founder Evgeny Prigozhin himself has been visiting prisons promising pardons and salaries starting at 100,000 rubles (around $1,500) to those willing to trade prison for battlefields in Ukraine.

Questioning the Government

Given the composition of forces fighting in Ukraine, to date, many Russians have not had to send their children, husbands, or relatives. As a result, they continue to tacitly support Putin’s “special operation.” This might change with partial mobilization.

While Mr. Putin is showing no intentions of letting go of his operation, Russians will be more reluctant to send their loved ones to fight in a war that has little real meaning for them.

As soon as Russians start feeling the true economic and human costs of the war, they will start posing more questions about the “special operation” and its legitimacy.

And if Russian history is of any indication, political protests spread when the masses start questioning government actions.


Dr. Elena Pokalova (@ElenaPokalova) is Department Chair of International Security Studies Department and Professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University, Washington, DC. She is an expert in security issues, with a focus on terrorism, counterterrorism, and ethnic conflict.

Dr. Pokalova has a vast record of publications with her articles featuring in journals such as Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. She has regularly contributed her expertise to such media outlets as the Voice of America and Stratfor.

Her book Chechnya’s Terrorist Network: The Evolution of Terrorism in Russia’s North Caucasus explores the developments in terrorism and counterterrorism in Russia.

Her book Returning Islamist Foreign Fighters: Threats and Challenges to the West examines the return home of Western foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq. The book analyzes the challenges returnees pose to their home countries and the major approaches in addressing them.

Dr. Pokalova has worked on a number of CVE projects in multiple countries and has served as an advisory board member for several organizations.


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