Putin militarizes society: ‘For the president, for the army, for Russia’

War slogans in Moscow aim to drum up support for the invasion of Ukraine as authorities prepare new measures to punish ‘traitors’ who fled the country to avoid the draft

People take photographs next to a letter Z, a symbol of support for Russian troops, on January 5 in Moscow.
People take photographs next to a letter Z, a symbol of support for Russian troops, on January 5 in Moscow.MAXIM SHIPENKOV (EFE)

Patriotic messages have been springing up across Moscow. On the headquarters of Russian Railways in the capital one reads: “For the president, for the army, for Russia.” Moscow’s streets are adorned with billboards bearing the faces of soldiers fighting in Ukraine with the slogan “Gory to the heroes of Russia!” A giant screen on the Semyonovsky shopping mall flashes up the latest headlines from the Kremlin’s new agencies, interspersed with the Z that has come to identify the Russian military. “We don’t leave our own behind,” reads a message superimposed on the national flag, alongside a call to join up. The change has been gradual: over the past year the Kremlin has gone from attempting to keep the civilian population and the war apart, to the conflict permeating their daily lives. Depression, resignation and duty are the three most common forms of coping with the conflict. Although a large percentage of Russians would happily call off the invasion tomorrow, many feel that loyalty to the motherland comes above all else. Anything else, they are told over and again, is akin to cowardice and treason.

Vladimir Putin’s New Year message to the populace was delivered on a somber stage surrounded by military personnel to reinforce the Kremlin’s message that Russia is at war with the West and to demand loyalty. The events of the past year had “clearly separated courage and heroism from betrayal and cowardice,” Putin said, calling for devotion to the Russian cause and asserting that “moral and historical righteousness is on our side.”

Two weeks after Putin’s speech, the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights proposed amending Article 275 of Russia’s penal code to include the concept of “treason in any form.” According to the body, this would allow for the punishment of hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens who have fled the country or who are opposed to the war. The chairman of the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, and the deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, have called for dissenters to have their Russian citizenship revoked and their assets confiscated as “enemies of the state.”

Russia may be Putin, but Putin is no longer Russia. The strong sense of community among Russians and the increasingly uniform apparatus of state repression has provoke huge contradictions among the populace, plunging the country into a crisis of identity. Sales of antidepressants have skyrocketed – 48% year-on-year between January and September, according to the pharmaceutical industry – and many families have been torn apart by politics.

It is very rare to see the bodies of fallen soldiers in Kremlin-approved media, even those of the most demonized Ukrainian units, such as the Azov Battalion. Despite the perorations of the talk show hosts, the war is aseptic on television for the older voter and very few younger people dare to publish anything related to the conflict, preferring instead to discuss leisure activities on social networks. Only Telegram channels are an open window onto the grim reality of the war in Ukraine.

A family watches Vladimir Putin's New Year speech on television on December 31 in Moscow.
A family watches Vladimir Putin's New Year speech on television on December 31 in Moscow.ALEXANDER NEMENOV (AFP)

Fear as a symptom

“Fear is one of the symptoms of our time,” wrote German author Ernst Jünger and this is particularly true for Russian citizens, being largely apolitical and having blindly delegated their futures to Putin. Although 71% of the population support their military personnel, 50% would like peace negotiations to be started immediately, 10 percentage points more than those who back a continuation of hostilities, according to a survey conducted by the influential Levada sociological center, which has been declared a foreign agent by the Kremlin.

According to the same poll, 34% of Russians “feel morally responsible for the death of civilians and destruction in Ukraine.” “Considering the propaganda and repression, this is quite a high number,” Anton Barbashin, editor of analytical website Riddle tells EL PAÍS. “Unfortunately, any meaningful catharsis will only be possible after the war. Any debate that emerges will depend on how the war ends and who Russia’s leaders are at that time.”

Putin, beset by a conflict with no clear horizon, is building a state cemented around war. Patriotic youth organizations have returned and schoolchildren recite slogans about the honor of dying in combat and attend military training classes; criticism of the army is punishable with jail; new laws have made companies dependent on meeting military requirements; the Defense Ministry has raised its personnel ceiling to 1.5 million from 1.1 million. “There are a lot of patriotic events in schools: raising the flag, patriotism classes, meetings with veterans... it’s taking away half of the children’s study time. Parents are not happy, but no one argues,” a teacher tells EL PAÍS. Meanwhile, Kremlin sources have confirmed to business daily Kommersant that Putin will run for president again in 2024.

The Kremlin is only too aware that dissenting voices are getting louder, but Russia’s police force numbers more than two million officers and there is no nook or cranny that is not watched by cameras or manpower. “Only Iran has experienced more protests than Russia in the last five years among authoritarian countries. The idea that there are few protests is a distortion created by the media,” says analyst Alexander Badin, citing data from the Carnegie Moscow Center and The Economist. “But the Russian authorities have learned how to suppress the potential for demonstrations without making concessions, and one of the most successful propaganda narratives is that protests are useless and are organized by losers.” According to OVD-info, an independent human rights media project, 19,478 protesters have been arrested since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Asked whether defeat in Ukraine could lead to situation in Russia similar to that imposed on the empires on the losing side of World War I, Barbashin is optimistic. “Unless Russia ends up with a version of the Versailles Treaty, any future government will focus on easing sanctions and normalizing relations with the West. It is hard to imagine Russia being abandoned after this war as Germany was in the 1920s,″ he notes. The key question is whether Putinism will outlast the war.

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