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Signing Off on the Kremlin’s War

Maxim Trudolyubov
Posters of presidential elections decorate the entrance to the building of Vladivostok State University
Vladivostok, Russia - March 13, 2024: Posters of presidential elections decorate the entrance to the building of Vladivostok State University.

Putin did not plan for a long war, but in the end, it is the long war that has become the focal point around which Putin continues to build his regime and, as he believes, to consolidate society. Putin now holds his elections expecting to be reappointed as Russia’s supreme leader by a well-orchestrated landslide.


The point of the upcoming election-like event, which excludes even a shred of competition, is to get as many people as possible to sign off on Russia’s war against Ukraine. The idea is to get millions of Russian citizens to retroactively approve the decision Putin single-handedly made two years ago. 


The endless debate as to whether it is Putin’s war or the war of all Russians is well-known to Putin and his government. They also know that Western leaders initially believed it was Putin’s war and purported to aim their sanctions—not entirely successfully—at the Kremlin elite rather than at ordinary Russians. But Putin wants to correct that. His aim is to make as many Russians complicit in this crime as possible. 


Making the Populace Complicit


He has been doing this step by step. First, he assembled a public session of his Security Council a couple of days before the invasion. During the televised event his security officials and some of the top public servants were called to the floor one by one to recite their remarks of approval of Putin’s recognition of Russia’s two “new” proxy states in Ukraine. This was done to ensure collective responsibility for a decision that led to a horrific war. This was the kind of vow of omerta taken by all of Putin’s major henchmen and collaborators. 


On the very first day of the invasion, he invited Russia’s most prominent business leaders to the Kremlin, an event that was meant to signal consent on the part of Russia’s business community. Putin told the shocked magnates and entrepreneurs that Moscow had been forced into starting a “special military operation” and knew that sanctions would follow. That televised gathering indeed ensured that most of those in the hall soon found their names on various sanctions lists.


Putin later met with all kinds of other, less important groups with cameras rolling. That is how he gathered consent for the war and forced complicity. His upcoming “election” is a spectacle aimed at getting consent from most of the public. This vote will be a vote for war, so that Putin can then say, “This is not just my war, this is the war of all Russia.” He wants all Russians to be marred by joint responsibility for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 


This will be a very bad signal for the West. Western leaders, especially those who will succeed the current ones, will look at the election results: 80 percent for Putin. That means 80 percent are for war. So, many politicians will be able to tell their constituencies, our countries did everything right when we restricted not only Putin’s establishment but all Russian citizens with our sanctions. 


What Is the Import of the Election Results?


Not everyone wants to get into the details of Russian life and find out what these results really mean. This is why Yulia Navalnaya, the oppositionist’s widow, called for Western nations to refuse to recognize Putin’s electoral “victory.” Seeing this electoral event as a plebiscite for war helps to understand why her call is a meaningful political gesture. That is unlikely to succeed, though. 


There has been a long debate among Russia’s independent thinkers and opposition activists as to the best plan of action during the official three-day electoral procedure. Most opposition figures agreed to support a symbolic gesture of defiance, a plan to turn up in droves at noon on March 17. The opposition decided not to use tactical voting, that is, voting for one candidate, randomly picked, who is not Russia’s current president. The idea is to make a point of defying the orchestrated nature of the voting. This, though a meaningful and safe way to express protest, is unlikely to lead to much change either. Short-term political gestures like this are unlikely to work because the Kremlin’s political managers anticipate them and are well-prepared.


Longer-term thinking is in order. I have been pessimistic for many years. But it seems to me that what is needed now is informed optimism. It seems to many now that the game is lost, and Russia cannot be changed. This is not true. No country is doomed to live forever with the existing regime. History gives us plenty of examples. 


There is no such thing as a “slave mentality,” the inclination of an entire nation to adhere to a certain system of government. We know that political systems change. And this is certainly possible in Russia, too. As soon as conditions change, people will say publicly what is now suppressed and accumulating in Russia’s spiral of silence. “Spiral of silence” is an old theory, proposed by the German sociologist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, that holds that people often suppress their opinion when they anticipate being exposed  to peer pressure from all those around them who seem to hold a majority-approved opinion. 


When will conditions arise for the spiral of silence to be broken? Unfortunately, there is no good answer. At the same time, it is quite clear that there is no mass support for the war in Russian society, just as there is no mass support for Putin. There are plenty of indirect signs that this is the case. For example, people in social surveys refuse to answer; they say they have no opinion about the war. So they are afraid of something, but that doesn’t mean they approve of the Kremlin’s actions. And when conditions change, this position will still manifest itself. 


A Focus on the Next Generation


Those people who still want to believe in the future of Russia need to work on this future, to imagine it and put it down on paper. In addition, they need to work on their own education and the education of their children, who must grow up with the realization that the current regime in Russia is an anomaly. The people who managed to seize power have limited time to persuade their countrymen that the war against Ukraine is justified. 


There is now an invisible struggle for what the next generation will do. In power today is a generation born in the 1950s who developed a political consciousness the 1970s and 1980s. They grew up in an atmosphere of disillusionment, faithlessness, the collapse of ideals. There was no longer faith in communism, and there was no other faith. There was a realization of a deep historical failure. This is how this generation of old men emerged, preoccupied with their grievances and attempts at revenge. 


Of course, this generation also includes Oleg Orlov, one of the founders of the Memorial organization, one of Russia’s most respected NGOs, who is now serving time on a sentence for “discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation.” But it is the embittered part of the generation that is in power. 


There is also the next generation, which grew up in the late 1980s and 1990s. For this generation, the future is not an empty sound. Yes, Putin did eliminate the leader of this generation, Alexei Navalny, who was born in 1976. But this is not the end of the story. Yes, members of this generation are now depressed and in shock. But they are responsible for creating and maintaining a vision of the future. Today the struggle unfolds for the hearts and minds of this generation and those who are younger. It is up to all of us today to overcome today’s pessimism. 


The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more