How are Russians overall reacting to the war in Ukraine? With indifference

by Ivan Philippov

“The special military operation in Ukraine unified Russian society. An absolute majority of Russians support the special military operation.” In September, this war propaganda trope will become a part of the official school curriculum in Russia. It will be among many other lies about the war in Ukraine that will be included in the new history textbook for high schools.

The assertion that the invasion has popular support in Russia has been repeated in equal parts by President Vladimir Putin, Russian propaganda, Ukrainian politicians, many of Russia’s apologists and pro-Ukrainian Western political leaders. It is wrong. Russia as a nation doesn’t support the war in Ukraine, and to understand that, you just have to listen to its own pro-war propaganda.

By closing all independent publications in Russia, the Kremlin established almost total control over Russia’s media with a couple of exceptions; most notably, social media apps YouTube and Telegram still provide Russians access to uncensored information. Telegram channels today are used by anti-war and pro-war writers and reporters. Unlike tightly controlled television talk shows on Telegram, you can actually find out what people — especially those who support the war — think.

I have been monitoring more than 200 pro-war channels (known as Z-channels) since the first days of invasion, and the most common recurring theme among them is: The Russian nation doesn’t support the war enough; Russians don’t want to fight, and they are not interested in victory.

How is “support” defined? Do people publicly say that they support Putin’s decision to “denazify Ukraine”? Yes. But words can be empty. If instead we define support as volunteering to fight or supporting the invasion with donations, the picture radically changes.

Total exhaustion of the troops on the front lines is the most critical issue that the Russian army faces right now. Russian forces mobilized in the first wave last year have been fighting for more than nine months in very hard conditions with constant supply problems. Telegram users in many channels note that army rules forbid soldiers from going on leave or even returning home after their contract runs out. Users have described that as slavery and vow to never enlist again once they get a chance to leave. There are not enough volunteers to rotate soldiers out of active combat, and even the obscene amount of money that the Russian state has promised to contract soldiers does not attract enough people.

Telegram users describe contract soldiers who arrive on the front lines as people with poor health who wouldn’t have previously passed government requirements, as well as untrained and largely unmotivated. The only way to keep the army in any type of fighting form is for the Kremlin to announce forced mobilization. That’s according to the pro-war writers who criticize the unwillingness of Russians to fight. One of the more popular Z-channel writers, Alexander Khodakovsky, in his most recent post mused on whether or not commanders should start executing deserters as this might be the only way to win the war.

Almost two years into the war, the Russian army is still plagued by a lack of clothes, medicine, water and basic equipment, as well as camouflage nets, all-terrain vehicles and unmanned drones. Pretty much everything soldiers need to survive and fight other than heavy weaponry is still either bought by the soldiers themselves or supplied by volunteers who run hundreds of fundraising campaigns across Russia. Every channel that I monitor either runs its own fundraising or helps someone else, and the constant complaint is that there is not enough money. People are tired, and every day, they raise less and less.

Russia’s music, book and film industries by and large didn’t support the invasion. Some people left. Most stay silent and continue to write books and music or produce films that have nothing to do with the war. This is a popular grievance among Z-channel writers: They lament a lack of support for the war from modern Russian culture.

But what truly infuriates the pro-war crowd is the indifference that Russia as a nation has shown toward the war. They keep talking about it. In Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Barnaul, Kazan and Vladivostok — in every major Russian city — life goes on as if soldiers are not dying on the front lines. People dance and go to bars; people go on holidays to Turkey as if the country doesn’t supply lethal weapons to Ukraine. Russian tourists still go on holidays to NATO countries as if nothing happened.

The universal feeling about the war in Russia is not support — it is indifference.

An incident on July 17 dramatically illustrates Russians’ indifference; it provoked a highly heated reaction from Telegram users. During a training exercise, a Russian military jet suffered mechanical difficulties and went down. The pilot ejected over the Azov Sea and was fighting for his life in clear view of nearby beachgoers. No one came to his rescue. People were filming him, drinking beer and eating ice cream, according to videos recorded on the beach that day, but no one made any effort to save the drowning man.

The morality of staying indifferent at a time when the army of your country perpetrates war crimes in your name on a daily basis is a topic for a different discussion. But no matter how you look at it, Russia as a nation of people does not support the war; it goes to incredible lengths to ignore it. And indifference is not support.

Ivan Philippov is a writer and former journalist. He is a creative executive at AR Content film company. Like many anti-war Russians, he left Moscow in March 2022.