(Ця стаття також доступна українською мовою тут.)

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a tidal wave of economic, sports, and cultural sanctions against Russia. It has spurred a surge of condemnations even by some prominent Russians, as well as antiwar protests in more than 50 Russian cities, despite years of repression that have gutted the country’s civil society. The unprecedented outpouring of global disapproval has raised hopes of generating enough opposition within Russia, either among elites or among the public or both, to persuade Putin to back down. U.S. officials and others, for example, speculate that body bags returning with Russian soldiers killed in the war or images of their bodies abandoned on the battlefield might turn Russian public opinion against the war. But if the Kremlin manages to successfully suppress such information, does the capture of a tank battalion make a sound in Russia if no one there hears of it?

Speculation about what might move Putin illustrates how any dramatic shift in his calculus may hinge significantly on who wins the information war. The Kremlin and the media outlets it controls spin even extraordinary economic sanctions as the fault of the United States and Europe and as unjustified because Russia is only “defending” itself or its Russian brethren abroad. 

It’s early days still, but how that information war is playing out inside Russia offers some clues about the factors involved. They include the effectiveness of the message content on either side, the modes of communication, their geographic reach across a country with 11 time zones and 145 million people, the Kremlin’s ability to control information, and the capacity for the Russian public and civil society to circumvent those controls. And in the end, it depends on an even less-knowable variable: how much Putin can be influenced by public or elite opinion.

Messaging and Russian Public Opinion

Thus far, anti-invasion messaging has been diverse and powerful both outside and inside Russia. In addition to the renewed unity of NATO and its many global allies in severely sanctioning and isolating Russia diplomatically and financially, international sports and cultural organizations have iced out Russia from hosting or participating in major events. Celebrities within Russia have taken the risk of speaking out, such as journalist and video blogger Yuri Dud, whose YouTube channel has almost 10 million subscribers and whose groundbreaking 2019 film on Stalin’s repression in a northeast region of Russia has had 27 million views. He had posted an antiwar message after the invasion began, noted Izabella Tabarovsky, a senior program associate of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. The page still contains a photo of what appears to be a war-damaged apartment building in Ukraine.

Even before the invasion, Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza outlined a litany of Russian cultural icons – a renowned novelist, a pianist, a tennis champion — who were speaking out against a military intervention. Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and former chief technology officer of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike and now chairman of the nonprofit Silverado Policy Accelerator, tweeted on March 1: “A number of Russian oligarchs, actors, TV personalities, etc are coming out against this war on a scale we really haven’t seen since at least the First Chechen War in the 1990s.” More than 2,000 Russians from the arts and culture world had signed an open letter opposing the war, the French news agency AFP reported.

And such messages could find fertile ground. “Most Russians neither favor sending troops to Ukraine nor buy into the Kremlin’s narrative of treating the West as an enemy,” wrote Kara-Murza, who was twice poisoned in Russia in attacks that many close observers attribute to the Russian government.

He cited research and polling by a group of political scientists writing in the Washington Post who reported that, “Even though Russia is an autocracy, its leaders pay attention to public sentiment. Our new polling data suggests that invading Ukraine could be a difficult sell within Russia.” Historical survey data shows that public backing for armed intervention in Ukraine has halved since 2016, and a December poll found that “just 8 percent think Russia should send military forces to fight against Ukrainian government troops there.”

At the same time, the Russian government is fighting hard on the air waves and online to persuade its citizens that the war is not a war, but rather a “special operation,” and that it is a righteous campaign to defend against threats to the motherland from NATO and/or Ukraine, which the Kremlin paints falsely as being run by “Nazis” or “Nazi sympathizers” or “fascists,” Tabarovsky notes. Officials have sent directives to news media on how to talk about the war. Officially endorsed rhetoric often harkens back to Russia’s more noble fight against the Nazis in World War II, a conflict known there as “the Great Patriotic War,” and shot through with virtuosity as a defensive campaign fought against great odds. 

The aggression against Ukraine “goes against something very fundamental in Russian identity,” Tabarovsky explains. “I think it’s hard for Americans to understand sometimes how close these memories are and how real they are – it’s family history and everything. So you say that someone is a `Nazi’ and it’s tantamount to saying that they’re a devil. So that’s partly why [Putin] uses these analogies and this language. And then, of course, he has to say that `we’re going to liberate – we’re not the aggressor; we’re there to liberate.’ So he tries to tap into that part of the national identity that says that, if you fight wars, you fight wars that liberate your land, that liberate your territory from an occupier.”

The idea that “body bags” would turn Russian public opinion is also a feature of the information war. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry has upped the ante on that idea, creating a website and a channel on the Telegram messaging app, which officials explain is intended either to connect Russian families with their soldiers who have been captured by Ukrainian forces or to provide information about those killed on the battlefield. Time magazine described videos of captured Russian soldiers calling home and saying, “Mama and papa, I didn’t want to come here. They forced me to.” The New York Times reported that the name of the website, 200rf.com, is “a grim reference to Cargo 200, a military code word that was used by the Soviet Union to refer to the bodies of soldiers put in zinc-lined coffins for transport away from the battlefield; it is a euphemism for troops killed in war.” The Russian government immediately blocked the site. 

The effect of any Western sanctions can be explained away to the Russian public at least to some extent by blaming them on the United States and Europe, rather than their own government, “just as Putin told them,” Tabarovsky says. “They will just find confirmation in all of that.” Russian society is renowned for its apparent ability to withstand great economic hardships for what they perceive to be in the interest of national pride or survival, though the degree of severity in the current tsunami of sanctions may test that tolerance.

Communications Channels and the Ultimate Target

A significant factor in whether any of this messaging from either side hits home is who has sufficient or superior control over communications channels. Putin has consolidated effective control over most major media outlets, especially broadcasters, during his two decades in power, as part of his campaign to suppress opposition. These media programs now consistently relay Kremlin talking points, to the extremes. As one of myriad examples, amid weeks of Putin and his senior officials making veiled or direct allusions to Russia’s nuclear weapons in their attempts to ward off what they would see as interference in their capture of Ukraine, New York Times reporter Ivan Nechepurenko posted a screenshot of a Russian Channel 1 anchor declaring, “Overall, Russian submarines can launch more than 500 nuclear warheads that would destroy the U.S. and all NATO countries … Why do we need peace, if there will be no Russia in it?”

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that, on Feb. 26, “Russia’s state internet regulator Roskomnadzor said media organizations can only publish official government reports about the conflict in Ukraine. If outlets fail to comply, Roskomnadzor has threatened to block their websites.” The U.S.-government funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported Feb. 26 that the regulator “has ordered media outlets to delete reports using the words `assault,’ `invasion,’ or `declaration of war’” in describing the invasion and had launched investigations against multiple media outlets for violations of the protocol. 

This week, the Kremlin took two of the remaining independent broadcasters – TV Rain and Radio Echo Moskvy, both of which had been targeted in the investigations — off the air and blocked their websites. They didn’t dominate airwaves before, in large part due to years of repressive government action against them, but Echo Moskvy, despite being owned by Gazprom’s media arm, has a long, proud tradition of independence and a loyal following. It’s unclear how easily accessible these or other blocked websites might be to users employing virtual private networks (VPNs), but the Russian government already had moved in September to block access to six VPN services, claiming that they facilitated violations of Russian law. And today, news media reported that Echo Moskvy’s board decided to liquidate the station entirely. The U.S. State Department said on March 1 that the Russian Parliament, which also is effectively under Putin’s control, will consider legislation that would criminalize “unofficial” reporting on Russia’s new invasion of Ukraine with as many as 15 years in prison.

Social media, of course, has been a major arena for the information wars over the Russian invasion. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself has sought to speak directly to the Russian people in video messages distributed online, in news reports, and on social media. As Putin essentially declared war, Zelenskyy warned Russians in their own language that their leaders were embarking on what might become a “great war on the European continent.” As Russian soldiers closed in on Kyiv, he implored them, “Do not believe your commanders. Do not believe your propagandists. Just save your lives — leave.” He and his government are using emotional appeals, such as when the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, read out during a General Assembly debate what he described as text messages from a Russian soldier to his mother before he was killed, saying, “There is a real war raging here. I am afraid. We are bombing all of the cities, even targeting civilians. We were told that they would welcome us… They call us fascists. Mama, this is so hard.”

But it’s hard to know how many of these messages are getting through to how many of the Russian people, or how much of it is reaching the country’s elites, who might be in a better position, closer to the Kremlin, to influence Russian leaders. Putin’s own approval ratings had been strong and rising before the invasion. And Carnegie Moscow Center scholar Alexander Baunov has argued, “The Russian elite has global ambitions. Mr. Putin and his associates believe that Russia should project its power across the world, economically, militarily and politically.”

Regardless, how much does Putin care about elite or popular sentiment? 

Tabarovsky says the Russian leader “obviously does care about public opinion, because he understands the explosive nature of what’s happening now – that’s why he’s taking such great measures to suppress the information.” Alperovitch tweeted: “The unpopularity of this war inside Russia (not to mention the universal international outrage) is going to multiply dramatically with each coming day (along with casualties).”

The group of political scientists writing in the Washington Post observed:

…public opposition has not always constrained Putin’s actions. Russians were not eager for war in Ukraine before the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and polls before Russia’s intervention in Syria showed opposition. Yet public opinion changed quickly as events on the ground unfolded — and this could, in principle, happen again. Once Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in 2014 amid the Euromaidan protests, Russian state media kicked into gear. Public opinion toward Ukraine deteriorated very rapidly.

Kara-Murza perhaps inadvertently alludes to the likely tempered effect of any public statements and demonstrations against Putin’s historic gamble: 

“Whether domestic opposition to the war in Russia can have any practical effect is far from certain. What is certain is that by raising their voices against yet another Kremlin aggression, members of Russia’s cultural elite, acting in the best traditions of Russian and Soviet intelligentsia, are upholding the nation’s honor in the same way the seven demonstrators who protested on Red Square against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia did in August 1968.”

Kara-Murza, of course, didn’t state the obvious: Those courageous seven didn’t stop that invasion. Still, Tabarovsky says, “I think the information will spread. At some point, people will have to ask themselves what is really going on here.”

“There also is a good chance that, with this, Putin has bitten off more than he can chew,” she says. “Perhaps this war will break him. We don’t know.”

IMAGE: An inscription reading “No to war” is seen on an advertisement board as riot police officers stand guard nearby during a protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in central Saint Petersburg on March 2, 2022. Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on March 2 urged Russians to stage daily protests against Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, saying the country should not be a “nation of frightened cowards” and calling Vladimir Putin “an insane little tsar.” (Photo by OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images)