No matter what Putin says — Russian people have no appetite for war

By Matthew Rojansky and Kenneth Yalowitz
June 25, 2014

People attend a rally called "We are together" to support the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea to Russia in Red Square in central Moscow

Russia and the West are again at odds, eying each other with suspicion over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support of armed separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Basic rules of the game for security, stability and prosperity in Europe and beyond are at stake. Some commentators are calling this a “new Cold War.”

But the crucial fact is that the public on each side does not have any appetite for a sustained conflict.

Attention has focused on the key leaders — President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin has used his acts of aggression to build public support. Yet the focus should be on whether the Russian people want renewed confrontation — or would even countenance something like a “new Cold War.”

Russia may not be a democracy, but it is also not the totalitarian Soviet Union. The flip side of Putin’s brand of authoritarian populism is his reliance on public opinion to maintain legitimacy.

Putin’s popularity ratings have soared from roughly 50 percent to more than 80 percent since the annexation of Crimea, and his domestic opposition has been effectively muted. The less educated, more conservative and nationalistic segments of the Russian public have enthusiastically bought into his attacks on the West for ignoring or threatening Russia’s strategic interests.

truman & stalinMore than half of all Russians, according to the polling agency VCIOM, now agree that relations with the West “can only be tense and be based on distrust.” Nor is this a new phenomenon — eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Western support for Kosovo independence and the “color revolutions” throughout the post-Soviet periphery all heightened Russians’ sense that the West was taking advantage of their weakness.

Popular support for translating this anti-Western resentment into a sustained confrontation, however, appears shallow at best. Though another Russian polling agency, the Levada Center, reports negative attitudes toward the United States at a 20-year high, both Levada and VCIOM confirm that nearly two-thirds of Russians view isolation from the West as unlikely or impossible.

In addition, despite strong opposition to the new Western-backed government in Ukraine, most Russians oppose further military intervention there, even while they support diplomatic and economic assistance for Russian speakers in the region. Russian troops are still present near Ukraine’s eastern border, but Putin has clearly backed off from a full-scale invasion — likely calculating that the Russian public would not tolerate the high costs of a prolonged and bloody conflict in Ukraine.

If the current ceasefire fails and leads to greater bloodshed, Russian public opinion could still shift in favor of intervention. For now, however, Russians expect more from their leaders to sustain health, pension and education investments, deliver concrete progress on the economic modernization agenda and stem the brain drain and capital flight that are weighing down economic growth.

A huge video screen on Sword Beach shows U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin as they arrive for the International 70th D-Day Commemoration Ceremony in OuistrehamAdditional punitive sanctions from the West, especially on Russia’s revenue-generating energy and natural resource exports, would make these tasks far harder. So Putin has strong incentives to quit escalating confrontation and focus on consolidating his early gains.

Fortunately for the Kremlin, there is also little appetite on the Western side for deepening the conflict. Europeans are largely interested in preventing the unraveling of their main accomplishment since World War II — the economic growth, stability, and democratization brought about through European Union integration.

Though the annexation of Crimea has restored enthusiasm for a robust NATO alliance, in the last EU parliamentary elections voters rejected calls for increased military spending. European businesses are also not ready to sever extensive economic ties with Russia.

For their part, Americans are confronting a bevy of difficult foreign-policy issues — chaos in Iraq, China’s rise and nuclear negotiations with Iran. Putin and Russia provide fodder for campaign trail bombast or cable news talk shows, but neo-containment is not a high priority for either the U.S. public or their elected leaders.

If there is a silver lining in the current Ukraine crisis, it is that the public on all sides are not enthusiastic for a “new Cold War.” This does not provide a blueprint for starting to restore relations but it means there may be a ceiling to the mutual hostility and distrust.

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as they attend the International 70th D-Day Commemoration Ceremony in OuistrehamFor now, the West would be well advised to keep doors of communication open to Russians . The most effective means is to keep cooperative efforts and exchanges alive in science, culture and education. Public diplomacy outreach needs to be increased but conducted with sensitivity to Russians’ distinct narrative.

Finally, broader bilateral dialogue must continue in all dimensions, including security, trade relations and human rights. A Bilateral Presidential Commission was formed by the two governments in 2009 but is now dormant  — and it should involve not only government officials but also think tanks, universities, civic groups and businesses. All these steps would sustain the hopes of the many Russians who still value ties with the West and oppose a path toward deeper conflict and isolation.

 

PHOTO (TOP): People attend a rally called “We are together” to support the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea to Russia in Red Square in central Moscow, March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

PHOTO (INSERT 1): British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, President Harry S. Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the Berlin Conference, August 1, 1945. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

PHOTO (INSERT 2): A huge video screen on Sword Beach shows President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin as they arrive for the International 70th D-Day Commemoration Ceremony in Ouistreham, June 6, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (ISNERT 3): Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as they attend the International 70th D-Day Commemoration Ceremony in Ouistreham, June 6, 2014.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

 

4 comments

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“the West would be well advised to keep doors of communication open to Russians . The most effective means is to keep cooperative efforts and exchanges alive in science, culture and education. Public diplomacy outreach needs to be increased but conducted with sensitivity to Russians’ distinct narrative.”

The doors have never been more open! Especially to the Russian elite who buy property in the West, educate their children there (Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has a daughter at Columbia University), keep their bank accounts there but then turn around and insult western societies for their multiculturism, their decadence, their gay rights, their (often mild and tentative) support for Russia’s neighbors who are victims of aggression (how dare you interfere in our “area of influence”), etc. The Russian elite enjoys western prosperity and freedom while restricting the development of civil society in their country, obstructing the work of progressive NGOs by labeling them “foreign agents.” It’s very much like the tsarist era when Russian aristocrats would swan around European spas and casinos while having their serfs beaten on their estates at home. Now that is a “distinct narrative.”

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

This article is typical example of propaganda hiding the crux of the problem with Russia. The crux of the matter is the hidden agenda of the US ultimate strategy goal which is breakup of Russia as a federation of ethnic and regional republics. While this can not be achieved by force like in the case of Serbia/Kosovo there is gradual “soft” approach by a) containment of Russia, b) building strategic positions around it, c) buildup of network agents of impact by promoting with huge funding “ideals of human rights and democracy” and finally d) enticing ethnic unrests within Russia. One look at a map shows that ideal strategic positions for this goal are Georgia and Ukraine. This is why $5 billions were invested in the Ukraine over 20 years for “promoting democracy” and we are talking only about official money. This resulted in creating sizable population of agents of impact enabling the US to select the rulers in Kiev after the coup. Similar events were earlier observed in Georgia.

We may be certain Putin has on his desk tons of intelligence materials about this agenda of the US. This is why he reacts decisively to save the position of Russia. One can see that Putin managed to temporarily weaken and delay the US position in Georgia.
Ukraine is the developing case where the US would not like to repeat Georgia. This is action along the famous “F*ck the EU” of Victoria Nuland. No effort will be saved to bring the population of souther-eastern regions of Ukrainie under control. Obviously there is no talk about human rights and democracy for people there. These people do not want to break up their ties with Russia and above all they do not want to be strategic playfield against Russia. But this does not matter, they have to subordinate, leave or die due to the strategists paranoia.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

As a person living in northwestern Europe I’m very glad it hasn’t come to full blown confrontation. Western and Eastern companies and people must be able to mutually profit from each others presence.

However, it’s hard for me to understand why separatists in the Ukraine picked up arms against their own government. Aren’t there better ways to prevent your government from getting into bed with the EU? If the proportion of people against this move is large enough, shouldn’t it be easy to block such a move in parliament when it gets to a vote?
Secondly, although the EU absorbs tremendous amounts of money from its member states, membership also provides plenty of good things. Visiting, trading, and being in another member state as an EU citizen is a lot like visiting another province of your own country. You pay with the same money, the borders are open, you can work in other members states, trade with people from other member states, buy stuff from shops in other member states freely (online and offline, no extra import costs), 3g internet connection on your smartphone, and so forth. Not to mention living a relatively peaceful existence with access to health care for everybody, a right to an education, freedom of speech, blah blah blah. I mean, it’s so peaceful that about half of all the people in my country don’t even care to vote every 4 years anymore!! I feel lucky to be of this generation and to be born in north western Europe.

As humanity we should focus on discovering the warp drive, not waste energy on our relatively arbitrary “differences”.

Posted by Arrahant | Report as abusive

In the end, and despite the lapses of Eng. grammar and syntax progressively rendering his “message” more and more obscure as he accelerates toward a Big Finish, commenter No. 2 — “wink”? “wirk”? — really earned his 40 rubles, I’d say. You think this is easy? Without a single reference to either the general thrust of the authors’ reasoning or the specifics of what they recommend, Our Guy Winky trotted out an entire shopping list of petulant and unconnected accusations that *might* suggest to a very naive jr. high school audience that the Great Satan “argument” deserves a “fair hearing” too! Hey, this is a democracy — you tell ‘em, Winkster. (But keep going to the English classes: better grammar = higher credibility!)
http://www.theatlantic.com/international  /archive/2013/10/russias-online-comment -propaganda-army/280432/

Posted by Titov1 | Report as abusive