Despite its evident distaste for fair elections, the Kremlin is highly sensitive to public opinion — Vladimir Putin even has his own secret service polling agency, which he uses to weigh up policy decisions and gauge his popularity. The Kremlin combines these tools with state-of-the-art propaganda to promote Putin’s cult of personality, which naturally imposes on Russians his singular ability to protect them from internal and external enemies.
Whenever Putin’s popularity is threatened, state media amplifies and heightens such narratives. We have seen that in the last couple of weeks, as Russia has been gripped by nationwide protests against corruption and in support of opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. With the courts sentencing Navalny to two years and eight months in a prison camp on Tuesday, more protests are expected and the pressure on Putin will mount.
In times of strife, Putin has a record of lashing out abroad to distract the Russian public from what is happening at home. We saw this in 2014 when the Kremlin sent its ‘little green men’ to intervene in the Ukrainian revolution against Russian lackey Victor Yanukovych. Protestors began demanding human rights, rule of law, and an end to pervasive corruption — all demands that could equally bleed over the border into Putin’s Russia. No doubt sensitive to these parallels, as well as to Russia’s inability to control its own backyard, the Kremlin seized the opportunity; annexing Crimea and launching a military intervention in East Ukraine. Back in Russia, the crowds cheered ‘Crimea is Ours’ and Putin’s ratings skyrocketed.
By 2015 the lustre of the new peninsula had worn off as low oil prices and international sanctions hit the Russian economy and citizens’ living standards. Although Putin’s approval ratings remained very high, public disquiet over sanctions was growing rapidly, exacerbated by government mismanagement. Still isolated internationally after Ukraine, Putin surprised many by intervening in Syria, championing it as evidence of Russia’s return to the global stage as a great power.
Where there have not been opportunities to distract with foreign wars abroad, Putin has conjured up the wars of the past to save him from the predicaments of the present, in particular world war two. When the Kremlin is under pressure, ministers and officials are prone to weaponise cultural memory of the war to stir up hatred against foreign states, especially the Baltic States, Poland, and Ukraine. For example, as new pension reforms caused upset across the country in August 2018, Putin’s ratings dipped as did those of his party, United Russia. In response, the government launched a loud campaign for a UN resolution against ’those who heroise Nazism’. This seemingly uncontroversial demand was really targeted at provoking countries whose historical experience taught them that the Red Army not only liberated but also occupied them.
Likewise, in 2019, as Putin’s popularity dropped by a quarter, he and various officials ignited memory wars across Europe, staging a high-profile spat with Poland whom they accused of starting world war two. In 2020, as Putin’s approval ratings hit a 14 year low after his poor handling of the pandemic, he again used his nation's history to deflect from his personal failings, penning a highly idiosyncratic historical analysis in National Interest that accused the West of deliberately setting the Nazis on Russia.
When threatened, the Kremlin looks to distract its population by engaging in real wars and memory wars against its neighbours and the broader West. In recent days, Russia has upped the ante on state TV, accusing Western governments and intelligence agencies of engaging in ‘Goebbels-like propaganda’ and paying for the Navalny protests. How should the West respond?
Partly, this depends on whether the Kremlin engages in a real war or a memory war. There have been worrying signs — plus an established pattern of behaviour — that make it impossible to completely discount the former.
In recent days, there has been a marked increase in ceasefire violations in the Donbass, where Ukraine is under attack from Russia-backed fighters in a war that has left over 13,000 dead. Last week the head of RT, Margarita Simonyan, argued at a conference in East Ukraine that ‘Mother Russia’ must take Donbass home. Although Putin’s spokesman denied any intention to annex Donbass, it is unlikely that Simonyan made such high-profile comments without at least a nod.
So the West must remain alert to the possibility of increased hostilities in Ukraine, even if, in all likelihood, they are intended as plausibly deniable feelers to domestic Russian audiences, many of whom called for the annexation of Donbass in 2014. Wars of the past are more likely than wars in the present: the Kremlin has already shown it is ready to heighten its ongoing information war with the West and it has an established record of using alleged historical injustices to rally domestic audiences around the flag.
When the Kremlin launches these provocations, the West’s response must be sober, empirical and de-escalatory. This is how we avoid playing into the Kremlin’s hands or helping them to deflect attention from those who deserve it: the brave Russians protesting Putin’s corrupt and coercive system of control.