The Russians cannot perpetuate their myth of Russia if they lose control of Ukraine

Editor’s note: The Kyiv Independent exclusively republishes an interview with Yuliya Kovaliv prepared by Ukrainian Studies Forum, a research publication for experts, practitioners and scholars. This platform is managed by the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada).

Jade McGlynn is a Leverhulme EC Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

CIUS: Your book is called Russia’s war – not Putin’s war, as many frame it in the West. You examine the role of ordinary Russians in the aggression against Ukraine. What is the main message you are trying to convey in your book by exploring this dimension?

Jade McLynn: I would like to emphasize two points in answering this question. The first is that aggression against Ukraine is not just Putin’s business. And if we – we being the West – believe that the catastrophic genocidal war will be easily resolved if we get rid of one person, then we are going to fall victim to misconceptions and design bad policies. The second point is that we need to understand what type of war the Russians are witnessing; we have to watch the propaganda. I don’t like the argument that people support war because they’re zombified. It does not mean anything. There are 60 million daily Telegram users [social media] who have access to all forms of channels, including opposition, and yet of the top 30 political channels, an overwhelming majority of 24 are very pro-war.

In my book, I wanted to argue that Kremlin propaganda doesn’t just work because it has a platform. Of course, the situation in the media is rigged, to say the least, in favor of promoting the war effort, but such narratives also need resonance. First and foremost, stories are about creating meaning. They should make sense and resonate with how people perceive their lives, the world, themselves as Russians, Russian history, Russia’s international role and, of course, Ukraine and the West. And that’s why propaganda works.

ICSU: You write about the liberal opposition of Russia and the reaction of some of its representatives to the aggression. What are your main conclusions about their position on Russia’s war against Ukraine?

McGlynn: One of the first things to say is that characterizing the Russian liberal opposition is a difficult task because it is so incoherent. There are, for example, feminist anti-war resistance, which I find incredible. The work they do is amazing. They seem to “have” the calamity behind the war, to put it bluntly. But others, including some members of Alexei Navalny’s team, are less supportive. They almost entirely remove Ukraine from the narrative. That’s another thing that came out of my research.

If you look for references to Ukraine on the Navalny Telegram channel, there were very few, far less than the average for other Russian Telegram channels, in the first three months of the invasion. They took Ukraine out of communication or tried to insert themselves into the war.

In March 2022, there was a moment when the opposition used the negotiations around Ukraine to try to ask Western governments to include Navalny’s release from prison as one of the Kremlin’s concessions. As much as I would like to see him released – someone who shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place – Navalny’s case cannot be inserted into such talks about Ukraine.

Such actions by some members of the Russian democratic opposition replicate the Kremlin’s denial of Ukrainian agency, demonstrating Ukrainianophobia, solipsism and a kind of self-obsession. They invariably present themselves as friends of Ukraine, but this is not always the case. Plus, it’s incredibly offensive to see some aggressively dismiss criticism of Ukrainians using arguments like, “Oh, well, you must be Putin’s bots, because you’re fighting us and we’re anti-Putin.” But Ukrainians are literally fight.

That said, I don’t want to condemn the Russian opposition. They are not a monolith and many have made incredible sacrifices to undermine Putin’s regime. I don’t think I would have the courage to demonstrate in Putin’s Russia. Nor would I have an ounce of bravery that the Ukrainians showed. It is more of a part of the Russian opposition that is taking a step back. Their struggles – terrible as they are – cannot be compared to the struggles Ukrainians are enduring.

CIUS: You have followed Russian media accounts of Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion. Is it true that the media outside the capital is virtually silent on the war? How can you explain this?

McGlynn: The relative silence of the regional media on the war is not really my observation. I mostly watched federal broadcast channels and Telegram. Regional media is something Paul Goode of Carleton University has looked at. And what he found was that the war – of course, they call it a “special military operation” – didn’t get much coverage in the local news; they obviously tried to avoid it.

I just finished a small research project, looking at what media outlets and media have written about and what kind of information Russians consume on TV. I have observed – and this is very interesting – that since October 2022 a major shift has taken place, moving from political discussion programs to a variety of series [serialy] and movies. I’ve watched a lot of breakout on TV, but real-time news and events are no longer the focus.

I think the war didn’t go the way the Russians would have liked. Clearly, there is a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance about the Ukrainians not meeting the Russians as liberators, to put it mildly. There also seems to be a strong element of avoidance. Because if you have to start wondering about the slow progress of the invasion in Ukraine, then you have to find the answers to the reasons. And to be fair, for the majority of ordinary Russians, there really isn’t much upside to dealing with these questions. They should TO DO something with that information later. Finding answers and accepting them are not pleasant prospects for Russians.

Read the rest of the interview here.

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