Among ordinary Russians, little appetite for war in Ukraine

Whatever Vladimir Putin has in mind for Ukraine, an independent country that he considers part of the Russian motherland, ordinary Russians express little enthusiasm for a gun battle to make their leader’s dream come true. .

For months, the Kremlin positioned tens of thousands of troops and heavy weapons near the Russia-Ukraine border, shaking the nerves of a fledgling democracy that saw part of its territory – the strategic Crimean peninsula – torn off in 2014.

Urged on by US intelligence officials claiming that Russia’s military measures could pave the way for another much larger attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty, EU leaders and President Biden have warned Putin of the economic consequences serious if he tried to take control of the former Soviet republic.

Even after one-on-one talks this week with Biden and a round of diplomacy involving Europe’s most important leaders, Putin’s intentions toward Ukraine are far from clear.

Putin wrote about the inseparability of Russia and Ukraine. The ethnic Russians who live there, he writes in an essay, “are forced not only to deny their roots, the generations of their ancestors, but also to believe that Russia is their enemy.”

Despite a constant stream of belligerent rhetoric from the Russian state-controlled media over the alleged threat posed by a Ukraine portrayed as a slave to the West, the official stridence finds little echo in the streets, shops, and restaurants. cafes in winter-ridden Moscow.

“I don’t think it’s in the best interests of Russia – any large-scale conflict in the modern world is unacceptable, especially with Ukraine,” said Natalia Zhigareva, 53, a design specialist in the capital. Russian. “Whatever the media say, it is still a friendly country for us.

Public opinion suggests that many Russians are shrinking from the idea of ​​all-out war with Ukraine, with which Russia shares close cultural, historical and linguistic ties.

But Alexei Levinson, who works with independent Russian pollster Levada, said some believe that Ukraine could somehow be co-opted without a real fight, in line with the precedent of the almost non-effusive seizure of blood of the Crimea.

While there is no doubt that the Ukrainian army is vastly outnumbered by that of Russia, analysts say it is also likely that Ukrainian troops – desperate and motivated by the defense of their homeland – would be able to inflict painful losses on the Russian invaders, even if they could not. hold them back for a long time.

Winter wars in this part of the world tend to be miserable chores – like Napoleon, in the 19th century, and Hitler, in the 20e, could testify. Many Russians suspect, with good reason, that the government would be top secret about any combat deaths in a war in Ukraine.

Fewer and fewer Russians have first-hand memories of the Kremlin, which went to great lengths to cover up the horrific Soviet losses in Afghanistan, from which it made a humiliating retreat in 1989. But it is more. hard to keep secrets in the age of social media, and anyone serious Body counts in a fight in Ukraine “might, for some people, date back to this time,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, senior researcher and expert Russian at the Center for a New American Security.

For many, the prospect of young Russian soldiers being killed and maimed for some dubious cause is deeply disturbing – sometimes in a way that comes close.

“The point is, my son is 18 now and can be enlisted despite being a university student,” said Ilya Zikeev, a 39-year-old engineer who lives near Moscow. ” I am very worried. “

The public’s lack of appetite for a potentially costly military seizure of Ukraine might give Putin pause, but analysts said it probably wouldn’t deter him. Public opinion is “important to him, but he wouldn’t help it,” said John E. Herbst, former US ambassador to Ukraine.

Kendall-Taylor also said Putin could view public opposition as manageable, at least in the short term – especially since his government, heading into this year’s parliamentary elections, has orchestrated a massive crackdown on the groups. civil society and opposition leaders.

“There isn’t a lot of space for people to voice their displeasure,” she said.

Despite Putin’s pugnacious military signals – US intelligence has said that if he wants to act against Ukraine in the first few weeks of the New Year, he may have 175,000 troops in place by then – him and his allies were careful to portray Ukraine as the real aggressor.

“Putin would do anything to water down this military action as a peacekeeping mission – an effort to protect Russian citizens,” said Orysia Lutsevych, Russia scholar at UK think tank Chatham House, referring to the issue. through Moscow of passports to hundreds of thousands of ethnicities. Russians in eastern Ukraine.

Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s industrial east are waging a war of attrition with Ukrainian troops, a conflict that has left some 14,000 dead.

Putin would hardly be the first leader to use a foreign conflict to distract from nagging domestic issues, such as the largely unchecked COVID-19 pandemic, and Russian dissatisfaction with rising prices. and wage stagnation.

Many Russians, including telecommunications director Alexei Kalinkin, 30, see a cynical political motivation behind the combative tone of Putin’s allies.

“They say enemies are everywhere and our president is the only one who can protect us,” Kalinkin said. “Because they have to increase his low grades!” “

Many longtime Putin observers believe he sees the conquest of Ukraine as a way to make amends, at least in part, for the deadly breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, which the Russian leader sees as a disaster. historical.

“Its intention is to create a certain level of countries that will be under open or forced control – in a way, to recreate the Soviet empire,” Loutsevych said. “It would be his legacy.”

Already, the Ukrainian drama has lasted long enough that some Russians simply ignore it.

“I don’t care a lot,” said Oleg Mikhailin, a 46-year-old utility worker.

Even so, he said, he occasionally checks the news on Ukraine – “just to see if something completely crazy is going to happen.”

Special Envoy Kolotilov reported from Moscow and Editor-in-Chief King from Washington.

Christi C. Elwood