Forbes India – Russia, war: how the Kremlin militarizes Russian society

Visitors to the Russian Armed Forces Cathedral in Kubinka, Russia on December 12, 2021, where a mosaic of Soviet soldiers in WWII uniforms is displayed. (Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times)

MOSCOW – Stepping onto a podium in heavy boots and military fatigues at a ceremony outside Moscow, six teenagers received awards for an increasingly important discipline in Russia: patriotism.

For days, students from across the country took part in activities such as card reading, shooting and history quizzes. The competition was funded in part by the Kremlin, which made “patriotic military” education a priority.

“Parents and children understand that this aggressive shell around us, it tightens, it hardens,” said Sviatoslav Omelchenko, a KGB special forces veteran who founded Vympel, the group that manages the event. “We are doing everything we can to make sure the children are aware of this and to prepare them to go and serve.”

For the past eight years, the Russian government has promoted the idea that the homeland is surrounded by enemies, filtering the concept through national institutions like schools, the military, the media, and the Orthodox Church. He even raised the possibility that the country will have to defend itself again as it did against the Nazis in WWII.

Now, as Russia massages troops on the Ukrainian border, sparking Western fears of an impending invasion, the constant militarization of Russian society under President Vladimir Putin is suddenly looming and seems to have gotten many used to the idea that a fight could occur.

“The authorities are actively selling the idea of ​​war,” said Dmitry Muratov, the editor of a Russian newspaper that shared the Nobel Peace Prize this year, in his acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway, this month. “People are getting used to the thought of its legality.”

Speaking to Russian military leaders on Tuesday, Putin insisted Russia did not want bloodshed but was ready to respond with “military and technical measures” to what he described as aggressive behavior. of the West in the region.

While there is no outbreak of war fever, there are many signs that the government is harboring preparation for conflict. A four-year, $ 185 million program launched by the Kremlin this year aims to dramatically increase Russians’ “patriotic education”, including a plan to attract at least 600,000 children as young as 8 to join. the ranks of an army of young people in uniform. Adults receive their education from state television, where political broadcasts – one called “Moscow.” Kremlin. Putin. – bring into play the story of a fascist coup d’état in Ukraine and a West determined to destroy Russia.

And all are united by the near-sacred memory of the Soviet victory in World War II – a memory the state seized upon to shape the identity of a triumphant Russia that must be ready to take up arms again.

Alexei Levinson, head of socio-cultural research at the Levada Center, an independent Moscow pollster, calls the trend the “militarization of consciousness” of Russians. In the centre’s regular surveys, in 2018 the army became the most reliable institution in the country, overtaking even the president. This year, the proportion of Russians who said they feared a world war reached the highest level recorded in surveys dating back to 1994: 62%.

This does not mean, Levinson warned, that the Russians would be in favor of a bloody territorial conquest of Ukraine. But that means, he said, that many have been conditioned to accept that Russia is locked into an existential rivalry with other powers in which the use of force is a possibility.

In a Levada poll released last week, 39% of Russians said war between Russia and Ukraine was either inevitable or very likely. Half of them said the US and NATO were to blame for the recent rise in tensions, and no more than 4% – across all age groups – said Russia was at fault .

The belief across society that Russia is not the aggressor reflects a fundamental ideology dating back to Soviet times: that the country only fights defensive wars. The government has even earmarked money for films that explore this theme. In April, the Culture Ministry decreed that “Russia’s historic victories” and “Russia’s peacekeeping mission” were among the priority topics for film producers seeking government funding. .

“At the moment, the idea is put forward that Russia is a peace-loving country permanently surrounded by enemies,” said Anton Dolin, a Russian film critic. “It is contradicted by some facts, but if you show it in the movies and translate this idea back to the days of the Great Patriotic War, we all instantly get a pattern familiar to everyone from childhood.”

On Russian state television, the tale of a neo-Nazi-controlled Ukraine used as a playground for Western aggression has been a common trope since the pro-Western revolution in Kiev in 2014. After the revolution, Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula from Crimea, instigated war in eastern Ukraine, and sharpened its message about Russia as a “besieged fortress.”

Some analysts fear that escalating rhetoric may lay the groundwork for what Russia would present as a defensive intervention to protect its security and Russian-speaking people in Ukraine. Yevgeny Popov, a newly elected MP and host of a popular political program on state television, said in an interview that his ratings had increased in recent weeks – “the tension is rising,” he said. declared.

“I think most people in Russia would only be supportive if we stood up for the Russians who live in these territories,” Popov said, referring to the separatist territories of Ukraine where hundreds of thousands have been granted Russian citizenship. .

The effectiveness of the state’s militarized messaging is subject to debate. Polls show that young people have a more positive outlook on the West than older Russians, and pro-Kremlin sentiment over the annexation of Crimea appears to have dissipated amid economic stagnation.

But the Kremlin doubles. His drive to increase “patriotic education” includes funding groups like Vympel. The “patriotic military” organization has around 100 branches across the country and organized the recent skills competition in the city of Vladimir which ended on Thursday.

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