Russia has too much at stake to blink now

Russia has too much at stake to blink now

Russia has too much at stake to blink now
People wave Russian flags during a patriotic concert dedicated to the upcoming Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow. (AFP)
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In the shadow of the Ukraine conflict — especially the looming possibility of nuclear war amid the tensions of NATO enlargement — I am remembering the 2021-22 new year broadcast celebrations. After the usual forward-looking words of the Russian president, the first song of the year, played effectively by the federal channel, was “Davai Za” by the famous Russian band Lyube. “Davai Za” is an old song everyone knows. The title translates as “Do it for” and it has unmissable associations with military action and aggressive patriotism, such as the lyrics, “Do it for life, come on brother, to the end, do it for those who were with us then.”
I remember thinking at the time that this must be a deliberate choice, perhaps preparing the population for planned events or actions that would sustain or heighten the nationalist tensions of recent years. We did not need to wait long to find out. On Feb. 24 — a symbolic date, coming the day after the celebration of Defender of the Fatherland Day (also tellingly known as Men’s Day) — it was announced that Russia was conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
A year on from Lyube’s performance, the president would again take the stage for the new year celebrations, this time surrounded by the same soldiers who had been urged to “Do it for life, come on brother, to the end, do it for those who were with us then.”
The argument given by Russia’s leadership for the special military operation deliberately harked back to the Second World War, seeking to justify Russia’s actions by describing the operation as an attempt to “denazify” Ukraine. This argument has not fallen on deaf ears. According to a poll from April last year, 88 percent of Russians believe that Nazi organizations are based in Ukraine and 76 percent believe that these organizations pose a threat to Russia.
In reality, this conflict (and the narrative around it) did not begin a year ago, but is rather the culmination of the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Stories first started appearing in Russian media about neo-Nazis and Nazi-influenced groups infiltrating the Ukraine government in 2014, after the Maidan Revolution that saw the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych. This event saw a pivotal switch from a Russian-friendly leadership to a pro-Western positing, sparking the Russo-Ukraine war.
The Ukraine government launched an offensive against Russian-speaking separatists in the eastern Donbas region after they had begun a Russian-backed rebellion. Ukraine’s Azov, Dnipro 1, Dnipro 2 and Aidar battalions, known as ultranationalist paramilitary units with neo-Nazi ties, were incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard. This has been the basis of Russia’s presentation of its special military operation, as liberating the Russian-speaking population of Donbas from “external” occupation, orchestrated by Nazi-inspired Ukrainian forces.
Another external justification is that NATO enlargement brings a hostile organization right up to Russia’s borders, and Ukraine provides a particular threat since it has failed to decisively rule out membership. In recent years, NATO has strengthened its multinational battle groups in Estonia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania.

The phenomenon of the extreme popularity and ever-growing ratings of Vladimir Putin shows the depth of support in Russia for its leader.

Dr. Diana Galeeva

As argued by John Mearsheimer, the famous American political scientist and key proponent of the offensive realism school of thought in international relations, the West is principally responsible for the Ukraine crisis as the reckless expansion of NATO provoked Russia. A year on from the outbreak of war, these arguments remain under scrutiny, but they certainly have traction among the Russian public.
How can these narratives and their effectiveness be measured and understood? The phenomenon of the extreme popularity and ever-growing ratings of Vladimir Putin, which has bewildered many Western experts, shows the depth of support in Russia for its leader. In response to the question, “Do you approve of the activities of V. Putin as the President of Russia?” 65 percent responded “yes” in December 2021, while in January 2023 the figure was 82 percent.
What is in the Russian mind? As the famous 19th-century Russian poet and diplomat Fyodor Tyutchev put it: “Russia cannot be understood with the mind, do not measure with a common yardstick: She has a special being — one can only believe in Russia.”
Even for a Russian, it is perhaps difficult to explain this strong support, but from observations across the country, listening to people, the media and the ongoing narratives, the special military operation has become symbolic in many ways. Through its leader, Russia remembers its past, and the collapse of the USSR remains a fundamental transformative moment, a calamitous loss of global power. Russians remember Boris Yeltsin’s pro-Western policies that led to Russia becoming peripheral to world politics. Russians sense this loss of respect keenly.
At the same time, amid the current realities, people understand that there is no way back: Either you prevail or you lose heavily. And losing for Russia has been depicted again and again in terrifying terms, encircled by NATO arsenals across the border. The war is an ugly thing, but now Russia has too much at stake to blink. However it may have started, Russians maintain a clear image of what they must “Do it for.”

Dr. Diana Galeeva is a former academic visitor to St. Antony’s College, Oxford University (2019-2022). She is the author of two books: “Qatar: The Practice of Rented Power” (Routledge, 2022) and “Russia and the GCC: The Case of Tatarstan’s Paradiplomacy” (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2023). She is also a co-editor of the collection “Post-Brexit Europe and UK: Policy Challenges Towards Iran and the GCC States” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).

Twitter: @Dr_GaleevaDiana

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