The puzzling impact of the Ukraine war on ordinary Russians

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How has the war in Ukraine impacted ordinary Russians? If you listen to some, not much.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly dismissed any impact from Western actions against on his country. “I’m sure we have not lost anything and will not lose anything,” Putin said at a plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East. “The main thing is strengthening our sovereignty, and this is the inevitable result of what is happening now.”

There are immense sanctions and other restrictions. But in Moscow, some argue they are little felt. “Nothing has really changed,” 44-year-old Nataliya Nikonova told a reporter from the New York Times during a recent military parade in Red Square. “Sure, the prices went up, but we can endure that.”

“A few stores closed because of sanctions, which is frustrating but not that bad,” 18-year-old Yulia told the Times’ reporter, pointing to a nearby store once known for its luxury goods.

Some shoppers have even found ways around the sanctions by visiting a Moscow-aligned neighbor, Belarus, which has fewer restrictions. “Brands like H&M, Bershka and Pull & Bear left Russia but we [who travel to Belarus] can dress in them from head to toe,” Yelena Shitikova, an executive at Arkhangelsk region agency Family Travel, told the Moscow Times.

It appears that even rich and powerful Russian businesspeople have grown to accept the circumstances. “Many of the oligarchs who once enjoyed spending time in the west are now resigned to returning to Russia,” the Financial Times wrote after speaking to seven sanctioned Russian tycoons. “Those in Moscow have quietly accepted their diminished status in a country at war.”

To critics of the Russian government’s move to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24, the happy sights on the streets of Moscow may be alarming. There is little obvious evidence that sanctions are grinding down Russian resolve, especially as Western countries face their own domestic difficulties with rising energy prices.

Western sanctions are wounding but not yet crushing Russia’s economy

But Russian attitudes to the war in Ukraine are hardly unwavering. This is a country of 144 million, spread across 6.6 million square miles and 11 time zones, with a population as far apart as St. Petersburg oligarchs to the indigenous villagers of the Far East. It has diversity of everything, including opinion.

Polling released Wednesday by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace shows that “public support for the war against Ukraine, while sky-high, is less solid than statistics generally suggest … and has fallen in recent months with some supporters saying they are ambivalent, anxious, shocked or fearful about the ongoing military campaign,” The Post’s Robyn Dixon explained Wednesday.

In an analysis released with the polling data, Andrei Kolesnikov of Carnegie, and Denis Volkov, director of Moscow-based independent pollster the Levada Center, wrote that the idea that Putin has the full support of Russian society was “simply incorrect” and the “conflict has exacerbated existing divisions on a diverse array of issues, including support for the regime.”

To be sure, the levels of support for the war found in the polling suggest the clear majority say they support it: About 75 percent of Russians said they definitely or mostly support the actions of Russia’s military in Ukraine, and 20 percent were found not to support them. Even these high numbers are a fall from March, when 81 percent supported the war and 14 percent opposed it.

But reliable polling is also difficult in a managed autocracy like Russia, where dissent can be risky and the media environment is carefully crafted to restrict debate. Levada, which conducted the polling on behalf of Carnegie, has faced years of restrictions from the Russian government.

And experts who study seemingly popular autocrats like Putin often find that such popularity can evaporate quickly when the facade slips. “Such staged perceptions of popularity can be fragile,” a team of researchers wrote for The Post this April. “When unanimity or social consensus breaks down, regime support can dissolve very quickly, as happened when the Soviet Union abruptly crumbled in 1989.”

Big Tech tried to quash Russian propaganda. Russia found loopholes.

For now, the relative normality on the streets of Moscow may be a good thing. Early in the conflict, economists told Today’s WorldView that they were concerned about the spillover effects of the financial pain inflicted on Russia, especially if they hit ordinary Russians who have little power to sway Putin.

“Ninety-nine percent of the Russian people have no influence on Kremlin policy. I’m not keen on making life more miserable for ordinary Russians, which these sanctions will do,” Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics said in March.

After six months of conflict, it seems clear that Putin does not listen to other Russians when it comes to his policy: He has leverage over the oligarchs, not the other way around. “To do a palace coup and overthrow the tsar, you need to be in the palace first. None of these people are there,” one sanctioned Russian businessman told the Financial Times.

But even if Russians are materially okay, fissures can exist under the surface. “You cannot at the same time argue that majority of Russians fully support war in Ukraine and then point to the fact that Russian army struggles to get people to sign up for war,” Russian political analyst Anton Barbashin wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “Fully supporting and not openly objecting are different things,” Barbashin, one of the many Russians critical of Putin who has fled the country, continued.

Clearly, there have been many acts of defiance from Russians critical of the war, from paratroopers to artists. But there have been subtler signs of malaise too: The Moscow Times reported this week of a striking rise in interest in esoteric practices like tarot cards and numerology as Russians struggle to understand their chaotic situation. Putin’s refusal to fully mobilize for war, despite the obvious setbacks Russia has seen in Ukraine, suggests he is concerned about a deeper disquiet, too.

And that struggle is far from over: With a bloody new Ukrainian counteroffensive, the impact of the war will continue to hurt Russians in ways both material and intangible.

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