Explosion of a drone in Moscow-City. Source – DW
Editor’s Note: Jade McGlynn is a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of two books, “Russia’s War” and ”Memory Makers: The Politics of the Past in Putin’s Russia.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
The original commentary by Jade McGlynn was prepared and published by CNN and published by the Ukrainian Center for Security and Cooperation with the author’s consent.
CNN — In recent days, Russia has increasingly come under drone attack — including on Friday, when an alleged Ukrainian strike saw Moscow briefly shut all four of its major airports.
It is the latest in more than 140 suspected Ukrainian drone attacks directed against Russia and its occupying forces on Ukrainian territory this year, according to the BBC. Coupled with Ukraine-linked militia raids into Russian territory and the shelling of border towns, these strikes are bringing the war home to Russians.
And yet, so far, there is little evidence that these measures are turning Russians against their war on Ukraine.
Does that mean the drone attacks are strategically pointless? Not at all. They simply serve a different purpose. While the Ukrainian government has not claimed responsibility for the drone strikes, comments from President Volodymyr Zelensky that they are “absolutely fair” and “natural,” reveal something of the true intent: to provide a modicum of popular justice that will raise morale among Ukrainians, who suffer almost nightly bombardments.
It also serves to provoke the Russian people into facing the reality of the war and raises questions around the authorities’ ability to keep the country safe.
In other words, Ukraine is trying to shore up domestic resilience during an inhumanly demanding war of attrition as well as working to re-politicise the Russian population. Russia’s war effort is largely sustained by passive supporters and accepters of the regime, who arrogate to themselves the luxury of “just not thinking about it.”
The passivity of the Kremlin’s support base is by design, rather than omission. One only has to look at some of the more prominent active supporters of the war to understand why. True believers in the war have become political threats and fierce critics of the Kremlin’s military incompetence, as demonstrated by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny and the recent arrest of convicted war criminal Igor Girkin, who was sentenced in absentia by a Dutch court for his role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The Kremlin had allowed these pro-war policy critics to continue speaking out because they were useful in helping to mobilise men to fight and providing motivated troops for the hardest battles. But the state propaganda machine itself has spent the last two decades passivizing Russians, making them think politics is something that just happens to them.
Fear, too, plays both a passivizing — and pacifying — role. While the number of people imprisoned for anti-war dissidence is small (relative to the population), the obscene nature of the punishments (such as the 25-year sentence handed down to Vladimir Kara Murza for anti-war criticism) in relation to the supposed “crimes” has a chilling effect on anyone else who might be inclined to voice a political opinion inconvenient to the Kremlin.
While Ukraine’s drone attacks won’t do much to counter the fear of imprisonment, they do make it much harder for Russians not to think about the war, especially if that war has damaged their own house or health, or could pose such a risk.
An overwhelming majority of Russians are aware of the attacks and see them as a threat to Russia. After all, numerous reports from the border regions have shown that locals are highly critical of the government’s handling of the war, and the announcement of mobilisation in September 2022 led to a notable, albeit temporary, drop in nationwide approval of the war.
The more personally affected by the war you are, the higher the chance is that you will resent the Russian state’s failure to uphold its end of the bargain: The people stay out of politics and the politicians stay out of their lives.
And yet, countrywide polls suggest that Russian support for the war has slightly risen in the wake of Ukrainian attacks. Moreover, the main response is one of continued passivity: Respondents express sorrow more than anger. This could well be a question of capacity — there have not been sufficient drones and attacks to make a personal impact on a statistically significant number of people — but it also conceals a further, even more intractable, issue.
When it comes to avoiding responsibility, Putin is a talented escape artist.Jade McGlynn
Even if Russians did start to turn against the war, it would not necessarily signal a change in how they view Russia’s role in the world, or right to decide Ukraine’s position in that same world. It would, at most, signify that they do not want to pay certain personal costs for it. More importantly, it would not automatically equate to disapproval of President Vladimir Putin.
There are two main reasons for this disconnect. First, because Putin has conflated himself with the state, such that his removal from power would be widely seen as the collapse of the Russian state, absent a utopic popular and legitimate transfer of power. Given that one of the most dominant fears in Russian socio-political imagination is the fear of state weakness and collapse, this will temper any radical shift against Putin. The president deftly plays on this dread through propaganda that exaggerates the (admittedly genuine and woeful) chaos and misery of the ”wild 1990s,” with its shock therapy transition to capitalism, lawlessness and poverty.
Second, Putin is rarely, if ever, held to account for his failings; for example, many Russians blame the Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, or the Head of the Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, for military incompetence, corruption and mistakes.
When it comes to avoiding responsibility, Putin is a talented escape artist. In July, the Russian president gave governors the legal right to create their own local private military companies,meaning thatfailure to prevent attacks on Russian territory becomes a local, gubernatorial issue, rather than a matter of national security.
Against the backdrop of all these factors, it seems unlikely that Ukraine, or anyone, could develop the capacity to turn Russians against the war by drone and border incursions alone. What it could do, is politicise growing numbers of Russians by stealth, as they realise that their own personal interests and security are at stake. Any such moment is unlikely to come during Putin’s lifetime, if at all.
Until then, the biggest impact of Ukraine’s strikes will be to raise the morale of its own people. Given the increasingly evident limits of Western support for Ukraine’s victory, such as the reluctance to provide, in a timely fashion, the weapons needed to preserve Ukraine’s soldiers and civilians alike, this is the more strategically meaningful purpose.
Unlike in Russia, Ukraine’s population is not passive or depoliticised, as shown by its heroic fight for its sovereignty. But even Ukrainians aren’t superhumans, and it is beyond exorbitant to demand they fight a devastating war of attrition against a larger, better-resourced enemy without seeing that enemy face consequences for its crimes.
The drone attacks probably won’t turn Russians against the war. But they might give succour to Ukraine’s most sacred and strategic resource, one that is running out in inverse proportion to Western arms rationing: the Ukrainian people.