At the same time that the West is contemplating scenarios of new Russian aggression in Europe, the Kremlin is girding Russia’s population for the prospect of a potential war with a new initiative to boost patriotism within the country.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry before a meeting with Russian Foreign Affairs' Minister Sergei Lavrov in Zurich in January 2016. Photo: Sputnik

Patriotism is going to be the only national idea of Russia, President Vladimir Putin announced this week during his meeting with representatives of Russian business. “We don’t have and cannot have any uniting idea other than patriotism,” he announced this week. “This is the national idea."

The Kremlin appears to be reinvigorating its policy aiming at boosting patriotic sentiment among Russians amidst the ongoing economic crisis and confrontation with the West. The country’s political elites are going to spend 16 billion rubles (approximately $200 million at today’s ruble-dollar exchange rate) on this initiative to bring up and cultivate what they see as the feeling of loyalty to the country and the readiness to defend its interests. 

This move says nothing new about the Kremlin’s political agenda, but rather, highlights the current political trend and makes some skeptics raise their eyebrows at the country’s current domestic political course. This is the same problem discussed at an event at Carnegie Moscow Center on Feb. 3, the same day when Putin met with business leaders and announced patriotism as the major national idea.

This time Carnegie Moscow Center gave the floor to Daniil Dondurey, a cultural critic and editor of Iskusstvo Kino (The Art of Cinema) magazine, to discuss the trends in the country’s domestic policy and explain the nuances of Russians’ mentality as well as the role of government ideology in shaping this mindset.

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Dondurey shifted the focus of discussion to the ways the Kremlin has been using Russian history, philosophy and language to mobilize the population and promote its political goals. This trend got a second wind when Putin returned to the presidential office in 2012 and then introduced the term “state-civilization” during his address to the Federal Assembly.

It was the time when Russia adopted a series of controversial laws, including the Dima Yakovlev law, which banned the adoption of Russian orphans by American families and the law on foreign agents that obliges Russia’s non-governmental organizations to register as “foreign agents” if they receive funding abroad

According to Dondurey, the concept of state-civilization permeates the Russian mentality and mindset and is seen as an essential part of the nation’s post-Crimea ideology, with the people viewed as a tool in the hands of the government and the object of government policy. It is a situation, in which the national interests trump the interests and independence of a separate human person.

Even the use of language and words in day-to-day situations seems aimed at imposing the idea that the government is primary, while people are secondary. Dondurey gives an example of how the authorities use the concept of “victory” in the context of the war.

“Victory” means not only the triumph over the opponents, but also it conveys the people’s readiness for war and a sort of personal sacrifice. In fact, the very concept of victory is frequently used as a tool to justify a probable war. This, in turn, leads to what Dondurey calls the archaizationof society, which means longing for the past and idealizing history, with all its grandeur and glory.

No wonder Putin and his supporters frequently quote the Russian tsars to impose the idea of self-sufficiency and the sense of belonging to a great empire. One of the recent examples is the phrase of Alexander III – “Russia has only two allies: its army and navy,” quoted by Putin last year. The phrase then appeared on numerous street billboards in Moscow and other Russian cities.

Preparing for war started with the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, in which Russia rigorously supported the Donbas separatists. And this trend was clearly reflected in a public opinion poll presented by Levada Center in April 2015. At that time, the trend was worrisome, with many Russians believing in the possibility of World War III with the West or NATO: Nine out of 10 respondents were ready to discuss the prospects of World War III – “real and thermonuclear.”

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Forty-seven percent were not concerned with statements of the Russian authorities about their readiness to use nuclear weapons. Alexey Levinson, the social research director at Levada Center, expressed his deep concerns about the fact Russians, excited by the patriotic rhetoric of the authorities, perceived the war in Ukraine as an exciting television reportage, or as a computer game, where they have “10 more lives left.” In June 2015 with the exacerbation of the economic crisis, 55 percent of Russians were afraid of war with the West, which, however, didn’t decrease the Kremlin’s patriotic tenacity.

The Russian people got accustomed to watching war on television, that's why they easily switching from the war in Ukraine to the war in Syria or to Turkey, and this cannot help affecting public perception of the reality, said Anna Kachkaeva, a professor of Higher School of Economics said during this week's annual conference organized by the Levada Center.

According to her, such distortion of perception among Russians results from the fact that state-controlled TV channels present concurrently two images: "the West is the partner" and "the West is the enemy." During his speech at Carnegie Moscow center, Dondurey called this phenomenon as "double think," when hatred toward the West co-exists with admiration toward the West, when people are easily manipulated and lose confidence in the future under the burden of the economic crisis.

Preparing for the global war: the Western scenario

Another warning sign is coming from the West. Its media and officials, like their Russian counterparts, fuel fears around the possibility of World War III with Russia. Two most recent examples are this week’s program by a BBC TV channel and the report prepared by U.S. military experts from the RAND Corporation.

BBC 2 broadcast  “World War Three: Inside the War Room,” a mix of produced faux-documentary footages and shots which describe Russian forces invading Latvia, provoking a response from UK and NATO and leading to what some media described as a nuclear war with West. This scenario aims to gauge a country’s response when responding to a threat from Russia.  

Meanwhile, U.S. military thinks tanks are testing “every possible scenario in a series of war games” and spread fears about a possible war with Russia, according to some media. The experts from RAND Corporation estimate “Russia could overrun Eastern Europe in just three days because NATO has not been bolstering its fleet since Vladimir Putin took Crimea” and it could take between 36 and 60 hours to occupy the Baltic States.

Such rhetoric is hardly likely to be welcomed by the Kremlin and lead to compromise. Moreover, it will provoke the Russian authorities to respond and will become a gift in the hand of pro-Kremlin media outlets and TV channels to denounce the West for spreading anti-Russian sentiments.  At the same time, it will aggravate the confrontation with West and intolerance to dissent, which, according to Dondurey, are the key principles of today’s Russian society.

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And the talks about the possibility of compromise between the Kremlin and the West seem to be premature. Both Russia and the West look very intransigent, but mutual finger-pointing and saber-rattling won’t improve the situation.

In this regard, Andrei Tsygankov, a professor at San Francisco State University, argues that the pressure from the West “will serve to further consolidate the historically powerful image of the Western threat making the Kremlin more paranoid and the public more supportive of Putin.”

“Russia challenged the U.S. seriously,” said Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow Center in an interview with Russia Direct. “The U.S. cannot ignore that. Russia has broken out of the U.S.-led post-Cold War world. To many people in the U.S., compromising with Putin is compromising one’s interest. And for many others, it is compromising one’s values and principles.”

“The U.S. is acting from the position of superior strength and it would very much prefer Putin to behave himself to roll back his recent advances in a number of areas,” said Trenin. “This is something Putin will certainly find unacceptable. Before there is any compromise accepted by all sides, there will be a mighty intense completion between the U.S. and Russia. And the outcome is yet to be seen.”