A patriotic word, a gun and a ruble: Is Putin’s ideology persuading Russians to fight in Ukraine?

April 14, 2023
  • Ivan Fomin

    Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis; Non-Resident Fellow at the IERES, the George Washington University.

Ivan Fomin draws attention to the fact that the Russian public cannot be mobilized for the war with ideology alone, forcing Putin’s regime to turn to economic incentives and promises about people’s welfare to recruit soldiers for its war.
The attack on Ukraine was designed by the Kremlin to be a walk in the park, meaning that the full-scale military conflict that has now lasted for more than a year has become an immense challenge for Putin’s autocracy. The war is forcing the Russian regime to undergo a stressful adaptation for which it was not ready.

For decades, the stability of Putin’s power rested on maintaining the Russian public’s passivity. Passive loyalty to the government, along with noninvolvement in politics, was construed as a price people were expected to pay in exchange for economic growth and great-power pride. However, Putin’s regime hardly ever mobilized the Russian people to actually do something to support the Kremlin’s policies – it preferred that they just get out of its way. Moreover, Putin sometimes even appeared to be cautious about empowering mobilizational initiatives, especially if they were not under his full control or did not fully align with his interests.

The full-fledged attack on Ukraine became essentially the first real test of Putin’s capacity to mobilize the nation at will, to motivate it to act as a mass and dedicatedly to support his policies. In particular, it became a test for Putin’s ideology, as it was the first time that he had to find a constellation of ideals and values potent enough for Russians to kill and die for.
Before patriotic rallies, ads often appear on social media promising small amounts of money to come. In the photo: a pro-Putin rally and concert on February 22, 2023, at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. On the internet, ads promised RUB 500 (about $6.50) to come. Source: Wiki Commons
Putin’s ideology

It may seem that the Kremlin was prepared for this challenge. For the last decade, Putin’s regime cultivated a relatively stable (though incoherent) set of ideas that were supposed to work like a state ideology. It can be characterized as great-power statism, based on the authority of a strong state to which the citizens must be loyal and around which they must unite. It also emphasizes the importance of retaining Russia’s status as a great power in a world where it faces competition from the hostile West.

There is also a “traditionalist” component, as it is positioned as an ideology of “traditional values.” For the most part, this “traditionalism” boils down to homophobic and transphobic undertones that became increasingly manifested in Putinist discourse in the last decade. In particular, this discourse represents “non-traditional” sexual relations as “perversions” that “lead to degradation and extinction” and are being promoted by the West to undermine Russian “family values.”

Even though the Russian constitution explicitly prohibits any ideology “to be proclaimed as the state ideology or as obligatory,” in the last decade there were clear attempts to codify the Putinist emergent ideology. In particular, in 2015 a list of “traditional” values was included into Russia’s national security strategy. Later, the 2020 amendments introduced “traditional family values” into the constitution.

With the war, Russian schools have been obliged to include weekly extracurricular lessons to promote “patriotism” and “morals” in classrooms.

In 2022, “traditional Russian spiritual and moral values” were even codified in a special presidential decree. It stipulated that those values include “patriotism, civic consciousness, service to the Fatherland and responsibility for its fate,” as well as a “strong family,” “historical memory,” “intergenerational continuity” and the “unity of the peoples of Russia.” The list goes on: “high moral ideals,” “creative labor,” “prioritizing the spiritual over the material,” “mercifulness,” “justice,” “collectivism,” “mutual assistance and mutual respect.” Even “life, dignity, human rights” and “humanism” are included.

Ideologization without mobilization

Nevertheless, the apparent ideologization of the Russian regime can be misleading. In particular, there is no evidence that the talk of great-power patriotism and “traditional values” actually ever bore fruit for the Kremlin when it comes to mobilizing the population.

In particular, it is clear that Putin’s ideological toolkit and his huge propaganda machine were not enough to persuade enough volunteers to join the war effort in the first months of the “special military operation” in Ukraine. This is why he had to carry out a draft in the autumn of 2022.

The draft was framed as a “traditional” fight for Russia’s sovereignty and against the hostile West, which had supposedly armed Ukraine to terrorize the people of “historical lands of Novorossiya (New Russia).” However, Putin’s talk about defending the motherland was not his only argument. In particular, just a day before the draft was declared, Russian lawmakers toughened punishments for desertion and “voluntary surrender.”

But even with repressive legislation, Putin’s draft was hardly a success. Though overt protests against it were relatively limited, they were still noticeable and occasionally even violent. Moreover, it triggered a wave of resistance with various forms of draft evasion, while in the first few weeks following Putin's mobilization decree up to 700,000 people reportedly left the country.

The mobilization campaign was also associated with the most significant decline in Putin's approval ratings since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with a drop of 6 percentage points within a month. Support for the "special military operation" decreased by 4 percentage points over the same period. Presumably, because of the growing dissent, in Moscow the draft was called off two weeks earlier than the national campaign and likely before the capital’s call-up target had been hit.

So, after that crisis, Putin now seems intent to rely much less on the instruments of ideological mobilization. At least he has noticeably moved toward actively using economic incentives in addition to ideological ones. For example, in his annual address to Russia’s parliament, Putin’s narratives about the West trying to deprive Russia of its “historical territories” were supplemented with the unveiling of a number of policies intended to provide welfare benefits to people fighting in the “special military operation” and their families.

The Kremlin is now noticeably avoiding another draft. Instead, it is trying to persuade more people to join the military for money, even though the pool of likely contractors was largely exhausted last year. On top of that, new repressive legislation is being introduced to prosecute draft dodgers and ban them from leaving the country.

Has Putinism ever been about patriotic ideals?

The Kremlin’s attempt to mobilize people with promises of welfare benefits and economic incentives rather than ideological motives may look like a reaction to the stressful draft experience – and, in some respects, it is. However,
“This approach is also a manifestation of more fundamental features inherent to Putin’s regime, which predate the current wartime crisis.”
If we look at how the regime dealt with similar challenges in the past, we can see that in other situations, Putin’s attempts to persuade Russians to actively participate in something were also based on leveraging people’s welfare rather than focusing exclusively on patriotic consolidation.

This was the case with the pandemic, for example. When Putin tried to persuade Russians to stay home, he did not appeal exclusively to patriotic consolidation but actively used references to the importance of people’s welfare. This was even more noticeable in the Kremlin’s attempts to promote Covid-19 vaccines, as that discourse was almost exclusively based on references to the value of people’s well-being, with no references to patriotic self-sacrifice, the country’s proud history or national unity. (Notably, both social distancing and the vaccination campaigns were still rather unsuccessful.)

For the purposes of electoral mobilization, Putin also tends not to rely exclusively on the discourse of patriotism and “family values,” mixing in references to the importance of progress and people’s happiness. This was the case with Putin’s speech at an election campaign rally in 2018.

When organizing events of loyalist youth movements or gigs in support of Putin and his policies, the Kremlin also does not typically count too much on ideological mobilization and instead usually motivates students or public sector employees with promises of extra days off or some other benefits. (Blatant coercion or hiring extras to fill out a crowd is also a common practice at these events.)

Prioritizing the spiritual over the material?

“Even though Putin’s regime is tending to become more ideologized, we should not underestimate the importance of economic incentives and promises about people’s welfare in the Kremlin’s interaction with the Russian public.”
In fact, promises of prosperity and well-being are essential for the stability of Putin’s rule and can hardly be removed from the Kremlin’s discourse or completely replaced with patriotic slogans about national unity and eternal resistance to the “satanic” West.

Even when the Kremlin tries to sell the war in Ukraine as an existential fight for Russia’s sovereignty, it still cannot just run on statism, great-power pride and homophobia. To motivate Russians to actively participate in Putin’s war effort, it has to combine high patriotic ideals with economic incentives and threats of repression.

While Putin’s ideological imagery is necessary to motivate Russians to fight in Ukraine, it is not in itself sufficient for military mobilization to be supported by the people. Putin’s ideology may be effective for keeping Russians passively cheering for the country’s greatness as demonstrated by state propaganda. However, referring to these ideals alone turns out not so reliable when people must be made ready to fight, risk their lives, endure losing their relatives and tolerate economic hardships.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy