The noise of jingoist propaganda and anti-Western hysteria emanating from Moscow is not as monotonous as it often seems, and the variations expose significant differences between and within Russian elite groups.
Recent military setbacks, such as the destruction of a mixed air group over the Bryansk region on May 13 and the incursion of a Russian paramilitary group into the Belgorod region on May 22, have amplified these variations, as the official versions have departed exceedingly from reality (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 23).
Russian President Vladimir Putin is stuck with the pseudo-historical denials of Ukraine’s existence as an independent state and reassurances that the “special military operation” is going according to plan. Thus, others endeavor to advance effectual war discourses (Novayagazeta.eu, May 26).
Russia’s existential battle with the hostile West
The most expansive narrative has been developed by Nikolai Patrushev, long-serving secretary of the Russian Security Council and one of Putin’s closest lieutenants. Patrushev paints a vast geopolitical picture of Russia’s existential battle with the hostile West.
To this narrative, he adds mind-boggling details such as the “radioactive cloud” moving to Europe from Ukraine, where a storage of depleted uranium munitions was allegedly destroyed, or the imminent devastation of the United States by an explosion of the Yellowstone super volcano, construed as an explanation for the supposed American plan for capturing Siberia (RBC, May 19; Izvestiya, May 3).
Patrushev’s virulent anti-Americanism has gained some traction in the Global South, as demonstrated by his chairing last week of the meeting of the national security advisers and heads of special services from 101 states (according to the Russian headcount). The high point of this spectacle was a speech given by Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, in which he advised the “Anglo-Saxons” to go back to their old friend the devil (Rossiiskaya gazeta, May 24).
Another eager contributor to this bombastic narrative is Dmitry Medvedev, demoted from prime minister to deputy chairman of the Security Council, who found it opportune to use the occasion of his visit to Vietnam last week to threaten the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine, an escalation that Putin has preferred not to mention after several warnings from China (Vedomosti, May 26).
The military top brass
In comparison with these bold flights of geopolitical imagination, the discourse cultivated by Russia’s top military brass appears dull and deliberately fake, including regular reports that all targets of missile strikes have been hit and claims that multiple HIMARS missiles have been intercepted and their batteries destroyed (Mil.ru, May 25). Russian mainstream media continuously tries to put a positive spin on these dry reports; however, the attempts to present the capture of a few more buildings in utterly ruined Bakhmut as a major strategic success ring false (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, May 25).
The official version of a swift extermination of the Ukrainian military incursion into the Belgorod region departed from the reality of a complete lack of border defenses, and the video of Colonel-General Aleksandr Lapin leading an attack on the units of the heavily armed “terrorists” was far from inspiring (Rossiiskaya gazeta, May 23). Russian command cannot dispel the widespread worries about the forthcoming Ukrainian offensive, but it stays on the tired story that US laboratories in Ukraine are developing biological weapons (RIA Novosti, May 26).
The most appalling of all official denials of the costs of the unwinnable war is the complete lack of information on Russian casualties; investigative journalists have found the names of 24,000 dead soldiers, which does not even come to half of the estimated total bill (Svoboda, May 26).
The Wagner Group
This false secrecy stands in contrast with the bragging of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the boss of the Wagner Group, who claims that, in the battle for Bakhmut, the losses of his troops amounted to 20,000, half of which were reportedly recruited convicts (Forbes.ru, May 24).
Prigozhin is positioning himself as the owner of a particular war discourse — not only crude in describing its grim reality but also selectively honest in admitting Russian setbacks (Republic.ru, May 25). His harsh criticism of the military bureaucracy’s incompetence is rather personal, targeting Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and demanding their replacement with General Mikhail Mizintsev (fired in late April 2023 from the position of deputy defense minister) and General Sergei Surovikin, respectively (Svoboda, May 25).
Prigozhin has also lashed out against treacherous elites that express only pro forma support for the “special military operation” and in fact sabotage its execution (Meduza, May 24). The most prominent figure among these abstainers is Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who traveled to China last week and duly disapproved of Western sanctions but refrained from any comments on the duration and ending of the war, focusing instead on bilateral economic ties (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 24).
The silent camp
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is another prominent figure in the silent camp, always too busy with big city problems, such as preventing a bird flu epidemic, to entertain the matters of war and peace (Moskovsky komsomolets, May 18).
Igor Sechin, CEO of Rosneft, who, in the past, was never shy to engage in geopolitical games, has all but disappeared from the public arena. These personal choices broadly correspond to the mixed feelings in Russian society, where anxiety and resignation overwhelm all variations of “blind patriotism” (Re: Russia, May 22). One clear sentiment in public opinion polls is the conviction that the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine cannot be justified, with little difference between age groups (Levada.ru, May 12).
A confused society
As the war moves deeper into Russia, with the Kremlin coming under fire from drone attacks and front-line regions, such as Belgorod and Bryansk, bracing for more incursions, nothing resembling a “patriotic mobilization” is occurring in the confused society. Putin’s pretenses at keeping a firm hand on the rudder are increasingly discredited by his inability to offer a coherent proposition for ending the war, while the explanation of his reasons for starting it has not become any more convincing.
The strategic design for a “long war” may fit with the Kremlin’s desire for the indefinite prolongation of the autocratic regime; nevertheless, it does not answer the demands for a “victory” from the noisy war-mongering milieu and clashes with the unarticulated but widespread preference for checking the unfolding disaster.
The decisive voice in the cacophony of false discourses and grim silence in Russia actually belongs to Ukraine, as its looming offensive is set to break through not only the trench lines but also the defensive deceptions and denials.