The Surprising Success of U.S. Military Aid to Ukraine
Kyiv’s Determination Has Improved Washington’s Spotty Track Record
This article is part of a series examining what a year of war in Ukraine has revealed.
Before Russia went to war in Ukraine, it was no great mystery that Russian society was adaptable, better at playing along and avoiding responsibility than actively protesting. From its outset, the system built by Russian President Vladimir Putin was based on the idea of a disengaged public, with matters of political and civic concern left to those on high. Even as the space for independent political and civic action shrank to near zero and real living standards declined, most Russians saw little reason to participate in collective action: such efforts were far more likely to result in a police baton upside the head or a lengthy prison term than in actual change. This arrangement suited both citizen and state just fine. Russian society was demobilized by design.
But after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, and particularly after they encountered stiffer than expected resistance, it seemed possible that the shock of war would overturn this dynamic. Within days of the invasion, Russia found itself more isolated than it had been in decades, facing Western sanctions that threatened to devastate its economy. International companies and brands left, flight connections to the outside world were canceled, and the ruble crashed to its lowest value in history. Putin offered up the vague goals of “demilitarization” and “denazification” for what he called a “special military operation,” but it wasn’t entirely clear to many Russians why Russian tanks were suddenly rolling through Ukraine—and by extension, why Moscow was taking on the risks and costs of war.
After a year of war in Ukraine, however, it is now clear that instead of disrupting the existing social contract, Putin’s war has only extended it. In the early days of the invasion, the Kremlin made no attempt to sell the war as a defining struggle for which every Russian must sacrifice; rather, Russians were presented with an image of a war that was distant, low cost, outsourced to professionals, and, if one was so inclined, possible to ignore.
Since the late Soviet period, Russian society has been adept at playing political make-believe—that is, performing outward loyalty to the state while inwardly harboring a more cynical, detached attitude toward it. The Putin system picked up on this trait and, thanks to the consumer boom fueled by high oil prices, in many ways only intensified it. Each side, the Kremlin and the Russian people, largely stayed out of each other’s business.
The Russian public didn’t so much approve or disapprove of government policies as exist apart from them. The role of the individual was not to affect the state’s behavior but to protect against its consequences. Instead of actively resisting, then, most Russians who opposed Putin sought to dissociate themselves from his rule, even if merely on an emotional or psychological level, what some sociologists studying Russia have referred to as “internal emigration.” One remains in the Russian polity in body, but not in spirit.
This has become the defining method of protest in Russia, explained Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist. “In America, people take to the streets with posters,” she said. “In France, they like to go on strike. Whereas in Russia, the methods are those used by the weak and the dispossessed: evasion, sabotage, imitation, hypocrisy, and, when necessary, escape, and even self-harm.” Shortly after the invasion, Schulmann herself left Russia, accepting a fellowship at the Robert Bosch Foundation in Berlin. Two days after she arrived, the Russian government declared her a “foreign agent,” a designation meant to make her work effectively impossible.
Greg Yudin, a Russian sociologist and political philosopher, characterized the prevailing attitude as understandable, or at least unavoidable, given how deeply many people have internalized their own political powerlessness. “If you notice that it’s started to rain outside, it would be silly to sit around and create a plan how to stop the rain,” he told me. “Better to figure out how not to get wet.” He has identified three camps in Russian society, which he calls “radicals,” “dissenters,” and “laymen”—that is, the fanatics who enthusiastically support the war, the critics who strongly oppose it, and the majority (roughly 60 percent in his estimation) who try to avoid the subject and take no position. In the war’s early months, the Kremlin offered enough rousing pro-war content to keep the radicals engaged, but it also gave the laymen an opportunity to look the other way and carry on with their lives.
Last summer, survey data from the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent polling agency, showed that nearly half of respondents were paying little or no attention to events in Ukraine. “The high percentage of approval for the war we see is a function of people’s nonparticipation,” Denis Volkov, the center’s director, told me. Volkov shared his impressions from focus groups that he and his colleagues have held in various Russian cities since the invasion. “People tell us that they know that bombs are falling somewhere but can’t do anything about it, and that it’s all rather traumatic—so better not to look in that direction or think too much about it.” Otherwise, they told Volkov time and again, “we’ll make ourselves sick.”
This passivity came under intense pressure last September, when Putin, needing new troops to shore up Russian lines in Ukraine, announced a “partial mobilization,” whereby the military would draft several hundred thousand Russian men of fighting age. The government did not make clear the precise terms and rules of its mobilization, and families across Russia feared it could prove more widespread and indiscriminate than Putin promised. (In this sense, the laymen, even as they tend not to actively resist the state, are clear-eyed about its penchant for treachery.) Hundreds of thousands of Russians, most of them draft-eligible men, fled the country in a matter of weeks—a sign that a sizable number of laymen could not be readily converted into radicals.
In September, in the wake of mobilization, the Levada Center registered the biggest drop in public mood—the share of Russians saying they felt stress, anger, or fear—in a single month since Russia defaulted on its debt in 1998, when the economy cratered and Russians’ life savings were wiped out. The share of respondents who said they felt stressed jumped by 15 percentage points; those who said they were afraid rose by 11 percentage points. The draft scared and disoriented Russians.
“You might hear something about the war on television for a few minutes in the evening,” Schulmann told me. “The newscaster blabbers on, and you nod along, not thinking much of anything. That is how people have been conditioned to live for 20 years.” But suddenly, the rules changed. “People were not prepared for the moment they got a knock at the door,” Schulmann said.
Most Russians have absolved themselves of responsibility for anything that doesn’t concern them personally.
Yet mobilization swiftly proved less a rupture of the status quo than a continuation of it, albeit in considerably more fraught conditions. The initial, most active phase of the draft—when men were called up in large numbers and police and military officials combed the streets, workplaces, restaurants, and metro stations looking for draftees—was over in a month or two. Russians who hadn’t been mobilized or didn’t see their immediate family members called up were able to return to their habitual state of disengagement. At least for the moment, most men and most families had dodged the bullet.
This period of heightened stress and uncertainty has caused Russian society to lean even harder into its fundamental pragmatism. Most Russians have absolved themselves of responsibility for anything that doesn’t concern them personally. And even Russians who are personally affected by the war—say, a parent whose son was drafted—have tended to compartmentalize, refusing to allow this entanglement to lead them to question whether the war is just or Putin has made a strategic mistake. Instead of confronting their government directly, they have focused on adapting: getting their children out of the country, perhaps, or finding a job in a category that makes them ineligible for the draft.
Given the climate of wartime censorship and repression in Russia, it is difficult to measure genuine public support for the war there. Levada Center polling from late last year showed that although three-quarters of those surveyed said they supported the “special military operation,” over half said it was time for Russia to engage in negotiations to end it—a sign that enthusiasm may be waning. Paradoxically, the feeling of helplessness and insecurity brought by the war can also play to Putin’s interests. When your country is at war, even if you don’t like or even understand that war, the thought of defeat can be paralyzing. Even some Russians who harbor no goodwill toward Putin worry about what losing might bring: prolonged economic hardship or a chaotic collapse of the regime.
Volkov, the director of the Levada Center, told me of one woman from a recent focus group. In 2019, she had participated in protests against a planned landfill in Russia’s north. Now, she told Volkov, she has written off those who protest the war as having been “bought by the West.” Volkov explained that the war has played into the Kremlin’s strategy of framing the world as split between “us” and “them” and that even some of those who once opposed Putin have ended up choosing the Russian side in the war. Numerous Levada Center polls have shown that a majority of Russians blame the United States and NATO—rather than Russia or even Ukraine—for the war.
Over the past year, Yudin, the Russian sociologist, said he has been impressed by friends and colleagues who, at great risk, have refused to remain silent or make compromises. But he is also alarmed by the number of people who admit that the war was a terrible mistake yet say that now Russia has no choice but to win it. Theirs is “the scariest position of all,” in his estimation, because it could lead to a genuine consolidation of support for the war. Yudin told me about some of his acquaintances in the world of higher education who go along with all manner of indignities—such as refraining from questioning or criticizing the war or remaining silent as their colleagues who do are fired—in the hope that they can preserve their educational programs or at least their jobs. He compared them to passengers in a car speeding toward a brick wall. “They see the danger ahead, but jumping out feels scarier than staying put,” he said.
As Russia’s war enters its second year, and as Russia is unlikely to muster the military force necessary to produce an outright victory, the brick wall is only getting closer. But that doesn’t mean one should expect many more people to jump out before the crash.
What the War in Ukraine Has Revealed About Putin’s Regime