30.01.23 Review

A Discordant Chorus of Hawks: how authoritarian wartime public policy works

Any voices opposing the war (or even those expressing even a shred of doubt) are barred from entering the Kremlin-controlled public sphere. However, this does not mean that there is complete agreement. On the contrary, there are various ‘war parties’ fighting, competing, and squabbling for resources. This is not an ‘elite split,’ as some analysts claim, but rather a result of authoritarian public policy. Despite this manufactured conflict within the pro-war consensus, the situation does not reflect any genuine spectrum of opinion but rather gives an advantage to ‘escalationists’. The voices of ‘realists,’ regime loyalists who believe Russia lacks the military and economic capabilities to win the war or withstand the pressure from sanctions, are barely heard in public. This situation exacerbates the polarisation within Russian society and pushes Russian authorities to increase their repression of those who seek access to alternative sources of information.

According to Julian J. Waller, an analyst with the US-based Center for Naval Analysis, the fixation of experts and the media on the singular issue of whether or not Putin's regime will collapse makes it difficult to discern the specifics and details of the functioning of Russia’s  wartime public policy. In reality, Putin's Russia is a living example of twisted and fast-changing authoritarian public policy, rather than a model of totalitarian unanimity. 

While the regime has consistently barred antiwar discourse from the public sphere under its control, it is possible to identify three distinct groups of speakers who are active and visible in public space. While they are all in favour of the war, their perspectives on current events differ. As a result, despite censorship, there is sharp criticism of the leadership's actions and the course of the ongoing hostilities within the ‘official’ information space. The motivations behind this criticism, however, are not based on any fundamental disagreements. Rather, this discussion concerns the way in which the ‘special operation’ and related internal political processes are progressing against the backdrop of a resource struggle between various regime-supporting groups. 

The first notable group includes so-called war correspondents (‘voenkory’), who have gained enormous popularity (which has most likely been exaggerated due to Telegram's ‘overpopulation’ with bots). Their expressive and emotional criticism of the course of the military operation, as well as apparent access to information on the conflict's operational, tactical, and logistical details that independent media outlets lack, have made them popular even among Western journalists and experts. And the ‘voenkory’ have also attracted attention from the Kremlin, which has amplified them as a grassroots ‘pro-war’ initiative. Putin has met with some of these correspondents several times, and as a result of those meetings, a ‘working group’ was formed in December, which should allow the Kremlin to wrangle them under its control. 

In addition to these ‘voenkory’, there are the new ‘political-military barons’ Prigozhin and Kadyrov. They have emerged as prominent political figures. Their unique roles in the war, as well as their aggressively pro-war rhetoric, have entitled them to their own voice and allow them their own separate political agendas focused on criticism of military leadership and calls for conflict escalation. Indeed, in the public political space, the ‘voenkory’ and the ‘political-military barons’ form a multi-layered political coalition. 

Finally, Waller believes that the Duma parties have found their niche in the information space. The Duma, which is a kind of ‘powder room’ for the managerial elite, has become a platform for several prominent political ‘voices’. The political image of both United Russia deputies' and speaker Volodin is defined by the initiative they take when enacting ever-increasingly anti-Western and repressive laws, as well as their bellicose rhetoric and threats made against those who have left in the recent wave of Russian emigration. At the same time, two types of ‘patriots’ — that is supporters of the war — have emerged among the ranks of parliament: loyalists and ‘angry’. The loyalist position maintains total agreement with the government and the regime, whereas the ‘angry patriots,’ who were mainly to be found within the Communist Party, support the war but do not deny themselves the right to pose uncomfortable questions in public about problems and failures on the battlefield, or issues with mobilisation. Victor Sobolev, a lieutenant general, Communist party member of the State Duma, and member of the Duma defence committee, for example, publicly stated that Moscow had failed to implement the plan for mobilisation and opposed the roundup of conscripts in the capital. His words sparked a heated debate in the parliament's lower house. 

In this regard, it is worth noting that the Communist Party's position does not exactly reflect, but rather indirectly correlates with that of its electorate. According to polling by Russian Field conducted in December, although United Russia and LDPR voters have consistently supported the war in Ukraine, the Communist Party electorate tends to have a more ambivalent attitude toward the conflict. Thus, 74% of those who said they supported Edinaya Rossiya thought the special operation was generally  successful, 20% thought it would have been better had the war not been started(they would cancel it if they could go back in time), 56% supported the continuation of hostilities, and only 33% supported the start of peace negotiations. Only 42% of Communist Party supporters were of the belief that the operation was a success, 42% believed it would have been better had it not been started, and 46% supported peace talks. However, as is evident, the model of behaviour reproduced by the Communist Party deputies is that of the ‘systemic’ opposition, seen within authoritarian politics. That is they attack the regime on secondary and tactical issues rather than on matters of principle. 

In general, we can see that the Kremlin has created a ‘pro-war’ polyphony within the public space that it controls by removing any statements and arguments against the war. This is intended to create an impression of complete agreement when it comes to matters such as the justifications for and necessity of the war. Censorship is not total, whereby only one ‘correct’ point of view is permitted, as it was in Soviet times. According to Waller, in 2023 we are likely to witness episodes of carefully crafted dissent, but even these should not be interpreted as evidence that the regime is about to fall. 

Against this backdrop, even the positions of realists — regime loyalists who are more sceptical of Russia's capabilities in the economic and military confrontation with Ukraine and the Western coalition — remain largely unheard. According to political analyst Tatiana Stanova, this group stands in opposition to the ‘escalationists’ and has taken shape against the backdrop of Russia’s autumn defeats. Stanova's central premise is that this realist party ‘includes not only technocrats and businessmen, but also law enforcement officers and ultra-patriots’. They oppose the ‘victory at any cost’ position because they do not believe in the pragmatism of that wager. They believe that starting the war was a mistake. 

However, the war's polyphony of support, dominated by those in support of escalation, leaves no room for ‘realists’ to state their position publicly. As a result, political analysts have suggested that the Russian information space remains extremely polarised. On the one hand, independent media outlets such as Dozhd, Meduza, and others that have relocated their operations abroad have a significant influence on the real information agenda. The Kremlin-controlled public information space, on the other hand, only allows for the multivocal pro-escalation consensus. In order to combat this polarisation, Russian authorities are following the Lukashenko regime's lead by increasing repression of independent media outlets and information consumers, as evidenced, in particular, by the designation of Meduza as a terrorist ‘unfavourable organisation’. However, the Kremlin is unlikely to succeed in its attempt to erect an informational ‘iron curtain’, and the position of the escalationists will wane if, despite significant losses, the Kremlin remains unable to present military victories that bring the war to a close.