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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Four Ways Russians Clear Their Conscience About Ukraine

A new report has done a deep dive into the support (or lack of opposition) of ordinary Russians for the so-called "special military operation" in Ukraine. Independent Russian media outlet Important Stories breaks down the findings, which don't necessarily follow the rationale one might imagine.

photo of a couple on a park bench in Moscow with man holding russian flag

Russian and proud at recent Victory Day celebrations in Moscow

Sergei Savostyanov/TASS via ZUMA
Important Stories


MOSCOW — Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, one question has been difficult to answer: Is this Putin’s war or Russia’s war?

A recent report called "Resigned to the Inevitable," put together by the independent research group Laboratory of Public Sociology, aims to answer this question by analyzing the idea of Russian "support" for the war. Through interviews with 88 Russians who did not oppose the violence conducted during the fall and winter of 2022, the report reveals that "support" for the “special military operation” often materializes in the form of non-resistance.

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The report also makes clear the four methods Russians use to clear their conscience about the "special operation."

After the initial shock that came with the invasion on the morning of Feb. 24, 2022, there came the need for Russians to return to normality. But instead of condemning, and therefore rejecting, the war with Ukraine as something that did not fit into their vision of the normal, Russians began trying to weave this event into their new vision of the world.

To do so, they looked for rational grounds for what happened, borrowing arguments from Russian state propaganda to justify what they were saying.

1. Justification

Attempts to justify the war were common among the interviewees. These excuses attempted to show that Russia's actions were forced and retaliatory, that Russia was not the initiator of a military conflict, but merely reacted to an external threat (“we did not start this war”). In fact, the war was the result of a lack of alternatives ("we were forced", "we were left with no choice").

In this way, Russians relieve their country of responsibility for starting the war and allow themselves to support the “special operation” (or at least refrain from condemning the actions of the Russian authorities in Ukraine), while continuing to insist on the moral unacceptability of war, aggression and killings.

“Any normal person, it seems to me, is against the war. But at the same time, I understand that this conflict ... is not unfounded.”

War is the norm; peace, instead, is a deviation from it.

“I, like any sane person, am against the death of people, against violence. Perhaps it was a forced measure. But I'm not a political scientist, so I don't know."

“I agree that war is bad, it’s terrible. But exactly who is to blame, what led to this, who is more to blame — I think that these questions can’t be answered until there is some reliable information.

This technique allows the interviewees to remain “normal”, “sensible” people who do not accept the war, but at the same time do not need to condemn the Kremlin’s actions.

A man gives directions to a woman infront of a red star installation

We held on to peace as long as we could


2. Normalization

The next rhetorical strategy, often used simultaneously with the previous one, is the normalization of war, the presentation of it as a natural phenomenon. In this interpretation, both the war in Ukraine and also war as a concept begin to be thought of as unpleasant and destructive, as well as an invariable part of public life. War is the norm; peace, instead, is a deviation from it.

“I radically changed my mind, and now I don’t really support it — I don’t support military operations in principle, but, there are a lot of wars in the world, somewhere there is fighting, someone attacks someone, somewhere someone is killing someone else, somewhere someone is dying, someone is being raped, someone is being robbed, it's one of the things that just happens.”

“I understand that it is very easy to say that “I am for world peace”. And I am for world peace. And when was that? Well, as long as we could, we held on to peace for as long as possible.”

3. Nihilism

Another strategy for coming to terms with war that the interviewees commonly displayed was their decision not to have high expectations of the world. This stance towards acceptance of the conflict was accompanied by a sense of disillusionment with humanistic ideals, perceiving them as idealistic and disconnected from the harsh realities of real life.

“And I understand the value of human life, everything is based on the value of human life. But that’s only in peacetime. When war happens, you realize that it was always an illusion.”

As a result, informants gave up faith in their moral ideals and resigned themselves to the fact that the world was not as good as they had once thought. Such a devaluation of moral ideals sometimes resulted in a change in a person’s negative attitude towards Putin.

Let's put it this way, if at first I simply considered Putin a rather old and slightly crazy person, then, looking at how the world treats us and the actions of other heads of state, I got the impression that he was not the only one of his kind. And that, apparently, it’s normal that such people are generally in politics, unfortunately.”

The aggressive behavior of the Russian state, which angered many of the interviewees in the first days of the war, soon began to be perceived as normal, typical behavior: “everyone is bad”. The condemnation of these actions from the point of view of humanistic ideals thus became hypocritical and futile.

“All these universal values from the point of view of world geopolitics are fairy tales, lies. Everything is relative."

A world without wars in this logic is an unattainable ideal, and the pursuit of it is naive and harmful idealism.

An elderly woman crosses the street carrying multiple flags

"Everything is relative..."

Alexander Reka/TASS via ZUMA

4. Humility

Finally, the last of the strategies by which the interviewees "cleared their conscience" was the acceptance of war as unavoidable, as an irremovable part of a new social reality that they had no chance of influencing.

They made a conscious effort to normalize the war.

“I am not a supporter of military action, of these violent measures. But once it happened, it happened, I can’t influence it in any way. ”

“My negative attitude was that it all started. Then I realized that, if it all started, I need to somehow come to terms with it, because: a) there is little that can be prevented; and b) negative emotions that arise interfere with productivity, interfere with the daily course of life.

For many non-opponents of the war, the invasion was a huge shock: it did not fit into their basic conception of what was normal, possible and probable. Military intervention on the territory of a neighboring "brotherly" state contradicted their whole understanding of morality.

But despite the state of shock, disorientation and “falling out” of touch with reality that the interviewees experienced in the first few days and weeks of the war, they never became anti-war activists. On the contrary, they made a conscious effort to normalize the war.

Although all of them in one way or another turned to state propaganda for justifications of the war, the assimilation of these arguments did not occur passively, as anti-war Russians often imagine, but consciously. Non-opponents of the war were and continue to be actively involved in searching out, creating and propagating arguments that justify Russia’s war in Ukraine.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Sinking The Moskva, Inside Ukraine's Biggest Strike On The Russian Black Sea Fleet

As Ukraine steps up its attacks on the Black Sea fleet and other targets in Crimea, here's the inside story of Russia's devastating naval defeat in April, 2022.

photo of a crane, a shipyard and smoke in the distance

Smoke billows from the fire-hit southern site of the Sevastopol Shipyard on Wednesday after reports of a Ukrainian strike.

Viktoria Sukonnikova/TASS via ZUMA
Roman Romaniuk

Updated September 15, 2023 at 2:30 p.m.

KYIV — On April 13, 2022 the Russian military suffered its worst naval defeat in modern times when the flagship of Moscow’s fleet, the cruiser Moskva based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, was sunk.

Based on dozens of interviews with Ukrainian military officials and viewing never-before-seen photos of the incident, Kyiv-based news service Ukrainian Pravda has conducted its own exclusive investigation to reconstruct how Ukraine successfully carried out the attack.

Russia still actively avoids any public references to the Moskva, and there are relatives of dead sailors who still have not received any information about the fate of their loved ones. The Russian Defense Ministry has offered no details about the causes of the sinking, claiming that the ship suffered "surfacing failure," after a fire. Moscow has made allusion to bad weather and claimed that all crew members had been rescued.

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