Inside Russian propaganda (inside and outside Russia)
Silicon Curtain's Jonathan Fink talks with investigative journalist Julia Davis
This is a shortened version of auto-generated text (edited for readability) provided by YouTube for this interview, which is also available as a podcast.
Julia Davis is a columnist at The Daily Beast and an internationally known writer and investigative journalist. She is also a Washington Post contributor and analyst with Russian Media Monitor. She writes as an investigative reporter exposing Russian propaganda, discussing foreign policy, international and domestic affairs, and other issues. Her reports have been featured by CNN, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Business Insider, Newsweek, The Hill and many other outlets. Her documentary Russian Media Monitor is scheduled for release on June 15, 2023.
Jonathan Fink: Julia, welcome to the channel. How did it begin and what really takes up your time at the moment, because extracting all of these propaganda videos, watching the original sources, translate them — this is a fairly Herculean task you're engaged with.
Julia Davis: Yes, it is. When Russia first invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, I noticed that the coverage in the West did not quite measure up to the level of the threat that Russian propaganda was posing. I would see things as they were happening back then, hearing from the original sources, listening to the television from both sides, Ukraine and Russia, and then I would watch RT [Russia Today] that was at the time prominently present in the United States, broadcasting on our television networks. The way they would portray these events was completely untrue and full of propaganda, and our media did not pay adequate attention to dispelling the lies and propaganda that they were piping straight into American households and actually doing it worldwide.
So when I saw how prevalent the lies were in their reporting I took it upon myself to start creating collections of debunked Russian lies just to make the English-speaking world more familiar with what's going on in Russia, how Russia knowingly lies about certain things, and giving examples that people could see for themselves, what really happened versus the way they've been reporting it, and my collection kept growing and growing from dozens into hundreds, and then I started writing articles about it, and The Daily Beast invited me to become a columnist for them.
The propagandists are being told specific angles, specific lines of propaganda that they are pushing, and there is a specific reason for it. For example, for the last nine years or so they have been very actively dehumanizing Ukrainians, often referring to them as pigs, traitors, and basically preparing the population for what was to come. And then about a year before the invasion, conversations on Russian State television were constantly ending with them concluding that Russia will invade Ukraine and take for itself all of it or the portions that it's most interested in.
For the last nine years or so they have been very actively dehumanizing Ukrainians, often referring to them as pigs, traitors, and basically preparing the population for what was to come. They've been preparing the Russians to the idea that Russia would have to destroy Ukraine's infrastructure, that they would have to make Ukrainians freeze in winter and starve, that they would have to cause their sewers to overflow for there to be epidemics, that they needed to drive masses of Ukrainians to Europe to create a Refugee crisis — all of this was signaled well in advance of what they actually did later.
At the time a lot of people did not understand what I was doing, or would tell me, well, it's just for domestic consumption — of course it is for their domestic consumption, but with a very specific reason behind it. They have been laying the groundwork for what happened with Putin's full-fledged invasion of Ukraine. The propagandists would signal what would happen long before it happened. For example, they've been preparing the Russians to the idea that Russia would have to destroy Ukraine's infrastructure, that they would have to make Ukrainians freeze in winter and starve, that they would have to cause their sewers to overflow for there to be epidemics, that they needed to drive masses of Ukrainians to Europe to create a Refugee crisis — all of this was signaled well in advance of what they actually did later.
I have been collecting their genocidal rhetoric, which has grown to an enormous extent, and it's very revealing because while their government is denying that they're engaged in genocide, their state media is quite specific to the point where one lawmaker actually revealed that he had calculated that about 2 million Ukrainians would have to be killed in order for Russia to dominate Ukraine. So, I also approach it as collecting evidence for future War Crimes Tribunals.
Jonathan: Absolutely. Like a horrific Bond movie, the villains have been telling us exactly what they intended to do. Putin himself in his pseudo-academic sort of mythologizing of history, like [Hitler in] Mein Kampf — he also told us exactly what his intentions were. Ukraine doesn't exist, it's not real, Ukrainians who are independent have been sort of got to by the West. [The propagandists] talk of Ukrainian identity as a disease or some kind of tumor or infection. Why were we not paying attention, not just in 2021 but earlier than that as you say, since 2014 when this really started to ramp up.
Julia: I think a lot of people had a problem perceiving this as being real. It seems so cartoonish. On my YouTube channel for the Russian Media Monitor, that's one of the comments that I get most often. People say if you wrote it in a Bond movie, you'd be told that it's unbelievable. I think people just had this mental block refusing to realize that in this day and age something like this could really happen, that history would be repeating itself in the worst way, when probably many people thought that the days of these kinds of wars or genocidal imperial aspirations were behind us, and it's a startling rude awakening for many.
Jonathan: It's not that [Russian TV presenter Vladimir] Solovyov, [head of Russia Today TV Margarita] Simonyan, and all the others — it's not that they're deluded or don't realize what they're doing or what they're supporting. They're fully aware of the genocidal rhetoric. They're smart enough to realize [the difference] between the narratives which are pure lies and what is underneath it. Simonyan after all studied in the United States.... There are moments of clarity where they admit to themselves almost on camera that if they're ever caught, if they're ever extradited then they would be the subjects of a War Crimes Tribunal.
Julia: Absolutely, they fully realize what they're doing. Both Simonyan and Solovyov speak English and they obsessively watch Western media to see how this is being covered. Also, sometimes they will slip up and say things like, well, many people in Russia still don't understand what we're doing in Ukraine, and sometimes with these things you can't understand why this was necessary, but maybe decades later we will understand. So this to me reveals that they fully realize that there is no way to explain or justify what they're doing. They're just trying to comfort people by telling them, well, you just don't understand it now; later you'll understand why this was necessary.
I think it's because there's no way to logically justify what they're doing that Solovyov has become so enamored with the idea of using religion to justify it — any religion. Anybody that he could recruit or help recruit to go fight there, it's fine to him. He's sitting in his studio practicing Jew chanting, Allahu Akbar, or calling to the Orthodox people, or Buddhists — it doesn't matter to him as long as those bodies will go to the front and fight for Putin, for Putin's imperial ambitions. So yes, they fully realize that if it ever comes to the point where Russia loses this war and the Western world gets their hands on them, they fully know that they would be tried and convicted.
Jonathan: [That RT was forced off the airwaves] hasn't stopped their narratives being injected into the Western bloodstream and, in particular, you have OAN, Fox News, you do have many sources in the US that are directly injecting Russian propagandistic trips and narratives into the American consciousness.
Julia: Yes, there are, and Simonyan had herself called RT a weapon in an information war, so she definitely realizes what they're doing. She also said that they have influencers in place, they have certain accounts in place where they're still broadcasting. They're creating videos, I think she said in 39 languages and growing all the time. So they are still very actively spreading their propaganda, and also there are useful idiots that are helping them do it. All they have to do is just drop that seed in the right place in the social media, and time and time again they will pick it up. They're very familiar with our politics, they watch them closely, they listen to their talking points, they're listening to what's causing arguments, and then they inject their own agenda into it. For example, if there are talks about our banks here in the United States and financial issues, they will immediately drop the seed in there: well, you should be doing that instead of helping Ukraine, and inevitably someone here will pick that up without thinking what is behind it. So they've been very successful, they are not stupid people, they are doing it in a smart way.
Jonathan: Let's throw a name out there: Tucker Carlson is frequently mentioned on RT, and clips of him are replayed on Russian State TV, as well as of the more extreme GOP politicians, and one of those issues where there's really a connection between Russian propaganda and its useful idiots in the West is the culture war, is the weaponization of morality. So what's your perception of that? It's not that the propagandists are innately moral but they have found a chink in in the armor of the West or at least the Republican right.
Julia: Absolutely, they are very actively shopping their ideas to our so-called Conservatives because they see a real opening there, and because our Republicans, and people in general, they may not realize that Russia really isn't a religious country at all, that most people don't go to church.... In fact, when Republicans have come up with this idea of banning abortions, that's a bridge too far even for the Russians.... So religion is just a cover for Putin's imperial ambitions, it helps him to convince the people that he is not to be questioned, that he was put in that position by God, and those that do have faith or believe in God, they are buying into it, and the Republicans just don't realize what they're dealing with. Russia is very secular....
When Ukraine is dealing with the Russian Orthodox Church back there in Ukraine, it is because they are saboteurs who are helping the Kremlin wage its war against Ukraine internally, so they dealt with it in that sense, not because they were banning any religion or anything like that. There is no one banning any religions or any languages in Ukraine as a matter of fact, but Russia is pretty skillful in exploiting these things. They will take a tiny little seed of Truth, and then they will coat it in a snowball of lies, and then they're selling it and some people tend to indiscriminately parrot it because it suits their agenda in some other way.
Jonathan: This is the subject I think of a future episode with Olga Lautman that is to look at how the modern Russian Church came about, how it was taken over, commandeered by the KGB, and how its current hierarchy are pretty much all ex-KGB officers — although as Putin has said before, there's no such thing as an ex-KGB officer: you're in it for life. So that's something we're going to deconstruct because essentially it means that the Russian Orthodox Church under the Moscow patriarch is a political, almost a secular, weapon as opposed to a spiritual organization.... Not everyone watching this will know but recently your material was referenced by Timothy Schneider at the UN, so it is having a huge impact and of course you've been sanctioned by the Russian government itself.
Julia: Yes, I have been looking at it from the perspective of not only a researcher but also if I were collecting evidence for the War Crimes Tribunals. So sometimes I will focus on those statements where they talk about Ukrainians as bugs to be exterminated or pigs to be slaughtered, or naming numbers of people that have to die, or how they have to suffer.
And also, it can be revealing because the way Russian State media shows are organized, on many of them they will invite one guest who is the proverbial beating boy who is allowed to make some comments that go against the grain, as though there is freedom of speech; that was supposed to be the illusion. And once that guests utters those comments then everybody starts henpecking him and telling him how stupid he is, how stupid that point of view is, and that is meant to convey to the population this impression that if you believe this or if you dare to question this, you too are going to be perceived as stupid and dealt with in this way, or you'll be seen as a traitor. But that often backfires when that beating boy guest says something profound that they have trouble arguing against, so it can be revealing. Just the way their military is not 10 foot tall neither is their propaganda, so they often slip up and end up revealing way too much. And of course, there I am to take a clip of it....
In fact, when you hear propagandists being interviewed themselves, they say that being called propagandist is not a bad thing at all, everybody is a propagandist. That's one way that they discount the truth. It's by claiming it just doesn't exist and everyone is a propagandist for somebody. So why wouldn't you be a patriot and support our propaganda as opposed to theirs, that's how they frame it. So that's why even when they get caught in a lie, they're not ashamed at all because they've already told people, well, it's all propaganda, it's infowar and anything goes.
Jonathan: The current format of Solovyov and Simonyan in particular — the arguetainment kind of format — actually has some rather interesting roots, doesn't it, and not just in Russia itself but, say, learning from Berlusconi's experiments in popular brainwashing of the 80s and 90s.
Julia: They're kind of infamous for the stealing technologies and copyrights, and this is no exception. They have watched the likes of Infowars, and they found out what works. They study the human psyche, they talk about it, they say anger works, fear works. If they can appeal to those emotions or maybe even simultaneously to both of those, then they could achieve results, and people that are blinded by anger or fear will believe just about anything. And so they have picked up Western ways….
Ukrainians were always seen as just provincial villagers that are there at Moscow's disposal, and when they decided to assert their independence and maintain their own identity, that was seen as a terrible betrayal, and so it's all been downhill from there. So unfortunately, many Russians are preconditioned to see Ukrainians as someone that just has to be crushed into submission, and that Russia somehow deserves to control them, and therefore voices like Solovyov and Simonyan that are arguing for that are quite popular.
Jonathan: You mentioned these so-called oppositional voices that get invited onto the channel. Even now I see Western media reporting that as if it represents some kind of schism or break within the regime and of course it's nothing of the sort. As you say, it could be just to create a false sense of plurality, it could be that they bring these voices on so they can shoot them down. It can also be something which is quite interesting, which is throwing up points of view as a way of testing public reaction. So, as you say, they've said many of the things they were going to do beforehand, for instance destroying Ukraine's energy infrastructure, and one of the arguments is that that decision had not yet been taken but it was one of the options on the table, and if the Russian public had had vehemently reacted again that, they might not have gone through with the policy. So in the absence of democratic process, it's a way of testing out the acceptability of ideas within the public.
Julia: Yes, or just getting them used to the ideas that they want to promote. But there are some opposition voices on their state TV that I'm sometimes amazed that they're there and able to say what they're saying. They make a lot of sense to argue that this war should end, that it will not end in Russia's favor in any way or in the way Putin portrayed it in the beginning. It will not achieve its goals, and they're needlessly massacring so many people in Ukraine and by extension in Russia by sending them into these idiotic imperialist battles. So those voices I think we should still pay attention to, because while they're there for a purpose they still make some very good points, and they plant some very good ideas there.
As a matter of fact, I've heard on one of their state TV shows that there are millions of people in Russia that don't agree with this war that Putin is waging. I'm not sure where this information came from but even the pro-government propagandists did not object to it, did not try to argue against it, and I hear them often say that a lot of people there don't support the war but they're just afraid to say anything. So they're just staying quiet and waiting it out. By the words of the propagandists themselves, you can glean what is happening behind the scenes there, and that not all Russians are in support of this war. A lot of them are just too afraid to do anything about it.
Of course, unfortunately we must realize that probably the majority do support it, but there again they were conditioned to do it for the same reason they support the idiotic idea of nuclear strikes against the West that are promoted basically every single day on Russian State television. There again, because they've been conditioned to see the West as their enemy, and now by extension Ukraine is being presented as a tool of the West to destroy Russia, even though it's Russia that invaded Ukraine and not the other way around.
Jonathan: I'm interested in understanding the mechanics of this because none of these narratives that you share happen by accident, none of them are necessarily decided in the studio by the propagandists themselves, they're iterating on themes that I assume have been approved from above. So how do we know how the intentions of the regime get passed down to the propagandists and what kind of editorial structure and filters they go through.
By continually talking about how this will inevitably end with nuclear war and the end of the entire planet, they're cultivating this fatalist mindset in Russians: Oh, we're all going to die. Then comes out Margarita Simonyan who sits there and says: Well, death is inevitable. So, what is the difference if you die now or 20, 30 years later? It's not that big of a difference.
Julia: There are notes that are being delivered to these television channels by their minders up above that tell them what they want to discuss and in what vein they should approach it. And it's very interesting with the whole nuclear theme. Putin's regime is pursuing several goals with that. First of all, by continually talking about how this will inevitably end with nuclear war and the end of the entire planet, they're cultivating this fatalist mindset in Russians: Oh, we're all going to die. Then comes out Margarita Simonyan who sits there and says: Well, death is inevitable. So what is the difference if you die now or 20, 30 years later? It's not that big of a difference. So, they're using that to get people used to this idea, well, we're all going to die and maybe we'll all die very soon in a nuclear strike, so you might as well go fight for the glory of the Motherland and die this way.
And the secondary objective is, of course, their attempts to intimidate the West from continuing to support Ukraine by threatening them that eventually it will come to nuclear strikes. There again, when I listen to these propagandists, every once in a while, someone will make a rational rebuttal saying, well, if we strike them, what's going to happen when they strike us back? And the answer to that is equally revealing. They say, at this point, there's nothing we could do, and they would strike us back. But what we need to do is continue to work on developing technologies that will allow us to deliver nuclear strikes to them without them being able to respond. So the real issue here, again, is not what they can do right now. They fully realize that they can't conduct a nuclear strike against the West and get away with it.
They would gladly destroy millions if only they could get away with it. I think that is a really chilling message. Of course, they can't do it right now, but if they possess the technology that allowed them to destroy millions of people on the planet, they would do it with no hesitation. No one ever says, well, maybe killing millions is wrong.
But I think the more important point here is their mindset that they would gladly destroy millions if only they could get away with it. I think that is a really chilling message. Of course, they can't do it right now. They know there will be a response, but if they possess the technology that allowed them to destroy millions of people on the planet, they would do it with no hesitation. That is one thing that I very rarely hear any of their propagandists object to. No one ever says, well, maybe killing millions is wrong. No, they just say, well, unfortunately we can't get away with it right now. So we have to keep developing technologies so that maybe at some point in the future we could destroy them, and we will still be intact. And that they're basically saying that the whole world would be better off if Great Britain or the United States no longer existed. And that is their long-term goal….
The reason why Russia sanctioned me is that I have exposed something they never wanted to be exposed. And that is the difference between how they portray the events within Russia itself to the Russians versus how they do it when they're trying to run their influence operations in the West, for example when they're broadcasting to Western countries or when they're trying to appeal to Africa, Latin America, and other places like that. They will say that the US is the imperialist country, that it's the United States who's the colonizer and has to be resisted. But when they're talking amongst themselves in Russia, they openly admit that Russia is an imperialist country. Russia was an empire, is an empire, and will always be this great empire. And reabsorbing Ukraine and other former Soviet territories or formerly Russian Empire Territories is their aim. That has been pretty explicit, but you will not hear them admit that when they're broadcasting to any foreign country.
So that's why what I do is so important because there, they stand with curtains pulled back and it reveals how they really see themselves versus how they want us to see them. And in the same way, they try to play this game against the Western countries saying that they're merely puppets of the United States, when in reality they want all the countries in Russia's region to be their puppets or to be completely absorbed by them. So a lot of it is mirroring and reflection and gaslighting, and they're quite efficient in that until you see it both from within and from without. And you can compare and see what they're really doing and what they're really trying to achieve....
The likes of Solovyov are constantly promoting the idea that they need to return to the tactics of Stalin’s times where they just shoot people on the spot, that they have these field trials for anyone who's suspected of being a traitor or subversive in any way or dares to criticize. So they're definitely sending this message to everyone that at some point we might just start shooting people for opposing this war. So rethink what you're saying now because you might be impacted later. And that has to do with a full range of people, from the people who are outspoken about not supporting this war, which is very dangerous and lands them in prison, to the super-patriotic military bloggers who would like to see Ukraine totally in ruins as long as they can stick their flag into the heap and call it theirs.
Imagine if every channel that you had on television was hosted by a pathological liar, and that's all you had.
And also, people who think that Russia should just withdraw from Ukraine and go back to business as usual, they have warnings for them as well. They're trying to scare them into saying that if Russia was to just abandon its pursuits in Ukraine, then the West will come invade Russia, they will all have to live in cages. Their books will be burned, their language will be banned, and they will be just these mindless creatures totally in control of the West — absolute fairy tales. But I guess there are people that might be terrorized enough and actually believe it.
Imagine if every channel that you had on television was hosted by a pathological liar, and that's all you had. Eventually you would either be completely confused or convinced. And either one suits their agenda because confused people are not likely to rebel or do anything to oppose what they're doing. And obviously, compliant people will go and fight and needlessly die and kill others for zero valid reasons whatsoever, just because their propaganda told them so.
Jonathan: And because they are essentially a moral vacuum, because they're able to play in any argument, any side, no matter how immoral the events they're describing or terrible the kind of atrocities that they're justifying, I think in some ways they have assumed for many years that the West is the same, that the West has the same immorality, that we are prepared to suspend our so-called morals and order for their money. I think they're genuinely surprised and shocked that the Western Alliance in support of Ukraine is prepared to lose monetarily and materially for the principles that we espouse.
Julia: Yes, they are very shocked. They have expressed it repeatedly on their many shows that they did not expect the West to consolidate in this way, that they didn't expect the West would be willing to suffer economically as a consequence and still continue to support Ukraine. So they are very shocked, and they often say that they underestimated the West in a sense by assuming that everyone can be bought. And then they have discovered that the West does have a morality and is able to pick the side of a good and do their best to defend it....
Some people find it hard to believe that it's real, that it could really be happening, which Russian propaganda tries to play on as well, when they are discounting their own atrocities by just saying, no, it's old stage. Nobody does it in this day and age. So they've really underestimated the West and discounted the entire West as sellouts that could be bought and would look the other way. Fortunately, they have miscalculated and now they're in this no-win situation because now they're forced to admit and tell their people, this is probably forever. There's no way to things being normal ever again, that the West is determined to remain on that side. And to them that is like a cold shower that they did not expect. They're rattled and unsettled and not quite sure what to do about it.
PS: I’ve added a couple of “footnotes” to this in the comments.
Unfortunately, far too many outside Russia keep falling for the lies. This is from a piece by Jakub Kalenský published yesterday in The Kyiv Independent:
As security expert Keir Giles highlighted in his most recent book, Russia is constantly playing the “fear of escalation” card, and the West keeps falling for it. According to a recent report by the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, the Kremlin is playing for time, believing that Ukraine and the West will wear out before Russia. Polls conducted in the U.S. and statements by influential politicians show that this may be a reasonable bet.
If we see that Western support for Ukraine remains inadequate, that it is constantly downscaled and constrained amid fears of the Kremlin, and that even this insufficient support might be weakening, can we really say that Russia has comprehensively lost in the information domain?
There are still other indicators that the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts are far from unsuccessful.
The Pope, a moral authority for over a billion people on this planet, regularly repeats elements of the Kremlin’s propaganda. For example, in June 2022, he suggested that Russia’s full-scale war was “perhaps somehow either provoked or not prevented.”
Elon Musk, while he could probably not be further from the Pope, has also regularly echoed Russian disinformation to his audience of millions. Multiple influential politicians do the same, be they in North America or Europe.
Lies that NATO is to blame for Russia’s war crimes against Ukraine are repeated by academics, while other disinformation about Russia’s war successfully penetrates Western media outlets and thus receives newfound credibility. Pro-Russian lies about the atrocities committed in Bucha outperformed facts on the same topic on Facebook.
While the Kremlin’s disinformation narratives are being spread in the West, does this mean that people actually believe the Russian lies?
Yes, many of them do – opinion polls taken over the past 13 months prove this....
Taking all of this together – that the West is repeatedly paralyzed into not sufficiently helping Ukraine; that many Western opinion-makers continue to repeat and amplify the Kremlin’s disinformation narratives; that we see one-fifth to one-third of the population of Euro-Atlantic countries believing in various Kremlin lies and that the situation in the Global South is even worse – can we really be so optimistic that Russia is losing the information war?
So far, it seems that the whole “we are winning” the information war resembles the German Zeitenwende: it sounds very attractive to say it, we would love to believe in it, and we are desperately looking for any trace of evidence that it’s finally there, but, in reality, it’s just not happening yet.
The Kyiv Independent spoke to Dr. Ian Garner, Canada-based historian and specialist of Russian and Soviet wartime culture, on the trajectory of attitudes to the war of the Russian population. Garner is the author of “Stalingrad Lives: Stories of Combat and Survival” (released last December) and the upcoming book “Z Generation: Into the Heart of Russia's Fascist Youth.” The following is an abridged version of what Garner said.
There is every sign that Russia is becoming a more and more totalitarian, more closed off country, and that the government is willing to do everything, including totally reforming its culture, totally reforming the economy in order to support not just this war, because the concept is now that Russia is a country continually at war and the threat isn't restricted to Ukraine....
We've seen some groups of soldiers’ mothers, soldiers’ widows coming out of the woodwork in support of the war. Lately, we've seen Putin supposedly meeting soldiers’ mothers, some of whom turned out, of course, not to be mothers at all. The state is trying to say that, as regrettable as the fighting is, as regrettable as the sacrifice is, the state cares. The state is doing the best it possibly can for those who are dying and their families. It seems ludicrous from our perspective, but when you're on the inside of this propaganda world and you do have some sort of—if not complete trust in—respect for the Russian state more than the Western media, it's effective....
We know that there are still opposition elements within Russia. I know that social media would have you think that nobody in Russia cares, and everybody is completely indifferent to the suffering of Ukrainians, but that's not true. The problem that the opposition has, if we are saying that probably 15 to 20% of the population are deeply uncomfortable in some way with what's happening, is that who are they following? Nobody. There is no opposition leader because the state has jailed, slandered, libeled them so effectively over the last few years....
On the other hand, there is a radical demographic that's probably the same size as the opposition, but on the other end, maybe a little bit bigger. This group seems full of life, full of ideas and impetus right now, because many people on this side, including amongst the youth, really feel like they are entering a kind of apocalyptic conflict where Russia has to fight the war against the West, against liberals, against homosexuals, against Ukrainians, against all of these things that are somehow diseasing Russia. And in between we have something of a murky middle made up of around 50% of the population. Time after time in opinion polls, in focus groups anyway, these people show they are willing to follow the state, to do what they think or what the state thinks is best....
Change is going to come from the top rather than the bottom. And there is no promise that change is going to be moving Russia in a more liberal or a more pacifist direction. Even change from the bottom may actually coalesce around the nationalist extremists, those who want to use even more firepower against Ukraine. And we're seeing some of that emerge on some of the more extreme right-wing telegram groups. Those people have a far greater reach than the opposition in Russia today, and the state tacitly permits them to criticize the state in certain ways. And they're playing a more dangerous game there than they are with the opposition. And so, in a sense, you have to be careful what you wish for, because we may see more widespread protests that are actually revanchist in nature, especially when we're thinking five, 10 years in the future rather than five or 10 weeks in the future.
We're at a really, really dangerous point. Over 2023 and 2024, the war will most certainly still be fought very fiercely with high casualties on both sides. On one hand, the Kremlin is trying to foster this dominant kind of bottom-up agitation. On the other, the moment could come where suddenly the Kremlin's interests and the interests of those groups stop aligning. There are so many different factions wandering around in Russian society. There is Dugin and his crowd, then there is Prigozhin who seems to be completely, almost brilliantly amoral. But the issue for the state begins when these factional disagreements, both with the regime and with each other, start to threaten the ability of the state to make and execute decisions....
So much of this thought exists in social media bubbles, where there is always this pressure to one up each other. Every time bad news hits, the pro-war crowd aren't rationally reassessing the way that the war is being conducted, they're simply fishing for clicks and rage baiting each other to say that we need to go one step further. We need to go one step more, it doesn't matter that people are dying, they say.... They are fighting a war in Russia to save Russia and Russians. They are genuinely convinced of this, it’s a sort of quasi-religious fact of life. It's a cult-like mentality, and cults don't respond to facts in the way you expect them to. When you challenge them with reality, they are more likely to actually double down deeper into cult-like thinking.... The longer it goes on for, the harder it's going to be as you have new generations, new young Russians entering the public who know only how to speak this language of war and sacrifice and death, to see the West as something irrevocably tainted with vindictive Russophobia....
I don't think the answer is in promising people new Western lifestyles because the West is just so associated with this, this Russophobia, even into the murky middle. People are distrustful of the West, so it can't be a repeat of the ways that things were handled in the early 1990s.... The raison d'etre is not destroying Ukraine, it is saving Russia.... It goes back to this understanding that there is no difference conceptually between Russia and Ukraine, which is completely distorted. But when you understand that Russia's under attack, it means we need to save ourselves. We need to save our people. Well, it is worth going and fighting, we don’t have a choice but to keep pushing. Russia is fighting this isolated, lonely battle against a world that is against it and that has a real appeal to people....
Everybody gets sick of the war, sick of the state. The elites grow frustrated because they can't enjoy the European vacations anymore. The middle classes are annoyed because those holidays in Dubai and Egypt and Cyprus become inaccessible to them. Consumer goods start drying up. Russia falls behind in a technological arms race, and eventually the periphery starts to break. We see protests around the edges of Russia, discontent amongst the more poverty-stricken regions of the country. Maybe we see protests in Moscow as well. Things could change really quickly, and then we could reach a tipping point. But it's not coming tomorrow. We're talking five years, 10 years, or 15.