An Inside Look at Russia

Tuesday, April 5, 2022
Alexander Ermochenko/Getty Images

Editorial Director, Riddle Russia

Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy and Head, Heinz College in DC, Carnegie Mellon University; Former U.S. Representative to the Economic and Social Council, United Nations (2015—2017); CFR Member 

Director, Levada Center


Adjunct Professor, Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, Georgetown University; CFR Member 

Please join our panelists for a discussion of the domestic environment in Russia, including efforts by the Kremlin to control the narrative of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, how Russian civil society views the war, and how the ongoing conflict is expected to influence support for President Putin at home. 


DOUGHERTY: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations discussion “An Inside Look at Russia.” I’m Jill Dougherty and I’m honored to moderate this discussion. As was mentioned, it’s on the record.

You know, I was just in Moscow as the war began, and it’s clear that even as Ukraine is being destroyed, at least physically, Russia itself is being transformed, perhaps irrevocably, and right now we’re going to focus on the domestic environment in Russia both before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and during this deadly conflict.

The Kremlin is trying to control the narrative about what is happening, and we will explore that. We’ll explore how Russian civilians view what the Kremlin calls a special military operation and we’ll also look at how the war will impact—what kind of impact it will have on support for President Vladimir Putin.

And to discuss this we have three really good experts. I’m sure many of you follow them online and in their publications.

Anton Barbashin is the editorial director of Riddle Russia. That is the source of some of, in my opinion, the best writing on the situation in Russia today.

We also have Sarah Mendelson, distinguished service professor of public policy and head of Heinz College in D.C., Carnegie Mellon University, and she also is former U.S. Representative to the Economic Social Council of the United Nations. Plus, she is a CFR member.

And Denis Volkov, director at the Levada Center, Russia’s independent polling company.

So we’re going to start with a half hour of discussion and then we’ll have about half an hour for Q&A, and Teagan will remind you of how to ask those questions. So let’s begin.

Anton, I would like to start with you, please. You know, in just the past month since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Russia’s independent media, or what was left of it, was decimated. A new law now makes it illegal to call this war a war or an invasion or an attack, and violations can be punished with up to fifteen years in prison.

Then you have the protesters. At least fifteen thousand of them have been detained so far by the police across Russia. But you’ve pointed out that this repression of the media and of civil society actually goes much back—much further back.

So how did that fact shape the reaction of civil society to this conflict now?

BARBASHIN: First of all, thank you for having me here. It’s my pleasure.

I would say, actually, by the time the war started, Russian civil society was at the worst state in the past thirty years. 2021 alone was one of the—probably the toughest year for civil society. We’ve seen repression against the oldest institutions within the civil society. Memorial, some of the organizations that have been there since—still since the late Soviet Union that kind of determined how Russian civil society is governed, how it speaks to itself, how it communicates with the society at large, all those organizations were targeted. That’s one.

We had a number of new laws implemented that made it much harder for people to gather peacefully anywhere. COVID was used quite heavily to allow the state to repress any sort of freedom of assembly whatsoever and, most drastically, I think, most importantly, was the destruction of Alexei Navalny’s structures—first of all, his imprisonment and destruction of Publica and his organization across the country.

We’ve seen a number of his key leaders being followed and some of them are under criminal investigation now. Most of them have emigrated. So what we’re seeing—what we’ve seen since the beginning of the war with, you know, thousands of Russians fleeing the country—various estimates would give you between two hundred (thousand) to three hundred thousand that have left the country—a lot of that had started before the war with the activists, journalists, and many organizations just packing their bags and going elsewhere, attempting to start their work from outside of the country.

From my personal experience of talking to people in civil society, not only in Moscow but in Russia’s regions before the war in January—that was the last time I’ve been there—it was already a state of despair. It was already a state of realization that, I mean, if they’ve jailed Navalny there’s nothing we could do. It’s a question of time. It’s a question of how long we could survive and just, you know, protect our little corner around us.

So that was the situation when the war began. Since it was launched, as I’ve said, we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the country, more considering doing the same, and the rest are adjusting. But fear and despair are probably the two key words that describe how it feels to be part of Russian civil society at the moment.

DOUGHERTY: Sarah Mendelson, let me ask you. You know, the attention always in these conflicts is focused on how many people have been killed, especially Russian troops. It’s an important figure. I’ve seen—you can correct me, but I’ve seen somewhere around fifteen thousand up to twenty thousand. But it appears whatever the precise figure is, it’s a huge number of war dead and that reminds, I think, a lot of us of the second Chechen War when the numbers of dead really did affect society and how it looked at the war.

So what effect do you think these massive losses will have on Russian society’s support for this military operation?

MENDELSON: Well, thank you, Jill, and thanks to the Council on Foreign Relations for holding this meeting.

I just want to say before I respond to your comments, to the extent that we outsiders are able to talk about what’s going on inside Russia, it’s only due to collaboration with some of the organizations that Anton mentioned, including Memorial, including the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, including the Levada Center, and we’re experiencing a total paradigm shift where that is no longer possible, and it means that for this generation, those of us who have been working this for thirty, thirty-five, forty years, it is—it’s a completely different place and country.

So it’s a little bit difficult on some level to pull forward lessons from the past. But to the extent that it’s true, certainly, in the work with Memorial and the Levada Center, people—Russians—were very casualty sensitive during the second war in Chechnya. I mean, people in focus groups would start crying because their brothers, their cousins, their fathers, were serving and had died.

That was only due partly to bodies coming home in body bags but also some amplification by organizations like the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, like Memorial. We don’t know what the effect is going to be with those organizations both labeled foreign agents and, to various extents, liquidated by the authorities. And so it’s a different space, different time.

The closing space around civil societies is nearly complete. I don’t doubt the very brave colleagues will continue the work. But it’s going to be much more difficult.

Now, that said, the numbers that we’re hearing only after, what is it, thirty-nine, forty days, are enormous. I mean, they go far beyond what the Soviets lost in Afghanistan, as far as we can tell, over a decade.

So if this continues, I don’t think it’s possible, no matter what the Kremlin tries to do, to hide the fact that mothers and fathers are losing their children in this war and that is bound to create some kind of, I mean, despair, tragedy, but also some level of protest.

DOUGHERTY: Mmm hmm. OK. And, Denis Volkov, you know, Sarah was making a very good point about civil society and how it looks at this, and one thing that we really do need is information about what Russians are thinking and that, of course, is where you come in with the Levada Center.

So I follow your posts very carefully—I’m on the mailing list—and I have noted, too, in the past, I guess, week or so you published a poll just a few days ago that showed the majority of Russians support the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine, and that the numbers, as I’m looking at them, 53 percent of them definitely support and another 28 percent likely support, and if you look at the numbers of those who do not support it, it’s only 14 percent. So, again, we’re back to the overwhelming majority supporting it.

And then the other poll that I paid a lot of attention to, and I know there’s been some press on this here in the United States, is the approval rating for Vladimir Putin is now, according to your poll, at 83 percent—really quite astounding—up from 69 percent in January.

So a lot of people were—in the West, especially, were very surprised by those polls. Can you walk us through? Like, what is this saying about society that they do support this conflict, and then also the ratings for—the approval ratings for President Putin?

VOLKOV: Yes. Hello, everyone. Good to be here.

But I think that these figures shouldn’t be a surprise because already, before the conflict started in end of February, we already had the main contours of the attitudes towards it. They were already there with such figures like, in mid-February, we had the approval rating of Putin 71 percent and it was rising for several—at least for two months it was rising. More than two-thirds blamed the escalation—blame the United States and Ukraine for the escalation of the situation, which was going on for several months. About only one-third of Russians were positive towards Ukraine.

So more or less the main contours of the attitude were already there. And even in January when, actually, for Anton’s Riddle I was writing about this conflict and in our figures we see that people didn’t want war but they were morally prepared to it, so in blaming the West and thinking that it will—half of population was speaking about it may come to this. So morally prepared.

And so we have this—at the very beginning in early March in the public opinion polls we had the same share of people. Two-thirds were in favor, and this support of Putin and support of this military operation—sorry, I’m speaking from Moscow. I’d rather use these words. And two-thirds were supporting and about quarter were not. Then these figures changed a little bit, but still the main contours were there.

And another what is important it is what we are seeing in relation to the ratings of the—of Putin, of the government. It is very much like what we had in 2014 and when Crimea was taken from Ukraine, and in the context of the conflict between Russia and the West we see this rise in support. And, of course, I think it is important to bear in mind that there is not monolithic support. Like with this military operation, like with Putin, about half support—half of Russians support more or less unconditionally and one-third they have, well, some doubts, like, sometimes respond and say, well, I don’t like what is happening but, well, you know, you should be patriotic in such a situation.

I also think that some people who want to hide their thoughts they are also in this category of this conditional support. So it shouldn’t be a surprise.

DOUGHERTY: Mmm hmm. You know, I want to get in, maybe in another couple of minutes, into the methodology that you use because I think it’s important. But a very quick follow-up question on that. You know, when people have commented, especially in the West, about these polls, they said, well, what do you expect because Russians are exposed to a fire hose of propaganda? I mean, do you think that that explains what’s going on or is there something deeper happening?

VOLKOV: Well, this explains what’s going on but we must understand that there are very stable pictures of what’s going on not in Ukraine but in the world in general. It was for decades this world view, several—two different world views. One is shared by the majority by those who are watching TV and who are older generations remembering Soviet times. They see the world as a—well, two camps, Russia, the West, the West always against Russia, want to undermine, to distract, and so on and so forth. This is those—these people now will support what is going on, and others who are more open to the world, open to other interpretations, to other information from different sides, they’re—well, they’re in minority. They were in minority but now they’re, of course, under the pressure—additional pressure when—from the majority, from the Russian media, from the official—Russian officialdom, everything. Of course, they’re in—under pressure.

And but speaking about methodology, one of the main indicators to judge upon the changing conditions is the refusal rate. Well, it is the same. It is not changing. We are tracking it in our omnibus surveys, face-to-face surveys, in the telephone surveys. It is still the same. So we do not see any—not even significant—almost no changes within this months and those we’re speaking about is—usually it’s the politicians—oppositional politicians.

We as—also just—we try to monitor it. Well, first of all, we monitor it according to the American Association for Public Opinion Research. So we use these methodologies with Track-It! and our survey. Well, we do not see these changes. And also, I think there is, certainly, the tension within society. Certainly, some people would like to hide their thoughts. But polls are not about what people really think. They are about, well, what they want to share, and this corresponds with the public attitudes.

So if people hide their thoughts, well, we don’t expect them to go and protest because—well, because as Anton was saying, it’s dangerous to go and protest right now.

DOUGHERTY: Yes. And, Anton, I wanted to get into some of the actual thinking of Russians, if we can, and I’m reminded, of course—we probably all read this, but the enormously long treatise that President Putin wrote over the summer about Ukraine and how Ukrainians and Russians are actually, you know, essentially one people. And, yet, in this invasion you have Russians attacking Ukrainians and that, to me, would raise some type of cognitive dissonance because how can, you know, brothers kill their own brothers and sisters?

So it does seem hard for me to understand how you explain that psychologically. So can you help us out here? What is going on?

BARBASHIN: Look, I’m not a psychiatrist and I think you need a psychiatrist here to explain it properly. But what we see is that they were very consistent—I mean, the Kremlin—in disabling all media that would be showing an alternative picture, and state-affiliated media or media that works in the same category, the same field, they have a very specific tailored message with certain words and characters they use, referencing to people fighting in Ukraine as Nazis, as Banderites, as some other thugs, terrorists. They never mark them or at least attempt to never mark them on purpose as Ukrainian forces, Ukrainian army.

So they are always trying to dehumanize them, on the one hand, and on the other, portrayed it as a story of a nation that is captured by this Nazi junta that is supported by the West and Russian forces liberating them from those forces. So it is still a huge question five weeks into this war how many Russians actually believe that. I don’t know. But for at least people, especially, I would consider the senior generations, yes, they tend to separate the two entities.

The Ukrainians that are there, that are slightly different from Russians, but we’re not fighting them. We are fighting some other folk who are there and were sent there from the States or were indoctrinated by the West, so on and so forth.

DOUGHERTY: Mmm hmm. Yeah, that seems to be—actually, when I was looking at it very closely that seems to be the way that it’s connected and explained.

So, Sarah, let me get back to you. We’ve been talking about the numbers of people who are fleeing Russia. Maybe you call it, you know, émigrés or exiles. But the numbers, as has been mentioned, I think, it was by Anton—yes, Anton—was, roughly, three hundred thousand. I’ve seen two hundred (thousand) and up. I’ve actually heard double that and, at this point, it’s not clear. But it’s a very large number of people who are leaving Russia and it could be forever.

So that immediately, you know, raises the question of how is that emigration going to affect the public view of this war and how will it affect the conversation at home? I mean, if the people who do not agree leave, they kind of leave the conversation, although you can still communicate. There is still the Russian language internet and there is some sort of a conversation going on. But, essentially, they’re not living in the country anymore. So what will be the effect on Russian society from all of these people leaving?

MENDELSON: As a daughter of a psychiatrist, let me just go for one second back to the psychological, if you will, aspect because I think it’s extremely important and it relates to your question.

This dehumanization we see in all sorts of state-sponsored atrocities and nonstate. I mean, just think about what happened in Rwanda and the language about cockroaches. So it is not surprising that the Kremlin is using those talking points.

But what worries me is that there’s an enormous divide between those of us who are watching really closely, and I mean, you know, neighbors, not just Council on Foreign Relations members—but watching what is going on. Let’s just call it for the moment the Bucha effect. The amount of violence and destruction and indiscriminate killing and the complete divide, wall, iron curtain, of how it seems that Russians inside Russia are looking at it and that is—I don’t know what that looks like, going forward.

I mean, we’ve had a massive delinking of Russia with the international community on so many levels. So it’s very dangerous, I mean, this delinking. I understand it. I don’t disagree with it. I’m not sure where it goes.

On the issue of emigration versus exile, there’s also, I think, a generational divide. I think people who’ve grown up always being able to buy things, travel, think thoughts, write things, all of a sudden that’s changed, and whether or not you oppose the war or not, you don’t necessarily want to live in a country that’s like that.

So I think we should be careful ascribing specific positions on the war to everyone who’s leaving. I think there’s actually an enormous burden that we should, on the outside, particularly donors, foundations, philanthropy, in terms of supporting those who are in exile, some of whom have been in exile for some time, who are working on independent media, human rights defenders.

Frankly, I wrote about this in Foreign Affairs in 2015. It was very clear after Crimea that this was going to happen, right. There’s going to be a wave or waves of exile. And I don’t think we’ve had the kind of serious coming together that bilateral donors could do to be able to support those who are doing this kind of work.

But I also think that you’re seeing an entire generational shift. I’ve read in the press—I’m sure you have—a lot of these are tech workers. This is this new generation that is extremely wired and they can, of course, work from almost anywhere. But you’re right, there’s a huge brain drain that’s going on in Russia of, perhaps, people who would be thinking independently, who would be criticizing, and the impact intellectuals, activists, just regular people, I think, is extremely significant.

As somebody who works in a university I’m very cognizant of, on the one hand, literally, hundreds of presidents of universities in Russia endorsing the Kremlin’s view of the war versus colleagues that have been connected with American scholars, European scholars, for decades and, you know, what’s happening with them.

So I think we’re at a very disturbing point where people are being left behind in Russia and trying to figure out how do they live in this extremely violent Russia.

Let me just say one last thing. What’s troubling to some of us who watched very closely the second war in Chechnya, who then watched the Kremlin support Assad in Syria, who then watched the first invasion of Ukraine, the fact that this would be a surprise to people comes—it’s a surprise to me that it’s a surprise to people. But it has been. So there you go.

DOUGHERTY: Mmm hmm. OK. Well, we’re getting close to the question time, but I want to have the last question. I think, Denis, this will go to you and then we can open it up to questions.

You mentioned that there is a different mood in Moscow right now with this conflict as opposed to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and I do remember—again, I was there for a brief period and I remember it was almost like a party, that many people—this is not every Russian but there were a lot of, you know, average Russians who said, that was our territory, it’s back, and there were people who put the little, you know, banner—the little flag on their lapels and on their cars. So it was kind of a happy, euphoric—overtones of some other things but, essentially, a positive time.

You mentioned that right now in Moscow it is very different. It’s a different mood. So can you explain that to people, you know, how is it different? What are people feeling?

VOLKOV: Well, the main difference, I think, is that, exactly, there is no euphoria. There is, well, consolidation of support. Yes, it is there but no joy like in 2014, though, I must say that in 2014 there was not only Crimea. Crimea was the first stage. And it was very—like, our respondents were saying, two days and Crimea resolves. No shots were fired. But, of course, there were then this Donbas and Luhansk, so on and so forth.

So 2014 was also different. But this time, many people understand that it is serious. There is economic sanctions and the sanctions are being felt already by, I think, at least a quarter of the population, though I think this impact was different. Of course, those who suffer most is they are people who are not well off. They feel it through rising prices. But, of course, I think the first shock was experienced by these rich, rich people who had savings, who had—who were playing on stock exchange. I think maybe it was not wiped completely but they suffered big losses.

So this is different. But at the same time we see that the mood is also changing. At the beginning of the conflict, we see big, significant differences between Muscovites and the bigger cities and the rest of the country, young, and all the generations.

But now as the sanctions bite as consolidation goes on, we see that these cleavages are becoming less evident, though they’re still in place, and maybe what is also important what is going on with the sanctions that—maybe it’s only my impression, but from what I felt from focus groups, but for those who are feeling the sanctions, economic situation is becoming more important than Ukraine.

So people are starting to adjust, adjust to how to buy things, how to save money, where to get them, how it’s just a new reality and somehow Ukraine is fading away from the picture. Maybe it will be temporary but at least the feelings that I had that adjustment and adaptation is more important now.

DOUGHERTY: Hmm. OK. Well, very interesting. Obviously, a lot of material here that we can discuss and I think we will move over to questions now. We’ve got about a half an hour. Teagan, can you remind the audience of how to ask questions?

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We will take our first question from Benjamin Jones.

Q: OK. Can you hear me?


Q: Great. I’m Ben Jones. I’m a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. I used to spend quite a bit of time in Russia in the ’90s. Thanks very much to the panel for this really insightful set of comments.

I wanted to ask, I guess, Denis, mostly, about a bit more on the ground on what it is like at a micro level in terms of economic stress, and I’m curious, particularly, about what you’re seeing in stores. Are you seeing lines? Are you seeing things sold out? It’s very hard to get this information from abroad.

And I’m also interested in the ruble. We’ve seen stabilization but also through massive capital controls by the government. So that can be a very false kind of stabilization. I’m wondering if you’re seeing people willing to hold rubles kind of around Moscow. Are people really trying to get out of rubles and can’t?

DOUGHERTY: That was for Denis, yes?    

Q: Yeah. Well, anyone. But I kind of wondered if Denis, with his Moscow-based perspective, would be willing to share some insight on those questions.

VOLKOV: OK. Should I ask—should I answer now?

DOUGHERTY: Yes, please.

VOLKOV: Oh. Well, I only have this limited experience because I haven’t left Moscow yet because there is turmoil and also maybe some tensions that we don’t know yet.

In Moscow, only initially we had some—not even lines but some, how is it, grechikha. I’m not sure about the word.

DOUGHERTY: Buckwheat. Buckwheat.

VOLKOV: It was out—yeah. Buckwheat was—usually Russians buy out buckwheat and sugar. So this was bought by many, but now already I think those who wanted it they already have it, so no lines. Initially there were lines in banks. You just could observe them. They were not in the streets but within the banks there were people who were trying to get their dollars and euros, which is the—which was the main problem because the rubles were given out without any difficulties.

So but it seems now that it is also stabilized. How it will be next it is the big question. But for now the situation is more or less as usual. Again, initially, first weeks a lot of police in the streets in Moscow. It was, I mean, visible. Now it’s more or less back to normal. Still, they are there but not in such big quantities. So more or less back to normal again. Again, restaurants are working.

DOUGHERTY: Mmm hmm. OK. Teagan, could we go to the next question, please?

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from John T. Ryan.

Mr. Ryan, please accept the unmute now.

(No response.)

OPERATOR: OK. We’ll take our next question from Tom Kahn.

Q: Good morning. Thank you very—can you hear me?

DOUGHERTY: Yes, we can.

Q: Thank you so very much for this superb presentation.

My question is whether any of your guests believe—particularly, Denis, but others—whether sanctions can be effective at all in convincing the Russian people to pressure the government (to stop ?) the war or whether sanctions actually have the opposite effect in creating more anger or hostility toward the West and more support for Putin.

And related to that is are there steps that the West can take, if not sanctions or in addition to sanctions, to convince the Russians to possibly pressure their government to change policy?

DOUGHERTY: OK. You know, maybe we go to Anton just to give Denis a little rest here.

Anton, do have some answers for those questions?

BARBASHIN: Sure. If the policy—if the logic of the sanctions is to change the policy of the Kremlin, then no, they’re not effective. They never were and hardly they will be because the Kremlin does not really consider—I mean, that’s part of the deal. That’s the price you pay for whatever grand powerness you are trying to achieve.

With regards to what Russia thinks of sanctions, again, you have a very strong propaganda effort now that is depicting sanctions as something that would have happened no matter what Russia did or does in Ukraine. This is just how the West is trying to contain Russia for being Russia. This is the same story we’ve seen since 2014.

Denis might correct me, but as far as I remember, in 2014-15 when Russia was introducing embargoing some of the Western goods as a response to the initial sanctions, Russians believed that that was the West doing that to Russia, not Russia on itself.

So for a considerable period of time, for as long as people are not starving, I would say, they could be interpreting all the sanctions as Western campaign attack on Russia. So it would hardly be changing the attitude. What sanctions do, essentially, is and why they could not be lifted just because is they’re weakening the long-term capability of the Russian state to continue this policy.

But it has very little to do with what Russians think about the regime or the war in Ukraine.

MENDELSON: So can I expand on this?

DOUGHERTY: Yeah. Sure.

MENDELSON: There are two aspects. One is, not only did we find in the second war in Chechnya that casualty sensitivity was very intense but the economic costs of the war were really intense. So to the extent that people are able to connect in their minds the sanctions with the economic costs, it might be the case.

Let me just say one other aspect of the sanctions. Particularly targeting oligarchs and all sorts of other ways in which money is—finds a home in London and New York and Miami, for too long—and we know this in part from Catherine Belton’s excellent book, Putin’s People, and all sorts of other sources, there’s been an enabling factor of the West for the oligarchs’ money, and to the extent that the Western response is to actually track beneficial ownership of these funds, that is, in some ways, I think, one of the most important aspects of a whole variety of sanctions. And it’s not targeting the general population, it’s targeting a circle of people who have used Western institutions to their benefit, and the most shocking thing, I think, was the Swiss response to open up bank accounts. Thanks.

DOUGHERTY: Mmm hmm. Denis, I don’t want to leave you behind on this. I want to keep moving. But do you have any brief comments about this question?

VOLKOV: Only about perception. The majority see it as sanctions against Russia as a whole. But speaking of the sanctions against Russian oligarchs, well, everyone even who support Putin they say it is good. They don’t like these rich, rich people. In this sense, these sanctions are popular.

But, of course, we see that the overall package of sanctions is understood as like economic war against Russia, and in this sense it—well, Putin can use it to explain the reasons of the conflict.

DOUGHERTY: Yes, and I will just jump in. There is a new narrative that they’re using right now—the Russian government—to explain this away, which is to say that the sanctions are actually hurting the West a lot and you hear this in a lot of the media right now. So that’s one factor.

But let’s move on. Teagan, can you take the next question, please?

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from John Ryan.

Q: OK. Can you hear me?

DOUGHERTY: Yes, sir.

Q: OK. Thanks. My computer screwed up the last time. Has the—I’m John Ryan from MSA Safety in Pittsburgh.

Has the Russian government effectively covered up the number of people—of soldiers killed in action? Do the Russian people really know they’ve lost more in a few weeks in Ukraine than they lost in ten years in Afghanistan?

DOUGHERTY: Well, you know, Sarah, you answered that before, to a certain extent. So do you want to briefly jump in here and give your opinion?

MENDELSON: I suspect that the Levada Center has a better bead on this. But my sense is that it is not clear. First of all, we have a range of numbers that we’re hearing from NATO, from the Ukrainian defense ministry, from U.S. sources. It seems extremely high, and I think it’s something that we, all of us, need to keep an eye on.

To the extent that this goes on, God help us, for weeks and months and men don’t return or they return not alive, then at some point it’s going to be impossible to suppress this. People will know. People will be talking about it.

DOUGHERTY: Mmm hmm. Denis, you’re the person in Moscow who has the figures. So do you want to explain that?

VOLKOV: Well, no, we do not have any specific data on this. It’s one that we can see. I think there’s, well, different figures—official figures of Russian military, figures from Ukrainian side, something in between from Western sources.

So I think it is still too early to see the effect of this on public opinion because it’s—well, people are only, well, back from the initial shock because it came as a big shock to many for those who support, those who oppose. It was a very traumatic experience, in any case. So I think it will be felt in—well, in coming months, not right now.

DOUGHERTY: Mmm hmm. OK. Teagan, could we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Joan Spero.

Q: Can you hear me?

DOUGHERTY: Yes, we can.

Q: Thank you for this very interesting discussion.

Unless I’m mistaken, no one yet has mentioned some of the atrocities that we’re beginning to see in the newspapers and on television in the United States. Is this information reaching Russia and do you think if and when it reaches Russia it will have a different kind of impact? Thank you.

DOUGHERTY: Thank you. Denis, can you enlighten us there? Are you seeing—what kind of reporting are you seeing on TV or on the web about the—Bucha, especially, I’m presuming?

VOLKOV: Well, some information is already going in. But, again, there is a difference between how Russia—Russian side is interpreting is going on blaming Ukraine and maybe the West, too, and so—and I think it is the question of, again, this picture of broad understanding of what’s going on where these pictures were formed in decades.

And we were speaking about psychology, and as psychologists say that you have a certain picture of what is going on and then anything that contradicts it you just refuse to take it in, and everything that fits to your picture you accept without any criticism.

So this is what is going on. I think as long as the conflict is going on it will be very hard for Russians to accept any new information of any, well, casualties/atrocities whatsoever because it is—well, it is blocked, psychologically blocked, to take it in and to reevaluate the whole conflict of what is going on, who is the bad, who is good here.

MENDELSON: So can I just—

DOUGHERTY: Yeah. Good point. Oh, sure. Sure, Sarah. Go on.

MENDELSON: So, John, it’s a really important question. It’s why I talked about the Bucha effect, that we in the West are tracking this intensely closely and part of that is we know the sources, right. This is what Human Rights Watch does best. They are able to document. They’re very careful. They’re very precise. There are lots of lawyers that are looking at reports before they go out.

CNN—I mean, to the extent people trust CNN and the reporters—and, you know, we’ve all had some engagement with CNN, New York Times, same thing—we have credible sources that are reporting on these atrocities. If you don’t believe those sources, then there’s—this psychological blocking is easier.

But remember that we’ve seen this before. We saw it, certainly, in Serbia, in Bosnia, and it has an impact decades later and that’s something that, I think, is really worrisome.

DOUGHERTY: Mmm hmm. Anton, I just wanted to look at that issue with you, too, because, you know, if you look at what the Russian government is saying right now, they’re saying it is fake. The video has been faked. Ukrainians did it or these are crisis actors. They get into very specific things, even how the bodies look and the blood. It’s very specific pushback on that narrative.

But there’s another thing, and I hate to get into Psychology 101 but I think it’s important. There is this—and, Anton, this is to you—as I understand it, there is this idea that Russian society has that they are the victims, that they could never have done—they don’t start wars. They are the people who have wars started against them. Therefore, they could never do something like this.

Now, do you agree with that? And so—

BARBASHIN: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.

DOUGHERTY: —walk me through it a little.

BARBASHIN: It is one of the—ever since the Crimea in 2014, everything was justified as in the defensive act. We do this so we can protect Russian speaker, Russian citizens, Russian civilization, Russian culture, you name it. It’s all in the name of defense. And here with all those stories like Bucha and many others that, unfortunately, I would expect coming out of Mariupol and other places all across Ukraine, you have the same story of state propaganda giving you ten versions of how this could have transpired and Russians believing time after time after time since MH17 and every other story this is something they are doing.

For instance, now the main version that tracks quite well, even with people my age back at home, that this is—this was staged so that the West can impose more sanctions because the ones that are—were imposed are not enough. They want to collapse us faster. That’s why they staged this whole story. Because, yeah, it is impossible for people to comprehend that going into this conflict, proclaiming goals of protection, defense, and all the fancy good words, Russians are actually slaughtering someone on the ground just as Nazis did in, you know, seventy, seventy-five years.

So this is something I believe would be hard to explain even after Putin’s regime collapses. This is something we’ll take. I mean, look at Germany after the war. It took about ten to fifteen years for the society to start properly talking about the crimes Nazis have committed.

I don’t want to do those parallels as is, but there’s a lot of, you know, experience that we can look upon. So, yes, I think Bucha—the next Bucha and, you know, whatever comes next would not be really changing the attitudes in Russia because it would just be not accepted as something that is real.

DOUGHERTY: Mmm hmm. OK. Teagan, I think we have another question.

OPERATOR: Yes. We will take our next question from Peter Clement.

Mr. Clement, please accept the unmute.

Q: Hi. Can you hear me OK?

DOUGHERTY: Yes, we can.

Q: Yeah. My question is about reports about FSB polling in Ukraine in early February. Some of the—(audio break)—

DOUGHERTY: Peter, we’re having trouble with your connection. Peter, I’m sorry. I think we will have to go to another question. Your connection is really unstable. We’ll come back to you if we can, all right?

Q: (In progress following audio break)—some 60 percent of the Ukrainians for a Russian invasion. So, like—

DOUGHERTY: Peter—Teagan, I think maybe we go to the next question. It was a little unclear. Thanks. Sorry, Peter.

OPERATOR: Certainly. We’ll come back. We’ll take the next question from Mahesh Kotecha.

Q: Thank you very much. I’m stunned by the—I’m Mahesh Kotecha. I’m just a banker.

But I’ve been watching this intensely and I’ve watched the financial impact especially on the ratings of both countries. What I’m stunned by is the polling which is so one sided and so supportive of Putin and even, potentially, perhaps, stronger in support than it was prior times.

What then people are saying about the demise of Putin, it seems to me, is too premature. If the reflection of the polls is actually close to correct, it would seem to me that Putin is not under stress politically. What do you think? Anyone, please.

DOUGHERTY: OK. Denis, we’re back to polling again. So do you want to handle that?

VOLKOV: Well, I think, of course, he’s under stress and not many expected the response—so coordinated a response from the West. And, again, I’m not a specialist here, but I’m not sure they expected that the Ukrainian(s) would be so resilient. But to understand the polling, I think the main important—the main context here is this conflict between Russia and the West.

Like, we have people participating in our poll, they—sometimes commenting on their answers and you can hear that how people explain it, especially those who do not support entirely, like women from some southern cities saying, well, I do not support everything. I even—I don’t want to support what is going on. But I have to support because what else can we do? What else can be done and that I have to support Putin, though I have low pension, the prices are high? I have a lot of problems. But I have to support him because it’s not patriotic not to support him because we are surrounded by enemies all around them. They just will eat us completely if not Putin, who is trying to, well, hold us all together.

So this is how this conflict especially understood, not entirely like conflict between Russia and Ukraine but Russia and the United States, first of all, how it helps to rise the confidence in the government, so rally behind the—

Q: OK.

DOUGHERTY: Yes. Thank you very much. That was a great explanation of that thinking. I think we have Peter back. So let’s see if we can hear what he was saying.

Mr. Clement? Do you want to ask your question, Peter?

OPERATOR: Mr. Clement, please accept the unmute.

Q: Can you hear me now, Jill?

DOUGHERTY: Now we can, yes.

Q: OK. So my question is about a report of an FSB poll that was conducted inside Ukraine in early February.

Two questions. What does Denis think about the quality of FSB polls and, secondly, do you believe the polling data was presented to Putin since one of the questions show that 60 percent of Ukrainians would resist a Russian invasion?

DOUGHERTY: So this, again, is FSB, the security service like the FBI, who allegedly carried out a poll. Is that correct? I guess correct. Denis, do you know about that poll?

VOLKOV: No. No, I don’t know and very hard to say about the methodology. It’s not—it’s usually—(inaudible)—which is not exactly FSB. Well, probably they are, well, clever people, but we don’t know anything about their methodologies so very hard to comment.

DOUGHERTY: Yeah. We do know that—and correct me if I’m wrong, Denis, that the Kremlin polls a lot to find out what society is thinking and it would be interesting. I’m sure there is some way that they want to find out what the thinking is in Ukraine. But there was a lot of miscalculation in spite of that.

Teagan, could we go on to the next question?

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Kathryn Pilgrim.

Q: Hi, Jill. It’s Kitty Pilgrim. Nice to see you.

DOUGHERTY: Oh. Hey, there, Kitty.

Q: An excellent discussion. You know, the U.S. public has had unprecedented view of this war through their courageous presence in the Ukraine and in Moscow. I know you’re just back, Jill. It’s pretty essential to understanding what’s happening, and the minute that that viewpoint closes we lose understanding of what’s happening.

How long do you think it’s going to be possible for reporters to report from the Ukraine and how long will we get these stories that we need to hear?

DOUGHERTY: You know, I think we’ll ask the media person. Anton, could you jump in and answer that?

BARBASHIN: Well, I’m not necessarily media. We do analysis and we kind of work with people that are mostly from academic background. We have a number of people working from Russia. I could say from our own experience, a lot of them have left the country when the war started. Everyone from our editorial board has left the country. Some people still remain and work with universities and a lot of them are refusing to publish because they are afraid or they were specifically told not to risk that publishing in the foreign publication or somehow linked to abroad.

So I don’t know about Ukraine. That’s a different story. I don’t analyze that. But with regards to Russia, we are, certainly, facing a situation where it would be very hard to get proper, uncensored information from on the ground. It will be almost impossible to travel for most of us for foreseeable future. So we’ll rely on those who still dare to share their information. But, I mean, it’s still not the Soviet Union, nor North Korea. Technology still allows us and we will find ways to get that data.

DOUGHERTY: OK. Now, my clock says we have three more minutes.

Teagan, I know that all of our members are very busy people and maybe it might be a good idea I could just jump in because, actually, I have been covering that part of the discussion. I think when you have reporters in Ukraine from the outside, you are absolutely correct that this is the most documented war in history. It is—there are media in there and then also you have citizens with phones and this is—a lot of the information that journalists are getting right now are, literally, you know, phone reports from average citizens.

And I can tell you a very interesting new trend in journalism is to have actual staff who geolocate that video that’s coming in for phones. Was it actually shot in the place that the person who sent it in said it was? And also, what is the metadata on that? Is that really correct? Has it been faked? Was it really shot on the date that it was or they say it was? So it’s a very—it’s kind of a newer field of journalism and very, very interesting.

Regarding Russia, I think, as all of our guests have been mentioning, it is increasingly difficult to get information. Many journalists left—I, myself—because of the lack of clarity about how that law—the fifteen years in prison if you say war—would be applied to foreign journalists, let alone, you know, Russian journalists who are very brave, who are there. It’s very, very difficult to get information and I think that that is the purpose of that law, to make sure that the message is coming from one source and that is the Russian government.

So let me ask—Teagan, I think we’re right at the end. So maybe we just say farewell and thank you, and remember that audio and video will be posted on the CFR website.

And I really wanted to thank our guests very much. They all had a unique perspective and a very deep perspective of what’s going on.

So Anton Barbashin, Sarah Mendelson, and Denis Volkov, thank you very, very much, and thanks for the excellent questions, as usual, from our CFR members.

Thank you. Teagan, over to you.



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