Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Shattered Contract

By David G. Young

Miami Beach, FL, April 5, 2022 --  

The war in Ukraine has shaken up the status quo in Russia. Attitudes are bound to change no matter what happens to the man in charge.

The dead bodies and charred tanks left behind by retreating Russian forces in the suburb of Bucha just north of Kiev give testimony to the cruelness of the Russian invasion. Witnessing such brutality fuels the human tendency to divide people between "us" and "them." Yet believing that "good" Ukrainians are distinct from "evil" Russians is not consistent with how the world really works. Vladimir Putin is very wrong about many things, but he is right about at least one thing: the Ukrainians and the Russians are in many respects one people. What we are witnessing in Ukraine is a brutal fratricidal war to decide the future of the Eastern Slavic people on both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian frontier.

Just over 500 miles to the northeast of the devastated Kiev suburbs is the notorious labor camp at Pokrov, Russia. Here, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been imprisoned for over a year. He has nine years to go on a sentence for "fraud" after daring to challenge Putin's dictatorial rule.1 Navalny was arrested after returning to Russia from Germany where he sought treatment in 2020 for poising by a nerve agent delivered by a FSB hit squad.2 Unsurprisingly for a liberal-minded Russian, Navalny strongly opposes the invasion of Ukraine and has called on Russians to protest against both the war and Putin's dictatorial rule.3 Thousands of Russians have been arrested for doing exactly that.

Navalny's beliefs has more in common with Ukraine's liberal-minded majority than those who back Russia's authoritarian regime. Of course, it is very difficult to gauge how many Russians agree with Navalny's thinking at a time of war -- the Kremlin has outlawed even using the term "war" to refer to its actions in Ukraine. Before his imprisonment, Navalny had a strong following amongst younger Russians for his anti-corruption campaigns. But public opinion polls never showed his support climbing to anything close to a majority, even amongst younger Russians more receptive to his message.

Older Russians, like their cohorts elsewhere, tend to get their news from television, which in Russia is under the complete control of the Kremlin and is tightly scripted with regime-serving propaganda. The relatively few who still read independent newspapers have largely lost the chance to do that, with the closing of Novaya Gazeta due to harsh wartime censorship.4 Unsurprisingly, few older Russians express opposition to Putin's indefinite rule.

Political beliefs, however, can change. Remember that before the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that ousted Ukraine's pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, the country was evenly divided between more liberal-minded people identifying as "Ukrainian" and more authoritarian-minded people identifying with Russia. Russia's annexation of Crimea and covert invasion and occupation of Ukraine's eastern Donbas region rapidly changed those attitudes. This change was partly caused by splitting off the most die-hard pro-Russian people from the rest of Ukraine, but more importantly by changing the minds of people who once "leaned" toward Russia who now consider themselves "Ukrainian." This is true even for those who speak the Russian language at home.

After 2014, the concepts of "pro-Ukrainian" and "pro-Russian" became intertwined with the concepts of "pro-freedom" and "pro-authoritarianism". Today, very few people in the areas controlled by the Ukrainian government retain pro-Russian sentiment.

That such a sea-change in public attitudes in Ukraine is possible in just eight years gives a hint as to what might be possible in Russia if and when conditions there change. And for better or worse, change is most certainly happening now. The war in Ukraine has completely destabilized the status quo in Russia. The harsh sanctions imposed by the West are taking a bite out of the relatively high living standards (by historical measures) that the Russian public has enjoyed. The unspoken contract that the public gets a good standard of living in exchange for tolerating Putin's one-man rule has been shattered. And the high death toll by Russian servicemen in Ukraine will clearly change attitudes as coffins begin arriving back home in Russia.

To be clear, few people expect Putin's regime to fall in the near future. Wars (whether they may legally be called that or not) typically inspire greater feelings of patriotism and loyalty to the state -- at least in the short term. Even if Putin is eventually forced from power, it is likely that his direct replacement will be someone who has more in common with Putin than Russian opposition leader Alexi Navalny or Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Yet the fact remains that the war in Ukraine is at its core a fight for ideas about what the future should look like for the people of both Ukraine and Russia. Just as the 2014 conflict served as an impetus for a shift toward more liberal-minded thinking in Ukraine, the 2022 conflict may serve to do the same for Russia as well.

Related Web Columns:

Ukraine's Grim Fate, March 8, 2022

Double Nightmare, January 25, 2022

Putin's Disaster, December 21, 2021

Ukraine's Long Path, October 21, 2017

Under Control? April 8, 2014

An Amicable Divorce, February 25, 2014


1. The Guardian, Alexei Navalny Moved to ‘Concentration Camp’ Known for Strict Control, March 15, 2021

2. The Guardian, Navalny Says Russian Officer Admits Putting Poison in Underwear, December 21, 2020

3. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Navalny Calls For More Protests Against Ukraine War Launched By 'Mad Maniac Putin', March 11, 2022

4. The Guardian, Russian News Outlet Novaya Gazeta to Close Until End of Ukraine War, March 28 2022