Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are sky-high, and his aggressive anti-Western policies enjoy wide support. Over 50 percent agree “Russia is moving in the right direction,” despite its present economic doldrums (Interfax, February 26). Only 13 percent of Russians disapprove of Putin’s work record—not that a small number, considering the non-stop state-controlled TV propaganda barrage of stories about the United States and its allies subverting Russia economically and politically, sending in spies, supporting Ukraine, threatening war and preparing an attack. Some 70 percent agree Russia is threatened militarily from abroad. The Russian military is seen as more competent and capable after the successful annexation of Crimea: Some 50 percent believe the armed forces are in good shape, compared to 24 percent a year ago. However, on the need for more personal sacrifice, the population is evenly split: 40 percent want the armed forces to increase in size, while 42 percent are against; 47 percent do not want their close kin to serve in the military, while another 47 percent agree to such an eventuality (VtSIOM, February 20).
Some 54 percent of Russians believe a war with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is imminent and accuse the West of aggression. Senior citizens (over 60 years old), low income individuals, and those from rural areas and small towns predominantly support the imminent war with NATO narrative, while the opposition is mostly present in Moscow and other big cities. Television propaganda has convinced the majority that Russia is in a prewar situation, while downplaying the possible nuclear mutual assured destruction (MAD) outcome of such a possible conflict and the likely obliteration of Russia itself (Kommersant, March 3).
“The foreign threat mobilization of the Russian population seems to have reached its natural ceiling,” according to Lev Gudkov, the director of the independent Levada-Tsentr polling group. Russia’s dissident fraction (some 13 percent) apparently cannot be easily swayed by more propaganda (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 1). On April 7, thousands of Russians in Moscow and other big cities expressed their sorrow over the killing of prominent opposition politician Boris Nemtsov (55), a former governor and deputy prime minister and a vocal critic of Putin, who was gunned down on February 27, in downtown Moscow, just a hundred meters from the Kremlin (Svoboda.org, April 7). The demonstration was held 40 days after Nemtsov’s slaying—considered by Orthodox Christians to be the traditional end to a period of mourning. Opposition activists have been maintaining a vigil at an improvised memorial, with portraits, candles and lots of flowers at the place of his killing, on a bridge over the Moscow River. The public has been supplying a constant stream of fresh flowers that can be ordered over the Internet. This unauthorized activity on the Kremlin’s doorstep has annoyed the authorities, who have, several times, attempted to clear the site. The latest attempt was this week, on April 8, with municipal workers insisting that “after 40 days, everything must be removed” (Yodnews.ru, April 8).
The opposition vigil continues, though the authorities have forced the activists to move the flowers, candles and other paraphernalia to the other side of the bridge, citing a need to make urgent repairs. The activists have been promised to be allowed to move back in a week, though pressure to close down the improvised memorial will most likely continue. Five men suspected of involvement in Nemtsov’s killing have been arrested—all ethnic Chechens, apparently loyalists of the pro-Putin Chechen chieftain Ramzan Kadyrov. The suspects have pleaded “not guilty” and accused the Russian authorities of abuse. Russian investigators, apparently, have not been allowed to freely follow leads or to question prominent suspects inside Chechnya, which is under Kadyrov’s control—a de facto semi-independent fiefdom inside the Russian Federation (Kommersant, April 8). The apparent lack of progress in the Nemtsov killing investigation and the inability of the investigators to go up the food chain into the top echelons of the ruling elite and its Chechen allies, where the true organizers of the murder may be, could continue to be a focus point of discontent of the anti-Putin opposition.
The Kremlin is taking the possibility of such internal dissent quite seriously. From April 2 to 10, a massive strategic military exercise, Zaslon-2015 (Cover-2015), has been in progress, involving primarily the Internal Troops (Vnutrennye Voyska or VV) of the Ministry of Interior (MVD) and other paramilitary forces of the multitude of Russia’s parallel armies, special services and militarized departments. Some 40,000 servicemen and 1,500 pieces of heavy military and special equipment were involved. Zaslon-2015 covered all of European Russia, including the North Caucasus and Crimea, the Urals region, and Siberia. The troops trained in suppressing civil disobedience, or according to MVD officials, a Russian Maidan—a democratic revolution, like the one in Ukraine in February 2014. The VV troops also prepared to guard strategic installations against terrorists and Western special forces, seal Russia’s borders, and impose a rigid internal security regime (RIA Novosti, April 9).
Zaslon-2015 began several days after the massive “sudden” military exercises (“vnezapnaya proverka”), which last month mobilized some 80,000 defense ministry soldiers, 12,000 pieces of heavy military equipment, 65 naval vessels, 15 submarines and over 220 military aircraft. The “sudden” military exercises involved Russia’s strategic nuclear and conventional forces These units were being prepared to fight the US and its allies on all possible fronts in the North, West, South and East, in air, land and sea, in the eventuality that the present Ukrainian crisis escalates into an all-European and, later, global nuclear war. The Russian authorities reported many details of the “sudden” military exercises to the public and to foreign military attaches: The exercises served as military preparations and bluster all in one—a blackmail or brinkmanship tool to press the West to compromise over Ukraine on the Kremlin’s terms (see EDM, March 26).
The Zaslon-2015 exercises have been, comparatively, much more secretive—aimed mostly against Russia’s dissident citizens who are, apparently, outside the Kremlin’s present brinkmanship game. The VV, as well as special and paramilitary units, are intended to provide a stable rear, if the Russian military becomes involved in an armed conflict with NATO. Thus, they must be ready to suppress internal dissent. Troops in the North Caucasus were reportedly reinforced during Zaslon-2015—apparently to counter the possibility of a breakdown of the Kremlin’s alliance with Kadyrov (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 8). Putin’s ratings may be sky-high, but his enemies seem to be as numerous as ever.