“Nobody understands anything. Russians struggle to make sense of war in Ukraine – The Irish Times

On a snowy afternoon in Moscow, a trickle of people enter a vast hall below the Kremlin walls, past armed riot police, to view an exhibit on what Russia still describes as a ‘special military operation’. in Ukraine after nine months of war.

Between images of bombarded Ukrainian cities and the bloodied corpses of civilians presented as heroic victims of the conflict, visitors see a triumphant video on the recent annexation by Russia of four Ukrainian regions.

Except that, since the show opened earlier this month, Russia has withdrawn from the capital of one of them, Kherson, leaving behind billboards proclaiming “Russia is here forever “. The city had fallen under Russian occupation in March, at the start of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion.

The propaganda display left Katya, a middle-aged schoolteacher from Moscow, who had brought in a group of 11-year-old students, with more questions than answers. She said she wondered what all the victims were for.

“Nobody understands anything,” she said as she left the showroom. “First we arrived in Kyiv, then we left – and how many people were killed? Then we took Kherson, then we left it again. And how many people were killed?

“Even the military,” she said, referring to veterans of previous Russian wars in her family, “they know how war works. But even they do not understand this strategy.

For many in Moscow, the withdrawal from Kherson has caused confusion and raised questions about the costs of the war for Russia. Above all, the news added to the general, simmering anxiety people have felt since late September, when Putin announced a military plan and brought war directly into Russian homes for the first time.

“Everyone is in an unstable, nervous, anxious state,” Katya said of her friends, colleagues and family. “Everyone is depressed.”

Although life goes on more than ever in Moscow, with bustling cafes and restaurants, the latest survey by the independent pollster Levada Center, published last month, found that 88% of people were “worried” or ” very concerned” about the development of the situation in Ukraine. Only 36% of Russians said they thought the country should keep fighting, while a majority thought it was time for peace talks.

However, if the Russians are increasingly preoccupied with war, they seem little attached to the newly occupied territories which Moscow annexed with great fanfare after holding sham referendums there. As a result, many reacted with indifference to the loss of a place like Kherson.

“Of course, it’s quite amazing how easily the Russian authorities said goodbye to Kherson,” wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik, in a social media post. “And people don’t seem to be hanging on to new ‘territories’ either.”

She pointed to a recent Levada poll that asked Russians to name major events they remembered in the news. Only 9% remember the referenda and annexation – in which their country claimed to have expanded by more than 135,000 km² – even though the event happened when the survey was ongoing.

Kherson’s retirement will not affect Putin’s ratings, Levada pollster Lev Gudkov told Russian broadcaster RTVi. Over time, this may erode trust in the president as a leader, he said, but for now, “censorship and propaganda will help soften the meaning of this event and the seriousness of this local defeat”.

State media explained the retreat as a difficult but necessary decision, taken to save the lives of thousands of Russian soldiers. Commentators from the pro-war ultranationalist camp have disputed the decision and this explanation, but criticism from this minority has been muted of late, following stern warnings from the Kremlin.

Yet discontent simmers in private. A former senior official said the loss of Kherson just six weeks after Putin declared it part of Russia indicated the Kremlin’s lack of strategic planning. “They just mishandle it. They can’t think two steps ahead. It’s completely reactive,” the former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity given the risks of voicing public criticism. “It’s completely humiliating – it was the only provincial center Russia had, and they gave it back in a month and a half.”

The vast majority of Russians wouldn’t really care unless Ukraine tried to regain control of Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Kyiv in 2014, said the radio station’s longtime editor Alexei Venediktov. Echo of Moscow. The peninsula has developed an almost mythical status among Russians, especially as a popular vacation spot. For the majority, “Crimea is sacred,” Venediktov said.

But other regions and cities claimed by Russia have little emotional resonance. “Donetsk, Luhansk, some kind of Mykolayiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia – where are they even?” said Venediktov.

There is, however, a sense of upheaval among Moscow’s elites, said the journalist, who remains in contact with many in positions of power despite the forced closure of his radio station in March.

Mainstream political and business circles do not like turbulence, he said, and are disturbed by the way military setbacks bring in extremist and fringe figures, such as Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov and paramilitary leader Evgeny Prigozhin, at the forefront of the political scene. “If everything froze right now…they would be thrilled.”

But few around Putin dare to speak out against the invasion, said a Russian oligarch under Western sanctions. “Technocrats have no instruments. It is a very stable situation. Security is under Putin’s control. He appoints his bodyguards ministers and governors. And the change in public opinion is not happening. Millions of people who are against the war are gone.

Upon entering the exhibition hall next to Red Square, visitors are greeted by an immersive 360-degree video projection of the skyline of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Smoke rises from destroyed buildings in the city, which suffered the heaviest Russian bombardment of the war, killing thousands.

The following rooms rewrite the history of Ukraine and its relationship with Russia, as well as the history of the war itself, attempting to bring Muscovites into the alternate reality that permeates state news. The brutal bombardment of Mariupol this spring, for example, is explained on a wall plaque: the city’s 600,000 inhabitants were “taken hostage by the Ukrainian army”, which “destroyed its own citizens” while ” snipers were even shooting at children”.

In a final, all-white room, filled with portraits of Russian soldiers killed in the war, visitors are invited to leave messages in a guestbook. It’s a mixed bag: scribbles by children, expressions of gratitude to Putin, calls for a much bigger and more all-out conflict. And just once: “NO TO WAR!” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022

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