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Jade McGlynn: Russians cannot perpetuate their myth of Russia if they lose control over Ukraine

by CIUS July 24, 2023 3:52 AM 4 min read
The aftermath of the Russian deadly strike against Odesa on July 23. (President Volodymyr Zelensky/Telegram)
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Editor's Note: The Kyiv Independent is exclusively re-publishing an interview with Yuliya Kovaliv prepared by Forum for Ukrainian Studies, a research publication for experts, practitioners, and academics. This platform is run by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) of the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada).

Jade McGlynn is a Leverhulme EC Researcher in the War Studies department at King’s College London.

CIUS: Your book is titled Russia’s War — not Putin’s War, as many frame it in the West. You examine the role of ordinary Russians in the aggression against Ukraine. What is the main message you are trying to convey in your book by exploring this dimension?

Jade McGlynn: I would like to emphasize two points when answering this question. One is that the aggression against Ukraine is not Putin’s venture only. And if we—we being the West—believe that the catastrophic genocidal war will be easily solved if we get rid of one person, then we are going to fall victim to misconceptions and design wrong policies. The second point is that we need to understand what kind of war the Russians are watching; we need to look at the propaganda. I do not like the argument that people back the war because they are zombified. It does not make any sense. There are 60 million daily users of Telegram [social media] who have access to all forms of channels, including oppositional, and yet of the top 30 political channels an overwhelming majority of 24 are very pro-war.

In my book I wanted to make the argument that the Kremlin’s propaganda functions not only because it has a platform. Of course the situation in the media is rigged, to put it mildly, in favour of advocating the war effort, but such narratives also need resonance. Above all, the narratives are about meaning-making. They need to make sense and resonate with how people view their lives, the world, themselves as Russians, Russia’s history, Russia’s international role, and, of course, Ukraine and the West. And that is why the propaganda works.

CIUS: You write about Russia’s liberal opposition and the reaction of some of its representatives to the aggression. What are your main conclusions about their stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine?

McGlynn: One of the first things to say is that typifying the Russian liberal opposition is a difficult task because they are really incoherent. There is, for example, the feminist anti-war resistance, who I think are incredible. The work they do is incredible. They seem to “get” the calamity behind the war, to put it bluntly. But others—in particular, certain members of the Alexei Navalny team—are less supportive. They remove Ukraine from the narrative almost entirely. That was something else that came out of my research.

If you look for references to Ukraine on the Navalny Telegram channel there were very few, much less than is the average for other Russian Telegram channels, during the first three months of the invasion. They  removed Ukraine from communication or tried to insert themselves into the war.

In March 2022 there was a moment when the opposition used the negotiations around Ukraine to try to ask Western governments to include releasing Navalny from prison as one of the Kremlin’s concessions. As much as I would like to see him released—someone who should have not been imprisoned in the first place—Navalny’s case cannot be inserted into such discussions on Ukraine.

Such actions by some of the Russian democratic opposition replicates the Kremlin’s denial of Ukrainian agency, demonstrating Ukrainophobia, solipsism, and a kind of self-obsession. They invariably present themselves as friends of Ukraine but that isn’t always the case. Moreover, it is incredibly offensive to see some aggressively rejecting criticism from Ukrainians using arguments like “Oh, well, you must be Putin bots, because you are fighting us and we are anti-Putin.” But Ukrainians are literally fighting.

Having said all that, I do not want to condemn the Russian opposition. They are not a monolith and many have made incredible sacrifices to undermine Putin’s regime. I do not think I would have the bravery to protest in Putin’s Russia. I would not also have a smidgen of the bravery that Ukrainians have shown. This is more about some of the Russian opposition getting a sense of perspective. Their struggles—as awful as they may be—are not comparable to the struggles that Ukrainians are enduring.

CIUS: You have been following Russia’s media narratives about Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Is it true that the media outlets outside the capital are practically silent about the war? How can you explain this?

McGlynn: The relative silence of the regional media about the war is not really my finding. I have mostly looked at the federal broadcast channels and Telegram. The regional media is something that Paul Goode at Carleton University examined. And what he found was that the war—obviously, they call it a “special military operation”—did not come up very much in the local news; they obviously tried to avoid it.

I just finished a small research project, looking at what media and news outlets wrote about and what kind of information Russians consume from television. I have observed—and it is very interesting—that since October 2022 a major shift has happened from political discussion programs to a variety of series [serialy] and films. I have observed a lot of escapism on the television, but news and real-time events are no longer in the focus.

I think that the war has not gone how the Russians wanted it to. Clearly, there is an awful lot of cognitive dissonance about the fact that the Ukrainians did not meet the Russians as liberators, to put it mildly. There also seems to be a large element of avoidance. Because if you have to start facing questions about the poor progress of the invasion in Ukraine, you need then to find the answers to why. And to be fair, for the majority of ordinary Russians there is not really any benefit in facing those questions. They would have to do something with that information afterwards. Finding answers and accepting them are not pleasant prospects for Russians.

Read the rest of the interview here.

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