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Putin Is Selling Victory, and Many Russians Are Buying It

LocalPutin Is Selling Victory, and Many Russians Are Buying It


The word “victory” is everywhere in Moscow these days.

It is being projected from gargantuan LED screens alongside major intersections and highways and written on red flags whipping in the wind. It’s prominent at an exhibit of Western weapons destroyed on Ukrainian battlefields and lugged back to Moscow as war trophies on display in — where else? — Victory Park.

Victory is precisely the message that President Vladimir V. Putin, 71, has sought to project as he has been feted with pomp and pageantry after another electoral success, while his army sweeps through Ukrainian villages in a stunning new offensive in the northeast.

“Together, we will be victorious!” Mr. Putin said at his inauguration last week after securing a fifth term as president. Two days later, the country celebrated Victory Day, Russia’s most important public holiday, which commemorates the Soviet contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

During the first year of the invasion, many Russians were shocked and ashamed by the war; hundreds of thousands left the country. During the second year, they were concerned about a potential second wave of mobilization.

But with the war now in its third year, many Russians seem to have learned to accept it, interviews over the last week and recent polling show. And “victory” is an easy sell in Mr. Putin’s Russia.

Western sanctions have inflicted few economic hardships. The military news from Ukraine is increasingly positive. Yes, soldiers are still returning in coffins, but mostly to families in the hinterlands, not among the Moscow elite. And for many, the deaths only reinforce the idea, pushed by state news media and driven home relentlessly by Mr. Putin, that Russia is facing an existential threat from the West.

“We can feel that victory is near,” said Andrei, 43, who said he traveled to Moscow for the May 9 holiday celebrations from the Chita region, almost 3,000 miles from the capital.

Like others interviewed for this story, he declined to provide his last name, indicating apparent mistrust of Western news media.

He was among those who braved the cold and even snow to visit the collection of recently captured Western military equipment. (Ukraine also displays destroyed Russian tanks in the center of Kyiv). But the brash exhibit in Moscow, with flags on the equipment showing which countries donated them to Ukraine, fits Russia’s narrative that it is fighting against the whole developed world — and winning.

“When you see all this, and all these flags, it is clear that the whole world is supplying weapons and you know that a world war is going on,” Andrei said. “It’s Russia against the whole world, as usual.”

Ivan, another visitor to Victory Park, waited his turn to pose in front of the rusted and charred hulk of the German Leopard tank, flashing a smile and giving a thumbs up as his friend photographed him. People jostled for a spot beside a similarly destroyed American-made M1 Abrams tank.

“There has been so much talk about these Abrams, about these Leopards, and what is the result?” said Ivan, 26.

“They are all standing here, we are looking at them, we see what condition they are in. This is great!” He smiled.

The bravado exhibited by Russians like Andrei and Ivan this month mirrors the confident posture of Mr. Putin as he steers Russia past economic challenges and to greater battlefield advantage in Ukraine.

His inauguration included a church service in which he was blessed by the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill I, who expressed hope that the president would remain in power until “the end of the century.”

According to the Levada Center, an independent polling institution, about 75 percent of Russians profess support for their army’s actions in Ukraine. (About a quarter of the population is against the war, the poll and other research shows, but protests are effectively banned, and repression is so intense that many people are afraid to acknowledge or share antiwar or anti-government content online).

Thousands who fled Russia have returned. Their lives have adapted to the new normal, and have actually changed less than those in the West might expect.

“It’s what, the 13th package of sanctions they’re making?” Ivan said, laughing. “So far, we don’t feel anything.”

Robots built by Yandex, Russia’s homegrown version of Google, can be seen traversing Moscow’s sidewalks making deliveries. Inflation is under control, at least for now. According to a report last month by Forbes, the number of billionaires in Moscow — measured in U.S. dollars — increased so much that the city moved up four spots in the global rankings, behind only New York City.

“Most of the brands that allegedly left Russia have not gone anywhere,” said Andrei, adding that he and his daughter planned to have lunch at a rebranded K.F.C. What had changed, he said, was that “the consolidation of society has taken place” over the rationale for the war, as well as the conservative social values Mr. Putin is pushing.

Mr. Putin and others trumpeted that apparent cohesion when the official results of his preordained election victory in March were announced, with a record 88 percent of the vote going to the incumbent, a figure that Western democracies decried as a sham.

“Russia is such a complicated, multiethnic country that to understand it and govern it, you need more than one term,” said Oleg V. Panchurin, 32, a veteran of the war in Ukraine.

“If it’s going to be President Putin, then I would be happy if he served 10 terms,” said Mr. Panchurin, who said had been recently wounded near Zaporizhzhia by a Ukrainian drone.

Some civilians who were interviewed said they were pleased the president had taken a hard-line conservative position promoting traditional family values.

Zhenya, 36, and his girlfriend, Masha, expressed gratitude that the government had “finally handled the L.G.B.T.Q. issue” — by banning what it called the “L.G.B.T.Q. movement.” The pair were attending a 1940s-themed Victory Day celebration in a park in central Moscow where participants fox-trotted and waltzed as a live military band played.

With no one who could credibly replace him, the prospect that Mr. Putin will stay in power as long as he is alive feels increasingly possible to ordinary Russians, said Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

“Everyone understands that this is for a long time,” he said. “The longer he is in power, the more apprehension there is about who will be next, who will be worse.”

“We are moving closer to a scenario where we could see the effect of Stalin, when, after his death, people were crying, because people didn’t know how to live,” Mr. Kolesnikov added.

Russians who oppose the government say they increasingly fear that they will have to wait for Mr. Putin’s death for anything to change.

“I feel a very strong sense of hopelessness,” said Yulia, 48, a teacher who was visiting the grave of Aleksei A. Navalny, the opposition politician, in southeast Moscow. Mr. Navalny, who died in prison in an Arctic penal colony in February, had long been considered the only possible challenger to Mr. Putin. Yulia declined to use her last name out of fear of possible repercussions.

“I don’t see a way out of this,” she said.

Yulia’s son, Pavel, said, “We are sure that everything depends on the death of person in a certain place.” His mother shushed him, noticing the uniformed Russian National Guard forces that stood nearby; even in death, Mr. Navalny is still monitored closely by the government. Still, there was a steady stream of visitors to the grave.

On the other side of Moscow, mourners were still coming to show their respects to the 145 victims of the March 22 terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall, one of the deadliest in Europe in the past decade. Floral wreaths, plush toys and photos of the victims were placed near the destroyed concert hall.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, and American officials have blamed Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, a branch of the group. Even so, the Kremlin has sought to cast blame on Ukraine and the West.

One woman who declined to give her name said she was sure the West was behind it — despite the fact that the United States had warned Moscow of an imminent attack. According to the Levada Center, half of those polled believe Ukraine was behind the attack, with almost 40 percent saying Western intelligence services were involved.

Vladimir, 26, who was visiting the improvised memorial for the first time, said he didn’t blame the Kremlin for failing to heed the warnings.

“I want the terrorists to be destroyed,” said Vladimir, a supermarket employee. But the president, he said, was doing a great job. “He works so hard.”

May God keep him alive and healthy,” he said. “If, God forbid, Putin dies, what will happen to our country?”

Anastasia Kharchenko contributed reporting from Moscow and Alina Lobzina from London.



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