Choral music wafted through the nave of the Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces as Alexei Rozhkov, a visiting priest, considered the question: was Russia standing on the precipice of a new great conflict in Ukraine?
“There won’t be a war – there can’t,” he said quickly, glancing up at the skylights of stained glass depicting Soviet medals and religious symbols on the ceiling.
The cathedral was built recently as a testament to Russia’s pride in its military glory, ranging from the victory in the second world war to more recent conflicts. A mosaic on one wall glorifies the Russian soldiers who fought in Georgia in 2008 and Syria in 2015, as well as the “little green men” who annexed Crimea in 2014.
But like others there, Rozhkov said he could not see what could motivate Russia to launch an attack on Ukraine today – despite Vladimir Putin’s public ultimatums to the west and the tanks, missiles and other weapons continuing to make their way to the Ukrainian border.
“When Russia has gone to war, it’s gone to war for a reason,” he said. “And there is no reason for this bloodshed, there’s nothing worth it in today’s world. What would [people] be fighting for? … And how can you fight a war without people?”
Despite warnings from the US that an attack could be imminent, one would have been hard pressed walking around Moscow to guess that something extraordinary was afoot.
“Leaders need to talk tough, this is just hysteria,” said Konstantin Danilin, 36, who had brought his two daughters to go tubing at Park Patriot, an amusement park just outside Moscow opened by the Russian military. “Putin is aggressive: he takes risks, it’s possible he makes mistakes. But this is all just a negotiation.”
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support for the subsequent war in Donbas led to a mass mobilisation of Russian society. Pro-government and anti-war marches were held, and families and friends fell into bitter disputes about the conflict. Putin’s popularity rating rode the wave of patriotism to an all-time high. Russian volunteers, mercenaries and soldiers fought and died in the ensuing conflict.
Now, as Russia approaches a perhaps even more fateful war, it feels as though the public has barely taken note, despite the warning signs coming from both sides.
Denis Volkov, of the Levada Centre, an independent polling agency, said: “When this topic comes up in groups in the last two or three months, people say: ‘Oy, as soon as I hear the word [Ukraine], I just change the channel. I don’t even want to know what’s going on there. Ukraine again, war again, I don’t even want to get into it.’”
Levada found in December that a majority of Russians did not believe there would be a larger war in Ukraine. In the same poll, two-thirds of respondents blamed the US, Nato or Ukraine for the escalating tensions. “Nobody wants [war] but they’re internally they’ve been prepared for this situation,” Volkov said.
Some pundits have pointed towards the lack of a public frenzy in Russia as a sign that the government is not preparing people for a war, although Russia’s continued involvement in the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts has also taken place with little fanfare.
Volkov said the lack of enthusiasm for and attention paid to the conflict might also present the Kremlin with an opportunity.
“It’s far more important that people are ready to accept whatever happens,” he said. “The majority will not protest. And that means the government’s hands are free … It’s apathy and how people will view Russia’s place in this conflict as justified that are important.”
Tikhon Dzyadko, the editor-in-chief of the independent TV Rain channel, said he had noticed heightened concern among his circle of friends, many of whom had protested against the outbreak of war in 2014, that a new conflict was coming.
But it was understandable why the public reaction could be muted, he said. First, the war has been going on in Ukraine for eight years and Russians have slowly grown used to it. And second, Russian society is so beaten down by the government’s repressive atmosphere that it is hard to imagine any protest taking place right now.
On the other side, there is little in the Kremlin’s motivations to galvanise public opinion about the conflict.
“Nobody understands why there’s been an escalation. And nobody understands who needs this,” he said. “The absolute majority of people I know don’t want this. It’s not some kind of sacred war against an aggressor that has attacked your country. It’s the realisation of some indescribable geopolitical interests, which may lead to the deaths of people.”
There are signs too that even in elite business circles, which have benefited from access to the Kremlin, many people have grown unhappy with the situation. “While nobody wants war, don’t expect big business to stand up and voice their opposition,” an investment banker told the Moscow Times this week, speaking anonymously. “We have become passengers. The business community will only discuss war in their kitchens. Everybody will stay quiet in public.”
Perhaps most surprising is the relative silence of Putin, who has largely vanished from the airwaves at a moment when so much depends on his coming decision. The Russian leader has barely addressed the Ukraine crisis since the new year, leaving TV anchors, pundits and Russian diplomats involved in negotiations to lead the nightly newscasts that inform the majority of the public.
These shows have had a clear message, noted Volkov, by increasingly portraying the west as unhinged and Russia as the voice of reason. In a monologue this week on state television, the leading pro-Kremlin host Dmitry Kiselyov said: “They keep harping at us – you’re about to attack Ukraine. This isn’t about Ukraine. It’s about something much larger.”