Patimat Ibragimova lost her husband Ubaidullah Ibragimov to the war. But she still backs Vladimir Putin. Photo: Mikhail Galustov
ANTSUKH, Russia – Above a stream in the mountains of Dagestan, Russia's southernmost region, lies a fresh grave. “Ubaidullah, son of Nazhmudin” is embossed on the granite headstone, with a green pennant tied around the top.Sergeant Ubaidullah Ibragimov, commander of a fighting vehicle in a local mechanised infantry unit, was killed by shelling during Russia's advance through southern Ukraine. His wife Patimat Ibragimova has come to pray and talk with his grave.
Their two small children still sometimes cry and ask for their father, she said. But his death has not caused her to question her support for Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.“It only proves that this special operation is worth it. I'm sure that it was necessary,” Ibragimova said, using the Kremlin-approved language to describe the conflict. “No one was listening to us, neither America nor the other countries that are afraid of America. That's why [Ubaidullah] protected his Motherland. They could have come for us tomorrow.”VICE World News is one of only a handful of foreign outlets in recent months who have been able to report from Russia, where even publishing the word “war” has been outlawed. After the interview, Ibragimova called the authorities, and police detained VICE World News journalists for questioning. VICE World News was later detained for questioning in Moscow as well.
Since the war began, Russia has come under more sanctions than Iran or North Korea, and its military has also lost an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 troops according to Western officials. Far from a quick victory, the Russian offensive was forced to fall back from Kyiv and Kharkiv, abandoning its assault on the capital to concentrate on a grinding war of attrition in eastern Ukraine's Donbas regions. And yet in Russia, support for the increasingly costly campaign does not appear to be flagging. A survey by opposition academics' Chronicles project in May showed that 64 percent backed the the “special military operation” in Ukraine, up from 59 percent since it started on February 24. Putin's approval rating has also gone up from 71 percent in February to 83 percent in June, according to the nongovernmental pollster Levada Center. Polling can be tricky in authoritarian countries. Yet even a London School of Economics poll in April that employed indirect questioning
Why do so many Russians continue to back a president and a war that have made their country an international pariah? A key reason lies in their distorted view of the conflict, which they see as defensive in nature and relatively bloodless. Officially, only 1,351 Russian soldiers have been killed, and there's no media left in the country to question that claim. “Unfortunately, at this moment, we can say there is no independent journalism in Russia,” said Nadezhda Prusenkova, deputy editor of independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which has been forced to stop publishing since the war began. “Everyone's been killed, shut down, cleaned up, and there's no one left.”Meanwhile, state propaganda has been playing on common emotions and conspiratorial thinking to convince Russians that Putin is defending them from an existential threat. The president has called the invasion a “necessary” measure to prevent an extremist Ukrainian government from conducting a “genocide” against Russian speakers in Donbas, areas of which were taken over by Russia-backed separatists in 2014. If this problem wasn’t dealt with, the story goes, Ukraine and NATO would have eventually attacked Russia itself. State television regularly discusses the alleged brutality of Ukrainian “Nazis” toward Russian speakers in Donbas.
“It's about Russian people who are alive today and being killed today every day, which is completely ignored by your Western leaders and your Western media,” Margarita Simonyan, head of state broadcaster RT and a frequent guest on state TV, told VICE World News in an interview. “We don't need more land. We are defending our people.”These claims resonate in a country where more than 20 million people were killed in the struggle against Hitler's Germany, a sacrifice commemorated each year on the 9th of May. Marina Koshkina, a church cafeteria employee who spoke to VICE World News outside the annual Victory Day parade in Moscow, said the scourge of Nazism once again is threatening the world, first and foremost in Donbas. At her family's tiny apartment in the Moscow suburbs later that day, she claimed that the invasion of all of Ukraine was justified given Russia's cultural and historical ties with its “brotherly” people there. Asked whether the deaths of thousands of Ukrainian civilians killed during the invasion were justified, she shifted the conversation back toward the alleged persecution of Russian speakers.“What about the lives of civilians in the Donbas, who have been under shelling for eight years? Who will count their lives?” she asked. But Russian propaganda has been renowned since Soviet times for such “whataboutism” in response to Western criticism. While it is true that civilians on both sides have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists since 2014, annual UN data showed civilian casualties there had fallen to just 25 in 2021. State media have similarly distorted and exaggerated the role of the far-right in Ukraine, which won only one of 450 seats in the last parliamentary elections in 2019.
The other major weapon is conspiracy theories. State TV has dismissed atrocities like the massacre of civilians in Bucha and Mariupol as cynical “fakes” designed to rally support to the Ukrainian cause. When a missile struck a crowded shopping center in Kremenchuk last week, killing at least 20, Russian state media first claimed that Ukraine had fired the missile itself, then that the shopping centre was empty and Ukraine had staged the casualties. This kind of disinformation is almost unavoidable, even for Russians who get their news online. Koshkina doesn't own a TV, but the pro-Kremlin channels she reads on the Russian-made app Telegram repeat many of the same talking points and conspiracy theories about how, for instance, Ukrainians are eager to be “liberated,” or that Poland is planning invade Ukraine from the West. All but one of the 10 most popular Telegram channels in Russia back the war, including the account of state TV propagandist Vladimir Solovyov.
And the rise of these jingoist views on social media is not entirely accidental: VICE World News has previously discovered that Russian TikTok influencers were being paid to spread pro-Kremlin narratives about the war. But the uncomfortable fact is that this propaganda is falling on already fertile soil: a population that remembers the painful loss of the Soviet empire and longs, like many people in the United States and other places, to see their country as great again. For them, bringing Ukraine back into Russia's sphere of influence is a step in that direction.
“We went there to ask some Ukrainian politicians why they're behaving so badly,” Marina's husband Mikhail said. “We just need to ask certain people – I think there's even a list of them – certain questions.”The big question is whether Russians will revisit their support for the war as sanctions begin to bite and more and more soldiers come back in body bags. Currently the country is making record profits off of oil and gas, with the ruble the strongest it's been since 2015. While the Koshkin and the Ibragimov families believe victory is imminent, both said they'd be willing to send their sons to fight in Ukraine if it came to that.The Koshkin family said their 17-year-old son will definitely serve in the army when he is conscripted in the next few years, although they think that “by that time it will all be over in Ukraine.”A thousand miles to the south in Dagestan, where at least 150 local men have been killed in the invasion, according to independent news outlet Caucasian Knot, Patimat Ibragimova said six-year-old Muhammad has already spoken about avenging his father's death in Ukraine. Sometimes he even pretends to be a Russian soldier fighting Ukrainians while playing with his cousins. “'I want to protect my homeland, like Dad. I’ll go there too,' he’ll say,” she explained. “If he chooses this path of course I’ll support him, let him go over there. Am I supposed to hold him back? What will happen if everybody holds onto their son? Who will protect us?”