It may seem that the Kremlin was prepared for this challenge. For the last decade, Putin’s regime cultivated a relatively stable (though incoherent) set of ideas that were supposed to work like a state ideology. It can be characterized as great-power statism
, based on the authority of a strong state to which the citizens must be loyal and around which they must unite. It also emphasizes the importance of retaining Russia’s status as a great power in a world where it faces competition from the hostile West.
There is also a “traditionalist” component, as it is positioned as an ideology of “traditional values.” For the most part, this “traditionalism” boils down to homophobic and transphobic undertones that became increasingly manifested in Putinist discourse in the last decade. In particular, this discourse represents
“non-traditional” sexual relations as “perversions” that “lead to degradation and extinction
” and are being promoted by the West to undermine Russian “family values.”
Even though the Russian constitution explicitly prohibits any ideology “to be proclaimed as the state ideology or as obligatory,” in the last decade there were clear attempts to codify the Putinist emergent ideology. In particular, in 2015 a list of “traditional” values was included into Russia’s national security strategy. Later, the 2020 amendments introduced “traditional family values” into the constitution.
With the war, Russian schools have been obliged to include weekly extracurricular lessons
to promote “patriotism”
and “morals” in classrooms.
In 2022, “traditional Russian spiritual and moral values” were even codified in a special presidential decree
. It stipulated that those values include “patriotism, civic consciousness, service to the Fatherland and responsibility for its fate,” as well as a “strong family,” “historical memory,” “intergenerational continuity” and the “unity of the peoples of Russia.” The list goes on: “high moral ideals,” “creative labor,” “prioritizing the spiritual over the material,” “mercifulness,” “justice,” “collectivism,” “mutual assistance and mutual respect.” Even “life, dignity, human rights” and “humanism” are included.Ideologization without mobilization
Nevertheless, the apparent ideologization of the Russian regime can be misleading. In particular, there is no evidence that the talk of great-power patriotism and “traditional values” actually ever bore fruit for the Kremlin when it comes to mobilizing the population.
In particular, it is clear that Putin’s ideological toolkit and his huge propaganda machine were not enough to persuade enough volunteers to join the war effort in the first months of the “special military operation” in Ukraine. This is why he had to carry out a draft in the autumn of 2022.
The draft was framed
as a “traditional” fight for Russia’s sovereignty and against the hostile West, which had supposedly armed Ukraine to terrorize the people of “historical lands of Novorossiya (New Russia).” However, Putin’s talk about defending the motherland was not his only argument. In particular, just a day before the draft was declared, Russian lawmakers toughened
punishments for desertion and “voluntary surrender.”
But even with repressive legislation, Putin’s draft was hardly a success
. Though overt protests
against it were relatively limited, they were still noticeable and occasionally even violent. Moreover, it triggered a wave of resistance with various forms of draft evasion, while in the first few weeks following Putin's mobilization decree up to 700,000 people reportedly
left the country.
The mobilization campaign was also associated with the most significant decline in Putin's approval ratings
since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with a drop of 6 percentage points within a month. Support for the "special military operation" decreased
by 4 percentage points over the same period. Presumably, because of the growing dissent, in Moscow
the draft was called off two weeks earlier than the national campaign and likely before the capital’s call-up target had been hit
So, after that crisis, Putin now seems intent to rely much less on the instruments of ideological mobilization. At least he has noticeably moved toward actively using economic incentives in addition to ideological ones. For example, in his annual address to Russia’s parliament
, Putin’s narratives about the West trying to deprive Russia of its “historical territories” were supplemented with the unveiling of a number of policies intended to provide welfare benefits to people fighting in the “special military operation” and their families.
The Kremlin is now noticeably avoiding another draft. Instead, it is trying to persuade more people to join the military for money
, even though the pool of likely contractors was largely exhausted last year. On top of that, new repressive legislation is being introduced
to prosecute draft dodgers and ban them from leaving the country.Has Putinism ever been about patriotic ideals?
The Kremlin’s attempt to mobilize people with promises of welfare benefits and economic incentives rather than ideological motives may look like a reaction to the stressful draft experience – and, in some respects, it is. However,