Russian public opinion overwhelmingly backs President Vladimir Putin's condemnation of the war in Iraq. Over 80 percent of the population opposes the U.S.-led campaign, a figure critics say indicates society has fallen victim to a Kremlin-orchestrated, anti-Western, media campaign. Meanwhile, foreign-policy experts are warning that continued opposition to the conflict will prove disastrous for Russian foreign policy.
Moscow, 1 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian television is taking an increasingly critical stance against the war in Iraq, with the main national channels calling U.S. troops "occupying forces."
But critics say such developments are a reprise of Russia's reaction to NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, when a wave of anti-Westernism swept the country. They say opposition to the war is a symptom of rising anti-Americanism and that Moscow will once again lose face by standing on the wrong side of the fence.
Around 6,000 antiwar protesters took to Moscow's streets over the weekend in the country's largest demonstration against the war yet.
A poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) put at 83 percent the number of respondents who oppose the war. One middle-aged woman on a central Moscow street reflects the predominant view. "All problems must be solved peacefully," she said. "One shouldn't wave fists and take up arms. It was possible to calmly come to an agreement, especially since all society is against [the war], and the planet is being shaken."
Official statements mirror public opinion. In a reversal of roles since the onset of hostilities last month, Moscow has taken the lead in criticizing the U.S.-led war, while Paris and Berlin have taken a backseat.
On 28 March, President Vladimir Putin issued his harshest words yet: "As we had foreseen, the war in Iraq, due to its consequences, has already spilled outside the limits of a local conflict. Perhaps for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the international community is confronted with such a difficult crisis, essentially with the danger of shaking the foundations of global stability and international law."
But foreign-policy experts are quick to point out that Russian opposition to the war in Iraq does not necessarily represent a desire for peace, as in other countries.
Prominent independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov spoke during an open discussion in Moscow yesterday. "I think our society is far from pacifist, as the situation in Chechnya showed in 1999," he said. "Our citizens responded very positively to the carpet bombings that were widely utilized in the republic. But they decidedly criticize the targeted strikes used today by the [U.S.-led] coalition. I think there's very little pacifism here and a lot of anti-Americanism."
Andrei Piontkovskii of the Center for Strategic Studies agreed, saying rising anti-American sentiment seriously threatens government policy. He pointed to the view among some officials that the best outcome to the war would be for the United States to suffer another "Vietnam syndrome," i.e., enough trauma from the conflict to seriously question launching any other military campaign.
Piontkovskii said the Kremlin must reject this view and realize that the United States is its most important ally in the 21st century. "It's necessary to end the anti-American hysteria that has caught up our media. Especially because it can bring us to a dead end not only in foreign policy but in domestic policy as well," Piontkovskii said.
Andrei Zagorskii, deputy director of the Institute for Applied International Studies, agreed, saying Moscow is isolating itself by criticizing the war. He said Russia's main goal should be to take the initiative in reuniting the five members of the United Nations Security Council -- which split over the war -- over a future settlement about Iraq's future.
But while critics agree over the danger of anti-Western sentiment to Kremlin policy, they are split over its sources.
Duma Deputy Ryzhkov said parliament, which sees Washington's campaign as "aggression," reflects the public's opposition to the war. But he added that a "serious split" exists between the Duma's position and that of the government and presidential administration. "Putin called the [U.S.-led] operation a 'mistake' and called for it to be ended as soon as possible. But he did not use the term 'aggression,' which has many legal implications," Ryzhkov said.
But at a news conference across town, participants said it is in fact the Kremlin that is orchestrating what they call Soviet-era propaganda in the Russian media.
Oleg Panfilov heads the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. He said the Russian media were ordered to mislead the public about events surrounding Iraq, saying, "No one doubts that the order came from the Kremlin administration," but precisely from whom is difficult to say.
Panfilov accused even independent stations TVS and Ren-TV of presenting U.S. troops as occupying forces and lauding Iraqi attacks against U.S. and British troops.
He said the media is making a hero of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, adding, "I'm afraid average television viewers don't know anything about Saddam Hussein's biography: that he killed tens of thousands of Kurds, that he staged a coup, killed a prime minister, and destroyed the country's entire political opposition."
Konstantin Borovoi is a former Duma deputy. He said the media spin on the war is part of a struggle between anti-Western officials such as Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and pragmatists "who understand President Putin will eventually have to speak with President Bush, and if the controlled media call Bush a war criminal, that discussion will be a difficult one."
Borovoi said pressure on the media represents a violation of human rights and a negative influence on journalists. "These propagandistic campaigns make them not free. They create the conditions for society to be not free. They create the conditions for the media to rely on the authorities and what are in fact the most extreme forces in society," Borovoi said.
Borovoi and Panfilov agreed that Moscow is repeating the mistake of its protests against NATO bombing in Yugoslavia in 1999, when public opinion supported authoritarian Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and cast NATO's campaign against him as an attack against Slavs in general.
They say Moscow has failed to learn its lesson and that it is again leading to disorientation among the population and isolation in international politics.