One of the oldest strategies in the authoritarian playbook is propaganda, and President Putin is known for using it against Russian civilians. The apparent answer to Russia’s conflict with Ukraine is yes. Since the invasion on February 24, 2022, nationwide surveys of Russians’ sentiments about the conflict have shown that support has remained mostly stable: most Russians still seem to favor the war, but not as strong as the Kremlin may believe. As polls indicated was the case after Putin announced the “partial mobilization” in September, even drops in popular support on a national level have rebounded over time. Although polling is effective when respondents are honest, additional methods are required in nations like Russia, where such access and openness cannot be taken for granted.
Here is where artificial intelligence may be useful. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has collaborated with FilterLabs for over a year. Using AI-enabled sentiment analysis, AI, a Massachusetts-based data analytics company, monitors regional sentiment across Russia. Sentiment analysis is a tried-and-true method of teaching computers to read and comprehend text and voice produced by people. The study examines scraped public documents and comments from social media, news media, and chat app groups. Other popular places to determine what people think and feel locally and whether that sentiment is favorable or not.
This data, particularly outside of Moscow, paints a distinct picture of Russian popular sentiment. Traditional polling often focuses on major population centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg, which might distort overall results. A worse picture appears outside of those major cities. The Kremlin is finding it harder and harder to use national propaganda to sway public opinion outside of large cities.
Russian propagandists operate iteratively, piloting slightly different messages one after the other and putting them out in waves when their analysis indicates they are required. Since the invasion, Russian state-sponsored propaganda has influenced public opinion on the conflict for an average of 14 days across all areas and issues. Yet, as the Ukraine conflict continues, these popular support surges are ebbing and need to be used more often throughout Russia, especially outside the main cities.
In other words, Moscow’s propaganda has less and less impact on Russians, particularly when it is blatantly at odds with the daily problems they face. Russians are less likely to accept the official narratives presented on state television, which remains the majority of Russians’ primary source of information, while Putin’s battle of choices exacts personal consequences on residents.
Russian information operations are very effective at mobilizing and utilizing state resources. They excel at confusing the information landscape, leaving people needing clarification about what to trust and draining them of their drive. However, as the conflict enters its second year and more Russians experience its impacts in their everyday lives, particularly the rising number of men enlisted or conscripted into the armed services, the limits of Kremlin propaganda become clear.
This is especially true in the parts of Russia where Putin’s mobilization has been most intense. Data from the republic of Buryatia, a mostly rural, impoverished area 3,700 miles from Moscow and bordering Mongolia, was among the first information FilterLabs acquired following the invasion. Regardless of age, military background, or past health, many people from Buryatia and other ethnic minority-dominated areas are recruited into the Russian army. It only took eight days following a surge of propaganda for public attitude to decline to a negative steady state. By June, EU sanctions began to affect the economy and news of the western consolidation behind Ukraine and significant opposition to Russian advances leaked into Buryatia.
These patterns do not just exist in Buryatia. There have been noticeable changes in Russian sentiments across the board, occasionally even the conduct of the war itself. For instance, FilterLabs saw a decline in support for the war in various parts of the nation when Russian military troops encountered considerably fiercer opposition from Ukrainians in March and April 2022, and stories of high death tolls leaked back into Russia.
Russians no longer fall for the propaganda as readily as they previously did, particularly outside Moscow. Also, the Kremlin still needs to successfully organize public opinion to support a positive goal, such as its involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. Positive support for Moscow’s mistakes has yet to be gained by confusing the information environment and spreading distrust.
The information points to a possible greater fragility of the Russian administration than it would care to recognize. Corruption and underdeveloped institutions have exacerbated Russia’s state fragility for many years. The tendency is becoming worse because of the conflict. The social compact between Russians and the Putin government is eroding. The people have accepted Putin’s authoritarian leadership in return for higher living standards and operating public services, funded by high oil prices over the last 20 years.
The official propaganda machinery, which has extended from print media and television to internet platforms, has played a critical role in cementing this passivity, particularly after Putin took power in the early 2000s. By passing “foreign agent” and “extremism” legislation and silencing potential opponents while promoting Kremlin-aligned politicians, authorities, and policies, the Kremlin has utilized information operations to splinter the media and hide the frail underbelly of the state.
Nevertheless, recent events, such as the invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022, the rallies instigated by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and the COVID-19 outbreak, have repeatedly shown that propaganda narratives cannot mask dwindling public confidence in the legitimacy of the state. When out of sync with experience, chaos may backfire or, at the very least, lose its efficacy, further eroding the state’s legitimacy. Given all this, it becomes more difficult to convince Russian soldiers and their families that fighting and dying in distant Ukraine is in their best interests.
An insight into how Russians feel and how unstable the public mood is may be gained via AI-enabled sentiment data analysis. As a result, Putin’s authority and legitimacy are internally threatened. Moreover, it denotes a deep-seated suspicion of government institutions that will persist in Russian society long beyond Putin’s presidency, whenever that may be, particularly outside of Moscow.
The writer is an Islamabad based expert of strategic affairs.