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Putin shifts war news to arm Russians for a long battle in Ukraine

Putin shifts war news to arm Russians for a long battle in Ukraine

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Russian cinemas are opening their doors this winter, not to offer moviegoers an entertaining distraction from the nearly year-long war in Ukraine, but quite the opposite.

President Vladimir Putin this week ordered the Defense Ministry to allow access so filmmakers can make documentaries about troops attempting to seize territory in Russia’s neighbor. The Ministry of Culture was commissioned to organize cinema screenings.

While the documentaries were commissioned to portray “the heroism of the participants in the military special operation,” rather than the brutal reality of Russia’s stalled war effort, the decision is a sign of how the Kremlin is adjusting its narrative — despite its demand for one unilateral ceasefire in Ukraine over Orthodox Christmas.

Instead of continuing to protect the Russian people from the war and its costs, Putin seems increasingly inclined to expose them to it. It is, analysts say, an inevitable response to a protracted and all-consuming conflict and a way to arm the population for future casualties, including a possible further mass mobilization of fighting-age men.

Since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine last February, Putin “has taken a clear position that society should distance itself from war,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Vladimir Putin’s annual New Year’s address to the nation is screened on a Moscow subway © Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

The President’s message was: “War is waged by professionals. Life in Russia goes on as normal. And he tried in every possible way to protect society from the problems of war, trying to guarantee that the government would cope with them on its own,” Stanovaya said.

“But on the other hand, there is reality. And it has started to bring changes to the situation in ways that are beyond Putin’s control.”

Putin set the tone with a militaristic New Year’s Eve speech to the nation last week, surrounded by grim-faced men and women in army uniforms.

Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann said in a radio interview this week that the president has always presented himself as an “apostle of balance, protector of the great balance”. “He used to come out and tell people everything was fine, sing them lullabies. . . telling them that tomorrow will be just like yesterday.”

Putin’s New Year’s message, on the other hand, “sends a very impressive picture” that 2023 will be anything but normal, Schulmann said.

Mourners gather to lay flowers in the central Russian city of Samara, where many of the men who died in Ukraine’s Makiivka strike were drafted © Arden Arkman/AFP/Getty Images

Hours after his speech, Ukrainian guided missiles fell on a technical college used as a temporary barracks for Russian conscripts in Makiivka, a town in occupied eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin could have tried to cover up the attack, as it did after the sinking of its Black Sea flagship Moskva in April. Instead, it confirmed this, saying first 63 and then 89 of its troops were killed — the highest death toll it has admitted in a single incident since the invasion in February, although some Russian war correspondents and commentators, as well as Kyiv, gave the number killed call was much higher.

In Samara in central Russia, where many of the dead were confiscated, local authorities held a rare official memorial service attended by grieving families.

Even Yegveny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner paramilitary group that has sent tens of thousands of men to the front lines in Ukraine, has begun to show elements of candor about the brutal nature of the war.

Later in the new year he released a video showing him in a makeshift morgue with the bodies of his dead combatants piled high. In another clip, he described how Wagner troops could fight for days just to gain control of a home in the eastern town of Bakhmut.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner group, attends the funeral of Dmitry Menshikov, a fighter who died in a special operation in Ukraine © AP

His paramilitary group had earlier touted its achievements in the battle for the frontline city in Donetsk province, comparing them favorably to those of regular Russian forces.

Russian military bloggers and Western analysts have said the scale of Russia’s losses in the Makiivka attack is such that it needs to handle the story rather than hide it – and blame local commanders and mobilized soldiers for unauthorized use of their cellphones their position away.

Russian nationalists, including Prigozhin, and some Kremlin officials have spent months urging Putin to move to “all-out war” to mobilize the people and the country’s vast resources.

“Russia has always won every war when that war becomes a people’s war,” Sergei Kiriyenko, deputy head of the presidential administration, said in October.

“We will surely win this war: The “hot” [fighting], and the economic and very psychological information war being waged against us. But that assumes it becomes a people’s war, so that everyone feels involved.”

Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military at the Rand Corporation think tank, said the shift in narratives about the war began with the mobilization of 300,000 men in September. It’s a “form of conditioning,” she said, that would help underpin further mobilization in the coming months.

“I think it’s likely they’ll need another round of mobilization in 2023 to recoup losses from the first round and allow for rotations – from what they’ve said about that, they might try to do that on a smaller ongoing basis , if you can.”

However, Putin is still ambivalent about exposing the Russian public to war, Stanovaya said, although he wanted it to be seen as society’s choice and a product of a historical process, rather than his personal choice.

“He has this desire to share responsibility [for the war] with society, but at the same time not traumatizing them and keeping levels of anxiety as low as possible, even though these are currently on the rise,” she said. “Putin is trying to sit on two chairs, but it’s getting harder and harder.”

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