From Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 13, 2023, p. 1. Complete text:
Various events related to the special operation [in Ukraine] have simultaneously conspired to cause disagreements, splits and media wars in opposing camps of society. Liberals and political émigrés are locked in an internecine struggle over which group is more important in opposing the special operation. The ultrapatriots are vying for dominance in terms of informational influence on the government. And the government itself will most likely have to bring the ranks of its radical supporters into line, perhaps by using the same repressive tools that it has used against its enemies.
As NG has determined, the intensifying feud among opponents of the special operation – that is, those within the liberal camp – is not a unique phenomenon.
Equally severe strife has been recorded on the opposite side, the camp of Z-patriots [the Roman letter Z symbolizes support for the Ukraine war – Trans.], particularly among military bloggers and military officers.
Supporters of the special operation, who also are no strangers to debates that escalate to the level of personal insults, question their [debate] opponents’ orientation in time and political space. Of course, the ultrapatriots tend to ask each other who was where and with whom in the Donetsk Basin, let’s say, before and after 2014.
It’s understandable that opinions and attitudes toward sacred figures clash in both camps. For example, the pacifist opposition argues about Aleksei Navalny, Yabloko founder Grigory Yavlinsky, as well as a number of prominent figures among the political émigrés. And supporters of the special operation are divided by their sympathies and antipathies for Wagner PMC founder Yevgeny Prigozhin versus a number of heroes of the “Russian spring,” both dead and alive, including former militia commander Igor Strelkov.
Naturally, there are also clashes regarding the interpretation of several events of the special operation and its consequences. As we know, the liberals have experienced a schism over whether certain Russian oligarchs need to be removed from Western sanctions lists. The patriots are duking it out over ideological grounds for the special operation, the fight against Ukrainian identity, the Kremlin’s inconsistency and, according to many of them, the Defense Ministry’s indecisiveness. The similarity here is that all of this is taking place in the media space – in particular, on Telegram and YouTube or other social media networks. Another apparent analogy is that they are talking about certain financial budgets, regardless of who actually hands them out or collects them for members of either camp.
In the context of the ongoing feud between supporters and opponents of the special operation, the voluntary withdrawal into the shadows of Navalny camp leader Leonid Volkov (deemed a foreign agent in Russia) and the disappearance of a number of patriotic Telegram channels from the information space are also revealing. Some [ultrapatriots] say that they are refusing to criticize the government, while others are not saying anything at all. This has already given rise to the suspicion that there will be a purge by law-enforcement and security officials similar to the one that oppositionist pacifists were subjected to when they were still able to operate with relative freedom within the country. Something similar is probably unavoidable, since the government is aiming for maximum control specifically over the media space. The methods it is planning to use are another matter.
Experts interviewed by NG had differing opinions on the parallels between the two camps, as well as their prospects. For example, Emilia Slabunova, a Yabloko deputy from Karelia’s Legislative Assembly, believes that “the disputes in different camps are their attempt to find answers to their questions.” Let’s say that military officers have different opinions on the special operation because the government has not been precise about its ultimate goals and what constitutes a decisive victory. “The government is cleaning house right now, and it seems like several channels have already been shut down. But the Kremlin is having trouble with these patriots. The government is used to being criticized by the opposition, and it has an obvious tool here – repression. But it has no clear idea on how to manage criticism that is not from the opposition but from radical supporters.” Slabunova believes that the government will attempt to block the radical wing so that the criticism does not take on dangerous forms – against all levels of the authorities and against the commander in chief himself.
Sergei Obukhov, head of the Russian Federation Communist Party’s analytical center, said that “at the end of one year of the special military operation, the government has never given a report on the situation, or clearly explained the special operation’s goal and tasks.” Now he believes that there are decisive factors like the state of affairs at the fronts, the actions of the government itself and, even more importantly, its rhetoric. “At the start of the special operation, they were talking about a swift victory over the Kiev regime, but now they’re talking about an existential threat to Russia itself. Of course, the government-controlled media could announce at any moment that the special operation’s goals have been achieved. But the problem is that there’s confusion among the propaganda centers themselves, so we cannot expect a single line of thought or consistent opinions,” he said.
Aleksei Mukhin, general director of the Center for Political Information, told NG that “All these disputes have two things in common: people and vanity. During the special operation, many people want to realize their potential against the backdrop of historic events. Therefore, discussions are being shaped by differences of opinion, where all disputes are value-based, since none of these people can take another’s position.” The expert also said that the heat of the discussions can be explained by psychological tension in society. Personal ambitions also play a role, as well as an affective state where a given person’s previously hidden character traits come to the fore.
Konstantin Kalachov, head of the Political Expert Group, told NG: “We are essentially a country of squabblers. You don’t even have to start something from outside; it’s the norm everywhere for two people to have three opinions between them.” However, he commented that society has already consolidated around the government and that the disputes are taking place on the periphery of state policy. “These are radicals whose debates do not question the government’s policy. Some bloggers and military officers are looking for funding, others want to stand out in some way, and still others want to have some influence on something. Some are probably trying to get the authorities to buy their loyalty. The authorities decide for themselves who can work in their pool, who they can reach agreements with and who they can’t,” said Kalachov.
But Kalachov doubts that the government wants to set a single agenda among the military officers and bloggers; this is not TV, after all: “The authorities aren’t a monolith. We have the people in the Defense Ministry, in the presidential administration and the government, in the law-enforcement and security structures. And we also have people who are simply close to certain senior officials. Most progovernment channels probably have guidelines, but for now they need to display a variety of opinions and create informational noise. The authorities understandably can’t cram everyone into the Procrustean bed of the official position, so the question arises of what to do with them. They calculate what will be affected, and if there are risks or threats. But for now, different viewpoints on the special operation are allowed – this isn’t a presidential campaign. From now on, the Kremlin will resolve problems as they arise, using its usual methods of the carrot and the stick. Therefore, loyal people get money and disloyal people get their Telegram channels shut down.”