‘Patriotism is off the charts’: In border towns, Russians believe victory is near
Timur lives in Rostov on Don “three kilometers from an airfield from which warplanes headed to Ukraine take off every twenty minutes.” There is not much else I can tell you about him, because in Russia, where even the word “war” is banned, he is taking an enormous risk by speaking to a journalist and he is nervous. But not as nervous as he is about the way the war in Ukraine is going.
“For me, the idea that Russia might go and conquer Kyiv is terrifying. But equally scary to me is the idea of Ukrainians encroaching on Russian territory. Because I live here, and it is unclear what Putin’s response would be,” he says.
Over the last week, the coverage in the media in the West has been almost giddy over Ukraine’s unprecedented advances. Commentators and pundits in the West are already arguing that Russian military defeat is inevitable, a matter of when not if.
But in the towns along Russia’s border with Ukraine, that perception could not be further from the truth.
“Patriotism is off the charts” in the border town of Bryansk, says a student. She cannot be named, but she wanted me to know that her position is an exception to that of most in her city. She describes a place where people find comfort in their detachment from reality. Everywhere she looks she sees people dressed in t-shirts with the letter “Z,” symbolic of support for the war. “These are people,” she says, “who only believe what they hear on state media.” Even if it goes against the reality on the ground. “When Ukrainians started shooting at the villages located near the border, about 25 miles from Bryansk, my relatives just said ‘oh they will never make it.’”
“They still think that some local failures will lead to a global victory,” says Timur, about people in Rostov. “They deny the absolutely obvious things.” Even Russia’s stunning failures on the front, which he says have not yet profoundly changed the conversation about the war in Rostov.
Young people are nervous about the prospects of mobilization. But even if it comes to joining the front, Timur says, he is expecting people to rally around Putin and channel their anger against Ukraine.
I asked a fighter pilot I know in the Russian military what he thought about his fellow servicemen retreating in Ukraine. His response, sent by text message, was upbeat. “It is sad we had to leave some positions We were outnumbered near Kharkiv, but now aviation is working, artillery is working, we are waiting for the results,” he said.
Of course, one pilot’s view cannot be representative of the entire armed forces, but it does show the strength of Putin’s narrative at home.
And yet, there are also signs of cracks in Russian confidence. On Grey Zone, a Telegram channel linked to the infamous mercenaries of the Wagner Group, the mood is mutinous.
“I am ashamed that the Russian army is retreating from an enemy army with a commander-in-chief who was a participant on KVN,” wrote one contributor to a channel called the “Grey Zone.” KVN is a popular Russian-language comedy show that Ukrainian President Zelensky participated in during his acting days.
Grey Zone is full of people who are wedded to their vision of Russian military strength and they are beside themselves with fury that the army appears to be slipping on the Ukrainian banana peel. These propagandists and hawks, with their huge followings on Telegram, YouTube and VK (VKontakte), criticize tactics and are unafraid to express contempt but it’s too early to say if they are turning on the Kremlin.
It is from these fanatical pro-war camps that we hear calls for Russia to devote more men and more weapons to the war and to demonstrate a willingness to do whatever it takes to defeat Ukraine. The “whatever” is what keeps Timur up at night.
“I live in an endless nightmare because I don’t understand how we can end this conflict,” he says. His fear is that if Ukrainians continue to advance, Putin will go for a nuclear option.
BIG TECH: AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT
By Shougat Dasgupta
Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, who jointly won the Nobel Peace prize in 2021, are on the warpath with their new 10 point plan to deal with the information crisis and the existential threat posed by Big Tech to journalism worldwide.
“When facts become optional and trust disappears, we will no longer be able to hold power to account,” read their joint statement, which called on governments, especially those in Europe, to be more ambitious about protection
“We urge rights-respecting democracies to wake up to the existential threat of information ecosystems being distorted by a Big Tech business model fixated on harvesting people’s data and attention,” wrote Ressa and Muratov, “even as it undermines serious journalism and polarizes debate in society and political life.” (Disclaimer: Ressa is on Coda’s board of directors.)
The solution, both laureates argue, is greater government oversight, particularly from the European Union with its far-reaching Digital Services and Digital Markets Act. Big Tech has had to deal with billions in fines from European regulators seeking to rein in habitual tax avoidance, the failure to stop or even substantially reduce the spread of misinformation, and profiting from news without paying for it.
They also call on democratic governments to implement “robust data protection laws.” Democratic governments like India, for instance. On cue, India has said it is following global best practices closely in order to come up with its own Digital Markets Act that will in part govern data collection and its use. But, as Twitter whistleblower Peter Zatko alleges, India placed an intelligence agent at the company to have practically unfettered access to user data.
Twitter prioritizes profit over security, Zatko said. And even democratic governments appear to prioritize surveillance and access to user data over the rights of people to privacy. As both Ressa and Muratov appear to be arguing, for Big Tech to be less harmful, governments will have to break their unwritten compact with these companies to legislate in favor of people and progress over profit and control.
Big Tech, confronted by the specter of legislation and increased government oversight, is trying to argue that it is capable of cleaning up its own act. Jigsaw, for instance, “is a unit within Google that explores threats to open societies, and builds technology that inspires scalable solutions.” Its mission is to show technology as a force for good. A Jigsaw campaign has been launched, based on academic research, to deploy 90-second clips to educate viewers about the techniques and proliferation of disinformation. The campaign is being trialed in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to combat disinformation about Ukrainian refugees. But as the campaign notes, disinformation relies on the exploitation and manipulation of visceral responses. Combating such an instinctive response requires self-awareness, or at least a willingness to challenge your own biases. It’s why spreading disinformation is so much easier than refuting it. For instance, during the U.S. midterms, disinformation was spread widely in Kansas, if ultimately ineffectively, by text message.
Perhaps it’s not about troll farms and bots but about people willingly suspending their critical faculties. Just like Russians seem to be doing in Rostov.