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Russian TV boosts Kremlin line on invasion after slow start

NEW YORK (AP) — Viewers of Russian state TV are told that Russian troops are in Ukraine to save people there from “neo-Nazis” and to disarm a country that was preparing to wage war on its own population.

The TV reports also say that people across Russia are supporting what the Kremlin calls the “special military operation” in Ukraine by forming convoys in which cars display the tricolor Russian flags. Or they gather in courtyards and form a large letter “Z,” which has become a symbol of the Russian military. Or they rally in parking lots while chanting, “We don’t abandon our own.”

A news anchor at state TV channel Russia 24 rattled off the names of cities holding the demonstrations.

“Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Chelyabinsk, Yekaterinburg, Stavropol, Tula -– mass rallies in support of the special operation took place in these and many other cities all across the country,”

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Another report was not much different.

“Drivers stick the letters ‘Z’ and ‘V,’ depicted on Russian military vehicles, onto their cars in a spontaneous flash mob, which was supported in absolutely all cities of our country as a sign of solidarity, support and pride in the courage of Russian soldiers,” a narrator said. Those letters were painted or taped on tanks, trucks and other vehicles in Ukraine to designate their groups of origin.

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It took several days after the start of the Feb. 24 invasion for Russia to gear up the campaign depicting what it said was widespread public support of the assault, which has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians in Ukraine and forced more than 2 million to flee the country.

The narrative of Russians standing behind their troops sought to counter spreading antiwar sentiment on the home front, with thousands protesting in the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere, and over 1 million signing a petition to stop the attack.

Political analysts say Russians are indeed rallying around the flag, but the big question is how long such support will last in the face of the crippling Western sanctions and worsening living conditions, or whether it will eventually translate into increased support for President Vladimir Putin.

“A significant number of Russians perceive the situation as Russia finding itself in a serious challenge, and in these conditions, one shouldn’t turn against the authorities,” Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politikl think-tank, told The Associated Press.

Unlike the grassroots efforts to speak out against the war, with dozens of open letters coming from different professional groups and spontaneous protests sparking in different Russian cities, public support of the invasion first appeared mostly through state-run media.

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In seeking to control the narrative, the Kremlin has blocked most of Russia’s independent media outlets and forced the rest to halt coverage altogether with threats of prosecution and prison for reporting that deviates from the official line, which includes calling the action a “war” or “invasion.”

Regional authorities publicized pro-government car convoys in their areas. Patriotic videos, with crowds of young people looking into the camera and praising the Russian military by saying, “Keep working, brothers!” came from the youth branch of the Kremlin’s United Russia party.

The state-funded TV network RT announced on its social media channels that it was selling T-shirts and hoodies with the letter “Z” on them to support Russian troops. Sergei Tsivilev, head of the Kemerovo region, announced a decision to rename the region by spelling it as “KuZbass,” with the Latin “Z” in the middle, in official documents.

As time went on, signs of genuine public support started to emerge. The letter “Z,” sometimes crudely made from paint or tape, appeared on buses, cars and office windows. Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak put a small “Z” on his leotard and wore it at a World Cup event while standing next to a Ukrainian athlete.

Officials and state TV insist the Russian military is targeting only military facilities in Ukraine, blaming any attacks on civilians on what they call “neo-Nazis” in Kyiv’s government, despite the fact that in 2019, Ukraine became the only country outside of Israel with both a president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and a prime minister who were Jewish. Zelenskyy’s grandfather fought in the Soviet Army against the Nazis, while other relatives died in the Holocaust.

The Kremlin also has revived the scenario of being under siege that it used after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 drew sanctions, decrying the penalties imposed on Russia as an “unprecedented economic war” waged by the West in an effort to soften the blow to the population.

With independent sources of information largely cut off, it is easier for Russians to believe what the government tells them, says Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow in Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Program.

“It is psychological comfort for people. They don’t want to think that their leader is a criminal and is committing war crimes. They’re more comfortable thinking that their army will rescue someone from Nazism,” he said.

The Kremlin has long used the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II as a way to bolster patriotic sentiment and has tried to tap into it by using the idea of the “neo-Nazism” as a threat from Ukraine.

Still, the level of support for the invasion can hardly be compared to the public elation that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, said Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“Blood, sweat, destruction. … Russians support Putin, but because of the gravity of the situation, there is no such incredible mobilization as there was in 2014,” Kolesnikov said.

And whatever support exists might wane as the economy suffers under the unprecedented sanctions and living conditions rapidly deteriorate, Petrov noted.

The sanctions tanked the ruble, disrupted supply chains and saw dozens of foreign companies and brands either pull out or suspend operations in Russia over the past two weeks. That included McDonalds, whos opening in Moscow in 1990 was a symbol of a new era of democracy and freedom.

Economists predicted shortages of goods, a spike in prices and a possible credit default.

“It is clear and inevitable that the mood will change,” Petrov said. “In that sense, I think Putin has quite a limited period of time to declare a victory and bring the army back.”

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