Targeting Russians at home and abroad since it started planning the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin’s propagandists have been in overdrive. They have stuck to a consistent litany of lies.
In justifying the war, Moscow insists that the Ukrainian leadership are irredeemable Na-zis; NATO is plotting to take over Ukraine as a staging area for attacking Russia; Ukraine and the US are jointly developing nuclear weapons; the US uses Ukraine to advance biochemical capabilities. The Nazi aspect of Russian propaganda has now broadened to include the entire country and Ukrainians, therefore, qualify for some form of punishment.
Has Putin’s all-out misinformation campaign shown any success? Polling results covering political opinions are questionable since Russians, especially the older generation, are reluctant to reveal their genuine opinions on controversial issues, for fear of the current government’s retribution. But the younger generation, without any experience of Soviet repressions, are more candid in their responses to polling questions.
That’s why recent Levada Centre surveys could be an indication of change. In measuring the effectiveness of Putin’s efforts in nurturing pro-war sentiment among young Russians, the available data shows some gains for the Kremlin. A March survey showed that 71% of 18-to-24-year-olds supported the war, 10% below the national average (which could be distorted). In addition, 54% of the same group harboured negative attitudes towards Ukraine, only 3% below the national average.
The general thrust of the Kremlin’s messaging has been a condemnation of anti-war activity colouring it as unpatriotic and anti-Russian. Coupled with this is the government’s intimidation tactics against protesters which were led mainly by the youth during the first weeks of the war. The Kremlin’s suppression has worked.
But has this intensified propaganda barrage had any impact on the public mindset in Estonia? A recent poll indicates that nearly one-quarter of Estonian residents do not blame Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. When considering that 23.9% of Estonian residents in 2019 self-identified as Russians, is this worrisome?”
Some 380,000 or 30% of those living in Estonia are Russian speaking. One could easily assume that the vast majority of them do not accuse Russia for starting an unprovoked invasion, that it’s the fault of the west. Thus, are only 6% of Russian speakers in Estonia aligned with the West on this issue?
Has Putin grabbed the hearts and minds of a significant segment of the Estonian population? Different indicators make this tough to answer.
The results of the GLOBSEC poll, conducted throughout East and Central Europe seems to be inconsistent with other trends and doesn’t help in forming hard and lasting conclusions with confidence.
Holding Russia as a general threat were 68% of Estonian respondents. In line with this were an equal 68% who blamed Russia for starting the war. Is this low? In Poland, fully 90% of the population sees Russia as a threat.
Opinions do shift over time. One year ago, 30% of Estonian residents viewed Putin positively. Now this has declined to 22%.
In the Russian presidential elections of 2018, fully 94% of those voting in Estonia gave their vote to Putin. In Russia itself, Putin won 76.6% of the vote, which might even be lower according to international observers. These votes were cast by Russian citizens only, totaling 28,077 people – of the approximately 83,000 who were qualified to vote in Estonia.
Within shifting loyalties caused by Russian aggression are other indicators that make understanding public anxieties and political stances somewhat unpredictable. Recent media reports indicate that a significant number of Russian citizens in Estonia have applied to denounce their Russian citizenship and apply for Estonian citizenship. In fact, estimations put it at three times the rate of that 12 months ago.
During of 2021 some 300 Russians made the move. Since February 214, when Russia invaded Ukraine 113 have already officially begun the process.
The Estonian Interior Ministry has also indicated that there’s a marked increase of those with Russian citizenship, living in Russia, but with Estonian ancestry, applying for documents proving their qualifications for Estonian citizenship.
Since Estonia requires a minimum of an eight-year residency in Estonia before submitting an application for Estonian citizenship, many Russians who do not yet qualify, have to maintain their permanent resident status as an alien.
It’s not a simple procedure to give up Russian citizenship. One has to apply to be deleted from the Russian taxation system before denouncing Russian citizenship. This might take months, sometimes more than a year.
While Putin’s propaganda has made an impact on Russians domestically, it’s difficult to accurately establish its success on Russian speakers in Estonia. The hearts and minds of Estonians still favour truth.
(Previously published in Eesti Elu / Estonian Life.)