Ukraine crisis: Russian attitudes harden amid downturn

Pass-by looks at Moscow shop selling t-shirts featuring pictures of President Putin 11/02/2015 Image copyright EPA
Image caption Putin loyalists seem more determined than ever to support the Russian president despite the squeeze

As details are announced of a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine after marathon negotiations, Bridget Kendall gauges the mood in Moscow amid worsening relations between Russia and the West, which are now at a point where many Russians see the US and its allies as their country's greatest enemy.

Russians are feeling the pinch. Some talk of salaries being frozen. Others worry that they might lose their jobs. Food prices have gone up. The rouble's value has plummeted. Some landlords - and even taxi drivers in Moscow - insist on being paid in dollars.

So the question is, has this squeeze affected support for President Putin and his government? The euphoria over taking Crimea has long subsided - to be replaced by a bleak mix of bloodshed in Ukraine and an economic downturn.

The news that the Minsk talks have managed to get agreement on a ceasefire will be greeted with relief by most Russians.

But I would caution those in the West who assume pressure from sanctions has been the key to bringing President Putin to the negotiating table. Belts may be tightening. But it's not clear Russian views of their government have been radically altered.

Widening gap

My sense is that over the last six months opinions here were not altered by the deepening Ukrainian crisis, but became more entrenched and polarised.

On one side, those who six months ago were mildly irritated by the annexation of Crimea but unwilling to apportion blame, now seem more virulently anti-Putin. They believe he has been using the Ukraine crisis to crack down at home and they fear for the future. But they also feel under siege, an isolated group in a country riding a wave of patriotism.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The value of the Russian currency has been falling

But on the other side, those loyal to Mr Putin seem more determined to support him than ever. They take their cue from the aggressive tone adopted by Russian television.

They not only accuse Kiev and the West of having fanned the war in Ukraine. They echo the Kremlin by asserting that this is just the latest crisis in a long-standing Western campaign to weaken or even destroy Russia.

Sanctions are part of that. And if the current ceasefire deal does not hold, and the conflict begins to escalate again and President Obama does decide to arm the Ukrainians, then that would be further proof that Western hostility towards Russia is deep seated.

Between these two camps of widely differing popular opinion, the gap is widening.

Rifts and quarrels

Take one friend, whom I shall call Galya. She said recently a woman in her office looked up at a TV screen which was showing the latest report of fighting in eastern Ukraine and hissed: "It is all the Americans' fault. They started this. I can't stand them."

Galya was surprised: the woman was young, modern, well-educated and well-travelled. She didn't look like a Kremlin loyalist. Galya made a mental note from now on to steer clear of politics in front of her.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 5,000 people

In fact, it seems that this is a constant calculation for those who are critical of President Putin. As they go about their lives in Moscow, they have to work out who they can speak frankly to - just as we used to when this was the Soviet Union.

"The other day I met an acquaintance I had not seen for years," said Galya. "I had no idea what she thought. So I skirted round the news about Ukraine and kept to safer subjects. Till she happened to mention that her son had got her a warm scarf to wear at an opposition rally.

"So then I said, 'Krym ne nash?' You too don't think Crimea is ours?

And she replied, "Krym ne nash" - Crimea does not belong to us. Thank God you think so, too."

"And then we knew we could talk openly to each other."

The polarisation over politics is also causing rifts which are destroying lifelong relationships.

Another woman I spoke to, let us call her Lida, recounted a recent phone call with a former close friend from college, Masha. They had already fallen out over the controversial female punk rock band known as Pussy Riot, who were sent to prison for daring to sing a blasphemous song in one of Moscow's biggest cathedrals.

Lida thought they were funny and brave. Masha thought they had been offensive to God.

Once again, their phone call ended in a quarrel. Lida happened to mention a mutual friend who was emigrating.

"Why should she emigrate?" asked Masha angrily. "Why should anyone leave Russia? They should stay and support our country at this difficult time." And she added defiantly: "I at least am a patriot!"

And Masha, it seems, is in the majority - at least, according to recent opinion polls.

Pushed to the verge

The respected Levada Center in Moscow said its latest findings suggested that anti-Western sentiment in Russia is higher than it has ever been since the Soviet Union collapsed.

Negative attitudes towards the US have doubled since a year ago - now reaching a staggering 81% of those asked.

Hostility towards Europeans has also doubled, now standing at 71%.

The Kremlin narrative that Russia has been pushed to the verge of war with the West against its will has been extraordinarily successful.

A lasting peace in Ukraine might soften attitudes towards the West over time.

But for the moment, the outcome of the Minsk talks does Mr Putin no harm at all.

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