Kathrin Hille in Moscow
When Russian state television anchor Olga Skabeeva wrapped up her show 60 Minutes on Tuesday night, she had a brief but powerful conclusion: “We’re not afraid of sanctions, we have missiles!”
Her words seemed to encapsulate Moscow’s outrage and defiance in the face of British moves to punish it for the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal with a rare nerve agent of a type that only the Soviet Union was known to have made.
Russian government officials, lawmakers and analysts are all painting the British government’s charge as an insult, a threat and proof that Russia must stand strong and united against a hostile western world bent on destroying it.
Coming just days ahead of presidential elections on Sunday expected to confirm Vladimir Putin in office by a landslide, the stand-off with the UK is being used by the government and official media to boost support for an aggressive course of Russian great power ambitions and nuclear posturing.
Two weeks ago, Mr Putin claimed in his state of the nation address that Russia had developed several new weapons systems capable of carrying nuclear payloads that he characterised as invincible. His move disappointed many Russians who had hoped that he would put a focus on economic reform for his next term, and shocked many foreign observers who view his nuclear posturing as a sign for a new arms race with the US.
But with their country once again thrust into a confrontation with the west, few Russians dare to question Mr Putin’s belligerent rhetoric.
This week, Maria Zakharova, the punchy foreign ministry spokeswoman, insinuated that Mrs May’s ultimatum to Moscow to explain the poison attack constituted a military, or even nuclear, threat, against which Mr Putin’s new wonder weapons offered protection.
“Everyone must understand that after what the president spoke about, nobody can come out in parliament and say: I give Russia 24 hours,” she said. “We are talking about London, the capital of a nuclear power. Whom are they giving 24 hours?”
Many ordinary Russians share the indignation. “This is why we support our president,” said Anton Zaitsev, a security guard in his 30s in Moscow. “He has his weaknesses, but he is right in taking our country’s security seriously. Now they are trying to add more sanctions against Russia, again. They have no right to do that. Great Britain, who are you anyway?”
Valentina, a retired secretary who refused to give her surname, said it was western countries that were warmongers, and Russia needed to protect herself from them. “We are a peace-loving nation. Nobody has suffered from war as we have. We, my generation, we used to say: If only there isn’t war again!” she said. “That’s what our nuclear weapons are for, to ensure that nobody attacks us ever again.”
War has traditionally featured among Russians’ biggest fears. The Soviet Union suffered more than 20m casualties in the second world war, inflicting losses on almost every family. Soviet propaganda exploited the memories of the war’s horrors to quell dissatisfaction over a stagnant economy.
A deep-rooted anxiety was reawakened following Moscow’s invasion of Crimea, its involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine, and from late 2015 its military campaign in Syria. Russian sociologists say the public felt that in those conflicts, their country was in an undeclared confrontation with the west and, more specifically, with the US.
In the last poll Levada, the country’s only independent pollster, conducted on the topic in September last year, one-fifth of respondents still said they felt constant fear of a new world war.
Some Russian analysts say those fears had in recent months begun to recede.
“After Russia liberated Aleppo, and after the turn in the Syrian war and as Isis started collapsing under Russian strikes, we noticed a lowering of war fears,” says Valery Fedorov, director of the Russian Public Opinion Research Foundation (VCIOM), a leading pollster that works with the Kremlin. “Now, Russians are turning the focus of their attention from external to internal issues, on to economic and social problems.”
According to VCIOM, security and the military lagged far behind social and economic issues like healthcare, poverty and education in ordinary Russians’ views of the most important topics of Mr Putin’s state of the nation address earlier this month.
And yet, feelings of patriotism and pride are easily rekindled. When asked in the VCIOM poll what they liked best about the speech, the part where Mr Putin boasted about new nuclear weapons topped the list.
Many Russians confirm such conflicting feelings, saying that while they are tired of a state of constant mobilisation against the west, they feel that Russia must remain vigilant against attempts to weaken their nation.
“My daughter has friends who live in the UK and in America. We know that they are good people, and we know things are not all good here,” says Valentina. “But when we are being threatened, we must push back.”