Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 came as a shock to most Russians, who cannot imagine going to war against a country they often call a “brotherly nation.” As protests against the war crop up across Russia, they are feeding a domestic political standoff. Putin’s legitimacy may be at stake as the Kremlin opts for an increasingly repressive response to internal dissent.
Despite government threats of prosecution for high treason charges, and sometimes cruel treatment of protesters, thousands took their antiwar statements to the streets and squares of Russian cities following the onset of the military intervention. The mass demonstrations were immediate, involving highly public figures. They were vividly streamed and shared—and partially organized—on social media. More than 6,500 demonstrators were arrested over a five-day period. Several Russian and Ukrainian news outlets were blocked for their coverage of the invasion, and prominent liberal radio station Echo Moskvy was taken off air yesterday.
Protests are not a new phenomenon in Russia. Nor is the courage of demonstrators in the face of detentions, beatings, and punitive measures. In the past decade, there has been an uptick in the number and scale of protests (except during COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings). According to the Levada Center, the leading independent polling group in Russia, people said they were nearly four times as likely to protest in 2020 than they were in 2014.
In particular, 2017 and 2018 saw the rise of activist Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption movement after his release of a YouTube video report about the hidden wealth of then prime minister Dmitri Medvedev. The outpourings of popular discontent were the biggest since the Bolotnaya Square protests “For Fair Elections” from 2011 to 2013, which drew tens of thousands.
In 2020, widespread unrest erupted throughout Russia in response to a constitutional referendum resetting the presidential term and the arrest of former Khabarovsk region governor, Sergei Furgal, who won his election against a Putin-backed candidate. The Kremlin waited patiently for the protests to dissipate on their own rather than cracking down on them severely. But after the poisoning of Navalny and his arrest in Moscow in 2021, the authorities began to take a much harsher approach. The Kremlin began to believe that it could hold onto power through force, and started using uncompromising repression to disperse mass demonstrations.
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Today, it is clear that no single protest, whether it is anti-government or antiwar, could overthrow Putin. For now, the latest protests in Russia against the war in Ukraine show “little evidence of a broader groundswell of opposition,” and Putin’s propaganda machine continues to churn out images of peace in Ukraine and block “unofficial” accounts of the war. Putin’s approval ratings are currently around 71%, and the Russian government is selling the invasion as a ”special operation” by “peacekeepers” in the name of “denazification” and protecting Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. Russians continue to rally around the flag, remaining largely unaware of the war and confused about the official line.
As the fighting goes on, however, it may become harder for the Kremlin to cover up the war and convince the public that Russia is merely battling fascists and facing no casualties. The more “bloody and brutal” the war in Ukraine gets, the more difficult it will be for Putin to keep it out of the public eye.
Russians opposed to the Ukraine war
Russians will gradually learn the truth about the events in Ukraine, which could snowball the protests into a sustained antiwar movement. The population may feel increasingly disquieted by the economic and human costs of the war. As living standards in Russia deteriorate due to growing capital flight, rising inflation and slowing economic growth, the facade of normalcy may crumble. The Kremlin may have no choice but to continue tightening the screws, arresting more protesters, issuing harsher jail terms and bigger fines, ramping up censorship, and blocking or slowing down more websites with banned content.
While most Russians continue to get their news from state television broadcasts, more people are turning to social media. While its ability to inspire protests is currently being tested, with Twitter and Facebook under restrictions for spreading “false information,” the use of social media by protesters and celebrities has increased the visibility of mainstream opposition. (Previously, It was uncommon to see open opposition from the likes of pop stars, athletes, journalists and television presenters, some of whom are employed by the state.) Several online petitions against the war have also garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.
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Equally unusual is the use of social media to protest by family members of Russian elites, including the daughters of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and former President Boris Yeltsin. The daughter of oligarch Roman Abramovich openly called out the “biggest and most successful lie of the Kremlin’s propaganda”—namely, that most Russians back Putin’s military aspirations. Three Russian parliament members also spoke out against the fighting, saying they “voted for peace, not for war,” though loyalty from Putin’s inner circle appears to be unshaken thus far.
Protests, fueled by the disconnect between the people and the actions of the government intent on suppressing all opposition, could be Putin’s eventual undoing. The latest antiwar protests are a case in point. Peace still seems unlikely, yet it is clear that war enthusiasm is already drying up. The Kremlin may find continuing to inspire enthusiasm for what is already being called a “war without a cause” difficult.
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Dmitry Muratov, Nobel Peace Prize winner and editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper defying state censorship, points out that the memory of World War II and the fact that many Russians have relatives in Ukraine “holds back even the most rabid supporters of the current leadership.”
Putin’s rule depends on his ability to maintain broad public support. As civil society becomes more emboldened and demonstrators call for more people to mobilize both online and offline, the protests could increase and erode Putin’s popularity. The authorities will need to find another way to deal with them, as harsh clampdowns are known to be a cause of protests as much as they are a consequence. For how long can the Kremlin fall back on its ruthless strategy before the cycle of protest and repression comes to a revolutionary end?
The transformation from “no to war” to “no to Putin” will not happen overnight, but it could ultimately topple the regime.
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