BERLIN — “People have learned to be scared, hopeless and silent.” Liza, a 28-year-old from Moscow, is generally minded to support the Russian opposition – a tendency that is becoming increasingly dangerous. Over her adult life, President Vladimir Putin turned Russia from an imperfect democracy with some space for opposition politics to an authoritarian regime in which protest against the state can result in immediate arrest and years in prison.
Liza was one of thousands to demonstrate on 24 February against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began that morning. Over 1,700 people were reportedly arrested for protesting across more than 53 cities, chanting the slogan “no to war”. Still, the movement, repressed by a harsh government response, is unlikely to grow large enough to force a change in Moscow’s policy.
“There is no anti-war movement in Russia, although after the invasion there were petitions signed and people began to take to the streets despite guaranteed problems and clashes with the police,” said Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “But there is still a long way to go before a mass movement. The masses are terribly inert, not to mention that many people support the operation.”
Protest in Russia comes with significant personal risk, especially if it concerns issues of political salience, such as the invasion of Ukraine. Arrest can result in years in prison and a criminal record. Even open support of opposition causes can inflict significant career damage. Elena Chernenko, a journalist for the Kommersant newspaper, was ejected from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs press pool for organising an open letter against the invasion.
Still, when the situation is dire enough, people can be pushed to protest despite personal risks, wrote Sam Greene, a professor of politics at King’s College London. The war was a “moral shock” – many Russians did not believe that their military could be used to attack a country in which tens of millions of them were born or have family.
The sanctions that Western countries are beginning to impose will likely hobble Russia’s economy, isolating the country from the world for years to come. Ukrainians are not a far-off people, but rather the inhabitants of a neighbouring country. That is fuel for a protest movement, Greene wrote.
Political freedoms within Russia are already diminishing as a result of the war, causing further despair for liberal Russians. Authorities have announced that Facebook will be blocked in the country.
Kyiv has attempted, however vainly, to appeal to Russians’ decency and fuel the protest movement. As Russia began its invasion, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky urged Russia’s citizens to protest against the war, speaking to them in Russian, his native language. “If Russia’s leadership does not want to meet us across the table for the sake of peace, perhaps it will sit at that table with you. Do you Russians want a war? I would very much like to know the answer, but that answer depends only on you, on the citizens of the Russian Federation,” he said, pleading for Russians to take to the streets.
Zelensky’s speech – moving, measured, emotional – represented a marked contrast with Putin’s hate-filled, conspiratorial rants justifying the war. “How f**ked up is the Russian president that the leader of another country has to record a video speaking directly to Russian citizens?” Liza said.
Even if a mass movement against war was to emerge, it would unlikely be large enough to change the mind of the only person that matters: Putin. The Russian president chaired a televised meeting of Russia’s Security Council on 21 February designed to stamp his authority on top officials, some of whom were clearly sceptical of his plan to go to war. “Even the Kremlin cannot influence the Kremlin. All the terrible decisions are made only by Putin and he pays no attention to rational arguments,” Kolesnikov said.
A protracted, expensive, bloody war and possible subsequent occupation might tip public opinion further against the regime. Body bags returning to Moscow will stoke public anger at Putin’s war of choice. The economic hardship of sanctions will exacerbate that still further among ordinary Russians. Yet popular dissatisfaction will have been factored into Putin’s calculation. He is betting that he can ride out domestic opposition to his invasion, even if it may turn out to be more widespread than he has foreseen.