Dazed and deluded: as Putin launches invasion of Ukraine, Russian society reels

This article has been republished from RFE/RL.

Russians awoke on the morning of February 24, like the rest of the world, to news that their country had invaded Ukraine, a neighbouring country to which millions of Russians have close personal ties.

The developments came after months of military build-up during which Russian society largely maintained a silence driven by disbelief and edged with fear of reprisals from President Vladimir Putin's government, which has intensified its clampdown on dissent and civil society over the past year.

"I am against any war, particularly with Ukraine," one man in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don told Current Time on February 24 when asked about Putin's decision. "I can't judge because I wasn't there, but they should have done everything possible to maintain the peace."

A woman in the same city said she "views war negatively in general."

"But since they have forced us, I think our president is doing everything correctly," she added, before turning to the journalist and adding: "Is that what you wanted to hear?" 

A retired woman in the city of Cheboksary, the capital of the Chuvashia region on the Volga River, told RFE/RL's Idel.Realities: "We are very sad. It is really frightening. We feel sorry for everyone."

Another Chuvash woman said she was “against war” and criticized Putin’s government, which had repeatedly said Moscow had no plans to invade Ukraine and had mocked the United States for warning that Russia was planning a large-scale attack.

"They sit around and make decisions, but our boys have to go off to fight,” she said. “They talked and talked and promised and promised that there would be no war. Now there is only disappointment."

Both women declined to give their names.

Shortly before the invasion began, sociologist Aleksei Levinson of the independent Levada Center polling agency told Current Time that public opinion in Russia was dominated by a "fear of war" that nonetheless did not rise to the level of "anti-war sentiment." (Current Time is the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.)

"We are not seeing public manifestations of anti-war sentiment in Russia," he said. "There aren't really demonstrations or anything like that. There are individual statements on social media, but they are coming primarily from those social groups you'd expect to see them from -- the liberal intelligentsia on Facebook and so on."

He added that many Russians were convinced a war against Ukraine would be brief and not involve large numbers of casualties.

"They aren't afraid of a war because they think it will not be fought on Russian territory," he said. "So far, they are not thinking [the war on Ukraine] will be accompanied by massive losses."

An opinion poll by the state-connected All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) released on February 23 found that three-quarters of Russians supported Putin's decision to recognize the separatist entities in parts of eastern Ukraine, while nearly four-fifths backed his decision to sign cooperation agreements with them -- both steps that were milestones on the road to war.

Nonetheless, on February 24, small demonstrations against the war took place in cities across Russia.

"I came out today because I don't want to be part of an aggressor country," Dmitry Grunin, a member of the Omsk Civic Union, told RFE/RL's Siberia. Realities at a demonstration in his Siberian home city. "I want to live in a normal country, one that is peaceful and oriented toward the future."

In Saratov, lawyer Denis Rudenko stood alone amid the snowdrifts holding a sign reading: "Putin is a war criminal."

Moscow-based journalist and activist Marina Litvinovich issued a call for mass protests across Russia in the evening, trying to muster enthusiasm for "Russians against the war."

"I know that now many of you are experiencing feelings of despair and helplessness over Vladimir Putin's attack against a people that is friendly toward us," she said in a video statement. "But I call on you not to despair and urge you tonight, at 7 p.m., to come out onto the main squares of your city to clearly state that we, the people of Russia, are against this war that Putin has created…. Don't be afraid."

It was one of the few calls for mass protests that have been heard in Russia, even as the country proceeded toward this turn of events for several months. Shortly after she posted the video, Litvinovich was detained by police outside her home.

In an interview with Russia-focused media outlet Meduza, Levada Center Director Denis Volkov said the Kremlin has skilfully convinced many Russians that the conflict at the heart of Russian aggression against Ukraine was not between Russia and Ukraine but between Russia and the United States.

"America is to blame for everything," he said, paraphrasing a narrative that has been laid out by officials and state media. "It isn't even Ukraine, but America and the West. They are pushing Ukraine, which is plotting something against [the Russia-backed separatists], and Russia has to come to their aid because they are Russian-speakers and, in a nutshell, 'our' people."

A CNN poll released on February 23 found that 50 percent of Russians agreed it would be acceptable to use military force in Ukraine "to prevent Kyiv from joining" NATO, while just 25 percent said it would be wrong.

In addition, Russian civil society is far different from what it was in 2008, when Russia fought a brief war with Georgia or in 2014 when Moscow seized the Ukrainian region of Crimea and fomented the separatist war in parts of eastern Ukraine. In 2014, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in major demonstrations in March and September against Moscow's aggression against Ukraine.

Those protests were led by charismatic opposition leaders such as Boris Nemtsov -- who was shot dead outside the Kremlin in February 2015 -- and Aleksei Navalny, who was arrested in January 2021 after recovering from an assassination attempt the previous year and who is now serving a 2½-year prison sentence on charges his supporters say were politically motivated.

In addition, independent media outlets and civic organizations have been cowed or shuttered under Russia's draconian "foreign agent" and "undesirable organization" laws. Individual activists and journalists -- many of them targeted by dubious criminal investigations -- have been intimidated or driven to leave the country.

Analysts have noted that Russian search engines now ignore the reporting of media outlets that have been targeted by the government. On February 24, the state media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor ordered Russian media covering the war to report "only information and facts received from official Russian sources" under threat of being fined or blocked.

"For the Russian people, any form of anti-war rhetoric right now means to risk, at the very least, losing your job," Moscow-based journalist Kirill Martynov told Current Time before the invasion. "Worse, it could mean risking your freedom or your life."

"At present, there is not a critical mass of people in Russian society who would be willing to risk that," he concluded.

Russian political analyst Fyodor Krashennikov told RFE/RL's NorthRealities that it is wrong to argue that Russians do not protest enough without taking into consideration the "terror" that dominates in Putin's Russia.

"It is completely logical that people don't want to go out and protest," he said. "[I]n Belarus, brave and respectable people also don't protest anymore for the same reason. To deny the effect of terror and blame people who are in such a situation is a betrayal, in my opinion."

On social media, many liberal Russians have been sharing their angst. "It is too late to put up flyers and too late for one-person pickets," wrote Moscow-based journalist Varya Gornostayeva. "Our country must save itself, defend itself from this madman who will bury us all under rubble. And we must defend Ukraine, where our friends, relatives, and people who we have never considered enemies are living. We have one enemy -- Putin."

"We, Russians, Russia will never wash away this shame," wrote Moscow-based activist Valery Solovei. "This fateful decision has been made in accordance with our silent lack of resistance."


Copyright (c)2020 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.


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