Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Has Sparked Antiwar Protests in Russia. They Could Be His Undoing
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.
After the military intervention began, protesters took to the streets in support of their cause, despite threats from the government of being charged with high treason and cruel treatment. There were many prominent people involved in these mass demonstrations. They were vividly streamed and shared—and partially organized—on social media. Over 6,500 demonstratorsThey were detained for five days. Many Russian and Ukrainian news media outlets were stopped from covering the invasion. Echo Moskvy, a prominent liberal radio station was also taken offline yesterday.
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Russia’s protests aren’t a new thing. The courage displayed by demonstrators against beatings and detention is not new. There has been an increase in protests over the last decade (except for those that took place during COVID-19 restrictions against mass gatherings). People surveyed by the Levada Center (Russia’s leading independent polling agency), said that they are nearly four times more likely than in 2014 to protest in 2020.
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.
A constitutional referendum to reset Russia’s presidential term resulted in widespread protests throughout Russia. Also, Sergei Furgal (an ex-khabarovsk governor) was detained after his victory against a Putin backed candidate. Instead of imposing harsh punishments on the demonstrators, the Kremlin patiently waited for them to cease. The authorities adopted a harsher approach after Navalny’s poisoning and his arrest at Moscow in 2021. In order to maintain its power, the Kremlin started to use uncompromising repression in dispersing mass demonstrations.
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Today it seems clear that Putin cannot be overthrown simply by one protest. 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 are still rallying around the flag and remain unaware of the war or confused about the official line.
However, as the fighting continues, the Kremlin will have to make it harder for them to conceal the fact that Russia is fighting fascists, and they may not be able convince the public of this. 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 against the Ukraine War
Russians will eventually learn all the facts about Ukraine. This could lead to a sustained antiwar movement. It is possible that the population will feel more worried about the financial and human consequences of the war. Russia may lose its facade of normalcy as living standards decline due to increasing capital flight, higher inflation, and slower growth. Perhaps the Kremlin will have to keep tightening its belts by arresting more demonstrators, issuing harsher sentences and greater fines, increasing censorship, blocking and slowing-down more websites with banned material, or imposing more jail terms on them.
Most Russians are still able to access their news through state broadcasts. However, social media is becoming more popular. 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. There was previously little opposition to the government from celebrities, athletes, journalists, and TV presenters. Some of these people are also employed by the state. A number of online petitions have been started against war, with hundreds of thousand of signatures.
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It is also unusual for family members of Russian elites to use social media protests such as the Dmitry Peskov daughters and the former President Boris Yeltsin’s daughters. 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. These latest protests against war are an example of this. Although peace still appears unlikely, it is evident that war enthusiasm has already dwindled. 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, 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. They will require another approach from the authorities, because harsh clampdowns have been known to cause protests just as well as being a result of them. How long will the Kremlin be able to continue its brutal strategy of repression and protest before it ends the vicious cycle?
The transformation from “no to war” to “no to Putin” will not happen overnight, but it could ultimately topple the regime.