Despite what is being reported as mass arrests, Russians are taking to the streets to oppose their own country’s invasion of Ukraine. While they are being detained, they are still determined to publicly oppose Putin’s aggression.
Prominent Russian human rights activist Marina Litvinovich was detained as she was leaving her Moscow apartment Thursday, after she made a public call for Russians to rally Thursday night. She repeated that call in a Facebook video after her detention. “I know that many of you right now feel desperate, powerless, and ashamed over the attack by Vladimir Putin on the friendly people of Ukraine. But I call on you not to be desperate and come out to the central squares of your cities at 7 p.m. today and clearly and explicitly say that we, the people of Russia, are against the war unleashed by Putin,” Litvinovich said.
Across the country, in “Omsk, Khabarovsk, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Astrakhan, and Saratov,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reports, “people held single-person pickets—which do not require preliminary permission from the authorities—to demand that Russian authorities immediately stop the military attack on Ukraine,” and they have also been detained. But there are hundreds protesting in St. Petersburg and Moscow and Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk, with mass arrests. According to one account, over 1,700 arrests in 53 cities on the first day of war.
What’s not clear is how far Putin is willing to go to violently put down these protests. What is clear is that Russians who are opposed to this war are not going to stop protesting, and that might be one of the miscalculations Putin has made in this attack. It’s not 1979 anymore, when Politburo had an iron grip on state media, there wasn’t any internet or smartphones for people to see that there was popular opposition to the government.
This time around, there’s also official opposition from Russian leaders in cities and provinces. More than 150 senior officials from around the country have signed an open letter condemning the action, blaming Putin “personally” for the attack “for which there is no and cannot be justification.”
The officials declared they were “elected by the people” and that they “unreservedly condemn the attack of the Russian army on Ukraine. […] This is an unprecedented atrocity for which there is no and cannot be justification. The decision to attack was made personally by Russian President Vladimir Putin. We are convinced that the citizens of Russia did not give him such a mandate,” the letter reads. They encourage fellow citizens “not to participate in the aggression and not to approve of it. Please don’t be silent: Only massive popular condemnation can stop the war.”
That’s a remarkable thing to happen in Putin’s Russia, for officials to openly, publicly go against Putin. It’s a remarkable thing that individual citizens are risking arrest to oppose the war. “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 at a demonstration. “I want to live in a normal country, one that is peaceful and oriented toward the future.”
Since 2014, when tens of thousands of Russians demonstrated against Putin’s seizure of Crimea, the opposition has seen the assassination of leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the assassination attempt and subsequent arrest of Aleksei Navalany in Jan. 2021. That arrest resulted in mass demonstrations across the country, both at the time of his arrest and again three months later, during Putin’s annual address.
The invasion has also activated the oldest and most effective organization in Russian civil society, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. The group formed before the end of the Soviet Union, during the Gorbachev era of perestroika, a loosening of state control on civic life. A small group of—as their name suggests—mothers of soldiers, formed to protest the conscription of their sons into an abusive Soviet military. The group was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in opposing the first Chechen War, and their efforts to secure the release of Russian prisoners of war.
The CSMR is calling out Russian military abuses in conscripting their sons for this invasion. They will submit a formal complaint to the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office for the military’s deceit and abuse of young conscripts in this invasion.
“They are switching entire regiments to contract [soldiers,] although the guys did not submit any formal requests for this, and took no such initiative. There are instances of physical violence, and beatings of those who refuse to become contract soldiers. And after that it’s completely unknown [what happens to them], because they take away their phones,” Andrei Kurochkin, the deputy chairman of the group, told Russian outlet Takie Dela. “We’ve had a flurry of calls from scared mothers all over Russia. They are crying, they don’t know if their children are alive or healthy,” he told the outlet, adding that it’s a “complete catastrophe” when military service is performed “under duress.”
There are going to be mass casualties on both sides of this conflict, which Putin knew. The mobile hospitals and vehicle-mounted crematoriums that are accompanying Russian forces into Ukraine attest to that. But is the Russian population prepared for it? Is the Russian population as anti-Western as Putin? Do they share his messianic fervor to subjugate Ukraine? How will they feel about it when their conscripted children are slaughtered in Putin’s war?
When the sanctions the U.S. and allies put on Russia start hurting Russians economically, what happens. There’s already been a crash of the ruble against the dollar, necessitating action by the country’s central bank to prop it up and save the country’s stock market.
An unpopular, long, and expensive war in Afghanistan hastened the undoing of the Soviet Union. Putin’s Ukraine adventure could have much the same outcome, but a lot quicker. After all, Russia doesn’t have all those republics to steal from to keep feeding the war machine.
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