Why are Russians not protesting against the war in Ukraine?

23 February, 02:54 PM
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Mikhail Kriger, an opposition activist protesting against Russia's war against Ukraine in Moscow on Feb. 20. His poster reads

Mikhail Kriger, an opposition activist protesting against Russia's war against Ukraine in Moscow on Feb. 20. His poster reads "Hands off Ukraine" (Photo:Courtesy of SOTA Telegram channel)

Author: Isobel Koshiw

NV spoke to some of the few Russians who actively oppose Russia’s use of military force about why more Russians aren’t protesting.

Eight Russian protesters gathered in downtown Moscow holding home-made plaques which read “Russia – Hands Off Ukraine!” on Feb. 20. They were almost immediately dragged away by police as they unfurled their banners. All eight were detained, according to Mikhail Kriger, an opposition activist who attended and who spoke to NV while waiting to be sentenced at a Moscow court.  

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This tiny group represents one of the few physical protests in Russia against the massing of troops along Ukraine’s borders over the past year - some of which have been one-man protests. 

As the rest of the world waits on tenterhooks to see whether Russia will launch a full-scale invasion, which would likely leave thousands dead and hurl the world into a perilous state, Russians are silent.

Since 2014, only a small minority of Russians have protested its government's policies towards Ukraine. There has been no significant opposition or widespread criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of force to control Kyiv.

Russians have traditionally said they consider Ukrainians to be their younger brothers or cousins, so why does it seem that Russians are indifferent? 

“There’s currently no such thing as a real organized Russian opposition. It’s been crushed,” said Kriger from the hallway where he was awaiting sentencing for attending an unsanctioned protest. “For me and my companions, war with Ukraine is the biggest nightmare.”

 PROPAGANDA

Polling data suggests that most Russians are aware that their government is involved in the war in Ukraine, but they see it as a reaction to western aggression, and not as Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Polls by Russia’s Levada Center taken in December 2021, showed 50 percent of Russians polled believe the United States is the instigator of aggression in the Donbas, while only 4 percent blame Russia.

“Ukraine has been the main topic for Russian propaganda over the last eight years,” said Sergei Davidis, a Russian anti-war activist and member of the now banned Memorial historical memory organization. “Half or more of Russians get their information from TV and half of those who read the news online, read information that the Russian state has distributed among sites.”

“Russians see it as justified or even, not as aggression but some sort of necessary action for self-defense,” said Davidis. “They think that Ukraine wants to take the whole Donbas by force or send saboteurs into Russia.”

According to Davidis, the repressive nature of the Russian authorities has taught people that being in opposition is dangerous and they cannot influence their government.  

“Even if people don’t support the aggressive politics of the Kremlin, they are taught to be passive and they try not to think about the issue in order not to have an inner psychological conflict,” said Davidis. “They don’t want to feel uncomfortable about the fact that they cannot influence anything.”

REPRESSION TOO GREAT

The Russian opposition leader and former member of Russia’s parliament, Boris Nemtsov, was the most prominent Russian who actively opposed Russia’s use of military force in Ukraine. But after he was assassinated in early 2015 – some say because of his activism against the war - the topic of Ukraine seemed to slide down the agenda of Russia’s opposition forces.  

Activity, according to Davidis, died down after initial protests in 2014 and has only recently been revived in the form of petitions, statements by the opposition and active social media discussion.

The Russian authorities' escalation suppressing dissent, followed by COVID-19 restrictions have made it very difficult to protest in Russia, says Davidis. “There’s very little that those who are against it can do,” said Davidis. “The repression is too great.”

Kriger, whose eyes appear on a video on top of a facemask from his arrest on February 20, agrees.  

“I agree that our society is not in the best state, but I wouldn’t say that people don’t care. In September 2014, there was a huge March for Peace against the war in Ukraine and lots of people came but now the protest laws are so draconian,” said Kriger. “The legal consequences are so great that it’s hard to condemn (society).”

NAVALNY

Russia’s main opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was imprisoned last year, issued a statement on Feb. 22 in reaction to Putin’s meeting with the security council where the council effectively decided to recognize the two breakaway republics he created and controlled – a move which ended the Minsk peace process.

Navalny decried Putin for creating fictitious enemies of Ukraine and the West to divert attention from his bad governance of Russia. While Navalny wrote that his actions could lead to the death of tens of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians, he did not directly address the current war in eastern Ukraine during which 14,000 and injured thousands more.

Ukrainians have been unsure if Navalny supports them and have questioned the degree to which Navalny understands the conflict.  

In 2014, Navalny initially seemed to agree with the Russian government’s decision to annex Crimea. In an interview in 2017, he changed his mind, describing the annexation as illegal.  

Similarly, in a 2018 tweet he wrote that Putin and “his idiots” had pushed the Orthodox Church in Ukraine to breakaway, from the Moscow patriarch saying it had "destroyed in four years what was created over centuries" and calling him an "enemy of the Russian world."

He has not made the Kremlin’s use of military force in Ukraine a central part of his platform and has instead stuck to domestic issues.

Russian opposition activist Lev Ponomarev, aged 80, who was another of the eight detained by police for protesting in Moscow on Feb. 20, told NV that if Navalny made more frequent statements about Ukraine, he would be killed. Navalny was poisoned last year by employees of Russia’s intelligence services. Once he had recovered in a hospital in Germany, he flew back to Moscow where he was arrested on what are widely believed to be trumped-up charges. 

“Let’s not speak about anything that could threaten his life, they’ve already tried to kill him once,” said Ponomarev. “You shouldn’t ask anything from other people, you should only ask things from yourself. That’s the rule I live by.”

 NV asked Ponomarev why this was, when many Ukrainians feel the Russian opposition has not been consistently active on Putin’s actions in Ukraine.

 “There have been strong statements, look at the statement by the intelligentsia on Ekho Moskvy,” said Ponomarev, referring to a statement made during a program the Moscow-based website for Moscow intellectual class which has published over 40 opinion blogs criticizing Putin's speech on Feb. 21. “You shouldn’t ask anything from Navalny because they will kill him.”

A search of recent publications by non-state controlled Russian media shows there has been a significant reaction to Putin's speech. 

“I wouldn’t say that the topic of war in Ukraine is not important for the Russian opposition, for the 10-15 percent It’s a topic that really occupies people on social media,” added Davidis. “But it is one of many repressions which is ongoing at the moment – Navalny, the foreign agent law, administrative and criminal repressions for acts of opposition – of course this divides the attention away from Ukraine.”  

In a Facebook post opposition activist George Losev wrote on Feb. 22  that “A lot of people write about feeling ashamed. I am not ashamed about Russia’s politics because I don’t have any relation to them. But I am very ashamed that the Ukrainian army will fight for my freedom while I am only gluing anti-war stickers and writing posts on the way to work.”

In memory of murdered Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition political party, Yabloko, are organising a nationwide demonstration against the war on 15 March. They have also organized a petition against the war in Ukraine which has so far only collected 20,000 signatures.

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