Putin’s invasion of Ukraine sparked anti-war protests in Russia. They could be his downfall

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 came as a shock to most Russians, who cannot imagine going to war against a country they often call a “brotherly nation”. As anti-war protests grow across Russia, they fuel a domestic political stalemate. Putin’s legitimacy could be at stake as the Kremlin opts for an increasingly repressive response to internal dissent.

Despite threats of government prosecution for high treason and sometimes cruel treatment of protesters, thousands of people made their anti-war statements in the streets and squares of Russian cities after the military intervention began. The mass protests were immediate, involving very public figures. They were streamed and shared vividly – ​​and partially curated – on social media. Over 6,500 protesters were arrested over a period of five days. Several Russian and Ukrainian media were blocked for their coverage of the invasion, and the notorious liberal radio station Echo Moskvy was taken off the air yesterday.
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Read more: How Putin is losing at his own disinformation game in Ukraine

Protests are not a new phenomenon in Russia. Nor is the courage of protesters in the face of detentions, beatings and punitive measures. Over the past decade there has been an increase in the number and scale of protests (except during COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings). According to the Levada Center, Russia’s leading independent polling group, people said they were almost four times more likely to protest in 2020 than they were in 2014.

In particular, 2017 and 2018 saw the rise of activist Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption movement following the release of a video report on YouTube about the hidden wealth of then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The waves of popular discontent were the largest since the Bolotnaya Square “For Fair Elections” protests from 2011 to 2013, which drew tens of thousands of people.

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 2, 2022.

In 2020, widespread unrest erupted across Russia in response to a constitutional referendum resetting the presidential term and the arrest of former Khabarovsk region governor Sergei Furgal, who won his election against a backed candidate by Putin. The Kremlin patiently waited for the protests to dissipate on their own rather than harshly suppressing them. But after Navalny was poisoned and arrested in Moscow in 2021, authorities began to take a much tougher approach. The Kremlin began to believe it could retain power by force and began using uncompromising repression to disperse mass protests.

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Today, it is clear that no demonstration, whether anti-government or anti-war, could topple Putin. For now, the latest protests in Russia against the war in Ukraine show “little evidence of a broader wave of opposition”, and Putin’s propaganda machine continues to produce images of peace in Ukraine and to block the “unofficial” accounts of the war. Putin’s approval rating is 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 the world. eastern Ukraine. Russians continue to rally around the flag, remaining largely unaware of the war and confused about the official line.

However, as the fighting continues, it may become more difficult for the Kremlin to cover up the war and convince the public that Russia is just fighting the fascists and facing no casualties. The more the war in Ukraine becomes “bloody and brutal”, the harder it will be for Putin to keep it out of the public eye.

Russians opposed to the war in Ukraine

Russians will gradually learn the truth about events in Ukraine, which could snowball the protests into a sustained anti-war movement. People may feel increasingly worried about the economic and human costs of war. As Russia’s standard of living deteriorates due to growing capital flight, rising inflation and slowing economic growth, the facade of normalcy could crumble. The Kremlin may have no choice but to keep tightening the screws, arresting more protesters, handing out harsher prison sentences and bigger fines, stepping up censorship and blocking or slowing down more websites with prohibited content.

While most Russians continue to get their news from state television broadcasts, more and more people are turning to social media. While its ability to inspire protests is currently being tested, with Twitter and Facebook facing restrictions for spreading “false information”, the use of social media by protesters and celebrities has increased the mainstream opposition’s visibility. (Previously, it was rare to see open opposition from pop stars, athletes, journalists and TV presenters, some of whom are employed by the state.) Several online petitions against the war have also collected hundreds of thousands of signatures.

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Equally unusual is the use of social media to protest by family members of Russian elites, including the daughters of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and former President Boris Yeltsin. The daughter of oligarch Roman Abramovich has openly denounced the “biggest and most successful Kremlin propaganda lie” that most Russians support Putin’s military aspirations. Three members of Russia’s parliament have also spoken out against the fighting, saying they “voted for peace, not war”, although the loyalty of Putin’s inner circle appears to be unwavering so far.

Consequences of hostilities in Kharkiv
Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images A damaged military vehicle seen on the outskirts of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine on February 26, 2022

The protests, fueled by the disconnect between the people and the government’s actions to suppress any opposition, could be Putin’s eventual undoing. The latest anti-war demonstrations are a good example of this. Peace still seems unlikely, but it is clear that enthusiasm for war is already drying up. The Kremlin may find it difficult to continue to stir up enthusiasm for what is already being called a “war without a cause”.

From the archive: April 2021 TIME interview with Volodymyr Zelensky on Russia

Dmitry Muratov, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and editor of Novaya Gazetaa newspaper defying state censorship, points out that the memory of the Second World War and the fact that many Russians have relatives in Ukraine “holds back even the most rabid supporters of the current power”.

Putin’s reign depends on his ability to maintain broad public support. As civil society grows bolder and protesters call on more people to mobilize online and offline, the protests could grow and erode Putin’s popularity. Authorities will have to find another way to deal with them, as harsh crackdowns are known to be a cause for protest as well as a consequence. How long can the Kremlin retreat to its ruthless strategy before the cycle of protest and repression comes to a revolutionary end?

The transformation of “no to warto “no to Putin” will not happen overnight, but it could ultimately topple the regime.


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