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Mainstream, VOL LX No 11, New Delhi, March 5, 2022

2022 invasion of Ukraine - Will an anti-war sentiment grow in Russia? | Ptee Robin Robinovich

Saturday 5 March 2022

by Ptee Robin Robinovich

The decision and rationale by Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch a ’special military operation’ aimed at "demilitarisation and denazification" — a war on Ukraine, in simple words, came on February 24, 2022. Prior to this, there had been a month-long Russian military deployment & combat exercises involving over a hundred thousand troops near the Ukrainian border. Several prominent European leaders visited Mr Putin in Moscow for talks to get him to lift his foot off the pedal.

Vladimir Putin a former KGB man from the Soviet days joined Russian politics in the mid-1990s and has come to control it ever since. He is an authoritarian and nationalist politician and his, United Russia party totally dominates the Russian legislative body the Duma is more and more a reactionary political force. It is hard to believe that many on the left in the US, Europe and in the Third world see Putin as an anti-imperialist and progressive.

Putin years have seen Russian military interventions in some of the former Soviet republics (and also in far-away Syria) and funds for modernisation of its military instead of social spending. Since 2000, the media is tightly controlled to push the regime’s propaganda; TV show hosts and artists who show loyalty to the authorities have been generously rewarded. Dissenters have been treated with an iron hand. This has carved deep divisions within Russian society, between those who support the regime, and those who remain silent and those who can say no. The last two years saw scattered social unrest in Russia over pensions and over location of garbage disposal dumps, eroding the popularity of Putin.

The news of war hasn’t gone down well with sections of the Russian elites and also with many ordinary Russians who normally seem pretty apolitical and distanced from political affairs in a self-protective reflex. For the past month and more, thousands of Russian doctors, artists, academics, scientists, architects, lawyers, artists, and students signed petitions to express their disapprobation or opposition to any talk of a possible war.

When the news finally broke about the war, many thousands finally stepped out and gathered in Moscow and Saint Petersburg and also in smaller cities in street protests and were detained for protesting. The beginning of war, has been widely condemned by some top Russian celebrities and sports stars like Russian tennis player Andrey Rublev; Ice hockey great Alex Ovechkin; Famed Cyclist Pavel Sivakov; Prominent comedian and showman Maxim Galkin and Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2021. One of the bright young Russian sociologists Gregory Yudin faced police truncheons for protesting. Elena Osipova a survivor of the Nazi siege of Leningrad was arrested her at an anti-war demonstration in St. Petersburg. There are many more who could be named.

These risky demonstrations have been disorganized but more numerous but smaller than the ones after the war in Crimea in 2014. Russian police have arrested over 8100 people for taking part in anti-war protests spread in over 100 cities across Russia. These have been an entirely informal and self-organised protests with no leaders, whose scale is difficult to tell. Protests before this have mostly been channelled via opposition political infrastructure, but in recent years opposition parties including that of the opposition leader Alexi Navalny have faced much repression and been shut down. NGOs and Human rights groups have had a troubled life with a foreign agents law in place and strict restrictions on public funding. Memorial the famous independent initiative that emerged during days of Perestroika years to uncover and remember crimes & excesses committed during days of Stalin and the Soviet regime, was also banned recently. Ever since this war on Ukraine started there are new restrictions, and a full scale propaganda battle is now taking place in the media, particularly on social media. The much respected independent radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) and the independent online TV station Dojd have been blocked for their coverage of the Ukraine invasion. The Russian Authorities have now blocked access to Facebook. The BBC has now decided to temporarily suspend its journalists’ work in Russia to protect its staff.

Ukraine was the largest former republic of the former Soviet Union both in population numbers and in territorial size. Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev among two of the top leaders from the former Soviet Union were either born or raised in Ukraine. Culturally Ukraine lives in the hearts and minds of Russians. Hundreds of thousands also rub shoulders as colleagues and neighbours in their respective mixed societies etc. There is a long history of inter-marriages, social interconnections, and shared culture between the Ukrainians and Russians than among practically many other people. The end of the USSR in 1991 had left Russians and Ukrainians feeling like separated members of a family. Large numbers remain bilingual in Ukraine, despite all the attempts at de-Russification or Ukrainisation of the recent years. They have a shared repertoire of lullabies, nursery rhymes and songs they sing and the books they read. Probably half the soldiers in the Russian Army would have the same first names or family names as the Ukrainians. Russians as they discover images via social media of destruction in Ukrainian cities and see Ukrainian refugees fleeing war, will be hugely upset, unlike their reaction to similar destruction in distant Syria. It is likely that Kremlin’s misleading propaganda justifying the war directed at the domestic audience wont work well this time?

A lot of Russian people are getting very perplexed as they hear more about the sanctions, the iconic Ikea stores have now shut doors temporarily creating a sense of shock, some people not are being unable to pay for their local transport using bank cards ever since those banks were placed on the sanctions list. Will the numerous French or German department stores that dot the Russian urban landscape since early 2000, also close. Air fares on the limited flights out of Russia have now gone through the roof. Prices of computer spares and car tyres and accesories have shot up 40% in the past few days. A whole generation of Post-Soviet Russian urban middle class grew up having the possibility of travel to Europe might find the inability to fly to Europe and elsewhere and economic isolation very suffocating. The Russian consumer, travellers, Russian football lovers, ballet lovers, film and music lovers, Facebook users and Youtubers, will all be hit hard by the consequences of sanctions imposed on Russia or by Russian govt restrictions. The affected users, consumers, tourists and citizens could in large numbers hold it against the Putin regime for going to war and making them pay the social price for it. Out of self-interest, will they tilt the balance of public opinion against war. Time will tell.

Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine is likely to create deep bitterness, enmity and would get Ukrainians to start defining themselves in opposition to Russians, something they never did earlier. The kind of thing that exists among Indians and Pakistanis.

In 2003 Russia had opposed at the UN, the US-led invasion of Iraq as illegal and in violation of the UN Charter, so how can it with full impunity breach international law in its own current invasion of Ukraine. BTW, How do you carry out ‘De-nazification’, by carrying your own hit lists and sending in an invading army?. Has it occurred to the Russian regime that it ought to be taking public distance from Far-right & neo-fascist groups abroad and also domestic ones? [1] [2] [3]

* (Author: Ptee Robin Robinovich is an occasional commentator on European affairs)

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