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Putin’s Crackdown on Anti-War Protesters

Plus: What we know about Russian public opinion as the Ukraine war drags on.
July 21, 2022
Putin’s Crackdown on Anti-War Protesters
Security forces take measures during an anti-war protest in Moscow, Russia on March 06, 2022. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

After a wave of anti-war protests in dozens of Russian cities following the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the public expressions of discontent have quieted down. The demonstrations and marches are long gone. Vladimir Putin’s poll ratings have been rising, reaching 83 percent in late March; the percentage of Russians saying that the country is on the right track also seems to be up. Is the Russian population, then, genuinely and overwhelmingly behind the war in Ukraine? Does this mean that most Russians are morally complicit in Putin’s war—and that the Kremlin has carte blanche to conduct the war without having to fear popular discontent?

The real picture is more complicated.

For starters, surveys by the Levada Center, the only independent polling firm in Russia (classified as a “foreign agent” by the Russian government), suggest a modest increase in anti-war sentiment. In a March survey of Russian adults, 53 percent of respondents said they “completely” supported the actions of Russian armed forces in Ukraine; in May and June, that figure was down to 47 percent. The share of respondents who said they “mostly” approved of the actions of the armed forces remained steady at 28 percent; but the share saying they mostly disapproved was up from 8 percent to 11 percent, and the share saying they disapproved completely was up from 6 percent to 9 percent. A look at the breakdown of responses by age groups is also revealing: approval of the war is highest among those 55 and older (83 percent completely or mostly support the actions of the armed forces) and lowest among young adults under 25 (55 percent approve or mostly approve, 36 percent disapprove or mostly disapprove).

A series of confidential polls conducted in late June by VCIOM, the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center, and leaked to the media have found even more opposition to the military action in Ukraine among young adults: the “for” and “against” split was roughly even at 37 percent each. (“Mostly don’t care” was picked by 12 percent; the rest were “not sure.”) Across all age groups, 68 percent of VCIOM respondents approved or mostly approved of the war while only 18 percent disapproved or mostly disapproved, down from 27 percent in February. But VCIOM polls had some other striking results. However, respondents were evenly split on whether Russia should continue the fighting or conduct peace negotiations. Meanwhile, between April and June, the share disagreeing with the view that it was important for Russians to rally around President Putin and “support him even if you don’t agree with everything he does” grew from 29 percent to 43 percent in the under-25 group and from 19 percent to 26 percent among those 25 to 34.

It is important to remember that all polls in Russia right now should be taken with a big chunk of salt. Sociologist Grigory Yudin, a professor at the joint Russian-British Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, told the independent Russian media site the Bell that “Russians generally believe that polls are conducted by the state, and therefore respond accordingly.” This is particularly relevant in an atmosphere in which dissent is increasingly equated with treason. Yudin also points out that VCIOM does not disclose the response and refusal rates for its polls, information necessary for judging how accurately a poll reflects public opinion.

Victor Davidoff, a columnist at the independent Russian magazine New Times, told me by email that the relatively low level support for the war among young people accounts for the Kremlin’s reluctance to declare a general mobilization (which, if successful, would likely ensure Russia’s victory). It is also noteworthy that few Russians have been volunteering to fight in Ukraine, despite various inducements.

As for the decline of protests, it is almost certainly due less to indifference (let alone growing pro-war sentiment) than to fear. Under laws enacted in early March, “discrediting the Russian armed forces” or spreading “false information” about Russia’s military action in Ukraine is punishable by up to 15 years in prison; dozens of prosecutions under these statutes are currently underway. On July 8, a Moscow court handed down the first draconian sentence in such a case. The victim was Aleksei Gorinov, a member of the municipal council of Moscow’s Krasnoselsky district who had spoken out against the war at a March 15 council session. Gorinov and fellow council member Elena Kotenochkina not only had the temerity to refer to the “special operation” in Ukraine as a war but accused the Russian government of trying to occupy Ukraine and of killing Ukrainian children—and compared it to fascist regimes. Gorinov, who remained unbowed and managed to bring a handwritten placard with the words “Do you still need this war?” into the courtroom, was sentenced to seven years in a penal colony. (Kotenochkina, charged in absentia, had left the country.)

Moscow city deputy Aleksei Gorinov, accused of spreading “knowingly false information” about the Russian army fighting in Ukraine, stands with a poster reading “Do you still need this war?” inside a glass cell during the verdict hearing in his trial at a courthouse in Moscow on July 8, 2022. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP / Getty)

Another pending case, in the provincial city of Penza, involves English teacher Irina Gen, turned in by her own students for telling them about a Russian strike on a Ukrainian hospital (or “disseminating false information”). Some protests have been treated more leniently: this month, two men in in their thirties who publicly shouted anti-war slogans in Novosibirsk were merely fined 30,000 rubles each—approximately two weeks’ average pay—for “discrediting the armed forces,” while two teachers in the city of Chelyabinsk were fired but not prosecuted for social media posts that criticized the war and publicized anti-war protests. But even a few harsh sentences serve as a strong deterrent.

No expression of anti-war sentiment, it seems, is too trivial for the authorities. Tambov resident Artem Kallas is currently facing charges of “discrediting the armed forces” for having eight white asterisks affixed to the rear window of his car, forming a three-letter word and a five-letter word—matching the slogan Net voine, or No to war. In Nizhny Novgorod, similar charges were filed against a social media user who complained about problems with hot water in the city and suggested that the money spent on the “special operation” in Ukraine could be more productively spent on better municipal services; the quotes around “special operation” (which, according to the court, “undoubtedly indicate a sarcastic, reverse, and contemptuous meaning” of the phrase) earned him a 30,000-ruble fine.

In other cases, the state’s repressive machinery has been deployed against potential protesters. On June 12, rumors that activists in Moscow were planning anti-war protests for Russia Day—the national holiday that marks the Russian Federation’s 1990 declaration of state sovereignty—triggered the detention of over fifty riders on the Moscow metro because facial recognition software flagged them for previous involvement in such protests. Most were issued a “warning on the impermissibility of illegal actions” and released right away, but a few detainees were taken to police precincts and held for up to five hours.

Still others have experienced police harassment on mere suspicion of anti-war activity. The independent human rights media project OVD-Info has reported on the case of Maria, a Novosibirsk woman suspected—falsely, she says—of making “Peace to the world” posts on the internet and attending protest rallies. Maria says she was bombarded with phone calls from the local police precinct and was finally taken in for questioning; her husband and her mother were also harangued about her supposed offenses.

And yet the anti-war protests have not disappeared entirely, even if the big rallies have given way to lone pickets and anti-war graffiti. Altogether, OVD-Info reports, there have been over 16,300 detentions for anti-war activity since February 24. A small number, to be sure, in a country of 145 million. But in an atmosphere of escalating repression, intensive pro-war propaganda in the state-run media, and suppression of independent media outlets—as of mid-April, over 1,500 websites had been blocked for Russian internet users—even these numbers contradict the narrative of near-universal passivity among the Russian public.

For now, says Davidoff, “support for war in Russia is high enough to continue it, but not high enough to win it.” How will this change if and when growing Russian casualties make more of a dent in public consciousness—or if and when living standards begin to drop as a result of Russia’s self-inflicted ostracism, however incomplete, from the global economy? In what now seems likely to be a protracted war of attrition, shifts in public opinion may make a crucial difference.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.