In Moscow, there is currently a growing defiance of the ‘no protest’ political sentiment, signaling a shift from the perceived docility of the people under Vladimir Putin’s rule.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Russians were loudly silent even though it was understood that the majority of them opposed the idea of war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is believed to be the greatest undoing of Putin in recent times and may severely mar his leadership. .
In the Kremlin, many of Putin’s allies, who have without choice, supported the war, are gradually finding the mettle to criticize the outcome as the consequences rocket and the war lingers longer than expected. Ukraine has surprised the world by resisting Russia for more than seven months now, an outcome widely considered as a slap on the face of Russian military and a bruise on Putin’s Slavic ego.
Putin’s camp was reportedly pushed into disarray days ago when Ukrainian forces liberated more than 150,000 people and 3,100 square miles of territory in the country’s Kharkiv region from Russian occupation.
“It is pretty embarrassing because his main brand, and the one that he’s been building for the past 20 years, is that he knows what he’s doing. He always gets the job done,” Washington Post Russia reporter Mary Ilyushina tells Today, Explained in an interview. “In this case, we see even people who are extremely pro-Kremlin, extremely pro- this invasion, saying that they don’t like the way Russia has gone about this. We’ve heard from people like the leader of the Russian Communist Party saying that Russia is not really fighting anymore in a “special operation” and this is an actual war.”
The recent victory scored by Ukrainian forces marks a significant shift in the war, which Putin has dubbed “special operation”, and has forced the Kremlin to announce partial mobilization that has not been well-received by the Russian people.
Nationwide protest has broken out as Russians troop out in thousands to kick against the mobilization. Thousands of people are also fleeing Russia to neighboring countries that nearly every flight is fully booked. “I don’t want to go to the war,” Dmitri who flew to Armenia told AFP. “I don’t want to die in this senseless war. This is a fratricidal war.”
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said a total of 300,000 Russian reservists are expected to be called up for military service through the draft exercise.
Protests in Moscow and St Petersburg today have grown pretty large. People chanting “No to War!” Dozens of arrests reported pic.twitter.com/9F4E5VIy9E
— Matthew Luxmoore (@mjluxmoore) September 21, 2022
In videos shared on social media, protesters could be seen chanting “No war!” “Send Putin to the trenches!” and “Let our children live!” The demonstration has persisted despite heavy police clampdown. So far, about 1,400 people have been arrested across different cities in Russia, but others have marched on nevertheless.
A crowd gathered this evening on Arbat, Moscow's main pedestrian street, shouts "Send Putin to the trenches!" pic.twitter.com/pkm8vynnxw
— Francis Scarr (@francis_scarr) September 21, 2022
Moscow Times reported that many of those arrested are being forcefully drafted into the army irrespective of their experience, a direct contrast to what Putin said at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
“Military service will apply only to citizens who are currently in the reserve, especially those who have served in the armed forces, have certain military professions and relevant experience,” he said.
Ilyushina said that apart from shadow mobilization (using mercenaries), the Kremlin has been conscripting prisoners, those convicted for murder and violent crimes, promising them freedom if they fight for six months.
The partial mobilization is seen as an indication that the Russian military is decapacitated and that the Kremlin is desperately seeking to avoid further embarrassment in Ukraine. The desperation is also said to be notable in Putin’s further speech at the UNGA that has drawn condemnation from Western leaders.
“To those who allow themselves such statements regarding Russia, I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and for separate components and more modern than those of Nato countries and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin said, adding that “It’s not a bluff.”
Putin’s statement hints at the possibility that he may resort to the use of nuclear weapons to achieve his aim in Ukraine. Part of his aim is to annex some separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine and protect the territories from Kyiv.
The US President Joe Biden, in line with the West’s decision to stand by Ukraine, said Putin’s statement amounts to “irresponsible nuclear threats. He added that the “war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state” and that “a nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought.”
The West has doled out series of sanctions to Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine, including barring Russians from visiting their countries. Moscow has also retaliated by cutting off gas supply to Europe. The standoff is gradually impacting the lives of Russians as Russia increasingly becomes a pariah state.
The Kremlin has managed to find ways to defy the sanctions, narrowing its bilateral ties to countries outside the West. This and Putin’s speech at the UNGA indicate that the Kremlin is not yet ready to bow to Western pressure and call the war in Ukraine off.
But the current protest across Russia is perhaps a development that Moscow did not put into account. The mobilization is in breach of what Putin has always promised his people; “As long as you stay out of politics, you can have your house, your job, you can, you know, live a normal life.” Russians have clung to this promise for long and only want to lead a normal a life. Thus, forcing them to enlist in the military is believed to be a battle that will not only determine Russia’s fate in Ukraine but also Putin’s fate as a leader.