The War in Russia
Sasha left Moscow in a hurry. He’d never been out of the country before and, knowing Turkey for its hot weather, didn’t even pack a jacket. He landed in Istanbul, where snow is forecast for this week, with a pocketful of rubles worth half what they were just days ago, and a plan to start a new life in neighboring Georgia. “I am so calm now I am here,” he said. “But I have no idea when I might be able to go back.”
Like many young people trying to get out of Russia, he had dodged the draft for mandatory military conscription, thinking it would never be enforced. Now, though, he is doing everything he can to avoid being called up to serve in a war he doesn’t support. Others aren’t as lucky. His classmates are serving on the frontlines after President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine to destroy its armed forces, encircle cities, and bomb the former Soviet Republic into submission.
According to the Kremlin, the “special operation” to “demilitarise and de-Nazify” the country is a necessary response to what it sees as NATO’s encroachment on its borders. In Putin’s mind, the U.S. remains a Cold War-era superpower and its European allies are simply satellite states, with their foreign policy run from Washington. The prospect of American troops taking up positions along more of its Western frontier, in a country Putin clearly sees as an extension of his nation, has created a race to free Ukraine before it is, in his view, subjugated from abroad. In reality, though, Kiev was unlikely to have been granted membership of the NATO bloc any time soon and Russian soldiers have reportedly been largely treated as occupiers rather than liberators.
In a series of televised addresses to the public, Putin accused the Ukrainian government of perpetrating a “genocide” against ethnic Russians living in the Donbas region while seeking U.S. backing for a clash with Moscow. “The war machine is moving and, I repeat, it is coming close to our borders,” he said.
For a leader who has spent more than two decades harnessing populist sentiment and promising ordinary people stability, peace, and economic growth in exchange for virtually unlimited power, Putin’s decision to invade appears surprisingly out of touch with what many Russians want. While one recent poll from Moscow’s Levada Center showed around 60 percent blame NATO or Ukraine for the conflict, few seem prepared to bear the uncertainty that comes with living in a pariah state or subscribe to their president’s pretext for lightning war against friends and former compatriots across the border.
Taras, one of Moscow’s relatively well-heeled information technology workers, has never been political but, after his family in Ukraine told him of shelling and air strikes on the outskirts of their city, decided, “I feel like I should go out and protest—what else can I do?” Those same sentiments have seen thousands of young people, who ordinarily wouldn’t put themselves at risk of arrest by turning up to unauthorized demonstrations, taking up placards in public places and sharing anti-war messages on social media.
“They have underestimated how much anger there is among the public and people’s willingness to go out onto the streets,” Ben Noble, a Russia expert at University College London has warned. “Judging by the numbers we’re seeing today, people are unlikely to back away quietly.” According to another Levada Center poll, 29 percent of more than 1,600 citizens surveyed said they were considering taking part in rallies despite the threat of detention.
Now, Russian authorities have deployed riot police across the country, arresting activists and carrying out brutal beatings of detainees. A chilling audio clip from one interrogation seems to record an officer demanding information from a woman who is exercising her constitutional right to remain silent and not give evidence against herself. “Will you talk now?” he barks as the sound of blows is caught on the tape.
Russia’s fragile independent media landscape has also been devastated by a series of increasingly repressive measures. A new law, passed by the State Duma over the weekend, threatens journalists and editors with up to 15 years behind bars for writing “fake news” or discrediting the armed forces, which many believe will be used to silence the reporting of any information not handed down from on high. One top correspondent for Moscow’s business daily Kommersant, Elena Chernenko, was hounded out of the Foreign Ministry press pool for circulating an open letter against the war, as officials blasted her for a supposed “lack of professionalism.” Other outlets, like Echo Moskviy and Dozhd, have been shut down altogether.
Outsiders often wonder whether Putin and his inner circle actually care what Russians think—or whether they are prepared to rule by executive fiat and ignore public sentiment. But, in a 30-year-old state where violent uprisings and civil disorder having defined the lives of almost every current politician, those in top jobs have desperately avoided unpopular decisions. Despite record Covid-19 deaths over the winter, plans for a nationwide vaccine passport law were ultimately shelved because of the level of disquiet among voters and businesses. Likewise, reforms to Russia’s bloated pension system were watered down because of a rebellion in parliament and among the ruling party’s core voter base.
The last few weeks, however, have seen Putin transform from a populist figurehead to an undisguised tyrant. Where dissent was tolerated in politics and in the media in the past, it has now been all but stamped out. The restrictive laws against the free press were passed, for example, with the unanimous backing of M.P.s from all parties in a public display of loyalty rarely seen outside of autocracies like North Korea. Top celebrities and media figures who have openly opposed the war, familiar with how far they could go before encountering problems, have now been hounded out of their jobs. The most popular program on television, Russia’s answer to Jimmy Kimmel’s evening talk show, was immediately pulled with no notice after host Ivan Urgant came out against the invasion.
With Western sanctions against the Central Bank collapsing the ruble overnight, major international businesses pulling out of the country and popular platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok being blocked, the consequences of the offensive against Ukraine are beginning to be felt. Long queues have formed at banks as people scramble to take out cash and convert it into U.S. dollars. Those who can’t get hold of foreign currency have cleared out electronics and jewelry shops to turn their savings into something of value. Apple reseller re:Store was forced to shut after selling countless MacBooks and iPhones effectively at a massive markdown given the devaluation of the ruble. The California-based firm has since said it will stop exports and sales in Russia, driving the price for remaining stocks still higher.
The economic chaos, which analysts say will only get worse, has given rise to speculation that Putin could be ousted by a popular uprising or a palace coup among insiders. In reality, the University College London’s Noble says, “I don’t think we can expect anything like that anytime soon.” According to him, those in power will maintain control through “coercion and repression,” while officials and oligarchs close to the Kremlin are complicit in the decision making or dependent on their connections to sustain their personal wealth.
Instead, the most likely course of action is a long, grueling, and increasingly unpopular war in Ukraine, an isolated and autocratic government at home, and a steady exodus of those who are able to get out. An attempted de facto return to old borders appears to herald a return to the USSR’s dark days of product shortages, censorship, and indifference to the plight of its citizens. A generation of Russians, like Sasha and Taras, will see their lives defined by this conflict, which many never wanted in the first place. Meanwhile, Ukrainians will lose their homes, their families, and their lives for Putin’s project to halt a Western advance and turn back the clock to restore the glory of Russia.
Gabriel Gavin is a journalist based in Russia.