One of the only heartening things in the ongoing, illegal, and increasingly dangerous Russian invasion of Ukraine is the level of dissent within Russia itself. It reminds us to reject the twisted logic — once advanced by Osama Bin Laden and now taken up by leading liberal hawks like former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul — that equates the people of a country with the crimes of their government. It also may prove critical to ensuring a diplomatic climb down for Moscow from its current hostilities, let alone nuclear disaster.
Sizable antiwar protests have been a fixture of Russian cities ever since the first day Vladimir Putin announced the invasion, when thousands of Russians gathered in more than fifty cities that evening in protest. Since then, more than five thousand protesters have been arrested as a result of antiwar actions. So far, the protests have been smaller than those organized against the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny last January, which likely has more to do with the level of domestic repression put in place since then. Just today, a new coalition of socialist antiwar activists in Russia was announced, charging that “the elders of the Kremlin are in the minority” and that “most Russians do not want a fratricidal war, even among those who still trust the Russian government.”
We have other information that hints at the depths of Russian unhappiness and opposition to this war. A petition declaring the action “senseless” and a “step to nowhere” has seen the number of signatures from scientists and science journalists balloon from more than 100 to now over four thousand. Russian scientist Oleg Anisimov later apologized to a Ukrainian colleague at an online United Nations climate conference, telling her, “I am ashamed — as a person, as a citizen of this country . . . that we could not create civil society institutions in our country that could influence the decisions made by the president and the government.”
Kommersant reporter Elena Chernenko similarly circulated an antiwar petition that got a hundred signatures from fellow members of the press, losing her access to the Russian foreign ministry as a result. Political comedian Ivan Urgant, the host of a weekly late show on Russia’s state-owned Channel One, posted “no to the war” on his Instagram account, leading his show to disappear from the network’s schedule.
Russian independent media has been particularly vocal, with Syndicate-100, a coalition of dozens of independent outlets, expressing its “pain, anger, and shame” at Putin’s decision and the editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta declaring that “only the antiwar movement of Russians can save life on this planet.” Reporter Mikhail Zygar put together his own open letter urging “all citizens of Russia to say no to this war.” Meanwhile, Russia’s Journalists’ and Media Workers’ Union, with more than 600 active members across forty regions, published an open letter of its own demanding an immediate withdrawal of Russian forces that received 162 signatures, and the union has continued criticizing the war since.
A variety of other industry groups have followed suit. An antiwar petition organized by a Russian tech worker got more than a staggering ten thousand signatures from fellow IT workers. A separate open letter gathered the backing of more than two thousand of the country’s actors, directors, and other creatives dismissing Putin’s “peacekeeping” pretext for the war. Yelena Kovalskaya, the artistic director of Moscow’s Vsevolod Meyerhold State Theater, resigned in disgust, saying she could not “work for a murderer and receive salary from him.” Calls to end the war have been signed onto by the country’s economists, lawyers, teachers, psychiatrists, and Russians from many, many other fields, suggesting the breadth and depth of antiwar feeling in the country.
Prominent filmmakers and celebrities have been particularly outspoken, despite the risks to their careers. Rapper Oxxxymiron canceled six sold-out shows in Moscow and Saint Petersburg in protest, saying that “I cannot entertain you when Russian missiles are falling on Ukraine.” Newly minted world tennis number one Daniil Medvedev called for peace, joined by fellow tennis players Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Andrey Rublev, who wrote “no war please” on a camera after winning a semifinal at the recent Dubai tournament, a week after he had won the doubles championship at the Marseille Open playing alongside a Ukrainian athlete. Major names in football and ice hockey have done the same.
Even institutions one might normally consider fairly establishment have spoken out. The Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center, which gets more than half its funding from the Russian government and which counts Putin as a donor, called the war “an unthinkable disaster for both countries and their peoples” and urged “an immediate halt to hostilities.” Just yesterday, 158 clergy from the Russian Orthodox Church, whose backing has been key to Putin’s rule, signed onto a statement calling for “reconciliation and an immediate ceasefire,” warning that “the Last Judgement awaits every person” and urging that “no nonviolent call for peace and an end to war should be forcibly suppressed.” The signatories grew from twenty-six that were listed when the letter was published.
There is also significant antiwar feeling among elites and their families. Billionaires Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska have both called for peace, while Chelsea Football Club’s oligarch owner Roman Abramovich is reportedly involved in negotiations between Moscow and Kiev. A number of other oligarchs have similarly sought to highlight their disapproval of the war, while family members of several Putin associates and elites — including predecessor Boris Yeltsin’s daughter, defense minister Sergei Shoigu’s son-in-law, longtime Putin friend Sergey Chemezov’s son, and Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s ex-wife and daughter — all made antiwar statements on social media.
To date, three Communist Party members of Parliament have spoken out against the war, despite having voted to recognize Ukraine’s breakaway regions, which precipitated Putin’s invasion. One, Vyacheslav Markhaev, claimed the recognition had masked “plans to unleash a full-scale war with our closest neighbor” and condemned both the West and Moscow for what he said was the same strategy of seizing new territory under cover of defending democracy. It’s worth remembering, too, that before Putin invaded, retired colonel general Leonid Ivashov had warned against a war on Ukraine on behalf of a collection of retired Russian officers.
Be Careful What You Wish For
Needless to say, none of this gives us an exact measure of Russian public opinion on the war, which polling suggests is more complex than this roundup might indicate. But whatever the exact numbers, there is clearly some substantial level of opposition to Putin’s war within Russia.
If Putin thought the invasion would boost his domestic popularity, or at least be allowed to go ahead unencumbered by a disgruntled populace, it appears he may have miscalculated. As Moscow ramps up its war effort and even flirts with nuclear deployment, ordinary Russians’ unhappiness with the war could prove critical for forcing Russian de-escalation and an eventual ceasefire. Even authoritarians must be sensitive to public opinion, as Putin showed in January, when the Russian parliament scuttled plans for QR code vaccine passes in response to popular opposition.
But this should also be cause for caution from the West as it responds to the invasion. An indiscriminate, overly harsh response risks killing this fledgling opposition as it’s done elsewhere in the past, making desperate Russians more dependent on Putin’s government to survive and undermining the solidarity between much of the world and ordinary, war-averse Russians. Besides painting a nuke-wielding Putin into a corner, the current talk of collapsing the Russian economy through unprecedented sanctions could prove a gift to Putin, inflaming ordinary people’s resentment of the Western countries laying siege to their country and giving Putin a chance to rally the population against a foreign enemy.
Independent media outlet Meduza, a vital source of independent, Putin-critical media coverage within Russia, is already warning that “international sanctions against the central bank and other Russian credit institutions create serious risks for our crowdfunding.” Western voices calling for companies like YouTube to end service in Russia should likewise consider the possible outcomes of depriving Russians of access to news and information outside the increasingly state–controlled media sphere.
Russian antiwar sentiment may be pivotal for both securing peace and stability in Europe and driving a turn away from militarism. It would be a shame if the rush to ill-thought-out, punitive policy undermined and killed it.