Since Russia’s President Vladimir Putin launched his expanded invasion of Ukraine on February 24, fires at military bases and train accidents inside the Russian Federation have increased, military draft offices have been set aflame there, and draft resistance has spiked, as have cases in which soldiers in uniform are refusing to obey orders to deploy to Ukraine. Telephone bomb threats have become more frequent throughout the country, and hackers have posted anti-war messages on Kremlin propaganda sites. Taken together, those developments have led the Ekho Kavkaza portal to conclude that “anti-war protest in Russia” has acquired a powerful, new “underground” dimension, with many Russians opposed to what Putin is doing evidently prepared to take far more radical actions than in the past. This trend is prompting new crackdowns by the authorities (Ekho Kavkaza, May 13).
Like the continuing public protests against the war, which marred even May 9 Victory Day last week, the “underground” events appear not to have any single controlling center; moreover, at least some of them may be taking place for reasons other than to protest the war. Thus, for example, fires at military bases and oil depots in Russia continue to be described as “mysterious” rather than assumed to be the work of anti-war activists or Ukrainian special forces (Kyiv Post, April 27; Daily Record, April 25). But enough of the actions obviously are intended to send an anti-war message. And at a minimum, they are viewed as such by the Russian authorities, who are taking steps to clamp down hard. These merit attention as an indication of just how opposed some Russians are to the war and how many risks they are prepared to take in the current repressive climate to demonstrate that opposition.
Perhaps the most widely visible underground activity of this sort has been the hacking of pro-Kremlin media sites, on which at least briefly in the last week anti-war messages were posted for all to see. The authorities quickly took them down but so far have not been able to track down and arrest all those responsible (Graniru.org, May 13; Meduza  , May 9). In addition, graffiti artists have taken to the streets to leave anti-war messages on the walls of buildings (Kavkaz.Realii, May 15).
More dramatic but less widespread in their impact have been firebombings of about a dozen military commissariats. These are the offices where the Russian military draft is carried out, and attacking them is clearly intended to make the conduct of that operation more difficult as well as to protest the war (Ekho Kavkaza, May 13). Many of these incidents, such as the firebombing of a commissariat in Volgograd on May 15, occur far from Moscow and seldom receive much coverage beyond local media (Hu-f.ru, May 15).
Several years ago, Russia was overwhelmed by a rash of mystery telephone bomb threats that forced the emptying out of buildings or houses while the alleged danger had to be investigated (see EDM, January 31, 2019). Now this tactic seems to have returned, with a surge of new incidents. Many who make telephone bomb threats may not be protesting the war, but two developments suggest that at least some are and that the authorities in Moscow increasingly view them that way. On the one hand, the number of bomb threats appears to have grown significantly since the expanded invasion of Ukraine began, particularly in places known for their anti-war sentiments (Kavkaz.Realii, May 13, 2022). And on the other hand, police in St. Petersburg and possibly elsewhere are now charging people whom they believe are going to take part in anti-war protests with making such threats and thus taking them off the streets before they can hold their protests (Meduza, May 14).
Two more serious forms of protest against Putin’s war in Ukraine that may fall into this broader category are draft resistance and the refusal of personnel already in service to obey orders to be sent to the front lines to fight. The incidence of both has certainly increased since February 24; Ukrainian officials claim that, combined, they amount to 7,000 Russians, while Russian sources document fewer cases but offer numbers still in the hundreds (The Moscow Times, May 12; TRT, April 7, May 13). Many young Russians do not want to serve in the military—and not only because of Ukraine. They see conscription as an unfair burden on them that delays the launch of their careers. Yet at least some of those seeking the assistance of draft resistance groups are doing so because of the war in Ukraine and fears that they may be sent there despite Putin’s promises to the contrary (see EDM, March 31).
One indication of how critical this problem is becoming is now on public view in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. There, the authorities have opened a court case against 115 men from the North Caucasus who have refused to serve in Ukraine. These defendants almost certainly will be convicted and sentenced to long prison terms, but undoubtedly they and their parents knew that risk in advance. That they chose to nevertheless resist shows how opposed they are to the war (NatPress, May 11).
Questions remain whether this anti-war underground will grow or whether the Russian police responds to such actions by becoming even more repressive. The latter is likely in the short term; but if the war drags on, such increased repression will almost certainly compel ever more Russians to choose underground methods as the best or perhaps only way to protest a war they oppose, thereby creating a dangerous and potentially explosive situation.