Despite unprecedented repression by the Russian authorities against anyone who doubts the necessity of President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, more citizens are finding the courage to speak out.
At the beginning of September 2022, a group of deputies representing St. Petersburg’s Smolninsky district appealed to members of the Russian State Duma to charge Putin with state treason and remove him from office due to the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. The municipal deputies noted that the Russian president’s actions led to results directly opposite to the goals of the “special military operation”—namely, the destruction of the Russian army’s combat capabilities, harm to the economy and citizens of Russia, and the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Twitter.com/Dmitry_Palyuga, September 7).
The authors of the appeal were immediately summoned by the police and charged with “discrediting the Russian army” (Sever Realii, September 9). This time, the authorities did not limit themselves to the persecution of individuals. A few days after the appeal, the Smolninsky District Court of St. Petersburg, at the request of the prosecutor’s office, ruled on the “inaction” of the entire council of municipal deputies. Now, in accordance with the law, the governor of St. Petersburg can submit a bill to the Legislative Assembly of the city to dissolve the council (Current Time TV, September 13). Meanwhile, the deputies themselves confirm that their initiative has found widespread support in their own city and in Moscow (Golosameriki.com, September 13).
Another resonant event was the appeal of the famous singer, considered in Russia to be the country’s main pop star, Alla Pugacheva to Putin. In it, she not only declared solidarity with her husband, artist Maxim Galkin, who was declared a “foreign agent,” but also opposed the death of Russians “for illusory goals that make our country an outcast and make life difficult for our citizens” (RBC.ua, September 18).
Obviously, fearing popular unrest, the Russian authorities are trying to strengthen repression and amplify the messages of war propaganda. Several State Duma deputies have revealed that “information for the citizenry on the course of the special military operation is insufficient,” and therefore, the Russian parliament should create an “information bureau” (REGNUM, September 14). Another parliament deputy, Andrey Lugovoy, accused by a British court of murdering former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Alexander Litvinenko, announced the initiation of a bill enacting life imprisonment for state treason without appeal, as well as stripping convicts of Russian citizenship (Ura.news, September 14).
However, even the new round of repressions is powerless in influencing certain processes now occurring in Russian society. First, the “passive majority,” which formally supports the war, increasingly avoids the military agenda (see EDM, March 1). Even sociologists loyal to the Kremlin note that “the overwhelming majority of citizens … demonstrate increasing political neutrality,” and the number of people trying to distance themselves from Moscow’s military agenda is steadily growing (T.me/russica2, September 10). They are also forced to admit that the number of respondents whose answers make it clear they do not support the war has increased (T.me/russica2, September 10).
This does not mean that these people will begin to openly oppose the war. However, they clearly do not support a general mobilization and might more actively express their disagreement if the war affects them directly. In this regard, the rhetoric of some “moderately pro-Kremlin” Telegram channels have become more specific regarding the fact that “Russian society is categorically against general mobilization” (Tgstat.ru, September 15).
According to data from the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, support among Russians in large cities for the military campaign is low. The Belarusian analysts also affirm that “similar sentiments are prevalent in most groups of the Russian elite, including even the security forces, whom Vladimir Putin has still not been able to convince them of the real need for this war” (T.me/forstrategy, September 15).
As if in response to these sentiments, the State Duma passed a law toughening the punishment for desertion (including the absence of reservists for military training) during wartime, as well as for surrender. For both “crimes,” one can be sentenced to up to ten years in prison. A term of up to five years in prison is also provided for the destruction of weapons in wartime (RIA Novosti, September 20).
Yet, against a background of continuing successes for the Ukrainian army, dissatisfaction with Putin has increased among the most ardent supporters of the war (see EDM, July 19). Ultra-Orthodox sites have, for some time, accused the Russian leader of “betraying Russia and the army” because Putin has done nothing to prevent weapons reaching Ukraine (3rm.info, May 3). Now, Russian military experts have joined them in demanding explanations for what is happening at the front (Topwar.ru, September 11).
Apparently, in order to increase influence on radical religious circles, Orthodox-patriotic websites controlled by the Russian authorities have published articles stating that there is no treason in the Kremlin and that those who claim otherwise are “working for the enemy” (Tsargrad.tv, September 13). To convince the “believers” in the electorate, propaganda has even resorted to the services of an “Orthodox psychotherapist” who has devoted a separate video to the idea that defeat should not be feared.
According to him, society has grown unaccustomed to wartime, while in fact, war is a natural and normal state for Russia. The “Orthodox doctor” also said that what is happening in Ukraine is “a divine instruction necessary for all of us,” but Russia eventually will win and will be able to challenge the “Western puppeteers.” Finally, the “psychotherapist” consoled his flock with a promise of the coming end of the world in the mode “desired by Christians” (YouTube, September 15).
Nevertheless, it is extremely doubtful that arguments regarding the normality and correctness of killing will motivate more Russian citizens to go to war. The Kremlin is driving itself into a trap between a majority unwilling to fight and a radical minority demanding more blood and new victories. In the current environment, Putin is unable to meet the either group’s expectations.