Many have been struck by the fact that Russians have largely not actively protested against President Vladimir Putin’s military actions in Syria, unlike against his war in Ukraine. It has been suggested that, perhaps, this reflects the fact that Russians know far more about Ukraine than about Syria. Indeed, the issues involved in the Ukrainian conflict are far more salient for Russians than those in the Syria. Additionally, since the start of the Kremlin’s Ukrainian campaign, Moscow has imposed much tighter restrictions on protests than existed earlier (OVD-Info, February 26, 2016; Coe.int, September 29, 2017; Open Democracy, December 14, 2016).
Yet, despite the general lack of public protests, there have been some isolated instances, the most prominent being in Moscow, in October 2015. Participants of this street demonstration (a few hundred individuals, according to estimates) warned that Putin’s moves in Syria would not only result in war crimes involving the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, but also the loss of life of Russians sent there to fight (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, October 17, 2015; Open Democracy, December 14, 2016). A similar protest, which attracted about 2,000 people, occurred a year later, but it was suppressed by police (OVD-Info, July 18, 2018).
At the time, protesters appeared in several other Russian cities, but they attracted little attention. And while some in the Russian opposition, particularly the Yabloko Party, continued to be outspoken in their condemnation of Moscow’s military role in Syria, there were almost no protests in 2017 and 2018; and those that did occur were typically in the form of singular picketers rather than collective actions (Charter97, August 15, 2017; Ekho Moskvy, August 12, 2017).
Now that appears to be changing. Even though the current Russian role in Syria looks significantly reduced and is receiving far less media attention than it did three or four years ago, there has been growing public dissent regarding the intervention, seemingly resulting from the confluence of a number of recent developments. To begin with, the worsening economic situation has prompted more and more Russians to question government spending going to anything except their own needs. Next, growing protests over other issues have encouraged those opposed to the war to speak out. Finally, and perhaps most unexpectedly, the Russian government’s clumsy effort to generate support for its Syrian campaign has in fact led to more public dissatisfaction.
Over the last several months, Moscow has dispatched a train carrying trophies seized by Russian forces in Syria to 47 cities. It is now in Kostroma, and 13 more Russian cities are on the itinerary in the coming weeks (Gtrk-kostroma.ru, April 15). The campaign, called “The Syrian Turning Point,” is intended to generate praise and support for the Kremlin’s policies. In many places, it has achieved what the government had hoped for; but in others, it has had exactly the opposite effect. In fact, the campaign is frequently leading people to ask how Russians have benefited from the war since these “trophies” cannot take the place of housing, medical care and food, which are lacking at home.
In the last two weeks, Russians in Izhevsk and Novosibirsk have taken to the streets to protest Putin’s war in Syria. In both cases, it is clear that the Kremlin’s trophy train has prompted these demonstrations.
In Izhevsk, an important military industrial center in the Urals, four activists were detained by the police when they sought to protest the arrival of the propaganda train on April 6. They carried signs declaring that “Syrian trophies do not give us bread, housing or medicine,” an indication that spending on Syria rather than on Russia’s domestic needs is the primary driver of such anti-war actions (Idelreal.org, April 11). That same day, a group of Novosibirsk residents similarly denounced the exhibit as “a celebration of war,” arguing that Moscow’s spending in Syria could be used far better for Russians’ domestic needs (Ngs.ru, April 6; 1nsk.ru, April 7). Among the placards they carried were ones declaring that, for the cost of the war, Russia could build “400 schools or 50 hospitals,” thus implying that Moscow has enough money for propaganda but not enough to support critical infrastructure needed in Russia’s regions. Other signs argued that “by shooting in a foreign country, we are destroying our own.”
Meanwhile, the Russian government’s case against Lyubov Rublyeva, a 40-year-old resident of Vladimir (Vladimir Oblast), has attracted much more attention in Moscow. Rublyeva was arrested for engaging, at the end of last year, in a protest against the war and its impact on Russian social spending. Her case is now coming to a head. Rublyeva is charged with violating the rules on such protests because she involved two of her children and resisted police efforts to detain them. As a result, she is a perfect poster figure for those who want to highlight both the absurdity and brutality of the regime’s repressive actions (Opravo.org, October 8, 2018; Progorod33.ru, March 17, 2019).
Obviously, these three instances do not necessarily presage a wave of anti-war social unrest. But they are signs of three important developments. First, more Russians are re-evaluating the Kremlin’s moves not in terms of military glory or standing up to the West but in terms of the way these efforts lead to cuts in government assistance and higher taxes on the population. Second, they show that anti-war attitudes are both feeding and being fed by broader social protests; thus, opposition to the war is likely to be a growing feature of demonstrations in the coming weeks and months. And third, they highlight the reality that the Kremlin’s widely publicized propaganda efforts do not always work the way Moscow intends, but in fact lead some Russians to draw conclusions exactly opposite of those hoped for by the political technologists.