Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked a global outpouring of condemnation, including in his own backyard, where protests have erupted across the country in a remarkable outpouring of dissent against the Kremlin’s lethal military assault.
Protests against the war erupted in more than 60 cities within hours of Russia’s invasion on February 24. The protests, which range from large rallies to single-person pickets, have continued despite a harsh Kremlin crackdown.
According to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info, police have detained over 8,000 Russians for antiwar activities since the invasion began. Security forces have expanded their patrols, looking for dissent in all directions – not just Pushkin Square, the central Moscow pedestrian space where most opposition rallies take place. The Russian parliament passed a law on Friday that would penalize citizens for spreading what the Kremlin refers to as “fake news” about the military assault on Ukraine. The punishment is up to 15 years in prison.
The Kremlin ordered that Russian journalists refer to the assault as a “military operation of demilitarization,” effectively prohibiting the use of the term “war.”
Some independent media outlets defied the censors and continued to refer to Russia’s invasion as a war – and they paid the price. The Kremlin shut down a commercial radio station, Echo of Moscow, and the country’s last independent television station, Rain TV, this week.
She claimed that before the authorities arrived, the station’s journalists gathered in the newsroom to discuss their options.
Experts said the domestic unrest does not threaten Putin’s iron grip on power. Kremlin officials have repeatedly said this week that the operation in Ukraine would “go to the end.”
However, the turmoil could become more difficult for Putin, especially as the international sanctions imposed on Moscow begin to affect ordinary Russians.
Experts say that in recent years, Russia has imposed increasingly draconian restrictions on freedoms of assembly and expression, and that this trend is likely to continue as the war in Ukraine drags on.
According to Maria Popova, a political scientist at McGill University in Canada who studies Russian and Ukrainian politics, part of the Kremlin’s strategy involves selecting random protesters from crowds, detaining them, and placing them on a targeted list that police use to intimidate people from participating in protests. Svetlana Gannushkina, the founder of the Civic Assistance Committee and a human rights activist, has been documenting violations for the past three decades. She stated that she had no idea it would get this bad.
According to Popova, freedom of speech flourished in the 1980s and 1990s – during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reform movement and under Russian President Boris Yeltsin – even as the country struggled with an economic crisis.
With Putin’s rise came a gradual tightening of the screws on civil liberties and press freedom. After serving as Prime Minister since 2008, he returned to the presidency in 2012. He was barred from serving a third consecutive term under the constitution, which he amended to allow him to run again.
By the time Putin took office, the Russian parliament’s lower house, the State Duma, had imposed restrictions on unannounced demonstrations and had moved to limit freedom of speech by increasing fines and prison sentences for rally participation and restricting the presence of nongovernmental organizations.
Putin prioritized dismantling organizations associated with Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician who was assassinated in 2015, and Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and one of Putin’s harshest critics who was poisoned in 2020 and detained upon his return to Russia last January.
Navalny claimed his poisoning was the result of a failed assassination plot orchestrated by the Kremlin. Russian officials denied any involvement, but other world powers said they have no doubt the poisoning was carried out at the highest levels of the Russian government. The US intelligence community determined with “high confidence” that the Federal Security Service poisoned Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok.
The detention of Navalny sparked widespread protests across Russia. The Biden administration and European allies sanctioned several Russian officials in connection with Navalny’s assassination and imprisonment.
Civilians in Ukraine expressed hope that Russians will seek accurate information about the devastation Putin has wreaked on Russia’s neighbor.