Thousands of Russians are protesting against the war with Ukraine. Putin’s not likely to listen

Police detain a young demonstrator during a protest of Russia's attack on Ukraine in St. Petersburg on Feb. 28. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)
Police detain a young demonstrator during a protest of Russia's attack on Ukraine in St. Petersburg on Feb. 28. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

Antiwar protests have continued in cities across Russia since the assault against Ukraine began Thursday, despite police crackdowns and reports of more than 6,000 arrests. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Russian speaker from eastern Ukraine, has appealed directly, and repeatedly, to the people of Russia, urging them to protest Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against his country. Zelensky has resolutely acknowledged the importance of Russian domestic pressure in securing peace.

As Russian forces began their military assault on Ukraine, single-picket and mass rallies sprang up almost immediately around Russia. After the first day of protests, more than 1,800 demonstrators in nearly 60 cities had been arrested, according to reports by OVD-Info, an independent human rights organization.

To punish Moscow and deter further escalation of Russian aggression against Ukraine, Western governments have come together to impose sanctions against Russia — and the Russian economy will pay a heavy price. But to what extent might public pressure from within Russia come into play?

While protests during the past week sparked hope that opposition to the war might spread, roadblocks stand in the way of widespread antiwar mobilization in Russia.

Russia has curtailed freedom of assembly and expression

Over the past decade, the Kremlin has cracked down on freedoms of expression and assembly, and increased censorship of the media.

The Kremlin began rapidly increasing restrictions on freedom of assembly following large-scale, opposition protests against electoral fraud in 2011-2012. These restrictions tightened even further in 2021 after mass rallies in support of detained opposition leader Alexei Navalny led to the arrest of more than 11,500 participants.

Authorities have broad discretion to deny permission to hold a rally based on “public interest” and to recall previously issued authorizations for people to assemble. As a result, obtaining permission to hold any type of mass public action in opposition to the government has become virtually impossible.

Organizers who go ahead without official permission and hold protests the authorities label “unauthorized” or “unsanctioned” face an immediate and strong police response, as well as fines, arrests and the excessive use of force.

Single-picket protests, one of the few forms of peaceful assembly historically available to Russians, have also been virtually outlawed in recent years.

Authorities have taken advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to tighten protest restrictions — and disproportionately used these restrictions to target Putin critics. In March 2021, for example, prominent opposition figures were placed under house arrest promoting protest events on social media, charged with violating rules to slow the spread of covid-19. Organizers of pro-government rallies during the same period didn’t face similar charges, however.

The Kremlin has expanded laws on extremism, foreign agents and undesirable organizations to crack down on speech, organization or other activity that authorities may find objectionable. Russia also uses these laws, in part, to target individual online activities.

Authorities can now enforce fines and prison sentences for “libel” committed online. This includes spreading “fake news,” calls to participate in unsanctioned protests, insulting the government and exaggerating the number of protesters present at demonstrations.

What does this mean for antiwar protests?

This crackdown on Russians’ freedom of assembly and expression has increased the government’s capacity to limit, control and punish unsanctioned rallies. And authorities are using this increased capacity to quell opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In a message posted to its website on Thursday, Russia’s Investigative Committee — the same committee that opened investigations into Ukrainian government and military figures targeted by Russian forces as “war criminals” — warned of legal repercussions for participating in unauthorized protests related to “the tense foreign political situation.”

The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs similarly cautioned against “succumbing to illegal action” and stated that it will take “all necessary measures to ensure public order,” citing coronavirus restrictions on public events.

On Sunday, the Russian prosecutor’s office warned that “activity aimed against Russia’s national security” could be considered treason, punishable with up to 20 years in prison.

Despite these warnings, thousands of people around the country have turned out to protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, chanting “no to war.” Many of these protesters were quickly detained by police and multiple cases of excessive force were reported.

Journalists and prominent human rights activists were among the thousands detained by police. In Moscow, police detained opposition activists as they left their homes before the rallies.

In addition to the direct assault on protesters, Russian authorities also took steps to severely restrict and control information reaching the public about the events in Ukraine.

Roskomnadzor, the federal media and communications censorship agency, ordered Russian news outlets to report only information from official Russian sources. Several news outlets were subsequently ordered to cease independent news coverage of the invasion or were blocked. Roskomnadzor also began restricting access to social media, including Facebook and Twitter, further limiting information about the invasion — and blocking a popular means of organizing protests.

What can we expect to see?

As the Russian invasion continues, the Russian government is likely to further suppress media reporting and crack down on Russians who try to protest Putin’s war against Ukraine. These moves increase the risk of speaking out against government action.

Media outlets are facing increasing restrictions on publicizing Russian action in Ukraine and covering the domestic protests. This makes it is harder for ordinary Russians to learn about the events in Ukraine and the domestic opposition in Russia, and to share their views online.

Russians who go out onto the streets do so at significant personal risk. As the 2021 protest events revealed, authorities are willing to use every tool they have to quell public opposition of government actions.

Increased repression is likely to limit the magnitude of public pressure on the Kremlin’s foreign policy decision-making, at least in the short term. But dictators are not immune to domestic pressure. And Russian views on a potential military operation in Ukraine were mixed, even before the Russian invasion. If the war’s cost to Russian lives and livelihoods continues to increase, attitudes toward the government’s actions may begin to sour.

Hannah S. Chapman (@Chapman_HannahS) is the Karen and Adeed Dawisha Assistant Professor of Political Science at Miami University and a faculty associate in the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies. Previously, she was a George F. Kennan Fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her research examines political participation, information management and public opinion in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

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