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Judging Russian dissent

Judging Russian dissent

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There have been protests and high profile Russians have criticised the invasion of Ukraine. But how do you work out the true extent of opposition to Putin’s war?



Nimo Omer: Hi, I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, how do we measure Russian opposition to Putin’s war?

***

“Ukrainian volunteers have taken up arms and others have prepared Molotov cocktails at the request of their government.”

News report

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has entered its sixth day and you can see a new national mythology forming in real time. 

The defiance of Ukrainian border guards on Snake Island, offering choice words to their attackers.

The brave woman who offered sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers, so that they might bloom when they die.

Everywhere there is resistance.

What, though, about resistance in Russia?

From Moscow to Siberia, Russians are taking to the streets to protest against the invasion. Politicians, musicians, tennis players, the children of oligarchs and even some oligarchs themselves are among those speaking out against the war.

“Quite an image tonight. Russian tennis star Andrey Rublev winning his semi-final match during a tournament – this was in Dubai – then writing right here on the lens: ‘No war please.’”

News report

As financial sanctions begin to bite the Russian economy, could there be more opposition to come? 

“Russian police arrested protesters in major cities. Today thousands of anti-war demonstrations have been detained just in the past few days.”

News report

Holed up in the Kremlin, obsessing over the West and Nato, Vladimir Putin reportedly doesn’t use a smartphone.

He lives in a different world to many of the young Russians who stroll through the cobbled streets outside his presidential buildings. 

And there’s been no greater demonstration of this disconnect than the popular disgust at his decision to invade Ukraine.

Spontaneous protests have broken out in dozens of cities across Russia. Up to two thousand people have been detained. 

[Clip of protesters chanting]

That’s really remarkable after a year when demonstrations have been crushed with violence. When the opposition leader Alexei Navalny is languishing in a penal colony, a vivid example of what can happen if you speak out against the Kremlin.

Even Russia’s elites are bristling. 

On Sunday Mikhail Fridman, one of Russia’s richest billionaires, wrote to his employees calling for an end to the bloodshed.

Then, just yesterday Evgeny Lebedev, the oligarch son of a former KGB officer, issued a simple plea in his paper: the London Evening Standard.

“President Putin, please stop this war.”

It’s notoriously difficult to know exactly where millions of Russians stand on their support for Vladimir Putin. There’s little in the way of independent polling in Russia. 

So can the pronouncements of a small number of high-profile Russians bring together an anti-war movement that moves the dial in the Kremlin?  

It’s appealing to think so. 

After all, the Russian president doesn’t take well to hostile cause-célèbres.

“Even in the early hours in the Russian capital, people have come out to this scene where Boris Nemstov was gunned down on Friday evening.”

News report

Before Navalny there was Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin during the 2014 Ukraine crisis. He was assassinated.

If Vladimir Putin attaches any true importance to winning the information war, to keeping Russians onside, high-profile opponents threaten that.

In the past few days, the Kremlin has already slowed down access to Facebook after it refused to remove restrictions on state-controlled media outlets. And the Kremlin’s media watchdog has ordered journalists to only use information provided by official sources.

It feels like a fairly naive response to an internet ecosystem where Facebook is just one of many social media platforms, where Russians get their news from a variety of sources, where people have access to virtual private networks to get around censorship measures.

The Kremlin may have its spheres of influence, but so too do critics of the war, whether they are tennis players, theatre directors or oligarchs.

That, by the way, goes for non-Russian voices too.

As the New York Times writer Thomas Friedman pointed out — the musician Selena Gomez may not have any military divisions, but she has twice as many Instagram followers as Russia has citizens.

Perhaps, though, that’s all wishful thinking, even as sanctions hit.

“There are flowers outside the Ukrainian embassy here in Moscow and we’ve seen people stocking up on groceries and medicines, going to ATMs to find there isn’t any cash. People here really feeling that the economy could be on the verge of collapse.”

News report

The oligarchs may fear the loss of their yachts, their assets and their ability to send their kids to fancy universities. Worried Russians may queue for hours at cash machines out of fear they’ll run dry.

But Putin and his inner circle hold near absolute political power. 

Much as they’d hate to fight a war on two fronts, it will take more than scattered statements and protests numbering in the thousands not the millions to make them rethink the invasion of Ukraine. 


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