MOSCOW – Waiting for her friends on Moscow’s pristinely landscaped Boulevard Belt, Svetlana Kozakova admits she had a sleepless night. She continued to check the news on her phone after President Vladimir V. Putin’s heartbreaking speech to a country where all but Ukraine threatened war.
“Things are going to be very, very uncertain,” she said, “and most likely, very sad.”
For months, Russians of all political camps have dismissed American warnings that their country could soon invade Ukraine, seeing them as an eerie bluff in their war of disinformation. West with the Kremlin. But this week, after several television appearances by Mr. Putin that have shocked and appalled some longtime observers, that sense of contempt has turned into a deep uneasiness.
Polls suggest that most Russians probably support Putin’s formal recognition of Russian-backed territories in eastern Ukraine this week, especially since they have no choice. in this regard and because there is no significant political force in the country to support it.
However, the specter of war gathering is another matter entirely; In recent days, Russia hasn’t seen any of the jubilation that accompanies its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
According to the Levada Center, an independent pollster, waging war is one of Russia’s greatest fears. And after Putin’s angry speech and his cryptic videoconference with the Security Council on Monday, that possibility is close to becoming a reality.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former adviser to Putin, said: “The hatred you can read about him so clearly forced him to reconsider his skepticism that the total system. will go to war against Ukraine. “This is not a game.”
Many Russians still follow the Kremlin’s narrative of a Russia forced to fight against Western powers determined to destroy it. Mr. Putin’s speech, for all its emotion, matched the grievances of many elderly Russians still suffering from poverty after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of prestige that came with it.
But for others, especially young people, the sudden threat of war and another downward spiral in relations with the West looks like the imminent loss of much of the freedom and opportunity that remains. back in Russia.
Tigran Khachaturyan, a 20-year-old history student walking his corgi named Gatsby at the Patriarch’s Pond in central Moscow, says he knows from his research past that worsening international tensions will lead to domestic decline. “I have seen many examples of countries pursuing various imperial ambitions while forgetting about their own goals: the welfare of the people who live in them,” said Khachaturyan. “I don’t support this policy and view it negatively.”
However, there is little that the Russians can do to change the trajectory of their country. That became even more apparent after a Security Council meeting on Monday, at which Putin sometimes irked and humiliated his most powerful and senior officials by telling him that he should recognize the breakaway territories. The central message of this extraordinary spectacle of loyalty, filmed, edited and broadcast by the Kremlin, seems that only Putin has the power to chart Russia’s course.
In society, opposition to this belligerent policy was muted. Liberal activists who might have been expected to lead an antiwar movement were largely exiled or imprisoned.
This Sunday will mark the seven-year anniversary of the murder of liberal politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, one of the biggest voices inside Russia against the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Aleksei A. Navalny warned that Russia was about to “squander its historic opportunity for a life of ordinary riches solely because of war, filth, lies” and Mr. Putin’s personal luxuries – but Mr. Navalny wrote. from prison, where he faces an additional 15-year term.
Some in the Russian public are beginning to speak out. In St.Petersburg on Wednesday, an activist stood on a crowded sidewalk holding a copy of Russia’s most famous anti-war painting, “The Juggernaut of war” by Vasily Vereshchagin. The 19th-century painter dedicated the work, which shows a stack of skulls in a sunlit field, “to all the great conquerors, past, present and future.”
An online magazine, Kholod, has started a social media campaign called “I am not silent” encouraging readers to post about their reasons for opposing the war.
“It is impossible to ignore what has happened in recent days,” the magazine’s editor, Taisia Bekbulatova, wrote on Facebook Monday. “Many people say they wake up every day thinking that war may have broken out. This is some kind of madness. ”
And one of Russia’s most popular YouTubers, journalist Yuri Dud, posted a photo of Putin’s Security Council meeting on Instagram on Tuesday and quoted a Russian musician as saying he had experiences “endless feelings of shame and guilt” over what his country has done. Ukraine.
Mr. Dud wrote: “I grew up in Russia and Russia is my homeland. “But I look forward to giving you the utmost support these days for Ukraine – the homeland of my loved ones and the homeland of my friends.”
The idea of a war with Ukraine is unbelievable to many Russians in part because millions of them have friends and relatives there. Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was popular both because so many Russians felt personally attached to the Soviet-era holiday and because it was completed without a shot.
Understanding how the Ukraine crisis developed
The Kremlin has interpreted its support for Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine as a necessary humanitarian intervention to support brothers who are being attacked by an illegal, nationalist government. labour. Many Russians accept that false narrative, which is one reason more than half of those surveyed told Levada, who took part in the poll, last year that they would support independence of the territories. breakaway territories or their annexation to Russia.
Levada’s director, Denis Volkov, said that the center’s preliminary analysis of a survey conducted last week – before Mr Putin made the decision to recognize the territories – also showed that most people Russia favors recognition or merger. He said the support came from the Kremlin’s view that backing the separatists would help prevent further bloodshed.
According to the Pentagon, many analysts say the opposite is true, with Putin deploying about 190,000 troops around Ukraine – according to the Pentagon – and the separatists claiming three times as much territory. which they are controlling. Western officials say that tens of thousands of people could be killed in a war and that Ukraine’s attempt to flee to the West could create a humanitarian crisis.
But with prominent opposition voices largely silenced, few remain to make that case directly to the Russians.
“One reason the official interpretation of the situation prevails is the fact that there are no independent, authoritative and important politicians left,” Mr. Volkov said.
However, while state media hailed Putin’s recognition of the breakaway territories with great fanfare, Russians did not react with the spontaneous excitement that accompanies the annexation of Crimea. Eastern Ukraine — even to those who bought the Kremlin’s narrative of persecuted ethnic Russians in need — had none of the emojis that Crimea did.
In central Moscow this week, 53-year-old Aleksei Ivanov, who works in a construction company, reflected that even the annexation of Crimea made him “neither richer nor happier”. Since then, he said, it feels like Russia’s leadership has run the country focused on its own goals.
“They want something, they have some plans,” he said. “Ordinary people don’t fully understand their true intentions.”
Alina Lobzina and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/23/world/europe/russia-ukraine-war-putin.html For many Russians, it is a deep grievance to collect the specter of war