There were some protests in Moscow at the beginning of the war, which I think were seen as classic anti-war protests. And there was more after this Putin speech. There are also nationalists who oppose the way the war is being waged, or are irritated that victory is nowhere near. Can you talk about how Putin balances this?
Nationalists haven’t really been on the streets since the war started, which is surprising, because in the past, particularly after the intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin provided some support to nationalists to go out and hold pro-war rallies, calling on Russia to stand up and fight the West and Ukraine. We haven’t seen that. Putin has actually held a rally, but none of the nationalist groups have done anything really visible in the streets.
The protests that we saw in February and March, the initial anti-war protests, which were sizable, attracted a number of communities that have long opposed Putin. These are the classic liberals and democrats of his, and people from libertarian groups, true anarchists and leftists. In fact, one of the groups that has been most prominent in the anti-war movement is called Feminist Resistance Against War. In these protests and mobilizations against the war, women, and in particular young women, had a prominent place, much more prominent than men.
The recent protests have a slightly different gender balance. We have seen more men, especially because they are the ones who are going to be called to serve. But it seems to be broadly the same kind of communities that have been trying to resist the war, and trying to resist Russia, from the beginning.
Obviously, the anti-war protests in February and March were crushed. People basically chose between going into exile or passive resistance on the one hand and going to jail on the other. For many people, that was not a difficult decision to make, but it was made without any real consequences. The sentiment was, “Look, this is a war we can’t stop. Maybe we can do some things to help the Ukrainians.” But there was no risk in it for individuals. Whereas now, particularly for young men, there is a very real risk of being called up and sent to fight in the Ukraine, so it clearly sharpens many people’s minds.
Does Putin really fear extreme nationalists as a threat to his regime, or just in terms of public opinion?
Putin has seen the nationalists as a threat to his regime and public opinion; those two things are linked and have been for a long time. That threat has been sharper in his view than the threat from the liberal and democratic opposition. There are more of them, they are more likely to be violent and may interact with certain groups within the security establishment that he needs to maintain control.
We saw the Kremlin crack down on some of these nationalist groups long before it began poisoning, jailing, and killing prominent democratic opposition leaders. The amount of repression they used against nationalist marches and rallies was much greater, much earlier, than against democratic groups. In 2011 and 2012, things started to change. Democratic organizations actually began to challenge Putin in a concerted way in the streets and in mobilization politics. Putin discovered that he needed to make common cause with some of the conservative nationalist groups.
In 2014, when this semi-clandestine effort began in eastern Ukraine, I needed them even more. Many of these people volunteered to serve, either through the Russian military, paramilitary groups, private military companies, or simply volunteering for the armies of the “People’s Republics” in Lugansk and Donetsk. On the one hand, I really needed them to support this. On the other hand, he didn’t want to cling to them. These groups were very angry when Putin accepted the Minsk peace accords in 2015, instead of pushing for war, which is what they wanted him to do. He ended up having to turn to repression, putting some people in jail. That has always been, for him, a slightly more immediate threat than the democratic opposition.
Do we have any idea how well Western economic sanctions are working, or at least how the Russians feel about it?
The sanctions have not yet had a big impact on the Russian economy, at least when it comes to people. It has had a huge impact on the structure of the Russian economy. Imports have plummeted. Prices have gone up, but in ways that are not orders of magnitude different from what people are facing in the West.
Russia had a war chest and has been able to cushion the currency and the impact in terms of employment and wages. But it is starting to run out of steam and the government is faced with the need to make tough decisions about who it will support. Although people are still able to keep the lights on and food on the table, everyone has experienced a decline in living standards.
In the polls, people have been very clear that they don’t think they can find high-tech goods, durable goods, automobiles, that sort of thing, of the quality that they could get before this war. As the months go by and things break down and need to be replaced, that has an overall impact on people’s quality of life and the efficiency of the economy.