Russians started to display domestic dissent against Kremlin’s mass mobilization attempts

An activist in an unsanctioned protest on September 21, 2022, in Moscow, Russia. The families of Russian men drafted last year have planned mass protests. Contributor/Getty Images

Cracks are beginning to appear in Russian support for the Ukraine war, as the streets of Moscow have become the stage for a damning display of domestic dissent.

On the 7th of November, 2023, Teatralnya Square in the heart of Moscow was the scene of a protest that will have been deeply embarrassing for Vladimir Putin. Wives of Russian soldiers deployed in Ukraine protested against the seemingly indefinite deployment of their spouses.

That such a protest could take place indicates a possible shift in public opinion. The event even caught the attention of UK Defence Intelligence in its daily update posted to social media, which typically focuses on battlefield updates regarding Ukraine.

Strict legislative measures used by the Russian Government have historically ended large-scale resistance and protest. This climate of repression recalls the 1980s Afghan-Soviet War when the mothers of troops organised a significant but ultimately limited opposition. President Putin recently made the dissemination of information on the war that the Kremlin considers to be false illegal, with fines and long prison terms as punishments.

The Moscow protest is a notable break from this pattern of imposed silence, even if the authorities swiftly broke it up.

A report from the RAND Corporation, a leading American think tank, explains how Russian troops have been trapped in the conflict since President Putin’s mobilisation decree, with no end in sight. The report chillingly notes that the only escape routes from the front are age-based retirement, medical discharge or imprisonment, with some soldiers resorting to desertion. Imprisonment nowadays is much less likely than reassignment to a “Storm-Z” expendable assault unit, where a soldier’s life expectancy is even lower than in a regular formation.

The despair and anger felt by Russian troops and their loved ones during their unending deployment is exacerbated by a lack of rotation out of combat due to troop shortages, which undoubtedly subjects soldiers to sustained combat stress. Resentment and despair against the Russian Government aren’t excellent motivators when fighting for the Russian Government.

Important Stories, an independent Russian news outlet, noted that protesters in Teatralnya Square were initially denied permission to demonstrate due to Covid-19 restrictions. Undeterred, they began their demonstration in the heart of the city on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. This act of resistance exemplifies the profound despair and hopelessness of the soldiers’ families despite the potentially dire consequences of protest in Putin’s Russia.

The Teatralnya Square protest is perhaps the first significant crack in the façade of public support for the campaign in Ukraine. The Putin administration could be forced to deal with an increasingly angry and disillusioned people if the issues of troop rotation and family distress are not dealt with.

We may be seeing indications of a turning point in the war for Ukraine.

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