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Anna Arutunyan is a Russian-American writer and a global fellow at the Wilson Center. She is the author of The Putin Mystique: Inside Russia’s Power Cult and, more recently, Hybrid Warriors: Proxies, Freelancers, and Moscow’s Struggle for Ukraine.

In September, after Vladimir Putin announced a long-feared mobilization of at least 300,000 Russians to fill the ranks of his struggling army in Ukraine, Russians took to the streets in protest. Hundreds marched through Moscow and St. Petersburg; demonstrations flared in Novosibirsk; and in Dagestan, protesters blocked a highway demanding a stop to the call-ups.

A recent survey from the independent pollster Levada suggests that Russians’ support of the President and the government’s course has declined, while criticism of the war effort from even the most hawkish pro-Kremlin politicians has increased. Officials, including Mr. Putin himself, have taken aim at local military commissariats for overseeing what has been an exceedingly chaotic conscription effort.

Some Western commentators have suggested this could be a tipping point for fundamental change in Russia. Others have become so besotted with the rosy idea of Russians rising up against their government that they’ve blamed them for being disorganized in their approach, or assailed non-protesters as complacent.

Change is possible, but those expecting demonstrations of millions of people to quickly overthrow the Kremlin will likely be disappointed again. Indeed, the mobilization protests that we’ve seen so far have been brutally suppressed, with thousands reportedly arrested, beaten or tortured.

If we truly want to help Ukraine, the grim reality is that we must accept that change in Russia will only come once the government itself changes course enough to allow it – and that our efforts to help might be doing exactly the opposite.

On the morning of Feb. 24, as Russian missiles began pounding Ukraine, Moscow awoke to horror, shock and shame. Radio presenters wept on air as they read letters from listeners worried about relatives in Ukraine. Almost overnight, “no to war” graffiti cropped up on street corners, and protesters gathered in Russian cities.

But a bell jar of deafening silence followed. The Kremlin announced a series of draconian laws, including making something as simple as calling the war what it is – a war – punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Radio stations silenced their news segments, and the government shut down the last independent media outlets in the country.

Foolishly, though, Western governments responded by isolating Russians further. Many countries banned direct flights from Russia from their airspace, as well as access to bank transfers; many Western companies pulled out of the country out of a mix of pious virtue-signalling and crippled logistics. In August, the European Union suspended its visa facilitation program with Russia, and Finland and the Baltic states recently further tightened restrictions against Russians from entering, including tourists. International sanctions have led the U.S. Postal Service, Canada Post and other mail services to suspend deliveries from other countries to Russia.

Far from encouraging Russians to stand up to their regime, these well-meaning measures have only contributed to what the Kremlin was trying to achieve in the first place: the isolation and demoralization of the populace, and the portrayal of the West as Russophobic and hypocritical.

While commentators often cite Ukraine and Georgia as examples of countries where popular protests toppled corrupt governments, they actually offer little precedent for the Russian context. For one thing, those countries already had a degree of democratic representation at the time of the protests, and that hasn’t been a part of Russian life since the 1990s.

In Ukraine, protest groups had the backing of parliamentary parties, and while then-president Viktor Yanukovych tried to violently suppress the Maidan protests that began in late 2013, they still took place amid what was otherwise a fairly vibrant political culture. In Russia, by contrast, change typically comes from above: It was Mikhail Gorbachev’s top-down democratization in the 1980s that led people to rise up, prompting the fall of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Putin, meanwhile, has been able to solidify his rule not so much through Stalinist mass repressions, but by stoking fears of that historical possibility through increasingly draconian laws that are arbitrarily applied. Precision arrests have helped enforce fear, but these are becoming more frequent: According to OVD-Info, an independent Russian human-rights media project, more than 16,000 people have been detained since the full invasion began, with 248 facing criminal charges.

Western commentators expecting Russians to rise up seem to have forgotten how terrifying living in a repressive regime can be, how fear warps judgment and how it narrows choices: Either agree with the state, or risk jail or death. But this is not to say that nothing will come of the enormous sacrifices that many Russians have made to protest against the government since the start of the war.

Given the culture of silence, it is likely that many more Russians are opposed to the war than opinion polls let on. That may be true even among some of Russia’s elites, including Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who have distanced themselves from Mr. Putin’s war.

A number of Mr. Putin’s oligarch allies have openly opposed the conflict, including Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska; others, such as Roman Abramovich, have acted as intermediaries between Russia and Ukraine. And while they are certainly not heroes – many of them have enabled Mr. Putin over the years – they need to be seen as potential opportunities for change from above, rather than purely as accomplices.

Protests are more likely to succeed if they coalesce with members of the elite or law enforcement. Given the growing disgruntlement among both in Russia, this is becoming increasingly possible, but it will not happen overnight.

It is also less likely to happen if the West continues to indiscriminately personally sanction anyone connected to the regime, as many of the dissenting oligarchs have been. Elites opposed to the war who lack any sanctuary in the West will only become more dependent on Mr. Putin, diminishing the chances that they could act as agents of change.

There is obviously a limit to what Western governments can do, and ultimately, decisions must be made by Russians themselves. But it’s possible to offer those who choose to oppose the Russian government better incentives and protection to do so, including by fast-tracking asylum, rather than tightening restrictions.

We must remember that, in different ways, Ukrainians and Russians are both victims of the same regime. They can also be allies against it – if the West doesn’t stand in the way.

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