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Censorship has left many Russians unaware of how serious the war in Ukraine really is or why their President started it. Now, some are taking the risk to speak out

Police block Moscow's Red Square on Feb. 24 ahead of an unsanctioned protest against the war in Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin launched that day.ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

The fate of tens of millions of Ukrainians and Russians has boiled down to a single, urgent question: What is Vladimir Putin thinking?

The increasingly deadly Russian invasion of Ukraine appears to be guided almost entirely by the imponderable beliefs and ambitions of the Russian President. That has forced most Ukrainians and many Russians, fearing for their futures and often for their lives, to ask painful questions about the contents, and state, of Mr. Putin’s mind.

“How irrational is his obsession with Kyiv? Is it enough to cost the lives of 50,000 soldiers? Will he bomb us back to the Stone Age?”

So asks Daniel Bilak, a lawyer and former adviser to Ukrainian presidents who has remained in his home in Kyiv through the early days of what looks increasingly like a siege. Mr. Bilak, who also has Canadian citizenship, is currently leading armed patrols of his neighbourhood on the city’s outskirts.

He said that while Ukraine would continue to put up fierce resistance, the key to the conflict would be the reaction of Russians, who have tolerated Mr. Putin’s rule for more than two decades, including wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and, since 2014, the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. “This war will be won and lost not in Ukraine but in Russia and how this all plays out back there.”

Moscow, 2014 vs. 2022: at top, a rally in support of the Crimean invasion, and at bottom, arrests at a March 3 antiwar protest.Reuters, AFP via Getty Images

In Russia, it is hard to pin down consensus, in informed circles, regarding the President’s intentions and beliefs – unlike in 2014, when a sizable majority backed his invasion and annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in Donbas.

Polls taken at the outset of the war last week by two Russian firms, VTsIOM and FOM, showed that about two-thirds of Russians broadly support military action in Ukraine (though the prospect of an all-out war was unknown then). And polls taken in mid-February by the independent Levada Center showed that the proportion of Russians who hold “the U.S. and other NATO countries” responsible for the tension in Ukraine had risen from 50 per cent in November to 60 per cent in February. This suggests that Mr. Putin’s repeated claims of a NATO plot were reaching a receptive audience. But general attitudes toward Ukraine were evenly divided, and people were strongly divided as to whether it was worth sacrificing Russian lives to “liberate” eastern Ukraine.

One problem with such results, however, is that many Russians have no idea that there is a full-scale international war taking place in Ukraine or that tens of thousands of soldiers are involved. Since the conflict began, Russian authorities have banned the use of words such as “war” or “invasion” to describe it, insisting that it be characterized as a “special military operation.” A new law passed this week threatens to imprison anyone who is accused by authorities of spreading “fake” news about the military.

Last week Moscow’s media regulator ordered a number of outlets, including the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, to remove articles that described the conflict as a war and to only quote Kremlin-approved sources. And on Tuesday, the independent, nationwide radio station Ekho Moskvy was taken off the air and off the internet by federal authorities, who also cut access to TV Rain, Russia’s last independent TV network. They had been among the few media outlets to report accurately on the invasion.

International media is also difficult for most Russians to access. On Friday, one of the most popular foreign outlets, the BBC’s Russian-language service, announced it would have to suspend the work of its journalists and staff in Russia because, in the words of BBC director-general Tim Davie, the new Russian legislation “appears to criminalize the process of independent journalism.” Twitter and other social-media sites have also been blocked.

At top, Aleksei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of radio station Ekho Moskvy, works in his office on March 3, the day it announced it would go off the air; at bottom, a man in Kolkata watches news coverage on Feb. 24, the day of the initial invasion.DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP via Getty Images

Another problem is that Mr. Putin has publicly offered two contradictory explanations for his military’s presence in Ukraine. On one hand, he has repeatedly said Russian soldiers are liberating Ukraine from what he describes as a takeover by NATO, the United States or “neo-Nazis.” Other times, he has repeatedly said – including this week – that Russia is incorporating Ukraine, whose status as an independent country is “fiction,” into the “Russky Mir,” or greater Russia, and restoring borders that existed under the Soviet Union.

The survey by FOM showed that about 60 per cent of Russians believe the war is taking place in order to “secure Russia’s borders.” Forty per cent believe it is to prevent a NATO incursion into Ukraine, and 20 per cent see it as a mission to annex all or part of Ukraine into Russia (respondents could select more than one answer).

Lilia Shevtsova, a Putin biographer and Moscow-based Kremlin expert with several international organizations, says Russian opinions appear to be changing fast, as deep-seated fears of a supposed U.S. and Western incursion are weighed against even greater fears, rooted in decades of bloody history.

Mr. Putin garnered public support for his invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 because Russians were convinced they were freedom struggles in which few, if any, Russian soldiers were involved.

“Russians hate the idea of war – it brings tragic memories,” Ms. Shevtsova said. “In 2014, Russians’ moods were affected by the Crimea annexation, which was supported. The war in Donbas did not attract much attention – it was not seen as ‘our’ war or our casualties.“

“Today, the ‘Crimea effect’ is vanishing. The war in Ukraine creates ‘our’ casualties – this will have an impact. Moreover, in 2008 and 2014, the wars were relatively short and they ended with ‘our’ victory. At the moment, a lot of Russians accept Putin’s ‘peace operation.’ But they may change their attitude if the operation will be long and bloody. Today’s war could become much longer and it will influence attitudes.”

A Russian serviceman guards the Kremlin on March 2.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

While ever-shifting Russian public attitudes toward Mr. Putin’s thinking are hard to gauge, a more observable group is behaving differently this time: the elites in the orbit of Mr. Putin’s Kremlin. The President’s declaration of an all-out war last week appears to have taken even the most senior military and political figures by surprise, and the solidarity behind him – or support for one of his justifications – appears to have fractured already.

People close to Mr. Putin say the President really does believe that an annexation of most or all of Ukraine is the right thing to do and will be justified by history. But those in his inner circle appear to be divided when it comes to holding those beliefs themselves.

One of those who does is Sergey Markov, a hawkish former Kremlin adviser. In an exchange of messages with The Globe and Mail, he defended the missile attacks on Russian-speaking Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv and Kyiv, which the Kremlin considers part of the “Russky Mir.”

He claimed that Kharkiv, even now, remains “pro-Russian.” Kyiv, he said, is the capital of what he calls “AntiRussia” – echoing a term repeatedly used by Mr. Putin – and therefore somehow deserving its fate. “Kiev as capital of AntiRussia as a project had became anti-Russian,” Mr. Markov wrote, using the Russian spelling of the city. “The strategy of Russia now is disarmament of Ukraine army and crushing of Neo Nazis. And the change of political power after this. Denazification is not propaganda but real goal.”

While such talk may seem absurd, those who have worked in and around the Kremlin and are loyal to Mr. Putin say it represents the President’s real beliefs regarding Ukraine. “Of course he believes – this is the most scary thing. It’s about historical justice. He believes that he is the one who must and can protect the Russian nation, secure Russia’s existence. He believes that if he does not take over Ukraine, Russia will not survive,” said Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. She added that Mr. Putin had become “more emotional” and “less pragmatic” in his decision-making.

“He believes it,” agreed a long-time Kremlin foreign-policy adviser in Moscow, who pointed out a subtle difference between this invasion and that of Crimea: “The Russky Mir was relevant in 2014. Now it’s war against a hostile state. And war needs a victory.”

Moscow's Manezhnaya Square, 2018 vs. 2022: At top, people attend a rally on the fourth anniversary of Crimea's annexation, and at bottom, police detain a man at a protest against the war in Ukraine.Maxim Shemetov/Reuters; KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

However, it appears that this time there are some inside the Kremlin who are quietly concerned about the dangerous path Mr. Putin has chosen for Russia and the world.

At a televised Feb. 21 session of Russia’s Security Council, which saw a dozen top officials publicly support Mr. Putin’s edge-of-war decision to formally recognize the independence of two self-declared “people’s republics” in Donbas, several members of Mr. Putin’s inner circle appeared visibly uncomfortable with what was taking place.

“Some were hesitating,” said the former foreign-policy adviser, whom The Globe is not identifying because speaking to foreign media about the subject could have severe repercussions. With regard to those officials who appeared hesitant, “after the operation there will be an inevitable change of personnel,” he said.

Some people in Moscow are starting to speak out publicly, even at the risk of damaging their careers. Sergey Utkin, the head of strategic assessment at the state-run Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, declared on Twitter: “My country is committing a horrible crime in Ukraine that can have no justification. … We all bear a part of responsibility. There is no good way out of that.”

Mr. Utkin told The Globe that he stood by those remarks, even as he acknowledged the danger of doing so. “It’s all pure madness,” he said of the reasons Mr. Putin has given for launching a war against a country where many Russians have friends and relatives. “I don’t see any good outcome for Russia, even in theory.”

Alexey Navalny in 2020.Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

Opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who has been in jail since last year (after surviving an assassination attempt using the nerve agent Novichok), called on his supporters to take to the streets every day at 2 p.m. to demonstrate their opposition to the war. “We – Russia – want to be a nation of peace. Alas, few people would call us that now,” he wrote on his Twitter account, which is managed by allies who receive Mr. Navalny’s messages via his lawyer, who visits him in prison. “It’s the third decade of the 21st century, and we are watching news about people burning down in tanks and bombed houses. We are watching real threats to start a nuclear war on our TVs.”

Mr. Navalny asked Russians to “fill prisons and paddy wagons” to protest the war. As of Thursday, the volunteer watchdog organization OVD-Info reported that 7,669 Russians had been arrested for taking part in antiwar protests since the Feb. 24 start of the invasion. “Everything has a price, and now, in the spring of 2022, we must pay this price,” Mr. Navalny wrote. “There’s no one to do it for us. Let’s not ‘be against the war.’ Let’s fight against the war.”

Russian lawmakers responded to Mr. Navalny’s call by introducing legislation that would conscript into the military anyone arrested for protesting against the invasion of Ukraine.

Given the harsh and often violent punishments meted out to those who dare protest the war – or even call it a war – it is impressive that so many Russians have done so, especially considering how few are aware that an all-out war is taking place.

And it may create a dilemma for Mr. Putin, who in the past has responded to protests decrying economic hardship with military operations in former Soviet territories that have rallied the public behind him. This time, it is a military operation that is inspiring protests, albeit on a smaller scale, and causing considerable economic hardship through unprecedented sanctions and economic isolation.

The central question is whether that hardship will lead Russians to blame the democracies of the West for imposing it – and further align themselves with Mr. Putin’s beliefs.

Or whether, after the mounting death toll and increasing duration of this century’s first war of national conquest becomes all too evident to millions of ordinary Russians, they begin to look again into their President’s mind – and recoil from what they see. The next several weeks will give us an answer.

War in Ukraine: More from The Globe and Mail

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