Police make more than 1,700 arrests as protesters take to the streets in cities across country
Vladimir Putin has said there is broad public support for the invasion of Ukraine that he announced just before dawn on Thursday morning. But by evening, thousands of people in cities across Russia had defied police threats to take to central squares and protest against the military campaign.
Police had made at least 1,702 arrest in 53 Russian cities as of Thursday evening, according to the OVD-Info monitor, as they cracked down on the unsanctioned protests. Most of the arrests were made in Moscow and St Petersburg, where the crowds were largest.
The protesters chanted: “No to war!” as they exchanged shocked reactions to the attack on Ukraine.
In Moscow, Alexander Belov said he thought that Putin had “lost his mind”. “I thought that we would never see a war like this in the 21st century,” said Belov, who arrived early at Moscow’s Pushkinskaya Square to find it surrounded by police vans. “It turns out we live in the Middle Ages.”
The mood in Moscow was dark and sombre hours after Putin had announced that he was launching a broad military offensive targeting Ukraine.
“I am embarrassed for my country. To be honest with you, I am speechless. War is always scary. We don’t want this,” said Nikita Golubev, a 30-year-old teacher. “Why are we doing this?”
His anger and hopelessness were shared by many commuting to work down central Arbat Street. At the Ukrainian culture centre just down the road, the mood was even grimmer.
The Ukrainian administrator said the centre, which aims to promote the language, traditions and identity of a country Vladimir Putin denied the legitimacy of as a modern state in his speech on Monday, would be shut for the “coming period”.
“We are being bombed as we speak. Of course we are closed! Jesus, what is happening?” the administrator, who did not want to give his name, shouted.
There were already signs that Russians were uncomfortable with Putin’s initial decision to recognise the two self-proclaimed republics in Donbas.
On Tuesday, Yuri Dudt, one of Russia’s most popular media personalities, said he “did not vote for this regime” and its need for an empire, and felt ashamed, in a post that received almost a million likes in 24 hours.
A fresh poll by the independent Levada Center released on Thursday showed that only 45% of Russians stood in favour of the recognition move that preceded Thursday morning’s dramatic events.
“I didn’t think Putin would be willing to go all the way. How can we bomb Ukraine? Our countries have their disagreements, but this is not a way to solve them,” said Muscovite Ksenia.
But outcries of anger were not only felt on the streets of Moscow, where the Guardian did not encounter support for the military assault.
Russia’s cultural and sporting elite, usually firmly behind Putin and often called upon by the president during election campaigns to gather popular support, also expressed their deep worries about Russia’s invasion.
Valery Meladze, arguable the country’s most beloved singer, posted an emotional video in which he “begged” Russia to stop the war. “Today something happened that should have never happened. History will be the judge of these events. But today, I beg you, please stop the war.”
Likewise, Russian football international Fyodor Smolov posted on his Instagram channel: “No to War!!!”
US intelligence has for months warned that Russia would seek to fabricate a major pretext before launching an invasion of Ukraine. In the end, no major false flag came, and experts now believe that Putin decided to act without gathering the backing of his own electorate.
“Putin seems totally indifferent to approval on the street. He’s acting not like a politician in need of public support, but like a figure from national history books who cares only about the approval of future historians and readers,” tweeted Alexander Baunov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The Russian leader looked to have also surprised some of Russia’s most prominent oligarchs, who saw their wealth tumble as the country’s financial markets collapsed.
Just on Monday, after Putin recognised the independence of the two Donbas territories, Oleg Deripaska, a Kremlin-friendly oligarch who once said that “he does not separate himself from the Russian state”, exclaimed on his Telegram channel that “war had been averted”. He has since deleted the post.
On Russian state television, the invasion was framed as a defensive mission aimed at preserving Russian lives. “What’s the point of a major first strike? However strange or cynical it sounds, it’s actually humane because it allows everyone around to prevent a large massacre. By immobilising Ukraine, life is being preserved,” said pundit Vladislav Shurygin on the Channel One programme Vremya Pokazhet.
Some risked arrest on Thursday evening in order to voice their opposition to the invasion. Zhargal Rinchinov from Buryatia arrived on the square in a jacket with the inscription: “No to war.” If he held up a sign, he said, he would be arrested.
“Everyone is scared,” he said. “They know if they say something bad then they’ll be put in jail. So people pretend they don’t notice we have started a war, so they don’t have to speak up about it.”
For Ukrainians, public messages of opposition to the war will come too late. The country has said that at least 40 soldiers have already been killed and many more civilians injured, as it is threatened with being overrun by a much larger military force.
Yet, sensing that a genuine large-scale pushback against war might be Ukraine’s best bet, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, on Thursday morning urged Russians to speak up.
“If the Russian authorities don’t want to sit down with us to discuss peace, maybe they will sit down with you.”
(c) 2022, The Guardian