Putin’s War or Russia’s War?
24 February 2023 /
[OPINION] It has been a year since the full-scale Russian invasion in Ukraine trembled the whole world. After its beginning, in Europe, it is highly debated that the Russo-Ukrainian War is not supposed to be treated as a war of Russia against Ukraine, but rather as a Kremlin’s or Putin’s war against Ukraine. It is done in order to deviate the responsibility of the Russian people in a genocidal war that started not in 2022, but in 2014. Nonetheless it is evident that the responsibility for this war directly lies on the shoulders of ordinary Russians.
Russian Imperial aspirations
If one would inquire an average Ukrainian citizen about the Russian imperial aspirations, the answer would be based upon the historical reality of these aspirations. These include the ban of the Ukrainian language, the imposition of Russian culture on its colonised territories (a phenomenon known as “russification”), the commitment of ethnic cleansing, forced deportations, and genocides. However, it is key to understand that the imperial aspirations did not cease with the fall of the Russian Empire, but rather evolved with the emergence of the USSR, which did not deviate from the Russian monarchical practices. Those are the scars that were made not only upon the Ukrainian people but all of the nations which were under Russian influence in the past, from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.
The situation is worsened by the fact that the Russian government adopted these imperial aspirations under the guise of being a “big brother” who must “help” nations that have forcefully remained under Russian influence, which is rather a remnant of Russia’s colonial past. In order to justify the actions during the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Russian leaders invoked the “Russian World” term, which acted as an excuse to protect individuals who share a common “Russian heritage” (even though this heritage remotes back to the Kyivan-Rus people) that have a common “Russian root”, serving as a big tent term to justify the crimes committed not only during the colonial past but also during the present times.
Public support for the War
Since the onset of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, the independent Russian pollster, Levada Center, conducted a poll of the general tendencies of Russian public support for the war in Ukraine. The highest public support for the war was recorded as high as 75% of the population. This number can be debated in terms of sample size since the questionnaires are usually conducted in metropolitan areas, but we know that the Kremlin keeps a very close eye on public opinions over the war since they fear the fall of public support for the war, or as they call it “Special Military Operation”, confirming that the overall tendencies are still pro-war even during the partial mobilisation.
We can also observe a lack of big anti-war protests, and even if a protest does occur it tends to be small. A low number of protesters is usually attributed to the fear of the population being arrested and prosecuted by the authorities. Yet, if we look at the statistics of the arrests and persecutions during the protests in a country with at least 140 million population size, it becomes clear that pro-war sentiments are prevalent among the Russian population. The following section provides a more comprehensive analysis of this data.
The “repressive” measures for anti-war protests
An analysis of data concerning the protests taking place in Russia was carried out by Madi Kapparov, a Ph.D. student in accounting at London Business School. For his analysis, he used the data from OVD Info, a Russian civil rights group that is designated as a “foreign agent” in Russia. Per his analysis, in optimistic terms Kapparov concluded that of 100 thousand protestors (calculations made based on the tracking of national and regional outlets), 20 thousand were detained, making the probability of detention at 20%, in a 140 million population size country. Kapparov highlights in his analysis, the number of detentions would be lower if the protests were bigger as it was observed with the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine in 2013/14, and Belarus protests in 2020/2021.
But how many of those detained were in fact prosecuted? Out of 19478 detainees (number of detainees between February 24th and December 14th, 2022), 384 were prosecuted under the criminal code, which makes it less than two percent of detained protestors. Five thousand five hundred eighteen protesters were subject to administrative measures (fines and warnings), which makes it about 28.4% of detainees. This analysis concludes that anti-war protesters in Russia have less than a two percent chance of being prosecuted under the criminal code. A common threat to Russians of a high incarceration term of 15 years has never been a precedent, but it remains a theoretical possibility. Generally, detained protestors were charged and found guilty under the criminal code “for distribution of fake material”, which makes up 125 out of 384 prosecuted cases. The “15 years in prison” point is misleading since it has never been used in practice (as of the moment of the writing of this article).
For comparison, the Iranian government is much more repressive towards its population than the Russian government, especially through the practice of public executions, and uses similar means for state propaganda. Despite this, it is striking that the rate of the Russian population’s participation in anti-war protests is generally low, compared to the Iranian public protests which are deadlier and have a consistent participation rate from the onset of the protest movement at approximately 90 thousand protesters, according to Reuters. In Russia, there are not even anti-government protests, which also signifies that the population is satisfied with the government’s overall direction.
This comparison of protests also extends to the protests held in Europe. Following the death of Mahsa Amini, the mobilisation of the Iranian population in Germany reached up to 80 thousand people, per Berlin police. In contrast, there have been no major anti-war or anti-Putin protests organised by Russian expats in Germany, even after the Bucha massacre, not even mentioning the beginning of the invasion. For comparison, according to the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, the German Russian population is estimated to be 3.5 million, while the Iranian German population is around 250 thousand.
The middle and upper classes of the Russian population have the luxury to “flee” the “repressions”, yet it is important to take into consideration that these are the classes that contribute the most to financing the e Russian military complex through taxes. Despite living luxuriously in Europe, these classes are the ones that most Europeans encounter in the EU. They remain closely tied to Russian oligarchs and government officials while operating businesses in Russia. One of the examples of such political fleeing is a Russian “opposition” channel named “Dozhd” that was classified as a “foreign agent”, but continues to operate in Europe with ties to the Russian propaganda machine. As such, in December last year, one of the channel’s presenters repeatedly affirmed that the Russian army needs assistance in providing the equipment needed for the Russian servicemen at the frontline, and reaffirmed the channel’s upcoming aid for these servicemen. The channel did not resolve this situation until it became a scandal highlighted by the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian civil society. Yet, this was not the first instance of the “opposition” entity aligning with Russian propaganda, demonstrating the complex ties between the Russian government, the military complex, and those who fund it.
Who is a real victim of the war?
The question at hand is a reflexive one that can be answered differently. However, for the majority of Ukrainians, the primary victim of this war is not a Russian citizen who faces detention for anti-war activism, but rather a Ukrainian child who has lost their parents to Russian shelling. It is not a Russian male who supported Putin throughout the years and then decided to flee to Georgia, Turkey, or Germany due to mobilisation, but a Mother who lost her son in the Bucha massacre. It is not a Russian kid who went to Europe to party and applied for political refugee status, but a pregnant woman who was killed in the maternity house during the Russian bombardment. The list is inexhaustible. That is the reason why Ukrainians do not use “Putin’s war” term since the war crimes and massacres are not done by Putin himself, but by the Russian army personnel. The same goes for the rockets launched from Russia to target Ukrainian civilian infrastructure by Russian personnel with no regrets in taking such decisions. And this fact transcends into the imperial aspirations since it clearly was not about the NATO expansion or protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine.
Over the past year, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of Russian refugees seeking asylum in Europe. At the same time, there has also been a rise in hate crimes and other forms of discrimination against Ukrainians carried out by Russians. While opinions may differ on whether to equate the experiences of Ukrainian refugees with those of Russian “political” refugees, it is clear that the absence of significant opposition to the war in Russia supports the view that this is indeed Russia’s War on Ukraine. The ongoing war continues to exact a heavy toll on the Ukrainian people, and it is essential to understand the Russian people’s role in this war.