A promise unfulfilled Scholar Sasha de Vogel explains why Russia lacks massive antiwar protests
Shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, on February 24, 2022, it seemed like a massive antiwar protest movement was emerging across Russia. However, the Russian authorities met early antiwar actions with repressive force and severe legal repercussions for participants, and within weeks of the beginning of the invasion, antiwar protest on a mass scale had fizzled. Dr. Sasha de Vogel, a political scientist specializing in protest in Russia, outlines the political and social obstacles to a large-scale antiwar movement, and discusses whether such a movement could end the war even if it did emerge.
Russians’ early response to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine seemed to promise a mass protest movement that would resist Putin’s agenda from inside the country — between February 24 and March 13, 2022, at least 498 protests occurred in 154 cities, and approximately 15,000 people were detained. Yet nearly a year later, mass internal resistance has failed to materialize, and demonstrations have almost entirely given way to forms of resistance like arson, open letters, train derailments, and symbolic acts like laying flowers. Why has an antiwar protest movement failed to materialize, and what are the prospects for its emergence?
Street protests, including demonstrations and marches, matter more than other types of resistance. This is true first of all because protesting is dangerous: protesters risk violence, arrest and more to express their message. Their participation signals a real investment in that message. Second, street protest is more visible than other forms of protest, and anyone who sees placards or hears chants can readily understand protestors’ message. Third, protest achieves change through disruption. A large enough protest is impossible for the government to ignore, an especially important point in autocracies, where state-sanctioned venues for political expression, like elections, or less disruptive methods, like petitions, have little meaning. Fourth, protests allow a lot of people to show their allegiance to a certain view at once. That can be extremely powerful — even transformative — where public discourse is dominated by propaganda and censorship, and people are afraid to express dissent. Larger protests can also be safer for participants: even a city like Moscow can only detain a few thousand people at once. Other acts of resistance can be singular, anonymous, ambiguous, or difficult to see, even if they require great bravery, but large protests can be the death knell for the regime. And autocrats know it. Putin’s years-long persecution of Alexey Navalny is evidence of his fear of popular revolution.
After decades of escalating repression to prevent protest, Russian society was not well-positioned to resist the war with street actions in February 2022. The state has wide discretion to declare a protest illegal, exposing participants to legal consequences that are virtually impossible to resist in court, and violence at the hands of paramilitary police forces like OMON, SOBR and Zubr. On top of that, the 2021 crackdown on civil society dismantled critical networks, including Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and Memorial, which had the capacity to coordinate a national protest movement. Culturally, the common belief that politics and governance are the concerns of those with power, not of regular people, has produced widespread apathy and what activists decry as learned helplessness: many Russians are simply not interested in protest.
The Russian authorities have expanded their options for suppressing dissent since the invasion of Ukraine. The State Duma passed a record 653 laws in 2022, many of them, like new laws criminalizing “discrediting” the Russian army, designed to repress. This rapidly advancing climate of repression led to the collapse of protest in March 2022. Within a few months, dissidents and civil society leaders were largely exiled or imprisoned. Censorship, online monitoring, and the eradication of free media have eliminated venues where information about protest can be shared, and now online and traditional media present the façade of society united in favor of the war. The use of facial recognition technology is expanding, allowing for easier identification of dissidents. Russia Watcher, a U.S.-based online Russian polling project, found that by fall 2022, around eighty percent of antiwar survey respondents felt it was likely that someone — not specifically a protester — who openly opposed the war would be arrested. Added to this is the fact that the large share of Russians employed by the state not only face workplace retaliation for protest, but many have also been complicit in advancing the domestic war effort to retain their jobs.
A repressive state isn’t the only obstacle to mass protest movements. Even without these conditions, mass antiwar protests can only occur if a large number of Russians oppose the war. There is no evidence that this is the case. Even surveys designed to allow respondents to reveal controversial opinions do not suggest that large swaths of society are concealing antiwar sentiments. Support for the war is largely unaffected by evidence of Russian-committed atrocities; rather, support tends to decline with perceptions of success. Even a large share of what could be considered antiwar organizing has been devoted to aiding those evading mobilization or seeking to emigrate — different from defending Ukrainians. It is also telling that there have been no considerable antiwar protests in the destinations abroad where Russians have fled. In other words, we are not in a situation where Russians are simply hiding deeply felt antiwar beliefs but would take to the streets if enough others do.
Perhaps it is not surprising that citizens of a country whose colonial history has been celebrated rather than reevaluated, much less rebuked, have not risen up to the defense of a territory they once occupied. In any country, international issues, even wars, attract far less political interest than domestic politics. Yet even the war’s domestic effects have largely failed to generate protests. Mobilization produced a limited number of protests and has depressed support for the war, but it has officially been completed since October. Many affected families continue to support or feel neutral about the conflict. In the scale of the total population, the number of mobilized individuals is low — officially 300,000 — and disproportionately concentrated in ethnic republics like Buryatia, where the negative impacts can be contained far from Moscow. Even the economic impacts of war have not incited protest. The economic collapse that seemed imminent with the initial barrage of sanctions has manifested as a series of challenges requiring adaptation. And Russians, after all, have experience putting their heads down to weather an economic crisis.
But let us assume that Russians did protest the war in large numbers. Another question looms: Would it work? The Putin regime has caved to protesters on environmental concerns, social benefits, and taxes, but rarely on political issues. Concessions on a regime-critical policy that is so strongly identified with Putin himself are unlikely without truly massive numbers of protesters, far greater than Russia has ever seen at a single protest — and even then, success is far from guaranteed. For instance, the movement against the invasion of Iraq in 2002 was one of the largest antiwar protest campaigns in both American and world history, yet American troops did not withdraw until 2011. Indeed, Americans shaking their heads at how Russians can feel so disconnected from the horrors in Ukraine might think back to their own engagement with the Iraq War: how closely did they follow events on the ground? How often did they go to a protest? How effective did they think those protests would be?
Still, it is not impossible for a mass antiwar movement to emerge, but if it does, it will not be founded in moral outrage and solidarity with Ukrainians. Instead, it would likely address domestic considerations that directly affect Russians’ everyday lives. For instance, if — or more realistically, when — mobilization starts up again and is more wide-reaching, it could be met with more resistance. Thus far the economic impacts have been successfully managed, but they could still occur. Putin would rather cut off his nose than stop paying pensions but doing so at the cost of benefits to families and veterans — those who have sacrificed for this war — would not be well-received. Last, it is possible that Russians could hit a breaking point under the ever-tightening vise grip of repression and take to the streets to call for an end to the Putin regime. But for the time being, the prospects are slim.