In Russia, Putin’s war in Ukraine draws battle lines
In the village of Kamenka in Russia’s southern Rostov region near the Ukrainian border, 47-year-old Alexei Safonov was horrified to learn that Russia had launched its attack last week. Then he started working as the chief engineer at an ice rink and was sickened to see his colleagues celebrating.
“The feeling was that it was high time we showed these ‘Nazis’ what we could do, so it is high time we started this operation,” he said, referring to the claim of Putin that he would “denazify” Ukraine and its leaders. “It made me feel really discouraged and depressed. The people around me are enthusiastic about it. When I look at them, I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
That night he wrote an anguished post on social media, lamenting the “horror and shame” of a war that “will be catastrophic”. He initially received 19 comments, most of them attacking him. A friend, a local policeman, warned him to delete it, but he refused.
At work the next day, the general manager of the complex burst in, shouting and swearing at Safonov.
“He said, ‘Either you delete this post or we don’t need people like you here. He told me to sign a resignation letter, but I just packed my things and left,” Safonov recounted.
Later, three police officers armed with machine guns came to his home, arrested him and accused him of disrespecting society and the Russian Federation. He faces court on Friday and fears authorities are concocting a more serious charge.
The seismic impact of the war is just beginning to be felt on many Russians, deepening these cracks in society. State TV hosts tell viewers the sanctions prove the West hates Russians.
European airspace closed and Russia’s now toxic brand shunned in sports, chess, ice hockey, football, motor racing and by art galleries, Harley Davidson, Disney , the movie “The Batman”, the Eurovision song contest, the luxury car shipping companies, the Maersk shipping company, the International Olympic Committee, major oil companies, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund and many more.
The cascading effect was rapid. Google has blocked YouTube channels linked to state-owned media RT and Sputnik. Even far-right European leaders and strongmen from Central and Eastern Europe balked. The ruble crashed and the Central Bank went out of business for two days, with Putin banning Russians from depositing currency in accounts or sending it abroad.
When Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rose to address the Geneva Disarmament Conference on Tuesday, nearly all delegates rose and left the room. When senior official Vyacheslav Volodin returned home from an official trip over the weekend, his plane was diverted from airspace in Sweden and Norway.
To be fair, outside of liberal circles, public criticism is still a relative trickle in a country where dissent is not tolerated. He did, however, include some powerful oligarchs, although they had little or no influence over Putin.
Oleg Deripaska, a billionaire industrialist, called for peace “as soon as possible” on the Telegram messaging app. Ukrainian-born tycoon Mikhail Fridman penned a letter to LetterOne staff, first reported by the Financial Times, saying war could never be the answer.
State TV host Ivan Urgant posted a black square on his Instagram feed the day of the invasion, along with the words “Fear and pain. No to war. His show the next day was canceled, and it is uncertain whether it will air again.
Even the daughter of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov posted a black banner on social media with the words “No to war”, although she quickly deleted it.
Anissa NaouaiCEO of Maffick, an RT-linked company and one of Putin’s staunchest supporters in years, announced on Tuesday that she was “cutting all ties with RT”, posting a black banner on Twitter with the words ” Russia without Putin”.
The apolitical felt the need to make their opposition clear. Peter Svidler, a Russian chess grandmaster, usually tweets about chess, Wordle and dogs. But last week he wrote that it was impossible to remain silent. “No to war,” he posted.
“Let’s at least say some things live on the air. I do not agree with the war my country is waging in Ukraine. I do not believe that Ukraine or the Ukrainian people are my enemies or the enemies of anyone,” he said during a Tuesday Chess 24 flux.
Nearly 6,500 protesters in dozens of cities have been arrested since the invasion, according to rights group OVD-Info. Psychiatrists, doctors, architects, journalists, actors, historians, computer scientists, filmmakers, Orthodox priests and others signed open letters protesting the war.
If Putin did not change course, Russia “would take its place as an aggressor and rogue state, a state that will bear the responsibility for its crimes for generations,” said Ivan Zhdanov, director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, led by imprisoned dissident Alexei. Navalny. Zhdanov spoke out in a video calling for a nationwide campaign against misinformation.
But as the Russian economy came under intense sanctions pressure, Russian officials doubled down and toughened up their rhetoric.
In a tweet from the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova asked if “the process of denazification in Germany after the end of World War II” was really over, commenting on Germany’s decision to send arms to Ukraine.
Lawmaker Andrei Klimov called for treason charges against those who “cooperated with foreign anti-Russian centers causing clear harm to our national security.”
The older generation of Russians who swallow state TV, fear the West and admire Putin for the stability he brought after the chaotic post-Soviet 1990s. But the predictability is gone.
Rink engineer Safonov said ordinary, low-income Russians would be hit hardest, but wealthy elites “will be fine as usual”, adding: “Maybe they will be shaken up a bit but not a lot, I’m sure.
“For Russia, that means we’re going back to the caves,” he said. “I think it’s like the end, for Russia.”
Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.