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Ukraine: what anti-war protesters in Russia risk by speaking out

A young person in a long coat and scarf being walked by two police officers in heavy riot gear
One of thousands of anti-war protesters to be detained in Russia in recent days. Maxim Shipenkov / EPA-EFE

Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, mass anti-war protest action has erupted in more than 50 Russian cities. Footage of protesters shows almost immediate arrests by Russian anti-riot police. So far over 5,800 people have been detained since the invasion began, according to a protest monitoring group, with the numbers increasing daily.

In addition to civilian protests, scientists, journalists and academics have signed letters denouncing the invasion, and sportsmen have protested the war in front of international audiences.

Dissent has also come from among Russian elites, including the military. In late January, retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov published an open letter to Putin and Russian citizens denouncing Putin’s “criminal policy of provoking a war”. And Russian UN climate delegate Oleg Anisimov apologised for the invasion during a virtual UN conference.

Given the recent history of crackdowns against protest action in Russia, this seemingly broad anti-war coalition is remarkable.

Journalists and independent outlets have continued reporting on the military operation in Ukraine, defying official orders not to mention the word “war”. The front page of opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta on February 25 read “Russia. Bombs. Ukraine” and was published in Russian and Ukrainian.

Roskomnadzor, Russia’s mass media regulator, has warned outlets to remove “inaccurate information” or else risk severe fines. A number of journalists from independent outlets have also been detained while covering the protests.

History of protest

The protests coincided with the seventh anniversary of the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition politician who was killed on a bridge near the Kremlin in 2015.

Alexei Navalny also spoke up against the invasion during his trial on embezzlement charges, which he has said are politically motivated. The opposition figure has spent the last year in a penal colony, after recovering from a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin.

Nemtsov and Navalny’s fates give insight into what protesters and high profile opposition figures risk in Russia – from arrest, detention and fines to prison sentences and assassinations.

The last time Russia saw major protest action was between 2011 and 2013, during Putin’s re-election campaign. Activists were mobilised by figures like Navalny, who is now well known internationally, calling for fair elections and denouncing election fraud. Official numbers of attendees at one of the biggest protest marches in Moscow in February 2012 were contested. The police claimed 35,000 people attended, while organisers said 120,000.

It is difficult to find official numbers for today’s anti-war protests, as attendees are only able to gather momentarily before police step in.

In May 2012, the Bolotnaya Square protests against Putin’s inauguration marked a key event in the criminalisation of protest in Russia. A violent clash between protesters and the police resulted in the arrest of over 600 people and 80 injuries. Nearly 40 were detained, tried and sentenced. Human rights groups in Moscow denounced the politically motivated treatment of the protesters, and the European Court of Human Rights issued numerous verdicts on the case. Amnesty International recognised the defendants as prisoners of conscience, imprisoned for their political beliefs.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalany seen in a court video. In the low quality screenshot, he is standing at a table with two people sitting on either side of him.
Alexei Navalny spoke out from his trial. Yuri Kochetkov / EPA-EFE

It was during the 2011-13 waves of protests that Navalny reached wider popularity, evolving from an anti-corruption blogger to a political opposition leader. His nationwide movement successfully coordinated protests across the country. In early 2021, it was added to a terrorism watch list by the Kremlin. The country’s biggest mass protests since 2011 broke out when Navalny was arrested in January 2021.

The organisation’s leaders decided to disband the regional headquarters to protect staff and supporters, effectively resulting in a demobilisation of the opposition. Many of Navalny’s top aides have been forced into exile, fearing arrest.

Cracking down

In the years since those marches, the Russian state has increasingly criminalised protest. In July 2012, Putin signed a law requiring NGOs, media and individuals with sources of foreign funding to register as “foreign agents”. Any publications by such organisations are marked by a disclaimer that they are distributed by foreign agents.

Since 2014, in a series of laws and amendments on public assemblies, the right to protest has been virtually fully criminalised. Putin has imposed increasingly harsher restrictions on who can organise a protest, where people can protest and when.

This dark history explains why the current anti-war protests have so far been small, less coordinated and scattered. But they haven’t lost momentum – on February 28, Navalny’s movement called for a campaign of civil disobedience against the war.

The Russian political apparatus has been systematically dismantling opposition movements, creating a climate where any form of protest is met with oppression. But the vocal and growing dissent to Putin’s war suggests the tide might be turning. However, it is most likely that meaningful political change will come from Russia’s political and economic elite as they begin to respond to the sanctions and Russia’s isolation from the international sphere.