Amidst all the attention about Donald Trump and America’s 2024 Presidential election, the faux “re-election” of Vladimir Putin rolls on. Of course, it is a sham and he will win on March 17 because Russia is a criminal organization where elections are window-dressing and speech is about as free as it is inside China’s Politburo. Even so, credible polls reveal that support for Putin’s war ebbs as the conflict drags on, killing or maiming 315,000 and imperilling another 300,000 Russians at the warfront.
But politics are also about “local” issues and Russians are upset because eggs are scarce and expensive, interest rates high, and frozen pipes burst constantly leaving hundreds of thousands without heat. But Russians endure by using dark humor and sarcasm to express feelings and opinions. One anti-war joke making the rounds these days is that “Putin’s partial mobilization means that you are drafted in whole and return back with parts missing”.
But this election is different because movements opposing the war appear which may be why Putin suggests, through back channels, that he will accept a ceasefire even though, publicly, he doubles down. His latest billboard campaign boasts Imperially beneath his image that “Russia’s borders do not end anywhere” and recently declared that he still wants all of Ukraine.
Surely Putin realizes that his army cannot beat a NATO-backed Ukraine. At the same time, however, he also realizes that he cannot lose power at home. So he bides his time and hopes for Western war fatigue and a Trump victory in the fall. This week, Trump won the Iowa Republican primary and repeated that he could solve the Ukraine war “very fast” – a pledge only possible if the White House threatens to stop providing military aid to Ukraine unless it negotiates a cease-fire. But Europeans rally to help Ukraine, in response to Washington’s political gridlock, and Kyiv is about to deploy this spring a few dozen F16s, donated by EU nations, that could decimate Putin’s hapless cannon fodder along the front line.
But internal threats lurk inside Russia. Its obscene casualty rate has sparked a low-key, but effective anti-war protest from women relatives of soldiers, dubbed the “white scarves” movement. They hide their identities, gather to lay carnations at unknown soldier’s monuments, and have issued a manifesto calling Putin’s mobilization of their menfolk “legalized slavery”. Other groups have sprung up in remote regions where a disproportionate number of men from ethnic minorities have been press-ganged into the military and died. Putin avoids putting into uniform the rich, well-connected young “white” Russians who live in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as described in my June 12 newsletter “Putin’s other genocides”.
Russian draftees die in droves due to improper training and equipment. Once inducted, they disappear, leaving relatives in the dark as to their whereabouts or condition. Many deaths are unreported and reports surface that conscripts have been shot as deserters for retreating or for refusing to obey dangerous orders. Army morale is low and many escape and hide. A recent investigation alleged that a group of draftees, who complained to officers, were purposely sent to their deaths in battle. “Our problems have been constantly ignored, but we won’t let our men be forgotten,” said Maria Andreyeva, the wife of a mobilized soldier and one of the few members of the movement willing to go public.
The “white scarves” leaders tread carefully and, thus far, have not been subjected to the arrests and abuse that most anti-Putin activists incur. There has been some intimidation, and bans against certain protests, but violent repression is taboo. This is why the movement – online and off – continues and grows. Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin believes this relatives’ movement is “a serious symptom of growing problems” in the country. And it is why authorities cautiously handle the situation because “the consequences [of action] could be unpredictable.”
These women spread concern. A Russian investigative website reported recently that a letter signed by 100 family members of soldiers stationed in Ukraine demanded an end to Putin’s “meat assaults” against Ukraine’s military. Another reporter wrote that an entire platoon just deserted in Crimea and is being hunted.
True or false, underground stories spread like COVID across Russia and the quiet protest by women has even garnered the attention of the esteemed Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington. It recently commented that the “angry relatives” are Putin’s biggest concern. "Putin's presidential campaign will reportedly not focus on the war in Ukraine, and the Kremlin likely considers the relatives of mobilized personnel to be a social group that may pose one of the greatest threats to his campaign.”
Then there are the eggs and price of groceries. Police recently arrested a member of the Uzbek diaspora for “inciting hatred” with an online meme that spoofed both the country's economic inflation and the military mobilization. He faces a jail sentence for this post and caption in Russian: “Screw you and your eggs! Bring back the roosters from the front.”
Last month, Putin publicly apologized for the soaring cost of eggs. But discontent grows, according to recent polls conducted by non-governmental, independent organizations. Support for Putin’s war hits rock bottom, according to Euronews. In October, Russian pollster, the Chronicle, said support for the invasion had halved in two years.
It added that 40 percent of Russians favor the withdrawal of troops from Ukraine without war aims being achieved and that only 33 percent were against exiting from the war, down from 47 percent one year ago. Another poll found that 80 percent of Russians are worried about their financial well-being, a figure that’s 30 percent higher than recorded in May. Such anxiety is worrisome in any election, rigged or otherwise, but in combination with Putin’s quagmire in Ukraine is now reportedly unsettling Putin’s “siloviki” or the intelligence and security inner circle.
Journalists say oligarch “clans” openly feud and discredit one another to shift blame as well as to secure more power for themselves after the election and war. Putin has always encouraged infighting to retain power. This tactic was demonstrated last year when a raucous rivalry between his military brass and the late oligarch and mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin surfaced. The clash resulted in a violent but quick mutiny by Prigozhin; a climb down then a love-in with Putin, and finally his assassination weeks later.
The reality is that the election is a foregone conclusion and Russia’s 143 million people are prisoners in a gigantic gulag with 10 timezones. Heroic political foe Alexey Navalny still survives and says that Russia will “collapse and crumble”. But his recent tweet illustrates his personal plight in captivity after being recently transferred during the election to a jail near the Arctic Circle.
Putin keeps Navalny alive, and lets him communicate to the outside world, because he serves a purpose. Navalny’s increasingly gaunt appearances convey the message: Putin’s power is intractable and the consequences of anyone who opposes him are dire. Navalny recently resurfaced at a court hearing at his new hideous prison, and deployed the same dark humor and sarcasm that all Russians use to cope. He entered the court smiling and told the judge that he wanted the court to know that he missed the guards from his last prison, which caused the judge to laugh. Then he described his new conditions. “At this temperature, you can walk for more than half an hour, but only if you have time to grow a new nose, ears, and fingers.” Then he joked, tragically, that he hoped to figure out what court would accept a lawsuit from him so that he could change the weather.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
Reprinted from [email protected] - Diane Francis on America and the World
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