More Russian men have left Russia in the past two weeks to avoid military conscription than now fight in Ukraine, more than 200,000. Thousands more each day, with their families, continue to cross into Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, now that Europe has halted entry.
This mass exodus, in addition to 400,000 who left between February and August, represents the biggest anti-Kremlin “protest” by civil society in the country’s modern history. Putin criminalized dissent, so Russians can only “protest” with their feet and, since he took power 22 years ago, about 11 million Russians have relocated. But this current pace of civil disobedience is regime-threatening and began in mid-September after legendary rock celebrity Alla Pugacheva came out publicly on Sep. 18 on Instagram against the war and then Putin announced a partial mobilization of 300,000 men.
On Oct. 1 a popular Russian rapper committed suicide, writing he didn’t want to kill people in the war and that Putin was “a maniac”. The same day, oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a Putin pal, was charged in the U.S. with trying to smuggle his pregnant girlfriend into Los Angeles back in June so their unborn child would be an American citizen. It’s clear that the “Russian Street” rises up and threatens to upend Putin and his war.
The rock star’s message resonated through Russian society: She told tens of millions of followers that Russian soldiers were dying for “illusory goals” and that Russia had become a global “pariah”. Another cultural bombshell exploded when the curator of the iconic Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg, Dmitry Ozerkov, announced he was also leaving.
“Dialogue and respect ceased to mean anything in Russia, the news was replaced by propaganda that says nothing about Russian armed forces accused of numerous crimes against the civilian population. As a Russian citizen, I saw this shame as my own fault too and I shared this opinion. Then my choice was to stop doing anything in and for today’s Russia,” he wrote.
Critics are coming forward more often and there’s also infighting among members of Putin’s inner circle — and his potential successors — as well as among its media commentators. Chechnya’s leader and Putin ally, Ramzan Kadyrov criticized military leader General Alexander Lapin for retreating in eastern Ukraine. Kadyrov said “had it been up to me, I would have demoted Lapin to a trooper, taken away his decorations, and sent him to the front line with an assault rifle in his hands to wash away his shame with his blood.”
Anti-war military veterans publicly blame corruption as well as incompetence for Russia’s military humiliations. One Siberian leader said local authorities had “lost” 1.5 million winter uniforms. “Everything was there and then just evaporated. Nobody can explain it anywhere or anyhow.”
Russia roils at home but this spills over onto the battlefield. War correspondent Alexander Kots compared the current situation to the state of the Tsar’s army in 1917 when it imploded and the Communists took over. “Do we need it 100 years later?” he asked in a Telegram post. Another commentator described the situation as a burgeoning revolution: “The disappointment in top brass, direct accusations of treason, verbal attacks on commanders — this is stage one. What’s next is disappointment in the commander-in-chief, who can’t improve anything. The third stage is revolution with the already-lost war in the background.”
Political observers believe that criticisms will soon be directed at Putin himself, but first there will be purges of the generals. “There are no anti-Putin statements yet, but they are not far away,” said a lawmaker expelled from the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, for his criticism of Putin’s policies. “The first stones are thrown, but not at Putin, only at his coterie. This happened before and we all know how it ended.”
Russians, like others around the world, are upset about their country’s nuclear threats — a factor reflected in the fact that the lead article in the Oct. 3 government mouthpiece, RT, played down nuclear threats: “Emotions should play no role when discussing the use of nuclear weapons, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has said, adding that Moscow has a clear policy in this regard. His comments came shortly after Ramzan Kadyrov, the bloodthirsty leader of the Chechen Republic, suggested that Russia should use “low-yield nuclear weapons against Ukraine”. Speaking to reporters, Peskov said that “governors and heads of regions in Russia have the right to express their personal opinion and to give assessments on issues. That, however, does not mean officials can give free rein to their emotions, ‘even in difficult times,'” Peskov said.
Esteemed Russian military veterans are openly opposing the war. Retired air force lieutenant-colonel Vitaly Votanovsky told the independent Moscow Times that “Putin destroyed the country’s military mobilization resources with his own hands and now this idiot has gotten himself into the war with the entire world. He created circumstances in which we cannot win.”
In May, a 64-year-old Captain was fined for posting anti-war pictures on the VKontakte social media platform. Others have been arrested for speaking out across the country. “My experience in opposition politics tells me everything in our country rests on lies,” said one veteran. Many point out that the endemic corruption and incompetence (due to nepotism) means success in the war will be unlikely. “Neither Putin nor [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu served a single day in the army, so they have only a feeble idea about the state and capabilities of our armed forces and of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” said a former officer.
It may be too early to write off Putin, but the country is armed to the teeth with millions of Russian men and their families who oppose the war and conscription. There are also millions of Russia residents with Ukrainian background living there who are appalled at the invasion. Given these sentiments, and as conditions worsen, Russia heads toward regime change or revolution. Even in Putin’s dictatorship, the will of the people must be considered and the departure of so many speaks volumes to leaders. But only a new leader can heap blame solely on Putin and negotiate with Ukraine in good faith. Otherwise, and if a battle for succession erupts, the Russian Federation will dissolve just as happened to the Soviet Union in 1989 following its failure in Afghanistan, another poorly executed and unpopular war.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Diane Francis Newsletter on America and the World, https://dianefrancis.substack.com/about
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Kyiv Post.
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