How do Russians and Ukrainians feel about war?

Anti-war demonstrations dispersed by police in a host of Russian cities

Anti-war protestors in Pushkin Square, Moscow
Anti-war protestors in Pushkin Square, Moscow
(Image credit: Gavriil Grigorov\TASS via Getty Images)

Thousands of people in cities across Russia have taken to the streets in protest against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Police had made at least 1,702 arrests in 53 Russian cities as of Thursday evening, according to OVD-Info, a Moscow-based group that tracks politically motivated arrests.

Protesters have been warned by authorities that any “negative comments” about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be treated as “treason”, said The Telegraph. Those arrested face fines or jail time for taking part in “unsanctioned protests”.

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A poll released by the independent Levada Centre found that only 45% of Russians backed Putin’s recognition of separatist-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine, an announcement that preceded the invasion of Russia’s neighbour.

Russian aggression

Polling by the Levada Center, Russia’s most respected political surveying institution, in December 2021 found that 39% of Russians believed that war with Ukraine was either “highly likely or unavoidable”. Another 38% said that war was “unlikely”, while 15% ruled out the possibility “entirely”.

The pollsters found that half of the 1,603 respondents across 50 Russian regions blamed the US and other Nato countries for the increase in tensions, with 16% pinning the blame on Ukraine. Only 4% blamed Russia and 3% the pro-Kremlin breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine for the hostilities.

There were some differing opinions across age demographics, with 61% of respondents aged 55 and over blaming the US and Nato compared with just a quarter of those aged 18 to 24. Those in the youngest category were more likely to blame Ukraine for the sudden spike in aggression.

Many “cannot see what could motivate Russia to launch an attack on Ukraine”, The Guardian reported at the time, “despite Vladimir Putin’s public ultimatums to the west and the tanks, missiles and other weapons continuing to make their way to the Ukrainian border”.

Alexei Rozhkov, a visiting priest at the Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, had told the paper that “there won’t be a war”, arguing that “when Russia has gone to war, it’s gone to war for a reason.

“And there is no reason for this bloodshed, there’s nothing worth it in today’s world. What would people be fighting for? How can you fight a war without people?”

This was echoed by Konstantin Danilin, a 36-year-old father of two from Moscow, who told The Guardian: “Leaders need to talk tough, this is just hysteria. Putin is aggressive, he takes risks, it’s possible he makes mistakes. But this is all just a negotiation.”

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank in Moscow, told the Financial Times that “it’s certainly true to say that for Putin and for many Russians, Ukraine continues to be part of the historical Russian state”.

But he also said that he did not believe “the idea today is to integrate Ukraine into a new edition of the Russian state, of an expanded Russian state".

Trenin said: “I don’t think that the way to resolve the Ukraine problem for Russia is to invade it, occupy it and integrate it within the rest of the Russian Federation.

“I don’t think that serious people believe that this is possible or this is the way to go. There are some people who think that way, but I would say that they are still on the margins.”

Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, told The Guardian that when the topic of Ukraine has come up during recent polling, Russians say: “As soon as I hear the word [Ukraine], I just change the channel. I don’t even want to know what’s going on there. Ukraine again, war again, I don’t even want to get into it.

“Nobody wants war. But internally they’ve been prepared for this situation.”

Brotherly betrayal

Ukraine once “shrugged off predictions of war”, said The Washington Post, but “now it’s a mad dash to leave”. When fighting began, Oksana Nipogodneyeva, told the paper that “the people who call us a brotherly country are committing these actions. It’s some kind of betrayal and you just can’t understand it.”

Tony Desmond, a computer scientist living in Kyiv, told the paper: “This is not just ordinary war. This is Russia, it’s the biggest military power in the East and West. My biggest fear is I don’t want to die. I want to find somewhere safe.”

The Telegraph described a confrontation in which a Ukrainian woman told a Russian soldier to put sunflower seeds in his pocket so that flowers will grow when he dies on Ukraine’s soil. The moment, posted online, is “one of the extraordinary scenes of defiance from the front lines of the Russian invasion”.

A Ukrainian fashion designer behind celebrity clothing brand Cult Naked described the invasion as the “worst day in our lives”. Mary Furtas wrote on Instagram that she “hadn’t slept for 30 hours” and pleaded with Kyiv to “hold on”.

The Times’ war correspondent Anthony Lloyd spoke to a resident of Kyiv who said: “I went to sleep in Ukraine and have woken worrying that my land might be part of Russia before the end of the day.”

Another resident told Lloyd that Putin is laughing at America: “He’s had years to prepare his economy with oil and gas to protect himself. You hear those guns. You think sanctions are going to stop those from crushing us? You think sanctions alone will stop a Russian shell?”

“Fear and confusion” reigns in the frontline city of Kostyantynivka, the BBC reported. Andrei Varleez, a local queuing for petrol in an effort to leave, said: “I can’t even understand what we should do. We’re civilians, not military people. Where can we escape to? I don’t know. I have a small child, I can’t escape.”

A young Russian man in Moscow told the BBC he was “shocked” by the invasion.

“We have never seen war in our lifetime and we are about to see one,” he said. Another man said that “there is a sense of horror and a sense of shame about what our authorities are doing”.

Some Russians were more supportive of Putin’s move, with one man telling the BBC that the war was aimed at “protecting Russians” in Ukraine”. It is Kyiv’s “fault that they ended up in this situation”, he said. “They have always been problematic, throughout history”.

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