Putin is not only destroying Ukraine
Two weeks after the invasion of Ukraine began, hundreds of thousands of people are trapped in cities pounded to ruins by Russian artillery. But more and more Russians are finding that they too are prisoners – not of shellfire, but of a full-fledged dictatorship. Our foreign expert Matthijs le Loux takes stock of the war in Ukraine.
The procession of Ukrainians seeking refuge abroad has swelled to more than two million people this week. That is the fastest growing refugee in Europe since World War II, according to the UN.
Most of the refugees traveled to Poland (1.2 million) and other Eastern European countries. Many of them have family or acquaintances there. Some 210,000 people fled to other parts of Europe.
Those are the lucky ones. A total of 44 million people live in Ukraine. The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, expects a second large wave of refugees in the near future. There will probably be more people among them who cannot fall back on contacts abroad.
And then there are the millions of inhabitants of cities that are now (largely) surrounded by Russian troops. They can’t go anywhere until a ceasefire makes their escape routes safe enough. They are now under heavy shelling, much civilian infrastructure no longer works and their supplies are running out.
Take the people trapped in besieged Mariupol, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000. They have had no access to running water, electricity or heating since March 2, while temperatures are around freezing.
The southeastern port city is an important strategic target for the Russians and is scourged by bombing. Hundreds of civilians have died as a result of the war, according to the city council. Accurate counts are impossible, because emergency services can’t keep up and telephones stop working.
Putin is not only destroying Ukraine, he also leaves little of Russia
Refugees under fire
Humanitarian corridors (routes over which a ceasefire is called) should provide a solution, but Russian willingness to shut down the guns for a while appears to be limited. Several evacuation attempts were aborted because of attacks, some after less than an hour.
Refugees have also come under direct fire: on Sunday, March 6, four of them, including two children, were killed by mortar fire in a suburb of Kyiv, Irpin. A team from The New York Times documented the attack. Photojournalist Lynsey Addario wrote that two scenarios were possible: the Russians deliberately targeted the evacuation route or showed a total lack of concern about civilian casualties.
Russia insists it does not target civilians and even says that Ukrainian “Nazis” are targeting their own civilians. That constant denial is deeply cynical, as there is countless evidence to the contrary, from bombings of residential areas of no military value to incidents like the one in Irpin.
What does the ordinary Russian think?
How the invasion of Ukraine and everything ensuing from it are received by the Russian population has been puzzling since the invasion began. But that question is gaining weight as the human toll of war mounts and more parts of Ukraine turn to smoldering ruins.
After all, Russians and Ukrainians are at the very least Slavic brother nations, in the eyes of the Kremlin even the same nation. Cities such as Kyiv and Odesa are also part of the Russian national story. A Ukrainian acquaintance summed up the tapes succinctly: “Just about every Russian has a Ukrainian cousin.”
Attempts to gauge Russian public opinion run up against the problem that the country has made the transition from authoritarian state to full-fledged dictatorship. Russian journalist Sergei Dobrynin captivatingly described this slip in The Atlantic : “The decline of our society was so slow that many Russians could choose not to notice it. That was Putin’s method: put the knife in gradually. Less drama, same result.”
The Kremlin has silenced the few independent news media still operating in Russia and all other media are proclaiming the government line. Protesters are arrested en masse and risk police brutality and high prison sentences.
Need for stability
It is difficult to say who exactly believes the deluge of government propaganda and who questions it. The same goes for support for the war in general. Russia experts do see clear differences between the young and the elderly and between the inhabitants of urban areas and those in rural areas. Young people and city dwellers are generally more international in nature, less dependent on state television and more active on the internet. Opposition to the war is more pronounced among them.
But such contradictions do not tell the whole story. An elderly Russian in the countryside can also understand that the official story is shaky, but can, for example, decide to fall back on an effective survival strategy from the Soviet era: nod yes and make sure you don’t stick out above the ground.
Another important consideration for many older Russians stems from the chaotic times after the fall of the Soviet Union: they need stability above all else. Vladimir Putin managed to deliver those in the past. And whatever else it would bring if Putin’s regime collapsed, greater stability is not a likely outcome.
And of course there are also significant numbers of Russians who simply approve of the invasion, for example because they share Putin’s ideas of a ‘Greater Russia’.
Two captive populations
The pressure on the Russian population is increasing from all sides. The economic sanctions from the West are unparalleled in severity. The consequences are already being felt for the ordinary Russian, who can buy less for his rouble, no longer enter the metro by checking in with his mobile phone and can no longer catch a Big Mac.
That will only get worse, especially if the West targets the Russian energy sector. Russia has become an international pariah and Russians abroad face intimidation and violence.
Meanwhile, horrifying information about the true nature of the struggle in Ukraine is seeping through from encrypted chat apps or phone conversations with Ukrainian relatives.
In addition, the number of Russian soldiers coming home in body bags is likely to be significantly greater than the Kremlin will ever admit or effectively disguise.
More and more Russians who have the means to do so are also becoming refugees: they travel to countries that still allow Russian flights, such as Turkey and Georgia, or cross the land borders with Finland or the Baltic states.
Many analysts believe that protests in Russia will grow. The Kremlin can really only go one way, that of even more brutal repression.
There are no grenades and missiles falling on the Russian population, but in a sense they are just as trapped as the Ukrainian ones. Putin has hijacked the plane, and all on board are at the mercy of his distorted worldview.
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