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Putin's War At Home: Russian Government Pushes Hard To Enforce Total Unanimity On Ukraine War

A demonstrator holds a sign reading "No to war!" at a protest in St. Petersburg against Moscow's invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
A demonstrator holds a sign reading "No to war!" at a protest in St. Petersburg against Moscow's invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

On March 3, a key Russian parliamentary committee approved a draft law that would impose prison terms of up to 15 years for disseminating "fake" information about Russian military operations.

The same day, the board of directors of the legendary Ekho Moskvy radio station voted to liquidate the channel and its website under intense pressure from the Russian government over its coverage of the invasion of Ukraine. The station was taken off the air and its site blocked on March 1, as was the liberal television station Dozhd.

And, also on March 3, Russia's Education Ministry held an "online lesson" to explain to schoolchildren and their teachers "why the liberation mission in Ukraine was necessary."

With President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked war on neighboring Ukraine entering its second week, his government has stepped up its battle at home -- seeking not only to control the narrative about the war and the consequences of unprecedented Western sanctions, but also to impose a Soviet-style national unanimity.

"This war is changing Russia in a very bad way," Sergei Utkin, head of the Strategic Assessment Section of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations, wrote on Twitter.

Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, has written that Putin is "effectively fighting two wars," one in Ukraine and one at home.

"Putin is fighting a rear-guard action to prevent the economy and the war from spilling over into the minds of too many ordinary Russians," he wrote in a blog post.

Ivan Zhdanov, the former director of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's banned Anti-Corruption Foundation who left Russia in 2021, expressed urgency in comments to Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

"Either Russia changes now, or it never will," he said. "This is the moment after which it will be too late…. Either everything changes now -- in the coming days and weeks -- or Russia will become another North Korea, without the Internet, without access to the outside world."

Military Censorship But No 'War'

Navalny has called on Russians to protest daily against the war. According to OVD-Info, a nongovernmental organization that monitors political repression, more than 7,600 people have been detained for anti-war protests since the February 24 invasion. More than 800 people were detained for anti-war activities in 36 cities on March 3.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Ekho Moskvy was founded in 1990, and the only other time it was shut down was briefly in August 1991 when hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets to oppose the KGB-inspired coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The station's journalists have vowed to continue reporting using Ekho Moskvy's social-media accounts.

Earlier, the state media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor ordered media to stop using words like "war" and "assault" to describe the invasion of Ukraine and threatened to block many independent media outlets, including Current Time and other RFE/RL Russian-language sites.

Ekho Moskvy First Deputy Editor in Chief Sergei Buntman told RFE/RL that the government is, in fact, imposing "military censorship in the absence of a war or state of emergency" because the Kremlin insists on calling the Ukraine invasion a "special military operation."

'Deglobalizing' Russia

Russian security analyst Pavel Luzin told Current Time shortly after the invasion of Ukraine was launched that the decision to intervene was part of a larger "ideological shift" noticeable in Russia since 2020 and driven by the Federal Security Service (FSB), heir to the Soviet KGB.

"I am more than convinced," he said on February 25, that “we are seeing a domestic political situation in which the FSB is not only participating in the ideological debate, but has begun to act. FSB operatives -- current and former --are not only present in the abstract among the ruling elites. They are in the General Staff and on all the corporate boards."

Putin was a longtime KGB officer and headed the FSB in 1998-99.

"In general, as I see it, they have decided to realize their idea of a deglobalized Russia," Luzin added. "The idea that it is time to stop all these games of the last 30 years and just put the entire former Soviet space under their thumb and, in short, pull into their shell and live on their own."

Stifling Ekho Moskvy and other media outlets was "a completely expected step on the part of the authorities," said economist and former Russian central bank official Andrei Cherepanov.

"If they allowed them to keep broadcasting such programs, then the public would have learned the truth about what is happening in Putin's war in Ukraine," he told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "And as soon as they learned, it would produce revolts calling for an end to the war."

From St. Petersburg To Siberia, Russian Anti-War Protests Spread
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At the same time, Russia's state-controlled television and other media are pushing the Kremlin's risible claims that Ukraine is ruled by "Nazis and drug addicts" doing NATO's bidding and committing "genocide" against Russian-speakers.

"I talk to a lot of people," said television critic Aleksandr Melman. "Until recently, before the Ukraine war, I was surprised that all of them -- people with various educations, ages, Muscovites and non-Muscovites -- supported Putin, but we could converse normally. Now, speaking to the same people, I see how high the level of aggression has risen, how they simply demand…that you have to support Putin, support the war."

"It makes me think, unfortunately, not of [Soviet dictator Josef] Stalin, but of how in 1933 or thereabouts the German people, the most cultured people in the world, turned into the image of their leader, Adolf Hitler," he added.

'I Didn't Feel Safe In My Own Room'

In addition to strictly controlling information in a bid to prevent an anti-war movement from gelling, Russian security forces have rushed to quash manifestations of protest. Many of the one-person pickets that have popped up in Russian cities were ended by police within minutes.

Students in the Akademgorodok suburb of Novosibirsk, for instance, have learned the consequences of speaking out. On February 25, the morning after the invasion was launched, one student was detained for hanging a Ukrainian flag and the slogan "No War" on a dormitory window. Four other students were detained the same day for posting anti-war flyers (after police identified them from security-camera footage), and several more were detained for holding one-person pickets.

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"In the evening, I watched the news," the student who was detained for hanging a Ukrainian flag and who asked to be identified only as Sergei, said of the events of February 25. "And then I decided to go for a walk. I was too scared to conduct a picket against the war, but I felt like I had to do something. War is a red line that our government has crossed."

Later he hung the flag in his window and went to bed. At 9 a.m. someone knocked on his door and said he intended to report the flag to the institution's FSB overseer. A short while later, university officials came and demanded that he remove the flag -- threatening him with expulsion and criminal charges. Then the police showed up and took him away.

Sergei was released after several hours of intimidating interrogation.

"Until I can afford to be expelled from the dormitory, I am going to stop any [public protests]," he told RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities. "But it is impossible not to follow the news. I consider February 24 to be a point of no return."

Kristina, one of the students detained for posting anti-war flyers who also asked to be identified only by her first name, told RFE/RL that her ordeal was emotionally "exhausting."

"I returned to my room and sat there for several hours, not knowing what to do," she recalled. "And when someone knocked on my door, I was really afraid. I realized I didn't feel safe in my own room."

"I hope this passes quickly," she added. "It is a horrific feeling."

On March 2, Dozhd television Editor in Chief Tikhon Dzyadko announced he and several other Dozhd journalists were leaving Russia after their station was blocked.

"After the illegal blocking of Dozhd and Dozhd's social media accounts, and also following threats against several employees, it has become clear that the personal safety of many of us is under threat," he told Current Time.

RFE/RL's Russian Service, Siberia.Realities, and Current Time contributed to this report.

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