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Russians Ambivalent As Putin Threatens Ukraine Invasion

Police detain a protester during a rally near the Russian Defense Ministry headquarters in Moscow.
Police detain a protester during a rally near the Russian Defense Ministry headquarters in Moscow.
Competing rallies in Russia's two biggest cities have laid bare divisions among Russians over a possible military intervention in Ukraine.

The rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg each drew hundreds of participants on March 2, one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that his country had the right to invade neighboring Ukraine.

Lawmakers unanimously authorized him to use force.

Ordinary Russians, however, appear divided over the prospect of a war with Ukraine.

Independent opinions polls conducted before the crisis show that an overwhelming majority of Russians opposed Russian meddling in Ukrainian politics as well as a possible military intervention in the country.

But the state-controlled media's relentless portrayal of Euromaidan protesters as Western-funded extremists appears to be turning the tide.

Lev Gudkov, a sociologist at Russia's independent Levada polling center, says that "there isn't a single resource providing balanced and comprehensive information."

"All the main channels are engaged in pure demagogy. I'm afraid that imperial complexes, the remains of imperial consciousness, will rise to the surface and be resurrected," Gudkov says.

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The Federation Council authorized force on March 1 to counter what it called "threats to the life and health of Russian citizens and compatriots" in Ukraine and to protect Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Crimea.

Pro-Russian forces have already seized control of key government buildings and airports in the strategic Crimean Peninsula, adding fuel to what many call one of the worst crises since the Cold War.

Divide In Public Opinion

Gudkov predicts a rift in public opinion between educated, city-dwelling Russians and those living in small towns with only limited access online news sites. "I think the reaction will be mixed. The conviction that Russia should not interfere will persist, compounded with fear of the conflicts growing into a full-flown war between Russia and Ukraine," Gudkov says.

"But this opinion will be held mostly among educated people living in big cities. In the provinces, people are more likely to support the policy and approve of Putin."

Russian opposition activists and rights advocates have been quick to lambast Putin for bringing their nation to the brink of war with Ukraine.

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Police in Moscow arrested dozens of activists at antiwar demonstrations at the Defense Ministry and on Manezh Square, near the Kremlin, where protesters unfurled a banner reading "For your freedom and ours." It was the same slogan used in an August 1968 demonstration on Red Square against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

A number of Russian luminaries, including rock musician Yury Shevchuk, have also delivered unusually harsh criticism of the Kremlin.

One of the most virulent attacks so far has come from Andrei Zubov, a prominent political analyst and a professor at at MGIMO, the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations. In an article published by the daily "Vedemosti," Zubov compared Putin to Adolf Hitler and accused him of seeking to instigate "political dictatorship."

Even in Moscow, however, nostalgia for Russia's imperial past dies hard. So does the notion that Russian-speaking populations in neighboring countries should be brought into Moscow's fold.

Sasha, a Moscow student, told Reuters on March 2 at a pro-war rally on Red Square: "That's right, Russia has to help Ukraine as a brotherly country as Slavic brothers as we are, right? So yeah, Putin's move was right to resolve the problem in Ukraine with the help of Russia."

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