The Russian army needs more soldiers for its war in Ukraine than its leaders promised at the outset, to fight a war that has already gone longer than they expected. Vladimir Putin has announced enhanced
“mobilization,” which means drafting young Russians.
Young Russians–and their families and friends–are understandably less than enthusiastic about getting sucked out of their lives, mustered into uniform, and sent to battles that aren’t going so well. Some are protesting.
More than 1,000 protesters have been arrested, removed to the public square and sent to prison for an uncertain fate.
Protesting against war–and especially against conscription–is at least as old as war and conscription. And it’s not new in Russia. In March, when Putin started this war, thousands of Russians staged protests in major cities, leading to harsh policing and mass arrests, and disruption faded. It’s hard to keep turning out when harsh punishments are likely and the prospects for influence seem weak. Repression can work.
Is this time different? It’s not just a war now, but a war that’s not going well that’s provoked political isolation and economic pressure–plus conscription. A run on flights out of Russia also followed Putin’s announcement.
Leaving–and certainly staying to protest–are both tougher in Russia today than across Western democracies. The first reaction must be to appreciate the bravery, commitment, and frustration that drives these people out to this streets.
Will any of this matter?
One round of protests, even if massive and disruptive, won’t end the war–or Putin’s rule. But they represent a signal to others: to people watching from their apartment windows; to police wielding clubs and carting away demonstrators; to military and business leaders who might even get close to Putin; to leaders–and dissidents–in neighboring states that somehow support Russia. The signal is about limits to Putin’s support, and the possibilities for something or someone else to follow. And just that wisp of an alternative can be enough to encourage those others to take action with more direct influence.
Putin also sees the same signal, and can think twice or a third time about his strategies for escalation, and certainly about the reliability of his allies. He’s likely to pause before ordering another round of conscription–and certainly before sampling homemade baked goods or a very special wine.