Ukraine crisis: Russia’s quiet anti-war movement gets louder

Dozens of public figures condemned Russia’s ‘party of war’ as a screenwriter used his platform to decry conflict.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu salutes to soldiers as he is driven along Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2021. - Russia celebrates the 76th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany during World War II. (Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP)
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu salutes to soldiers as he is driven along Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2021 [File: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP]

Saint Petersburg, Russia – In Russia, where protests are tightly restricted, a small anti-war movement is growing as the Ukraine crisis rumbles on.

On Sunday, more than 100 prominent Russian activists, authors and academics signed an open letter decrying the “party of war in the Russian leadership” and state media.

The authors of the letter, which was published on the website of Echo of Moscow, an independent radio station, said they were alarmed by the Russian military’s activity near the Ukrainian border, as well as Ukraine’s weapons stockpiling.

“The citizens of Russia are de-facto becoming prisoners of criminal adventurism,” read the letter.

While not naming or blaming anyone specific in the Russian establishment for pushing for an all-out war, the letter accuses state-run media of normalising a belligerent point-of-view in which “war is presented as an acceptable and inevitable course of events.”

“Russia does not need war with Ukraine or the West,” the letter concludes. “No-one is threatening us, and no-one will attack us. Politics founded on the advancement of the idea of such a war is amoral, irresponsible, and criminal, and cannot be carried on in the name of the Russian people.”

Months have passed since Russia’s troop buildup was first reported, and with neither side backing down, fears are mounting that the East-West clash could evolve into a deadly conflict.

Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops at the Ukraine border, while Washington on Wednesday pledged to send deploy more forces to Eastern Europe.

Russia has denied it is planning an attack, but is increasingly frustrated by the US and NATO’s refusal to heed its security demands – chief among them a promise that the military alliance will never allow Ukraine membership.

Moscow says Ukraine should be a buffer state, but Western powers fear Russia wants Kyiv in its sphere of influence.

“War is completely unacceptable, there is no such thing as a just war,” Lev Levinson, a human rights lawyer among those that signed the letter, told Al Jazeera.

“I have worked on cases around army conscription, so this is a very close topic to me. Any movement towards an all-out conflict must be beaten back, by all possible means. But I have hope, and even a little confidence, that the forces of peace will prevail.”

Other signatories include Lev Schlossberg, a politician and member of the liberal Yabloko party.

“There is no political counterbalance to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and his policies in the system of Russian state power today,” Schlossberg told Al Jazeera.

“All five parties in the State Duma … support his aggressive policy against Ukraine.

“The statement of politicians, cultural figures and human rights activists of Russia against the preparation for a war in Ukraine responded to a real public need.

“I signed [the letter] without fear. Public leaders should say these fundamental things when the authorities of the country are going crazy and endangering people’s lives.”

Svetlana Gannushkina, a mathematician and leading member of Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights NGO which has come under intense scrutiny from authorities and been accused of acting as a “foreign agent”, said she signed the letter “because I feel what is happening is something monstrous.”

She told Al Jazeera, “This war, if it is unleashed, will become an indelible stain on the history of Russia. It will not be forgotten and not forgiven for centuries.

“Our authorities say that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. In fact, almost all of us have relatives and friends in Ukraine. But Russia and Ukraine must respect each other’s sovereignty.

“Russia has already violated this principle by annexing Crimea and intervening in the Donbas. We, the citizens of Russia, are responsible for this.

“We must finally learn at least one commandment and stop killing our own kind.”

The signees are not alone in speaking out.

On Friday, screenwriter and TV anchor Denis Kataev took the opportunity at the Golden Eagle Awards, Russia’s equivalent to the Oscars, to read an extract from Le Déserteur, a French anti-war song first performed on the day of the decisive French defeat in Indochina in 1954.

As reported earlier by Al Jazeera, although state-friendly media and personalities have assured their audiences repeatedly that Moscow does not want war, voices in independent outlets warn that the showdown at the border could spiral out of control.

During the Euromaidan revolution and subsequent eruption of war in the Donbas in 2013-2014, there was much anger towards what was seen as Russia’s meddling in Ukraine.

Two large anti-war rallies, held in Moscow in March and September 2014, were among the biggest protests held in Russia in that decade.

However, not all in the Russian opposition were united and some, including left-wing radical Sergei Udaltsov, supported the annexation of Crimea and the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

As well as the outrage from some public figures, there have been a handful of individual pickets.

So far, there have not been any large-scale protests against the current crisis – but activists have told Al Jazeera they will hit the streets again if war breaks out.

According to the independent Russian pollster Levada, half of Russians believe the fault lies with NATO and the United States for the current crisis, 16 percent blame Ukraine, and only 7 percent believe separatist rebels or Russia are responsible.

At the same time, most Russians fear the outbreak of a new “world war”.

Source: Al Jazeera