In 1916, Tsar Nicholas II was bunkered down behind the front lines on the edge of the Russian Empire, commanding his troops in a series of increasingly catastrophic routs and retreats. Meanwhile, back in Moscow, a revolution was brewing.
More than a century later, President Vladimir Putin has taken personal command of his forces fighting in Ukraine. Losing more and more of the territory they have occupied every day to their better-armed, better-trained, better-motivated foes, and demanding that more ordinary people give their lives for the war, his future now hangs in the balance.
On Wednesday, the Russian leader gave the order to mobilise tens of thousands of ordinary citizens to fill the growing manpower gap in his army. Now, young men and middle-aged veterans will be called up and sent across the border to fight his war – many without equipment or with old, rusty rifles. However, with the consequences of the conflict finally being felt by ordinary Russians, Putin may soon have to worry about the home front as well.
“My mum is coming around to the fact that this war is wrong,” Irina, a 22-year-old student says. “It started to sink in when my dad said he would show her how to control all the electric devices around the house in case he gets sent to fight.”
Over the weekend, massive protests flared up in Moscow and St Petersburg, with crowds of young people taking to the streets and chanting “no to war.” For months, demonstrators have stayed home, fearing beatings and arrests at the hands of security forces. But the prospect of being sent to die in a freezing foxhole somewhere in the Donbass has evidently left many with little to lose.
Showing public opposition to the war, however, is still incredibly dangerous. Artem Kamardin, a 31-year-old poet, was arrested by authorities at a rally in Moscow, brutally abused and sexually violated with a dumbbell. The horrifying footage was then published online, and shown to his girlfriend, Alexandra Popova. Having also been detained, Popova had her hair pulled out by officers, who attempted to seal her mouth shut with superglue.
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“Russians can suffer like no-one else,” Defence Minister, Sergey Shoigu, reportedly told his British counterpart, Ben Wallace, at a meeting in February, when he was warned of the steep cost that would come with invading Ukraine. Unfortunately for Shoigu and the rest of Putin’s inner circle, many Russians are coming to the conclusion that it is better to suffer in a prison cell than on the front lines.
Worse still for them, the edges of Moscow’s vast empire also appear to be coming unstuck. The republics of the North Caucasus are synonymous for many Russians with conflict – namely the brutal civil war that followed the fall of the Soviet Union – and their people pride themselves on being war-hardened warriors. It is little surprise then that they have been looked to for a disproportionate number of soldiers fighting and dying in Ukraine.
Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, installed by Putin to quash separatism in the majority-Muslim republic at the price of being allowed to rule like a Medieval king, has long been one of the invasion’s biggest cheerleaders and made it clear his people would do their duty. Now though, locals living in the absolutist autocracy are evidently fed up – Kadyrov has been forced to admit Chechnya has had its first major protests in the 15 years he has been in charge. Now, he has announced there will be no mobilisation in the region, claiming targets have already been met.
Nearby Dagestan, which has seen more of its men killed in Ukraine than any other Russian region, has seen things escalate even further. Demonstrators have clashed with police, while residents of at least one village banded together to stop buses taking conscripts off to their bases. One poster, circulated online, calls people to demonstrate following Friday prayers, warning that “the invader doesn’t become a martyr.”
The protest messaging, framing, and even the graphics coming out of Dagestan are remarkable and represent a significant political and social shift in the region,” says Dr Karena Avedissian, an academic and expert on social movements in the North Caucasus. “The bottom of the social and political hierarchy – ethnic republics who experienced most deprivation – are mobilising in a way that’s shifting the balance of power to some extent. It’s uncharted waters.”
While conflict in the North Caucasus is still etched into the Russian psyche, in recent years the regions have been unshakeably suppressed by the Kremlin and its local loyalists. Putin’s war seems set to change that, and those who have long been yearning for independence could well seize their chance while Moscow is distracted and unable to respond to a full-blown insurrection.
With the very foundations of Putin’s power – his reputation for bringing stability and peace – now crumbling, there is a slim but growing chance he could be toppled. While the survival of most of his inner circle is inextricably linked to him being in office, it’s not hard to imagine that conversations are being had about whether he really knows what he is doing.
Being handed military defeats on a daily basis by those defending Ukraine and losing control of the domestic political situation, he could very soon find himself in a corner. But, worryingly, that’s where someone like Putin is most dangerous.
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