Dr Rod Thornton and Dr Marina Miron, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London
It seems that the Putin’s war in Ukraine was supposed to last just two days. The fact that it is still dragging on has created, in just the last few days, increasing opposition within Russia.
In terms of examining this opposition and understanding its genesis, we need to go back to just before the invasion began. In the run-up to it, Putin was couching it as something that was needed to assist the populations of what the Russians call the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Lugansk (Luhansk) People’s Republic (LPR), both of which are (de jure) in Ukraine’s Donbas region. These entities had to be protected, averred Putin, from imminent Ukrainian aggression. Hence, when the invasion began it was referred to originally as a ‘special military operation in the Donbass’ (Donbas in Ukrainian). It was thus all being portrayed as something both limited and justifiable.
But despite years of the (largely) state-controlled Russian media repeating this Putin mantra that the DPR and LPR were looking to Moscow for help, Russian public opinion has certainly not been entirely behind him. A poll conducted back in mid 2021 came out with a 43-43 per cent split in terms of approving-disapproving of any Russian (overt) military intervention to assist these entities in the Donbas. And if this equal split was the case when it was just a matter of ‘invading’ only the Donbas, then what degree of opinion would exist now in Russia for an actual invasion of the whole of Ukraine? It has to be more than 43 per cent.
A further indicator of Russian popular feeling in regard to military action against the Ukraine was gained just last month and prior to the invasion. On 15 February, Putin cajoled the State Duma into unanimously agreeing to recognise the independence of the DPR and LPR. As it turned out, Putin used this parliamentary imprimatur as a justification for launching, only a few days later, his invasion (aka the ‘special operation in the Donbass’). But in the interim period between this Duma vote and the tanks actually rolling, another poll of the Russian public had been taken. This provided, again, opinions that spoke of only lukewarm support even for Putin’s ‘independence’ plans. A poll of 23 February showed that 45 per cent of Russians sampled said they were in favour of the recognition of the independence of the two Donbas entities. Some 40 per cent, however, disapproved. So, there was significant (albeit minority) opposition merely to the recognition of independence. And thus we can only assume, again, that the actual invasion of Ukraine itself, which occurred a day after the poll was published, cannot have met with the approval of most Russians.
The point here is that – and however the Kremlin and its vast media machine have been trying to spin the whole Donbas/Ukraine issue – public support in Russia would appear not to have been there for an outright invasion of undisputedly Ukrainian territory just before it took place.
And, moreover, what initial support there might have been prior to hostilities commencing can only have been dwindling away as the full scope of the ‘special operation in the Donbass’ comes to be seen for what it really is. This will especially be the case as Russian casualties mount.
But Putin’s ‘special operation’ (the ‘Donbass’ element was later dropped in official circles) was not supposed to incur casualties. Indeed, it was supposed to be over in just two days!
On this point it is worth mentioning the fact that on 2 March a Russian member of the Duma, Rifat Shaykhutdinov, announced (on Moscow’s Channel One TV) that he knew about the planned invasion some 12 months ago (!) and that Duma members had been told by the Kremlin that ‘we would beat them in two days’ (i.e. by the 26 February). This ties in with what appears to have been the accidental release of an article on 26 February by the RIA Novosti news agency claiming a Russian ‘victory’ and that ‘Ukraine has [now] returned to Russia’. (This article was taken down soon afterwards but is still available on Sputnik’s Uzbek site.) For a war that was supposed to last a mere two days it is now clearly dragging on. And the more it drags on the higher the casualty count will inevitably be.
Other members of the Duma who had agreed (well, they ALL did!) to recognising the independence of the DPR and LPR in that 15 February vote are now beginning to come out in opposition to what has happened. Valery Gartung, a member of the pro-Putin ‘A Just Russia’ party, said that he and other MPs feel they have been duped. ‘The decision’ he said, ‘to recognise the LNR [LPR] and the DNR [DPR] was taken by the Duma with only one goal: to stop the war in the Donbass, which has been going on for eight years! There was no talk of any other military actions in the Duma.’ Thus Gartung and other MPs had assumed that by supporting the independence of the DPR and LPR they would be bringing one war to an end…not actually giving a green light to a much bigger one!
What is happening in the Duma could be seen as the thin end of a wedge. The concerns there are mirrored across Russia as opposition grows – evident mostly in street protests.
But the Putin administration can arrest as many demonstrators as it likes. It can shut all the liberal media outlets that offend it. It can also go a long way in managing (censoring) the media reports describing events in Ukraine. But what he and his administration cannot do is to stop the flow of bodies of young Russian soldiers returning to their families. But this should not be happening. It was supposed to be just a ’two-day’ war.