Public Sentiment in Russia Darkens Over Ukraine War

The WhatsApp message group for residents of a stately post-WWII apartment building on a main thoroughfare in downtown Moscow, viewed by the Wall Street Journal, is peppered with worrying messages: “Is the basement bomb shelter still habitable?”; “Who do we need to contact to have it checked?”; “Where are the entrances?”

Apartments in some metropolitan areas are being sold or rented at distressed prices, real estate experts say, as hundreds of thousands of Russian men have fled the country since Putin ordered reservists to be called up and new troops to fight in Ukraine.

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Almost half of Russians said they were alarmed and fearful after Putin’s announcement of the draft, while another 13% said they were upset, according to a poll by the Levada Center, a non-governmental sociological research organization, of 1,631 people aged 18 last month Years in urban and rural areas of 50 regions.

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A poll by the State Foundation for Public Opinion, published around the same time as the Levada poll, also showed that the mood among Russians is now characterized by uneasiness, said 70 percent of 1,500 respondents.

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“Now is a really unusual situation for our country and a new collective psychotrauma,” wrote Ekaterina Kolesnikova, director of North-West, a private research center for the study of management practices and socio-political sentiment, on the group’s Telegram page earlier this month.

A billboard near the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Ministry reads, “Victory is forged in fire.”


alexander nemenov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The unrest – particularly among wealthy urban Russians who were somewhat sheltered from a war in which many of those killed came from poorer regions – threatens to erode support for Mr Putin, some experts who follow Russia’s domestic politics and policies have said political and social consequences.

Both Western Kremlin observers and many Russian policy analysts who support Mr Putin say public dissatisfaction with the Russian president’s policies is unlikely to derail him or shake his control. But observers of Russia’s political landscape say discontent threatens to spread and the Kremlin is closely monitoring Putin’s approval ratings. Political analysts noted that while many Russians were willing to tolerate restrictions on their president’s political liberties, they did so with the assumption that their lives and the country’s prosperity would not be destabilized.

“Many people feel disappointed, even somehow deceived, in the sense that they simply did not expect this turn of events,” said Grigorii Golosov, a political scientist at the European University in St. Petersburg. “Of course, it undermines their confidence in the Russian leadership in both the short and long term.”

The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment on whether it was concerned about growing public discontent.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov recently said it was understandable that current events would trigger some unsettled emotions, but the Kremlin hadn’t seen much polarization in Russian society. He told RBC Russian Business Media Group in an interview last month before the mobilization that this year there has been a “union among citizens and their consolidation around the head of state.”

A man drafted during Russia’s recent military mobilization bids farewell at a Moscow recruiting office.


Yuri Kochetkov/Shutterstock

Russian soldiers lie dead by the roadside in Lyman, an eastern town recaptured by Ukrainian forces earlier this month.


Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

A number of issues are contributing to growing unrest. The annexation of Ukrainian territory without full Russian control, battlefield failures that allowed Ukraine to regain ground and Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons are fueling public uncertainty and doubts about the soundness of the Kremlin’s strategy, analysts said.

One of the overriding concerns, analysts say, is the recent mobilization that has left few sections of the population untouched. Officially called partial mobilization, the appeal has a wide reach, reaching many cities. It includes men with previous military service or expertise and those currently on reserve, according to official state media. At the start of the war, Mr Putin promised that only professional military personnel would take part in what the Kremlin calls its special military operation.

On Friday, Mr Putin said the mobilization effort would be complete in two weeks and that no further call was planned at this point. He said about 222,000 had been mobilized out of a planned draft of 300,000 people, 16,000 of whom were already conducting combat missions.

The Russian Defense Ministry said last month that 5,937 Russian soldiers had died since the conflict began in February. The Pentagon estimates the number of Russian war dead and wounded at up to 80,000.


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The public’s concern is reflected in recent posts on a St Petersburg group page on VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, where a woman who identified herself as Yanochka Pogodina wrote: “It’s kind of a horrible dream. Lord, let us wake up in peacetime!”

A man posing as Pavel Petrov replied: “Yanochka, it won’t solve itself. Everything goes to hell.”

In the Irkutsk region of south-eastern Siberia, psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists are offering free counseling to relatives of those drafted into combat, according to the region’s health authorities.

After the mobilization was announced, Maria Gribova, director of a construction and real estate consultancy in St. Petersburg, noted that more people there were selling their apartments at a discount on the previous market price – sometimes between 10% and 20%. “People worry about the safety of their money,” she said. “People don’t want to take any extra risk … We don’t know if we’ll have our man with us tomorrow or if he’ll be called up all of a sudden.”

The rental of apartments in large cities as a move or as an additional source of income has increased significantly and rental prices are falling, according to rental market experts.

“The most negative thing that has already happened is the disappearance of the illusion that hostilities are taking place somewhere far away and are not affecting economic development,” said Oleg Buklemishev, director of the Research Center for Economic Policy at Moscow State University.

A memorial in Moscow to a Soviet-era atomic bomb. Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict.


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write to Ann M. Simmons at [email protected]

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