For the first time on Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced casualty figures for the “special military operation” being conducted by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine.
While the announced figure of 498 dead is almost certainly an undercount (Ukraine has announced an equally fictitious number of more than 5,000 Russian dead), the significance of the number is that it is far larger than casualties from any other military operation undertaken by Russia since the 1999 Chechen war.
Prior to the invasion, there was a media blackout, so Western reports of the Russian buildup never appeared on TV. But Russian citizens, long used to government censorship, knew where to go on the internet to be informed, and what they saw angered them.
As of now, a civil liberties group in Russia says that more than 7,500 Russians have been detained for attending anti-war protests. And opposition leader Aleksei Navalny — in prison on a trumped-up parole violation when he was unable to return to Russia following an attempted poisoning — is calling for more.
“It’s the third decade of the 21st century, and we are watching news about people burning in tanks and bombed-out buildings,” Aleksei A. Navalny, the opposition leader, wrote in a social media post from prison on Wednesday, calling on Russians to continue to rally despite the withering police crackdown. “Let’s not ‘be against war.’ Let’s fight against war.”
Members of the Russian elite also continued to speak out. Lyudmila Narusova, a member of Russia’s upper house of Parliament, told the independent Dozhd television channel on Sunday that dead Russian soldiers in Ukraine lay “unburied; wild, stray dogs gnawing on bodies that in some cases cannot be identified because they are burned.”
Indeed, the ease with which Russian citizens can access news reports and images of the dead bodies of their country’s soldiers has been most concerning to the Russian military. It has led to a near mutiny by some conscript units who are refusing to go into combat. And there are also reports of Russian troops sabotaging their own vehicles.
Roughly a week after Russian forces rolled into Ukraine, many Russians are still coming to grips with the fact that war actually is happening. United States and other Western officials had been warning of the coming attack for weeks, but Russian state media, especially television news shows, mocked those statements, claiming Moscow had no intention of taking any military action against Kyiv. In a CNN poll completed before the invasion began only 13% of Russians thought a Russian attack was likely and two out of three (65%) expected a peaceful end to the tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
If the war continues for much longer, one Russian scholar thinks the domestic crackdown will get worse.
Some feared that Mr. Putin could go even further, repressing dissent to an extent unseen in Russia since Soviet times. Tatiana Stanovaya, a scholar who has long studied Mr. Putin, wrote it was “more than logical” to expect that lawmakers this week would approve the imposition of martial law in order to block the open internet, ban all protests and restrict Russians from being able to leave the country.
Russia’s dwindling independent media is being silenced with one of the last independent radio stations taken off the air on Tuesday and the last non-government-owned TV station circling the drain.
Keeping the Russian people in the dark may be harder than it was in the days of the all-powerful Soviet state. But that doesn’t mean that Putin won’t try everything to bend the Russian people to his will and stand silently while Ukrainians are massacred.
Totalitarians can brook no opposition. And Putin is in his element when suppressing speech and thought that doesn’t conform to his limited vision.
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