As Russian anti-war sentiment grows, will Ukraine be Putin’s Vietnam?

June 9, 2022
Anti-war protest
Soldiers from ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation, such as the Buryat, are leading the death toll in Ukraine. Photo:

Leonid Vasyukevich, MP for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) in the far-eastern territory of Primorye, read a declaration in the regional parliament on May 27, which ended: “We demand the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine.”

Four days later, Yevgeny Lyashenko, the CPRF regional second secretary, announced that Vasyukevich and his fellow MP Gennady Shulga had been expelled from the CPRF caucus for “actions that discredit the party”.

Two other CPRF MPs were given official reprimands for supporting Vasyukevich and Shulga. Although Vasyukevich said they had been co-signatories of the anti-war declaration, they later denied it.

According to People’s World, the declaration said: “We understand that if our country does not stop the military operation, there will be more orphans in the country. During the military operation, young men are dying or becoming disabled, while they could be very useful for our country.”

Reaction to the declaration was instant, both from Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ruling party United Russia and from the CPRF. While generally opposing Putin’s domestic policies, the CPRF has given unconditional support to the Ukraine invasion and its “denazification” rationale.

As soon as Vasyukevich had finished speaking, Primorye’s United Russia governor Oleg Kozhemyako, present at the session, ordered him and Shulga removed from the chamber.

Kozhemyako described Vasyukevich as a “traitor” who had “defamed the Russian army” which is “in a fight against Nazism”, while CPRF regional first secretary Anatoly Dolgachev accused the dissident MPs of “discrediting the honour of the Communist Party”.

An MP vanishes…

This outbreak of dissent in the Russian Federation’s Far East was accompanied in the same week by rejection of the war from a regional MP on the other side of the political spectrum, a member of the right-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).

Eres Kara-Sal is an LDPR MP in the 32-seat regional parliament of the Tuva Republic, in southern Siberia on the border with Mongolia. As a member of an ultra-nationalist outfit, he might be expected to back the Ukraine invasion, but Kara-Sal posted a video appeal to Putin to end it.

He explained his reasons to the internet-based magazine Siberia Realities: “Isn't it obvious that 6.5 million refugees are a disaster? People are being kicked out of their homes, people are dying, children are dying. And for what? For essentially nothing. Because of the ambitions of one, perhaps a few, politicians. At the same time our guys [soldiers from Tuva], who do not understand why all this is happening, are dying. They are just swayed by the propaganda.”

On Putin’s motives for invading Ukraine, he said: “On the one hand it's a way of distracting the country from its economic problems. On the other hand, I think that those who organised it have a desire to remain in history. Human lives are nothing to them, they are willing to pay the price. This is fascism, I believe.”

Kara-Sal, sought by the police, has gone into hiding.

CPRF dissidents

These expressions of dissent come after a three-month lull in anti-war statements from elected representatives.

The last came in early March, when Mikhail Matveyev, Oleg Smolin and Vyacheslav Markhaev, CPRF deputies in the Russian Duma, were the only members to oppose Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Matveyev had voted for the February 21 recognition of the Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” (LPR and DPR) thinking that this would not be a prelude to invasion (“I voted for Russia to become a shield ... not for Kyiv to be bombed").

Smolin had opposed recognition outright: “I could not vote for the recognition of the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics without betraying myself.”

Markhaev, who had voted for recognition, said he and the entire Duma had been fooled: “To my great regret, the whole campaign in recognition of the DPR and the LPR had a completely different idea and plan, which was initially hidden, and, as a result we are in a state of full-scale confrontations and war between the two states.”

Previously, on the day of the invasion (February 24), another leading CPRF figure, Moscow City Councillor Yevgeny Stupin, had put together an anti-war “roundtable” statement by a range of left organisations calling on democratic Russian citizens to pressure Putin to end the war.

An organised anti-war current made its appearance in the CPRF on March 12, attracting 512 signatures to a declaration before apparently vanishing.

Who needs denazifying?

What explains the latest outbreak of rejection of Putin’s war by elected representatives of parties that still support it?

One clue can be found in the fact that Markhaev represents a constituency with a large Buryat population. Kara-Sal also said his stance had been inspired by the anti-war reaction of many Buryat.

A May 20 article on the Free Russia website — “How the War in Ukraine Catalysed a Re-awakening of National Identity Among Russia’s Indigenous Peoples” — disclosed that soldiers from “national minorities” in the Russian Federation are leading the death toll in Ukraine.

“The top three in the number of killed soldiers per 100 thousand people are Buryatia, Tuva and North Ossetia. Residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg, which together account for more than 12% of the country’s population, are virtually absent from the casualty reports.”

Yet while the “national minorities” have been supplying Putin with a disproportionate number of casualties, his government continues with its policy of marginalising their languages and cultures.

For example, for Bashkir children to study their language at school, their parents must write an application; if there are fewer than eight applications in the class, the language is not taught. Russian, however, is compulsory.

The war has already given rise to several “national minority” anti-war platforms, which came together to produce a YouTube video titled “The Peoples of Russia Are Against The War On Ukraine”, in which Kara-Sal makes an appearance on behalf of the Tuva people.

Within the Russian anti-war movement, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAS) — its lead detachment — is strengthening ties with national minorities, such as with an “Appeal to the representatives of non-Russian peoples of Russia” written by non-Russian members in the organisation.

Correspondence on FAS’s Telegram channel from non-Russian victims of discrimination and prejudice provides vivid examples of the treatment they suffer at the hand of Great Russian chauvinism. For example, a television presenter had no problem theorising that the cause of Russia’s military problems is that "not the best part of Russia's population is fighting in Ukraine: poor people and Buryats".

Will Ukraine be Putin’s Vietnam?

Active opposition to the war, while still illegal and the work of a small minority, is growing. Despite the prevailing atmosphere of compulsory hyper-patriotism, army recruiting centres mysteriously burn down and people with something to lose manage to speak out.

Tajik singer Manija represented Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest last year. An opponent of the war, she was withdrawn without any explanation from the Stereoleto festival days before her performance.

Nonetheless, the point at which the Ukraine war becomes “Putin’s Vietnam” still seems a long way off, despite a decline in support for the war registered in the April poll of the independent Levada Centre.

This showed that the percentage of those definitely opposing the actions of the Russian military had risen from 6% to 11% since its March survey, while those “definitely supporting” the operation had fallen from 53% to 45%, with “probable support” up to 29% from 28% and “probable opposition” steady at 8%.

Yet this small decline in the Putin government’s popularity has taken place before the impact of economic sanctions is fully felt and is already accompanied by a huge increase in repression and censorship.

As the horrific human and economic costs of a war without a credible goal climb — when would “denazification” be achieved? — the millions of Russians presently with Putin must increasingly feel the force of Kara Sal’s question: “And for what?”

Such is the prediction of respected Russian Marxist Boris Kagarlitsky. Asserting that US financial and military aid to Ukraine means “the question of who will now win the war can be considered resolved”, he touches on the key point: Putin’s government “has no goal or ideology for which it would be possible to convince its citizens to fight”.

That’s why it’s no exaggeration to talk of Ukraine as Putin’s Vietnam.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left's European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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