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War-weariness in Russia as tension with Ukraine rises

Emily Sherwin Moscow
December 11, 2021

Russia's troop buildup on the Ukrainian border is not just a message to Kyiv and its NATO partners. The show of force is also aimed at a domestic audience. But at home, that message may be falling on deaf ears.

People in front of a mural at Moscow's Kyivsky Station
Russians see themselves as one with Ukrainians but are tired of ambitious foreign conflicts that bring sanctions and isolationImage: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

Moscow's Kyivsky metro station is decorated with elaborate murals showing how Ukrainians joined the Soviet Union. It is a celebration of unity. But today, Moscow and Kyiv feel more divided than ever.

Recently, Western intelligence officials warned that Russia has stationed about 70,000 troops near its border to Ukraine and that Russian President Vladimir Putin could be planning an invasion early next year.

Outside Kyivsky station, travelers and commuters pause for fresh air, or for a cigarette. To most people in the Russian capital, rising tensions at the border feel very far away.

"We Russians don't want war — no one does. The Ukrainians are the same people as us, a Slavic people — our friends," one young woman tells DW, pulling the shawl on her head tighter against the cold. "But everything is decided by politicians from above — without us."

In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. Moscow has also been supporting separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine — though Russian officials have denied direct involvement. More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict.

"During the Soviet Union we all lived together just fine," an older man in a fur hat says, adding that he has Belarusian and Polish roots. "Then everything fell apart."

People outside Kievsky railway station in Moscow (Emily Sherwin / DW)
Passengers and commuters outside Moscow's Kievsky station say they don't want war with UkraineImage: Emily Sherwin/DW

A complicated history

The idea that Ukrainians and Russians are "a brother nation" is common in Russia. That makes the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine emotional for many — and different from other wars fought between ethnic groups in the post-Soviet space, like the recent fighting over Nagorno-Karbakh for example.

Today, at least 2 million Ukrainians live in Russia, and there are hundreds of family ties between the two nations. Many Russians actually see Kyiv as the birthplace of the Russian nation, as today's Ukrainian capital was the center of Kyivan Rus, a medieval federation of Slavic peoples.

In an essay published in July, Russian President Vladimir Putin went so far as to argue that Russians and Ukrainians are "one people" — and that it is the West that is driving a wedge between the nations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with US President Joe Biden via a video conference in Sochi, Russia. (Mikhail Metzel/dpa/picture alliance)
This week, Vladimir Putin spoke with US President Joe Biden via video link amid rising tensions over UkraineImage: Mikhail Metzel/dpa/picture alliance

Moscow's red lines

Now, Putin is using his military to express a renewed fixation on Ukraine —  the recent troop buildup is the second this year. Rather than stemming from a diffuse sense of nostalgia for past unity, many Russia analysts argue that saber-rattling over Ukraine has become a strategy for Putin

"The Kremlin believes that the West completely ignores Russian interests when Russia uses the language of diplomacy," Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, tells DW. "It seems that now Russia has been using military instruments as a means to move diplomacy forward." 

The current troop buildup on the Ukrainian border and another earlier this year both got Putin meetings with US President Joe Biden. After a bilateral summit in June, this week the Russian president spoke to his US counterpart via secure video meeting.

Putin has insisted that Ukraine joining the NATO military alliance would cross a "red line"
for Russia, and he is demanding guarantees that NATO will not expand further eastward — including by giving Ukraine membership. Both the Carnegie's Trenin and political analyst Konstantin Kalachev argue that the Russian president sees NATO as a real threat — especially with recent NATO and US military drills in the Black Sea near the annexed Crimean peninsula, which Russia considers its territory.

"Putin wants two things: stability and sovereignty," Kalachev tells DW, explaining that he sees NATO as a threat to both.

Russian President Vladimir Putin passes in front of assembled soldiers during a flower-laying ceremony during Russian Unity Day (Mikhail Metzel/AP/picture alliance)
In a boisterous move, Putin traveled to the annexed Crimean peninsula for Russia's National Unity Day celebrations this yearImage: Mikhail Metzel/AP/picture alliance

A new Crimea?

But Russia's military movements near Ukraine are also aimed at a domestic audience, according to political analyst and former Putin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov. After all, the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 led to a huge spike in Vladimir Putin's popularity (88% at the time). Gallyamov says the current situation shows Putin doesn't want his supporters to think he is "not who he used to be," or showing weakness over Ukraine.

But the analyst does not think a full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine would be a popular move at home.

"Russians already know that international victories don't just lead to a sense of national pride but are also followed by crackdown at home and falling living standards." The takeover of Crimea six years ago isolated Russia internationally, leading to US and EU sanctions and tense relations with the West.

A Ukrainian serviceman stands guard at a position on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near small city of Marinka, in the Donetsk region (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed separatists have been fighting in Eastern Ukraine since 2014Image: AFP via Getty Images

Stability and sovereignty

Stepan Goncharov, a sociologist from the Levada Center, an independent polling outfit, argues that for most Russians, the last few years have already made them feel like they were living in a "state of war."

"This sense of constant tension has started to weigh on people. Before, the topic [of war] was something new, it returned a sense of belonging to an empire, part of a strong, great nation," Goncharov says of the conflict in Ukraine and Russia's involvement in the war in Syria. "Now people would rather live in a less [internationally] ambitious country that is more generous with its citizens, a more stable, predictable and economically affluent country."

Edited by: Jon Shelton