Russia invading Ukraine in 2022 was one of those events that forces a nation to reconsider what it has become. The invasion was another effort by Vladimir Putin to turn Russia into a successful police state dictatorship. He had been working on that for two decades and having a difficult time, though there were successes. He had eliminated independent media and political parties that opposed him. He had created a police state capable of quickly punishing public dissent. Not all public dissent, because the Ukraine War created a permanent pattern of public protest. This was annoying but not seen as a threat to the Russian dictatorship. The side effects of the Ukraine invasion were another matter. That decision had persistent and growing economic and political costs. It was economic problems that brought down the last two Russian dictatorships; the economic impact of the Ukraine War was no different. Putin thought he had found a way to stifle dissent by not disrupting migration, something the Soviet Union had restricted. That worked for those dissidents with education and skills that made leaving Russia practical and tolerable. For most Russians, emigration was not much of an option.
The new laws criminalizing criticism of the government reduced the number of public protesters. In the weeks after the Ukraine invasion there were public and heavily attended protests against the war in 70 cities throughout Russia. The government responded by arresting over 13,000 protesters. Nearly all were soon released but warned that another arrest for demonstrating could result in prosecution. Meanwhile most Russians were apathetic about this because it did not impact them personally. No one was invading Russia and the government sought to cushion the impact of the increased economic sanctions. The government had been doing that since 2014, when the seizure of Crimean and part of Donbas led to sanctions that gradually increased the poverty rate in Russia. That upward creep had become more visible in 2022, although most of it was outside the cities. The number of government employees remained stable and it was made clear that getting involved with anti-government demonstrations could cost you your government job.
Despite all the government efforts to eliminate protests, there were still several hundred Russians who protested individually or in small groups and avoided arrest. These protesters had a lot of support and if you watched them as they carried out their solitary protest you would see a lot of people passing by silently but obviously showing their support. You would not get arrested for doing that. Opinion polls showed that the majority of Russians either approved of the Ukraine invasion or did not oppose it. As the war went on, without much success, the polls showed shrinking approval of or tolerance for the war. The shrinkage accelerated as Russian defeats in Ukraine piled up. The growing number of Russian dead had already led to demonstrations by parents and families of the dead protesting about the lack of information from the government about what happened to their sons. In many cases the government didn’t know. Many Russian dead were left behind during a retreat after losing a battle with the Ukrainians. To make the Russian government look worse, the Ukrainian military maintained a web site with photos of the Russian dead and their names, if ID was found on their bodies. In many cases there was no ID and just the photo was displayed. This is how many Russian families found out what happened to their soldier sons. It was illegal for Russians to visit these Ukrainian military web sites but the government realized that prosecution was not an option. Older Russians, especially those the same age as Putin, remembered similar protests during the 1980s because of parents protesting the deaths of their sons in the Afghan War. The situation is much worse in Ukraine, where in six months twice as many Russian soldiers died than during nearly a decade in Afghanistan. The Russians protesting in the 1980s were one of the many reasons for the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Contemporary Russia is not as large or populous as the Soviet Union because Russia was all that was left after the many regions of the Soviet Union that wanted out, got out in 1991. That included Ukraine, which was one of many unwilling members of the Soviet Union. The current Russian war in Ukraine is an effort to put the Soviet Union back together. Most Russians either agree with this goal or are not opposed to it. This is partly the result of Putin putting all Russian media back under state control and changing what is taught to Russian students about Russian history. The Putin version regards the dissolution of the Soviet Union as one of the great tragedies of the 20h Century. Openly disagreeing with that was discouraged.
The War in Ukraine is an unpleasant reminder for all Russians, especially those who support reconstituting the Soviet Union, that there were a lot of former Soviet citizens who were willing to fight any effort to make them Russians subjects once more. Putin blames all this on the evil machinations of NATO. Putin resurrected NATO as a threat to Russia and public opposition to this was discouraged and eventually outlawed. Blaming NATO is less convincing if you know what is going on in Ukraine, where there are more patriotic Ukrainians fighting and defeating much less enthusiastic Russians.
For many in Russia this development is a source of hope that maybe Russia can change. After Putin quietly killed democracy, he seemed determined to prove that the natural state of Russia was as a dictatorship ruled by a monarch or some other kind of absolute ruler. Others are not so optimistic or see Russia without a despot in charge as a possibility eventually.