The impact of the Ukraine war on Russia

Residents of Chebykinsky district in Russia’s Belgorod region, who were evacuated following recent attacks on settlements near the Russia-Ukraine border in the context of a military conflict, stand in line outside a Russian Red Cross office to receive financial aid in the city of Belgorod, Russia, June 7, 2023.
Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

  • For weeks now, attacks by Ukraine inside Russia have been increasing.
  • As a result, Russian society has become more aware of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
  • Infighting among the Russian leadership also began to affect the war effort.

This is a translation of Article in Welt that originally appeared in June 2023.

Dead civilians, evacuated villages, and seemingly exhausted government: Moscow’s war on Ukraine has finally hit Russian society. There are almost no neutral people left, and this has a huge impact on Putin.

Images of chaos, such as those of Kherson flooded after a dam was destroyed in southern Ukraine, still reach Russian citizens, despite censorship. But people don’t have to look across borders to see the effects of the Russian invasion anymore.

For weeks now, the attacks inside Russia have been piling up: the Belgorod region just can’t stop, and the drone attacks keep happening.

On Sunday morning, a drone crashed near the village of Strelkovka in the Kaluga region. “There were no casualties in the initial report,” the region’s governor, Vladislav Skapcha, said on Telegram. Kaluga, north of the greater Moscow region.

On Friday, Russian media reported an attack on a residential building in the city of Voronezh, in which two people were wounded. Less than ten days before that, drones had hit three houses in Moscow. “Moscow has entered a new world,” Kremlin-aligned political analyst Serge Marco wrote on Telegram, describing the events as “the first large-scale air raid on Moscow” since World War II.

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For many Russians, the “special operation” seemed distant for a long time. If you just turned off the TV, you could ignore what was going on in Ukraine. But now the war is really sinking in.

“Moscow turns into a front-line city,” read the headline of an article in the popular Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. The story’s author, Michael Rostovsky, wrote of the “far-reaching psychological consequences”. Russia is “in not just a serious, but a very serious military conflict” – and there is no guarantee of the safety of its citizens.

Some people see a positive side in the current situation. National theorist Alexandre Dugin, whose daughter was killed in an attack he was targeting, described the attacks as “very psychologically significant”. He said that society’s consciousness is changing because Russia needs unity now more than ever.

A woman waits at a bus stop next to a poster promoting Russia’s military service, as the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues, in Moscow, Russia April 12, 2023.
Photograph: Yulia Morozova/Reuters

But these attacks on Russian soil are unlikely to achieve unity. Instead, society has become more divided, as Russian expert Jens Siegert describes in an article for the academic journal Russland-Analysen.

Both supporters and opponents of the war feel more certain in their views. Siegert, who has lived in Moscow for 30 years, sees “a growing apocalyptic mood,” especially among Putin supporters.

The Kremlin-friendly Russian Orthodox bishop, Savva Tutono, tried to comfort Russians with a quote from the Gospel of Mark: “When you hear about wars and rumors of war, don’t be alarmed: it must happen. But the end is not. But there is,” he wrote on his Telegram channel.

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But many Russians do not turn to religion on social media, but rather gallows humor. “It’s all good, we just need to ban the word ‘Moscow’ in public,” commented one user under a report on drone attacks. The now infamous quote from Putin that “everything is going according to plan” has become a gag used ironically to spread bad news.

There is a lot of bad news. The banned newspaper “Novaya Gazeta” reported that last May the Russian territory was attacked 281 times. The paper estimates that 52 civilians have been killed in Russia since the war began. According to the Kommersant newspaper, more than 3,500 residential buildings were damaged in the Belgorod border region.

Opposition media report chaos, missing evacuations and looting and quote locals who feel abandoned by the Russian government.

“The attacks in Belgorod bust the myth that Putin’s army is invincible,” political expert Abbas Galgamo told DPA news agency. He noted that nothing detracts from the government’s credibility as much as its inability to protect its people.

There is also an internal struggle in the Russian leadership, at least in the second echelon of power. The head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, once again criticized the military leadership and even offered to station his mercenaries in Belgorod. The statements of Duma member Konstantin Satulin also made waves. In a panel discussion, he publicly admitted that Russia had not achieved any of its stated goals.

He expected Ukraine to live on as a state because Russia is not strong enough to change that. According to media reports, the ruling United Russia party is currently debating how to deal with this dissident – and bloggers speculate that publicly punishing them would be tantamount to admitting that they are trying to suppress the truth.

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Publicly, Putin is still playing it cool. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the situation in the Belgorod region was “worrying” but was under control.

They do not discuss martial law or new mobilization. Russia will achieve all war goals. Peskov claimed that millions of Russians are behind Putin and the “special military operation”.

And this statement is not even a lie. Because these attacks inside Russia are making even initially neutral Russians interested in war—and are beginning to approve of it. “The warning, at least for the time being, does more to strengthen Putin’s political system than to annoy him,” wrote expert Jens Siegert.

Many Russians, even those who believe that attacking Ukraine was a mistake, fear that defeating Russia will have worse consequences for the country — so they believe the country needs to keep going and endure, even if it hurts.

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