On November 19, the wives and mothers of mobilized Russian soldiers held a protest in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk against rumors of another mass mobilization and demanded the return of “their guys.” Similar protests have swept across Russia in recent weeks but were met with little state support (The Moscow Times, November 20). Despite their hesitancy to openly oppose the war, these women note that their husbands and sons have been on the frontlines for over a year without any leave or rotation and that the status of their return remains unknown. Some of these women have gone so far as to create the Telegram channel “Put’ Domoi” (“The Way Home”) to spread information about their “fight to bring mobilized men home” and calls for complete demobilization (T.me/put_domoj, accessed November 27). Their attempts to organize protests and speak directly with Russian officials have been met with a paltry response from Moscow (BBC News Russian, November 21). At the moment, these movements are relatively small, but the Kremlin’s inability to effectively address or otherwise calm growing discontent could lead to widespread societal upheavals throughout Russia.
A leak from Russian media reveals that the Kremlin has instructed regional vice-governors to closely monitor the sentiments of the wives and other relatives of mobilized troops. Moscow has tasked these officials with suppressing protests “at any cost” (The Insider, November 20). Regional officials prohibit protests for the return of soldiers from the front, instead attempting to pacify soldiers’ relatives with promises of new benefits in personal meetings (Current Time TV, November 19).
Officials in Moscow are deeply concerned by this growing discontent, viewing it as a serious threat. Independent political observers have tried to predict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan amid the rising tensions. Some predict that he will announce a new wave mobilization to ensure the rotation of the previously mobilized or reduce the intensity of military operations in Ukraine, effectively freezing the war. Renowned Russian political analyst Vladimir Pastukhov notes that the Kremlin risks facing another wave of public discontent with mass mobilization, while pausing the war poses even greater risks. According to Pastukhov, if Moscow decides to halt the war, the Kremlin would have to revert to a “peaceful” agenda and address the urgent problems of the Russian people at home without relying on the “drug” of military-societal consolidation (YouTube, November 22).
Russia’s mounting failures in Ukraine have hurt the Kremlin’s agenda. On the one hand, Putin has effectively made the war against Ukraine the cornerstone of his rule, ending it would spell a challenge to his hold on power (see EDM, February 28). On the other hand, the Kremlin has carefully cultivated support for Putin’s image as a leader capable of “protecting” ordinary Russians and providing for a “normal” life despite external threats. The destruction of this image would pose a significant threat to the Russian state.
Some Moscow commentators highlight that many Russians are “out of touch” with the current situation. Pro-Kremlin sociologists emphasize that most Russians are apolitical and attempt to distance themselves as much as possible from the government and the war (Kommersant, May 26). As Russians avoid Moscow’s rationalizations for the war and treat it as a natural phenomenon, they begin to perceive Putin not as an instigator, but as someone capable of protecting their peaceful life at home (Re-Russia.net, March 14).
The Kremlin is expending significant resources to maintain the illusion of an unchanged, prosperous, and plentiful life in Russia. In response to stringent Western sanctions, Moscow has taken temporary measures to strengthen the value of the ruble, at least until the presidential elections in March 2024. For example, on October 16, a measure was enacted that required several Russian exporters to place no less than 80 percent of foreign exchange earnings in Russian banks for the next six months and subsequently sell no less than 90 percent of this volume in the domestic market (Finam.ru, November 14).
Several Russian business journals have enthusiastically reported on improvements in the country’s business climate for October as compared to previous month (TASS, October 31; Segment.ru, November 1). These journals have been actively promoting “domestic tourism” to Russian regions to stimulate the economy. According to these magazines, data from the Ministry of Economic Development shows that up to 30 million tourist trips to various Russian regions are planned for the coming winter. In response, the regions are actively restructuring their infrastructure to welcome vacationers. The authors predict that the “tourism sector could become one of the drivers of economic growth by the end of the winter season” (Expert.ru, November 20).
The declining demographic situation in Russia remains a concern for the Kremlin, a problem that requires substantial funds to improve. New initiatives for restrictions and even full bans on abortions are emerging, though Russian military analysts acknowledge that forcing women to give birth cannot be achieved solely through prohibiting abortion (Lenta.ru, November 13). They point out that encouraging Russian families to have and raise children requires material support, stability, national development, and confidence in the country’s future (Topwar.ru, November 24). The Kremlin seemingly understands this point. During a government seminar for regional election commissions and deputy governors on internal policy, officials from the Presidential Administration explained to regional authorities that “people are waiting for the end of the special military operation; they are tired, so it is crucial to show that nothing threatens their normal life and that the country has a clear future” (Kommersant, November 20).
Additional efforts are being carried out to maintain the illusion of “normal life” among the Russian elite. Investigative journalists report that members of pro-Kremlin youth organizations closely linked to the Presidential Administration have created the “glamor” magazine, Moskvichka, to replace Russia Tatler, Vogue, and GQ. For the new magazine, editors attracted foreign stylists and photographers, offering them “any amount of money.” Moskvichka showcases photos of expensive Russian wines, beauty salons, boutiques, restaurants, hotels, and more as a way of feigning the undisturbed lives of the elite (Istories.media, November 25).
In the event of a new wave of mass mobilization, Moscow would likely have to abandon such projects. The Russian economy could once again lose hundreds, if not thousands of skilled professionals. Funds allocated for the development of domestic tourism and other projects would have to be redirected to the military. In the lead-up to the presidential elections in March 2024, the Kremlin will likely attempt to balance the current edge between peace and war. Even so, societal discontent will persist after the elections, and Moscow will be forced to make tough and unpopular decisions in hoping to quell the spread of domestic strife.