May 24, 2022

Three Months of War

Our Moscow bureau chief tells us how this conflict has changed Russia.

Hello. This is your Russia-Ukraine War Briefing, a weekday guide to the latest news and analysis about the conflict.


Children attending a ceremony for the “Young Pioneers” youth organization on Red Square last week.
Natalia Kolesnikova/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When President Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, many thought the war would be over in a matter of days. It has turned out very differently.

To get some insight into how three months of war has changed Russia, I spoke to our Moscow bureau chief, Anton Troianovski. Along with many other foreign correspondents, Anton left Moscow the week that Russia adopted a law that criminalized independent reporting on the war. He is currently based in Istanbul.

This conversation has been lightly edited.

What are some of the realities about Russia that this war has exposed?

Anton: This war has shown that Putin has really succeeded in getting people to stay out of politics. It’s that depoliticization of the Russian public that I think has really become clear.

Some people, as long as they’re doing fine — and many are doing fine — they just don’t particularly care about what’s happening in the country more broadly, because they say, “Well, that’s not up to me.”

And then others kind of grumble in their kitchens but, again, have the sense that they can’t really do anything about it. Certainly fear is part of it, but I think it’s also just something deeper, this sense that “I can’t change anything anyway, so I’m not even going to try.”

You need to keep in mind that, until recently, Putin’s Russia has not been a total totalitarian system as in China. Even now, even with independent media being quashed, YouTube is still freely available in Russia, Telegram is still freely available, you can get the whole internet easily via V.P.N.

The problem here is not necessarily just fear or totalitarianism, it’s the fact that Putin has helped create this political environment where people just feel detached from their government, from their rulers and politicians.

When we look to the future, we have to ask ourselves, what are the pressures domestically on Putin? The fact that he’s been so cautious about this, in terms of calling it a special military operation and not a war, in terms of not declaring a mass mobilization or a draft, even though he could clearly use more boots on the ground.

That shows us, I think, that Putin is still afraid of a potential domestic backlash. It could still happen as more people are affected directly. But we’re not there yet. For now, most Russians are not affected by this in a way that could cause them to put everything on the line and lash out.

What has surprised you the most over the past three months?

The dichotomy between how the war is being seen in Ukraine and in Russia.

In Ukraine, it’s an existential conflict. In Russia it’s not even officially called a war, it’s a special military operation.

More than a third of Russians aren’t even paying attention to this. I don’t know if there is any precedent of that in modern times where it’s a major land war. Already tens of thousands of people have died.

What is the level of support among Russians for the war?

From everything that I can tell about what’s going on in Russian public opinion right now, there are very few fervent supporters of the war.

For example, the government has tried to make the Z a symbol of support for the war. And it’s showing up on a lot of government buildings, on a lot of public transportation, on the social media accounts of state media personalities. But it’s not showing up in any kind of grass-roots way. People aren’t putting the Z on their cars, they’re not showing it on their windows.

Support for this war is very shallow, it’s very skin deep. I think most people will tell you, if you ask them, that yes, they support the war and they’ll repeat some phrases that they have heard on state television, but they don’t really believe in it.

Tell us about a moment that stands out for you?

One of the most interesting interviews that I did was with a computer repair shop owner in Moscow. The guy put an antiwar sign in his shop and was eventually arrested and fined for it. He had the sign up in his store for a month and then eventually an old man passing by the store saw it and turned him in to the police.

But hundreds of people went into his store, saw the sign and didn’t turn him in. In some cases, they even thanked him for it. That shows that this sense that the Kremlin is trying to create in its propaganda and its official rhetoric that all of Russia is behind Putin, that’s not really true.

After he was fined 100,000 rubles — which is about $1,500, a huge sum for Russians, more than most people’s monthly salary — an activist posted about it on social media and he got the sum to pay for that fine within a few hours, and then got double that amount by the next morning.

How is Putin’s fate tied to this war?

This clearly is his war. You could imagine someone else coming into power. Like, let’s say, when you think back to Soviet history, when Joseph Stalin died, Nikita Khrushchev took over (as leader of the Soviet Union). Though he came from that same system, he actually reversed a lot of Stalin’s policies. Could we see something like that? Maybe. Could we see something much more chaotic? That’s also very likely, honestly, because Putin has failed to build institutions in Russia other than his own power.

There’s been a lot of reporting about Putin’s health, but I honestly don’t see anything solid to make us think that he would go soon. He could also be there for another 20 years.


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In Ukraine

  • Ukraine’s economic losses from the war amount to around $1 trillion, or five years of economic output, a presidential adviser said.

  • The arrival of U.S.-made howitzers has buoyed Ukraine’s hopes of achieving artillery superiority but is no guarantee of success.

  • The former N.B.A. player Slava Medvedenko has joined the war effort, manning a guard station in a Kyiv neighborhood, The Athletic reports.

In Russia

Around the world

We also recommend

  • Andrey Kurkov, Ukraine’s best-known living novelist, has opened up his own cultural front in the resistance by chronicling the war for foreign audiences, The Times Magazine writes.


Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Yana

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