Russia saw the largest opposition protest in almost two years in Moscow today, as Muscovites took to the streets in their thousands to demonstrate both for and against president Vladimir Putin’s policies in Ukraine.
Crimeans vote tomorrow on whether to reunite with Russia after pro-Russian forces took control of the peninsula, triggering the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War.
Most Russians strongly back Mr Putin’s actions and see Crimea as rightfully part of Russia. But a minority are horrified, fearing that Putin is risking war with another Slavic country formerly seen as a brother nation.
Although smaller than protests that he faced after parliamentary elections in 2011, Saturday’s anti-war rally, which witnesses said attracted around 30,000 people, is a sign that his intervention in Ukraine might provide a rallying point for an opposition movement that had run out of steam.
Since being re-elected president in 2012, Mr Putin has worked to neutralise political opposition, mindful of the street protests that overthrew governments in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004-5 – actions that help to explain his deep antipathy to the movement that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, last month.
On Sakharov Avenue, site of the first large anti-Putin rally in December 2011, when tens of thousands protested against electoral fraud, demonstrators waved Ukrainian and Russian flags as well as EU flags like those carried by pro-European demonstrators in Kiev’s Maidan square.
The march appeared to be the largest opposition rally since June 2012, although police put the turnout at around 3,000.
“I am ashamed for Russia and our people,” said publishing company employee Valentina Legonkova (69), who was carrying a Ukrainian flag although she is Russian.
“We are behaving towards Ukraine like swine,” she said. “We will soon be on the level of North Korea.”
Some chanted “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes!”, a slogan also borrowed from Kiev, others “Down with Putin!”, “No to war!”, “No to fascism!” and “Russia without Putin!”
One placard read: “Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Ukraine 2014”, likening Russia’s actions to the Red Army’s suppression of east European reform movements in the Cold War.
“My duty is to show support for the Ukrainian people in its desire to live independently from the dictatorship of the elder brother,” said Moscow teacher Irina Seseikina.
The protest taps into a wider vein of discontent, strongest among the Moscow middle class, who are also appalled at rising corruption, political repression and censorship under Putin.
But so far, the Ukraine crisis and last month’s spectacular Winter Olympics in Sochi have solidified broader support for Putin, whose increasingly nationalist and conservative agenda plays well among Russians nostalgic for the Soviet Union.
His approval rating now stands at about 70 per cent. In a recent poll by the independent Levada Centre, two-thirds said they believed that not only Crimea but also mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine were “in essence” Russian lands.