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Public Sentiment in Russia Darkens Over Ukraine War

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The WhatsApp messaging group for residents of a stately post-World War II apartment building on a major thoroughfare in downtown Moscow, viewed by The Wall Street Journal, is peppered with messages of concern: “Is the bomb shelter in the basement still habitable?”; “Who do we need to contact to get it inspected?”; “Where are the entrances located?”

In some urban centers, apartments are being put up for sale or rent at fire-sale rates, say real-estate experts, as hundreds of thousands of Russian men have left the country since Mr. Putin ordered the call-up of reservists to generate new troops to fight in Ukraine.

Nearly half of Russians said they were alarmed and felt fearful following Mr. Putin’s announcement of the draft, while another 13% said they felt anger, according to a poll last month by Levada Center, a nongovernmental sociological research organization, of 1,631 people over the age of 18 in urban and rural areas of 50 regions.

A poll by the state Public Opinion Foundation published around the same time as the Levada survey also showed that the prevailing mood among Russians was now one of unease, according to 70% of 1,500 respondents.

“Now is a really unusual situation for our country and a new collective psychotrauma,” Ekaterina Kolesnikova, director of North-West, a private research center for the study of management practices and the social-political mood, wrote on the group’s Telegram page earlier this month.

A billboard near the Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters reads, ‘Victory is being forged in fire.’



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alexander nemenov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The disquiet—especially among well-to-do urban Russians who had been somewhat sheltered from a war in which many of those killed were from poorer regions—threatens to erode support for Mr. Putin, said some experts who follow Russia’s domestic policies and their political and social repercussions.

Both Western Kremlin-watchers and many Russian political analysts who back Mr. Putin say that public discontent over the Russian president’s policies is unlikely to throw him off course or shake his control. But observers of Russia’s political landscape say the dissatisfaction threatens to spread, and the Kremlin does closely monitor Mr. Putin’s approval ratings. Policy analysts noted that while many Russians were willing to tolerate their president’s restrictions on political freedoms, they did so on the understanding that their lives and the country’s prosperity wouldn’t be destabilized.

“Many people feel disappointed, somehow deceived even, in the sense that they simply did not expect this turn of events,” said Grigorii Golosov, a political scientist at the European University at St. Petersburg. “Of course, it undermines their trust both in the Russian leadership in the short term and in the long-term perspective.”

The Kremlin didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether it was concerned about growing public discontent.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said recently that it was understandable that current events would trigger certain unsettled emotions, but the Kremlin hadn’t seen much polarization in Russian society. He told the RBC Russian business media group in an interview last month before the mobilization that this year had seen a “union among citizens and their consolidation around the head of state.”

A man called up during Russia’s recent military mobilization says goodbye at a Moscow recruiting office.



Photo:

yuri kochetkov/Shutterstock

Russian servicemen lie dead at the side of a road in Lyman, an eastern town recaptured by Ukrainian forces earlier this month.



Photo:

Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

A number of issues are contributing to growing unease. The annexation of Ukrainian territory without Russia’s having full control, failures on the battlefield that allowed Ukraine to regain ground, and Mr. Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons are feeding public uncertainty and doubt about the soundness of Kremlin strategy, analysts said.

One of the prevailing concerns, according to analysts, is the recent mobilization, which has left few segments of the population untouched. Officially called a partial mobilization, the call-up has wide reach that is hitting home in many cities. It includes men with previous military service or expertise and those currently in the reserve, among other criteria, according to official state media. Early in the war, Mr. Putin promised that only professional military personnel would participate in what the Kremlin calls its special military operation.

On Friday, Mr. Putin said the mobilization effort would be completed in two weeks and that at this time no further call-up was planned. He said that some 222,000 out of a scheduled draft of 300,000 people had been mobilized, with 16,000 already performing combat missions.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense said last month that 5,937 Russian soldiers had died since the conflict began in February. The Pentagon estimates the number of Russia’s war dead and wounded could be as high as 80,000.

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Public anxiety is reflected in recent posts on a St. Petersburg group page on VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, where a woman who identified herself as Yanochka Pogodina wrote, “This is some kind of terrible dream. Lord, let us wake up in peacetime!”

A man identifying himself as Pavel Petrov responded, “Yanochka, this won’t be settled by itself. Everything is going to hell.”

In the Irkutsk region of southeastern Siberia, psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists are offering free consultation to the relatives of those called up to fight, according to health authorities in the region.

Following the announcement of mobilization, Maria Gribova, director of a construction and real-estate consulting firm in St. Petersburg, noticed an increase in people there selling their apartments at a discount on previous market rates—sometimes between 10% and 20%. “People are worried about the safety of their money,” she said. “People don’t want to take additional risks… We don’t know if tomorrow we will have our man with us or if he will suddenly be called up.”

There has been a marked increase in people renting out their apartments in big cities, either because they are leaving or as a source of additional income, and this has brought down rent prices, according to specialists in the rental market.

“The most negative thing that has already happened is the disappearance of the illusion that hostilities are taking place somewhere far away and do not affect economic development,” said Oleg Buklemishev, director of the Economic Policy Research Center at Moscow State University.

A monument in Moscow to a Soviet-era nuclear bomb. Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict.



Photo:

maxim shipenkov/Shutterstock

Write to Ann M. Simmons at [email protected]

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