Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Moscow Sunday as part of a march calling for peace between Russia and Ukraine. The demonstrators carried signs with anti-war messages and, in some cases, wore the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.
The event was the second of its kind so far this year and the largest opposition protest since Russian President Vladimir Putin reclaimed power in 2012. Russian police estimated that 5,000 people attended, while opposition leaders claimed the turnout was nearly 100,000.
"This was a bigger march than the last time the opposition organized a march six months ago," opposition leader Boris Nesterov told Bloomberg. "It's not our job to answer why, but everything from the beautiful weather to people's growing frustration could have influenced the turnout."
Police reportedly confiscated signs deemed overly critical of Putin, and small groups showed up to stage counter-protest against the anti-war demonstrators.
The march followed a ceasefire agreement that recently brought a tenuous halt to the fighting between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials and Western leaders have accused Russia of supporting the rebels — an allegation the Russian government and local media continue to deny.
"This march is to show the people that there's quite a number of people who are against the war and don't think that most Ukrainians are fascists," Mikhail Garder, 28, told the Washington Post. "The government knows that. The people don't."
Many of the complaints from the demonstrators centered on the Russian government's tight grip on state media outlets, particularly in how they present the crisis in Ukraine. Sarah Mendelson, director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News that Putin has "weaponized information," and said that the government and media are presenting information about Ukraine that does not resemble the reality of what is happening in the country. She said there has been no critical reporting by Russian media about the conflict.
"I'm struck that people are still energized, engaged, and came together and came out on September 21, just when you think that's it," Mendelson said.
The reaction to this lack of transparency, Mendelson said, is part of a larger global trend of citizens demanding more accountability from their governments. She added that the protesters were "incredibly brave people" to be raising their voices in the current atmosphere, and noted that not all Russians support Putin. The Russian leader's approval ratings have climbed steadily and neared 80 percent since the Ukraine crisis escalated this spring.
With Putin's sky-high approval ratings and diminished opposition, Mendelson said it can be challenging to see room for any change in the immediate future.
"Things can change quickly in Russia," Mendelson said. "What's hard to see is how any kind of change comes to Russia, absent Putin leaving."
But beyond the large turnout at Sunday's demonstration, the opposition seemed bolstered by the renewed presence of Mikhail Khordokovsky. A former oil tycoon, Khordokovsky spent a decade in prison on tax evasion, money laundering, and embezzlement charges, though supporters maintain his crime was merely opposing the Kremlin. Khordokovsky has restarted his Open Russia campaign, a move meant to rally supporters ahead of the country's 2016 parliamentary elections.
"A minority will be influential if it is organized," he said during a ceremony broadcast online from Paris, where he is currently living in exile. Khordovsky also told French media outlets over the weekend that he would be interested in leading his home country.
"I would not be interested in the idea of becoming president of Russia at a time when the country would be developing normally," he said, according to Le Monde. "But if it appeared necessary to overcome the crisis and to carry out constitutional reform, the essence of which would be to redistribute presidential powers in favor of the judiciary, parliament and civil society, then I would be ready to take on this part of the task."
Joe Dresen, a program associate at Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, told VICE News, however, that news of Khordovsky's return to politics was not likely to impact the political climate in Russia.
"I don't think it's a very serious threat to Putin by any stretch of the imagination," Dresen said, explaining that Khordovsky gained legitimacy during his time in prison. "I don't think he'll be able to play any meaningful power broker role from outside of Russia, but that's not to say he can't be effective in the margins."
The reporting of Russian casualties sustained during in the conflict in Ukraine could potentially have more of an effect on Russian support for Putin. According to both Mendelson and Dresen, popular opinion may shift if reports emerge of Russians dying while fighting in Ukraine.
According to Mendelsen, public opinion polling from previous conflicts — including the Soviet war in Afghanistan and both wars in Chechneya — Russians showed enormous sensitivity to causalities, holding those concerns above conflict-related issues such as human rights abuses.
Similarly, Dresen explained that because the government and media have adamantly denied Russian involvement in Ukraine, if reports of deaths start to leak, it would harm the population's opinion of Putin. "The truth chips away at credibility for the long term," he said.
Dresen said a worsening economy would be another factor that could shift support away from Putin. He suggested that sanctions have had minimal effects on the average person, but, if inflation rates increased, unemployment rates rose, or oil prices dropped, it would become challenging for Putin to maintain his popularity.
"Even with the increased public support Putin has, it's hard for any political opposition to take hold, but I don't think that support is rock solid, the sand could shift quickly," he said.
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