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Russians torn over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as thousands protest

“There is no justification for war! No to war!” the comedian and TV presenter Maxim Galkin wrote on Instagram.

Among Russia’s political and media establishment, President Vladimir Putin has been hailed as a savior for invading Ukraine.

Whether the rest of the country believes it is another matter.

As Western nations sounded the alarm and Europe was plunged into one of its gravest security crises since World War II, some pundits and political commentators inside Russia praised Putin's decision to “maintain peace” in Ukraine, where his forces launched ground attacks and air bombardments Thursday.

Others have repeated his claim that Russian speakers inside the country were being subjected to “genocide.” 

There were segments of Russian society, however, that were critical, and more than 1,000 people gathered in the center of Moscow Thursday evening, chanting “No to war!” as passing cars honked their horns, according to The Associated Press.

Image: People attend an anti-war protest in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Feb. 24, 2022.
People attend an anti-war protest Thursday in St. Petersburg, Russia.Anton Vaganov / Reuters

Protesters also took to the streets in several other cities, including St. Petersburg, all defying a warning from the Investigative Committee, a kind of Russian answer to the FBI, that they would face criminal action and even jail time.

Police had detained 1,667 people at rallies in 53 cities by around Russia by 9:30 p.m. local time (1:30 p.m. ET), reported OVD-Info, a rights monitor that documents crackdowns on Russia’s opposition, according to the AP. Police in Moscow said they had detained 600 people, Reuters reported. 

Image: Police detain a demonstrator during a protest in Moscow on February 24, 2022.
Police detain a demonstrator during a protest Thursday in Moscow.Alexander Nemenov / AFP - Getty Images

Several high-profile musicians, TV stars and comedians making anti-war posts on social media. A large number of journalists and social media influencers have also expressed their disapproval, although few criticized Putin and his government directly.

“Have been on the phone with my relatives from Ukraine since early morning,” comedian and TV host Maxim Galkin wrote on Instagram. “I cannot describe what I am feeling right now. How is this all possible! There is no justification for war! No to war!”

Singer Valery Meladze said on Instagram that “history will judge and put everything in its places. But today I beg you to stop military action and come together in talks.”

Another TV host and comedian, Alexander Gudkov, posted a picture of a black square on Instagram. Alongside it, he wrote: “I am ashamed to have been born on this day #notowar.”

One petition, started by a prominent human rights advocate, Lev Ponomavyov, garnered more than 150,000 signatures within hours. 

More than 100 Russian journalists signed a joint statement condemning the invasion, which they posted on Telegram. Most represented independent news organizations and outlets that opposed Putin. “War has never been and will never be a method of conflict resolution and there are no excuses for it,” the statement said.

One person who did rail against Putin directly was Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

“Our country, by order of President Putin, started a war with Ukraine,” he said in a video statement. “And there is no one to stop the war, so together with grief we feel shame.”

Other Russian citizens also expressed their discontent, and lines of people were seen at ATMs in Moscow and other Russian cities withdrawing rubles, dollars and other foreign currencies.

Calling the invasion “disgusting,” Nikita Borisov, 28, told NBC News by telephone Thursday that he thought any invasion was “not a good idea, no matter what country.”

Borisov, a marketing executive from Moscow, added that the invasion and resulting economic sanctions on Russia had yet to affect him personally, but he said it has already become difficult for Russians to obtain visas to enter other countries, and exchange rates with foreign currencies had worsened.

Niki Proshin livestreamed from a protest in St. Petersburg using TikTok, where he has more than 700,000 followers.

Proshin said he risked a fine or a short stint in jail for being at the demonstration, which looked to involve no more than a couple hundred people. He described the protest as relatively subdued with occasional chants of “no war.”

Image: Kyiv
A man shows the debris of a house Thursday in the aftermath of Russian shelling outside Kyiv.Efrem Lukatsky / AP

Earlier this week, however, after Putin moved troops into separatist areas in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed rebels have been fighting Kyiv’s forces since 2014, many voiced support for their leader.

“It should have been done a long time ago,” said Irina Nareyko, a Moscow resident told the AP Wednesday. “These poor people who identify as Russian, who mainly identify as Orthodox, who cannot wait anymore and live expecting to be killed.”

Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster, also told the AP Wednesday that according to its poll data, more than half of Russians were ready to support Putin’s moves.

“The situation, as it is understood by the majority, is that the West is pressuring Ukraine” to make a move against the rebel-held areas, “and Russia needs to somehow help,” Volkov said. “This notion of helping in an extraordinary situation translates into support” for recognition of the separatist regions.