Dueling rallies hit Russia's major cities Sunday, as some protested against the Kremlin's decision to flirt with war by sending troops into Ukraine, while many more took to the streets to voice approval of what is officially-described as an operation to protect Ukraine's Russian-speaking population.
The few hundred people who took to the streets of Moscow Sunday afternoon to oppose the Russian government's slide to war were met with ranks of riot police and mass arrests. The officially sanctioned pro-Kremlin rallies drew an estimated 15,000 people in St. Petersburg and 27,000 in Moscow, according to police estimates. The pro-Kremlin rallies received prominent and approving coverage from Russia's state-run media, while the smaller opposition meetings went virtually unmentioned.
According to OVDInfo, a human rights information service, at least 361 people had been detained by early evening at two small antiwar rallies in Moscow. One of those, Mikhail Daniel, a college instructor, spoke briefly with the Monitor by cell phone from the police station before being cut off.
"I believe there are certain events that require public reaction. The prospect of Russian military intervention into the affairs of a sovereign neighbor is one that's important to me," he said. "I don't support it. I think it's too early to talk about protecting the interests of Russians in Ukraine, since we don't see any real threat to them yet. I think the the reasons for this intervention are about the ambitions of the Russian state."
The large Moscow rally to support President Vladimir Putin's decision to send troops to majority Russian-speaking Crimea included pro-Kremlin youth and veterans groups, as well as a motorcycle rally by the Night Wolves, a biker group that Mr. Putin sometimes rides with.
"We must consolidate to support our compatriots," the official ITAR-Tass agency quoted a rally organizer as saying. "What has happened in the recent days must be on the conscience of provokers who are seeking to seize power in the entire Ukraine, who are taking illegitimate decisions. But they have nothing in common with Ukraine’s people - neither they, nor those who are instigating them from oversees."
The antiwar demonstrators appeared to mostly the familiar liberal opponents of Putin, who have taken to the streets repeatedly to protest alleged electoral fraud and various crackdowns on civil liberties over the past two years. Some said the looming threat of war with Ukraine holds the potential to split Russian society far more deeply than democracy and civil rights issues, that chiefly interest the big city middle class, have so far done.
"There are people who support the authorities' position, and a considerable part of society that doesn't," says protester Sergei Davidis, a member of Solidarnost, a liberal opposition coalition. "The authorities may try to convince people that it will be a small and victorious war. But once it starts, the consequences will be immediately felt and even those Russians who backed it might start to wonder whether we really need Crimea at such a price."
Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, offered a more pessimistic view to the Monitor Sunday. He says Putin is deliberately courting war to stir up nationalist and imperialist sentiments among the population, and it will only serve to further isolate the country's liberal minority, and accelerate the crackdown against them.
"It's not war yet, but Putin is playing with war," Mr. Mitrokhin says. "Once that line is crossed, there will be no going back."
Another deeply pessimistic view comes from Alexei Simonov, head of the independent Glasnost Defense Fund, which monitors the Russian media and promotes journalists' rights. "If war begins, it won't split Russian society, it will unite it," Mr. Simonov says. "This is the classic way Russian power welds the nation together, through war."
He says Russians will mostly back the Kremlin's narrative about Ukraine because the state-run media is virtually the only source of information for most of the population.
"Most of our TV and big newspaper coverage leads people directly to anti-Ukrainian conclusions. It's not information, it's propaganda. From the informational point of view, most of the Russian public is already prepared for war," he says.