“We Really Have Other Problems” What Do Russians Near the Border Think of a Possible Ukraine Invasion?

Vladimir Putin has amassed around 100,000 troops on the border to Ukraine. How are Russians reacting to developments? A visit to the city of Rostov-on-Don.
By Christina Hebel in Rostov-on-Don
A Russian soldier in Rostov-on-Don: What’s next?

A Russian soldier in Rostov-on-Don: What’s next?

Foto: Sergey Pivovarov / SNA / IMAGO

Valentina Tolmachova proceeds cautiously. It’s slippery on this February morning. A thin layer of ice covers the cobblestones in the city center of Rostov-on-Don. The 70-year-old points to a spot in a park between multistory apartment buildings. Back when she had still dared to, she would stand there, in front of the steps, with a protest sign.

The retiree shows a video on a mobile phone of her as a peace protester among dozens of fellow campaigners, with a large paper banner in their hands. It is scrawled with the words: "Stop the propaganda! Stop inciting two brotherly people against each other."

Valentina Tolmachova in a park in Rostov-on-Don

Valentina Tolmachova in a park in Rostov-on-Don

Foto: Christina Hebel / DER SPIEGEL

Tolmachova says Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing everything he can to drive a wedge between the people of Russia and neighboring Ukraine. She says that’s how it was in 2014, when the president had Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula annexed and supported Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine with weapons, troops and money. And that’s also how it is now.

More than seven years later, pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas continue to engage in skirmishes with Ukrainian soldiers – not even 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Tolmachova’s hometown. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Kremlin leader is also amassing his troops and heavy weapons in the border area with Ukraine.

DER SPIEGEL 6/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 6/2022 (February 5th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

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"We keep silent and thus distance ourselves further and further from our neighbors"

Tolmachova says this is all very worrying for her. Where is this going to lead? To another major war? Around 14,000 people have already died in the Ukraine conflict. Few in Russia dare speak out against the Kremlin in public anymore. Tolmachova doesn’t go out to the park with her placard any longer to protest the madness either. The authorities began cracking down even harder after the imprisonment of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. Tolmachova believes the police would take her away within a few minutes if she protested.

Especially in Rostov. The southern Russian city has more than 1 million residents and there are military bases nearby. Thousands of Ukrainians from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which are controlled by pro-Russian separatists, have found refuge in the region, and many now hold Russian passports.

"So, what do we Russians do? We keep silent and thus distance ourselves further and further from our neighbors," Tolmachova says, sounding dejected.

Political officials in Washington and Kyiv claim that Moscow has stationed more than 100,000 soldiers near the border in the north, east and south of Ukraine. Tolmachova is familiar with the images of trains loaded with artillery, tanks and military transports from social media. She reads the warnings from the Americans, the Europeans and NATO of an invasion every day. Putin is "holding a gun as if it were to the head of Ukraine" to force security guarantees from the West, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week.

Putin himself long remained silent. On Tuesday, though, he complained that the West continues to ignore his security concerns and again called for the United States and NATO to stay out of Ukraine. At the Olympic Games in China on Friday, he demonstrated to the world that he is standing shoulder to shoulder with his Chinese colleague Xi Jinping. On Friday, the two authoritarian leaders issued a joint statement on global issues in Beijing as the Olympic Games opened, calling on the West to "abandon the ideologized approaches of the Cold War." They expressed their opposition to the further eastward expansion of NATO, among other issues.

"These are all the complex, psychological problems of a person who, more than anything, wants to grab the attention of the U.S.A. and is willing to keep the whole world on tenterhooks to do so," retiree Tolmachova believes.

She knows that she’s in the minority with her criticism of the president. Tolmachova has often been called a "traitor" and an "enemy" by Putin supporters in the past for taking to the streets to protest the war in Ukraine.

Today, 39 percent of Russians believe that a new war between the two countries is likely or inevitable, according to a recent poll taken by Levada, the independent polling institute. At the same time, only 4 percent of respondents blame the Russian leadership. The majority now view the U.S. and NATO as responsible – a worldview from Soviet times that Putin is fond of espousing: the good Russians vs. the bad Americans.

Meanwhile, a quarter of those surveyed even consider a conflict between Russia and NATO to be possible. The share of those who expressed their fear of a "major war" grew in the last year to 60 percent at times, a record high.

A park in Rostov-on-Don: Biden "is forcing everything on us"

A park in Rostov-on-Don: Biden "is forcing everything on us"

Foto: Christina Hebel / DER SPIEGEL

And that mood is prevalent on the streets of Rostov right now:

"It’s all Obama’s fault … oh, wait, Biden is president now,” says one 50-year-old man. "It doesn’t matter – he’s forcing everything on us. He and the U.S. Congress are aggressors and provocateurs dragging us into a war like this that we don’t want."

"We aren’t attacking anyone, we never have. Why should we now? We want peace," says a woman in her early forties, who walks away when Russian troops are mentioned.

"Just leave me alone on this issue. We really have other problems, it’s always Ukraine," says a woman in her thirties. "Food is getting more expensive in our country, medicines, plus the coronavirus and all the sick people."

Shouting and Clamoring

A few kilometers away, on the other side of the Don River in Bataysk, Yuri Mezinov sits at his desk and laughs out loud. "It’s all hysteria, this talk of troops and a possible war." Mezinov runs a landscaping business. He is also active for the Just Russia – Patriots – For Truth party, an alliance that is supposed to unite left-wing patriotic politicians according to the Kremlin's will.

Yuri Mezinov: "It’s all hysteria, this talk of troops and a possible war"

Yuri Mezinov: "It’s all hysteria, this talk of troops and a possible war"

Foto: Christina Hebel / DER SPIEGEL

Mezinov believes Ukraine shouldn’t have any autonomy, and he regularly travels to the Kremlin-controlled Donbas, which he views as being part of Russia. "Those are our people there, we have to help them," he says. Although he claims to have never fought there, he says he delivered relief supplies, clothing and food. "The people have to be defended against the fascists in Kyiv," as he refers to the Ukrainian leadership. He claims they are committing a "genocide" against the people in the Donbas under Washington’s influence. At times, Mezinov’s voice grows loud, with his tone reminiscent of the hawkish on-air personalities on Russian state television.

"People are exhausted by the ongoing confrontation with Ukraine, and they don’t want to hear any more about a possible war or about sanctions."

Denis Volkov, head of the independent, Moscow-based Levada polling institute

On talk shows, they speak of a Ukraine that is supposedly "occupied" by NATO countries and needs to be "liberated" by Russian soldiers. They claim Washington is turning Ukraine "into an anti-Russian bulldog" and that it is spreading "fake threats." On television, there is shouting and clamoring, and the shriller and more aggressive the rhetoric, the better.

This doesn’t seem to bother too many people in Russia. It feels like a leaden listlessness has settled over the country. "People are exhausted by the ongoing confrontation with Ukraine, and they don’t want to hear any more about a possible war or about sanctions," says Denis Volkov, head of the Moscow-based Levada polling institute.

No Second "Crimea" Bump for Putin

As a result of this mental numbing, the majority are adopting Putin's statements and state propaganda, the sociologist says. There is a great deal of unanimity on the Ukraine issue today, he says, even among older and younger Russians who otherwise tend to have markedly different opinions on things like Putin’s role, for example.

Several people in the park only wink when asked about a possible offensive in Ukraine. "We got used to the conflict nearby a long time ago, and we prefer to block out all the terrible news," says one 28-year-old.

It was a different story back in 2014. At the time, people in the Rostov area saw long military columns heading toward Ukraine. They also watched as soldiers stocked up on provisions in local stores, often without any insignia on their clothing. According to several residents, they haven’t seen soldiers in large groups so far this time.

Georgiy Takhtamyshev says he seldom reads the news these days

Georgiy Takhtamyshev says he seldom reads the news these days

Foto: Christina Hebel / DER SPIEGEL

Georgiy Takhtamyshev of Rostov doesn’t even like to read about what is happening. Over coffee, the 26-year-old software developer says he rarely follows the news anymore. A year ago, he took to the streets in Rostov and, like tens of thousands of people across the country, demanded freedom for Navalny in vain. He says it outraged him.

Today, he adds, there is almost no place left where you can criticize Russia, and certainly not Putin’s troop buildup. The few independent media outlets are under pressure, and army subjects are considered particularly sensitive because the Federal Security Service (FSB) has a stricter interpretation of what is considered to be a military secret. The opposition is in prison or in exile, and the Duma is comprised solely of members of parliament who are loyal to the Kremlin. The only thing left, he says, are conversations with family and friends. And the hope that Putin is "just" flexing his muscles, says Takhtamyshev.

So far, though, the president hasn’t been able to profit much from fears of a possible war. According to Levada, Putin’s approval rating is 69 percent. With the "Crimea effect" after the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula, Putin’s approval ratings got a boost to over 85 percent, a high that is unlikely to be repeated in the event of war, says Volkov, the head of the Levada Center. Still, he does believe that his popularity could rise by up to 10 percentage points. He says that in times of military escalation, support for the leadership in one’s country generally increases.

In Rostov, Tolmachova is hoping it won’t come to that. Meanwhile, more than 100 Russian intellectuals have also issued an appeal calling on the Kremlin to de-escalate the situation and avoid an "immoral, irresponsible and criminal" war.

At least the U.S. and NATO reacted quickly and clearly, Tolmachova says, noting that Ukraine has received defensive weapons, such as anti-tank missiles and equipment, and that the U.S. is moving thousands more troops to Eastern European NATO member states. At the same time, she says, the West has made clear to Moscow the consequences of a possible invasion and has announced tough sanctions.

"In 2014, the Europeans and Americans didn’t understand what Putin is capable of," says Tolmachova, "now they know him better."

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