Russians hold antiwar rallies amid ominous threats by Putin
From Moscow to Siberia, Russian antiwar activists took to the streets again Sunday to protest their country’s invasion of Ukraine, despite the arrests of hundreds of protesters each day by police.
Demonstrators held signs and marched in city centers, chanting, “No to war!” as President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear deterrent to be put on high alert, upping the ante in the Kremlin’s standoff with the West and stoking fears of a nuclear war.
“I have two sons and I don’t want to give them to that bloody monster. War is a tragedy for all of us,” 48-year-old Dmitry Maltsev, who joined the rally in St. Petersburg, told the Associated Press.
Protests against the invasion started Thursday in Russia and have continued daily, even as Russian police have moved swiftly to crack down on the rallies and detain protesters. The Kremlin has sought to downplay the protests, insisting that a much broader share of Russians support the assault on Ukraine.
As Russian forces push deeper into Ukraine in the largest ground war in Europe since World War II, Ukrainian officials urge citizens to fight back.
In St. Petersburg, where several hundred people gathered in the city center, police in full riot gear were grabbing one protester after another and dragging some into police vans, even though the demonstration was peaceful. Video from Moscow showed police throwing several female protesters to the ground before dragging them away.
According to the OVD-Info rights group that tracks political arrests, police detained at least 2,063 Russians in 48 cities over antiwar demonstrations on Sunday, bringing the total of those detained over the last four days to more than 5,000.
More than 500 people were detained Sunday in Belarus, which has supported Russia and housed its troops, for protesting against the invasion, according to the country’s most prominent human rights group.
In Minsk, the Belarusian capital, demonstrators marched in different parts of the city carrying Ukrainian flags. A large pile of flowers kept growing outside the Ukrainian Embassy. Demonstrations spanned at least 12 cities, the Viasna Human Rights Center said.
Protests also were held in major Western cities, including Berlin, where more than 100,000 people turned out at the Brandenburg Gate to express solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
Four days into the fighting that has killed scores, Putin raised the stakes dramatically on Sunday, ordering Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert, citing Western countries “taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere” and saying that “top officials from leading [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] members made aggressive statements regarding our country.”
The day before, the U.S. and its European allies warned that the coming round of sanctions could include freezing hard currency reserves of Russia’s central bank and cutting Russia off the SWIFT international payment system. The unprecedented move could quickly plunge the Russian economy into chaos.
Ordinary Russians fear that stiff sanctions will deliver a crippling blow to the country’s economy. Since Thursday, Russians have been flocking to banks and ATMs to withdraw cash, creating long lines and reporting on social media about ATMs running out of bills.
According to Russia’s central bank, on Thursday alone Russians withdrew about $1.3 billion in cash.
The antiwar protests on Sunday appeared smaller and more scattered than the ones that took place on the first day of Russia’s attack in Ukraine, when thousands of people rallied in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but their true scale was hard to assess and they seemed to pick up speed as the day went on.
“It is a crime both against Ukraine and Russia. I think it is killing both Ukraine and Russia. I am outraged. I haven’t slept for three nights, and I think we must now declare very loudly that we don’t want to be killed and don’t want Ukraine to be killed,” said Olga Mikheeva, who protested in the Siberian city of Irkutsk.
In Moscow and St. Petersburg, many people went to makeshift memorials for Boris Nemtsov, a top Russian opposition figure who was shot dead near the Kremlin on Feb. 27, 2015. Some brought flowers to honor Nemtsov’s memory, while others held banners protesting the invasion of Ukraine, only to be detained minutes after taking them out.
Nemtsov, one of Russia’s most charismatic opposition figures, was a staunch advocate against the fighting in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been battling with Ukrainian forces since 2014 in a drawn-out conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.
Russian authorities in recent days have moved to stifle critical voices. Access to Twitter and Facebook has been restricted, and human rights advocates feared similar steps would soon be taken against YouTube.
Russia’s state communications and media watchdog Roskomnadzor on Sunday demanded that Google lift restrictions imposed on YouTube channels run by several Russian state media outlets. An internet rights group noted that Facebook’s refusal to comply with a similar demand led to restricted access to the platform.
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