May is traditionally a month for public celebration in Russia, with massive public processions on 1 May for Labour Day and military parades on 9 May for Victory Day, a holiday commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Not so in 2023. Russia’s biggest trade union cancelled its traditional Labour Day demonstrations because of the “heightened risk of terrorist activity”, while regions near the Ukrainian border called off Victory Day parades so as to “not provoke” the Ukrainian army.
The Russian government has warned people across the country to stay away from military installations on Victory Day, while the hugely popular Immortal Regiment, an event during which ordinary citizens all over Russia march with portraits of relatives who died in the second world war, has been moved online.
Allegedly the “terrorist” threat comes from Ukraine – Russian media reported on 24 April that a downed Ukrainian drone was found 30km (20 miles) from Moscow – but it seems difficult to accept that Russia’s air defences cannot guarantee the safety of Moscow’s skies during the country’s biggest patriotic celebration of the year, particularly at a time when Putin has been stoking Russian nationalist feelings to garner support for his war in Ukraine.
A Ukrainian drone attack on Red Square during the Victory Day military parade would be humiliating for Putin, but it seems more likely that he’s worried about the potential humiliation of thousands of civilians marching with the portraits of sons and husbands fallen in Ukraine. While official Russian figures have pointed to fewer than 6,000 military casualties in Ukraine, Ukraine claims approximately 150,000 Russian military personnel have been killed. Even conservative western estimates hover around the 60,000 mark – more than triple the 15,000 Soviet troops killed in the 10-year Afghan war.
Labour Day parades come with their own risk. In spite of the cancellation of official events, on 1 May a few small sporadic gatherings took place in cities all over Russia, to which some people turned up with anti-war banners. In St Petersburg a 76-year-old man was arrested for carrying a board with the traditional May Day slogan of “Peace, Work, May”, with an added Z symbol with a red mark across it. In Ekaterinburg a woman was reportedly detained with a banner inscribed with another traditional May Day slogan, “Peace to the World.”
The banning of public events during the May holidays is less likely to be out of concern for citizens’ safety, and more to do with Putin’s paranoid obsession with shutting down any channel for criticism of his war, even if open support for Ukraine is tiny and the threat of a popular uprising very remote.
At the same time that public protest is being pre-emptively suppressed, dissent and conflict continues to grow in military circles. In a 90-minute interview with a military blogger on 29 April, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the de facto leader of the Wagner private military company, bemoaned the catastrophic state of the Russian army, and said that “the time has come when we have to stop lying to the population of the Russian Federation saying that everything is OK”. He sarcastically called the war in Ukraine “the so-called special military operation”, in a veiled criticism of Putin’s ban on the use of the word war to describe events in Ukraine. Prigozhin also criticised the defence ministry for withholding ammunition and threatened to withdraw his men from the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which Russia has been trying to take for nine months.
Conflicts are not only surfacing between Russia’s private armies and the defence ministry, but among private armies themselves. On 25 April, soldiers from Gazprom’s private army, Potok, sent a video to Putin complaining that they had been transferred to a different private army (Redut) and then threatened by soldiers of the Wagner group, who said they would shoot them if they retreated from their positions. In early April, mobilised soldiers from the regular army in the Luhansk region (in Russian-occupied Ukraine) disappeared, after telling relatives that they had been sold to the Wagner group by their commander. When Prigozhin denounces the catastrophic state of the Russian army, he knows what he is talking about.
Russian nationalist pro-war military bloggers also criticise Putin. The most well-known of these is Igor Girkin (AKA Strelkov), who openly condemns Putin’s lack of resolve to use Russia’s full military might in Ukraine, and wages a simultaneous battle of words – for now – with Prigozhin. On 2 April, when another notorious military blogger, Vladlen Tatarsky, was assassinated in a bomb attack in a St Petersburg cafe formerly owned by Prigozhin, the Russian government blamed Ukrainian “terrorists”. Prigozhin stated that the attack was probably caused by infighting among what he calls Russian radicals.
Putin has not reacted publicly to any of the military bloggers or private armies – all armed and violent men – who criticise the way the war is being fought. But walking around with a cardboard sign calling for peace can lead to temporary arrest, and being an anti-war intellectual carries the risk of a 25-year prison sentence.
Russia is not on the verge of a popular revolution, but Putin still feels threatened enough by public anti-war protests to crack down at the first sign of peaceful civil dissent. This betrays a fundamental fear of showing any weakness that his armed critics could exploit. The main message here is clear: if you want to be safe in today’s Russia, carry a gun. Better still, create a private army. This will increase your chances of survival the day the strongman falls.
Samantha de Bendern is an associate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House and a political commentator on LCI television in France