Many ordinary Russians have been hit hard by the exit of foreign firms and by galloping inflation – Copyright AFP Arif Kartono
For some it was “necessary”, for others it is a source of “sadness” — six months after Moscow launched its offensive in Ukraine, many Russians remain divided over the conflict.
In and around Moscow ahead of the anniversary this week, some expressed support for what Russia calls its “special military operation” in its pro-Western neighbour, while others voiced deep regret at the suffering it had caused.
But all agreed they hoped the fighting would end soon.
“I am very sad for the Ukrainians. They are suffering for nothing, they did not do anything wrong,” Dmitry Romanenko, a 35-year-old IT specialist, told AFP on the streets of central Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send troops into Ukraine on February 24 has turned the lives of many Russians upside-down.
The country’s economy has fared better than some expected in the face of what were meant to be crippling Western sanctions, but many ordinary Russians have been hit hard by the exit of foreign firms and by galloping inflation.
Cut off from much of the rest of the world by travel and flight restrictions, many Russians are also feeling deeply isolated.
There are signs of public support for Russia’s actions in Moscow, with stickers in the windows of some cars bearing the letter “Z” — the symbol of Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.
But in the centre of the Russian capital, generally considered less conservative than other parts of the country, most residents interviewed by AFP were critical of the conflict and its effects.
– ‘Everyone is suffering’ –
Romanenko, sporting a thick beard and with his arms and neck covered in tattoos, said the start of the military campaign marked the end of his livelihood in Russia.
“It destroyed everything I was doing, all my business. I was in start-ups and all of my eight projects were destroyed,” he said.
Walking nearby in a colourful patterned dress and white hat, 83-year-old retired art critic Valentina Byalik said it was clear that “everything has changed”.
“We are part of a generation whose childhood was spent at war. And it’s very sad that our old age is also spent at war,” she said.
“Even if we live far away from the military operations, we feel profound sadness for the people who are dying, no matter what their nationality.”
Byalik said the growing isolation of Russians was especially difficult.
“The fact that a great country is now isolated, that everyone hates this country…this is very bitter for us,” she said.
Dmitry Nalivayko, a 34-year-old waiter with a ribbon in the colours of the Russian flag attached to his backpack, said it was “wrong” for ordinary people to be caught up in the conflict.
“Let the politicians fight, not the people who are suffering from all this. Everyone is suffering,” he said.
Other Russians are ready to fiercely support the military campaign.
Many of them turned up for a recent army forum on the outskirts of the capital where the country’s latest military hardware was being shown off.
– ‘Everything will be fine’ –
Strolling in front of a row of tanks wearing T-shirts emblazoned with white “Z”s, 33-year-old Vladimir Kosov and his 55-year-old mother Olga said it was Russia’s duty to support pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
“We have to help them, even at the cost of our lives,” she said, while Vladimir denounced what he described as “nationalism” in Ukraine as “the most dangerous threat of our times”.
“It was necessary,” Mikhail Nikitin, a 35-year-old IT specialist, said at the forum.
“Sooner or later we will be victorious anyway and everything will be fine after that.”
Even with the conflict dragging on far longer than many expected, those supporting Russian military action said they had no doubt about its outcome.
“I think our people will win after all. Peace will be restored between Russia and Ukraine, because we were friendly countries all our lives,” Nadezhda Josan, a 35-year-old manager of a cleaning company, said at the forum.
“We hope that everything will end soon. And everything will be fine.”