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Antiwar Activists in Russia and Ukraine Are Calling for an End to Militarism

Antiwar activists in Russia and Ukraine say they face repression from police and right-wing nationalists.

People stage an antiwar demonstration on February 24, 2022, in St. Petersburg, Russia, following Russia's military operation in Ukraine.

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Thousands of people filled the streets of Moscow in 2014 to protest Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where separatists were fighting for control of the Donbas region after an uprising supported by the West pushed out an elected president in Kyiv. In 2003, tens of thousands protested against the invasion of Iraq by the United States in Washington, D.C. and in mass protests across the world.

Now, both Russia and the U.S.-led NATO coalition have escalated the conflict in Ukraine. Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Thursday, and fierce fighting across the country is raising fears that the war will spiral into bloody chaos and spill across Eastern Europe. Russian missiles have destroyed Ukrainian military installations and airfields bringing in NATO weapons, according to the Kremlin. The Ukrainian government says dozens of soldiers and civilians lost their lives.

Scattered protests are popping up in Russia, Germany, the U.S. and across the world as the violence intensifies, but antiwar activists in Ukraine and Russia say their demonstrations rarely get Western media coverage and are often repressed by police.

The U.S. and its powerful allies placed economic sanctions on Russia this week after Putin recognized two pro-Russian breakaway “republics” in Donbas and deployed troops Russia calls “peacekeepers.” Putin also argued in a speech that Ukraine is essentially part of Russia. The Russian military claims its “peace enforcement operation” has no intention to “occupy” Ukraine, according to a statement passed along by a Russian military analyst, although it is unclear how that statement should be interpreted.

Both sides accuse the other of being the aggressor, and antiwar activists in Russia and Ukraine are drawing attention to escalating militarism on the part of both Russia and NATO.

“When Ukrainian and Western media mention Russian security concerns, it is usually to dismiss them, claiming that NATO is a defensive alliance and Ukraine has a right to align with it,” said Yurii Sheliazhenko, the executive secretary of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement, in an email. “When they show maps of amassing Russian troops on Ukrainian borders, they never show where NATO’s and Ukrainian military forces are positioned, despite there [being] a lot of public information of the sort; experts definitely know it.”

Sheliazhenko said that militarism is pervasive in Ukraine and Russia, although antiwar activists are raising their voices against the escalating violence.

“You should understand that due to the underdeveloped peace culture in Ukraine and all post-Soviet countries, including Russia, we have no independent impartial mass peace movement here and very few consistent pacifists,” Sheliazhenko said.

News outlets in the U.S. report a muted response from antiwar activists in Russia, where the 2014 protests were met with a harsh crackdown by police. Some experts say street protests have little impact on a government beholden to Putin. Antiwar protest organizers are now being arrested on a daily basis, according to a Russian activist who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of repression and sent messages in encrypted texts.

“There [are] no big street protests in Russia as all protests are banned ‘due to COVID,’ however, pro-war protests are accepted,” said the activist, who is currently in a neighboring country but maintains contact with activists in Moscow. “In Moscow there are small actions daily and arrests.”

Sheliazhenko said there is also repression of the small antiwar movement in Ukraine, where violent elements of the far right were emboldened by a friendly government and its military supporters in NATO after a U.S.-backed uprising deposed a pro-Russian president in 2014.

Sheliazhenko said pickets and protests were recently held in several Ukrainian cities, including in front of the Ukrainian Parliament and the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. The media paid little attention, and protesters were searched by police and forced to say on video that they would not organize more demonstrations. He said petitions to protect human rights tend to be more popular online than petitions to stop the conflict, and petitions have little effect on politicians to begin with.

“Again, I should say that street actions for peace are effective when genuine peace movements have people’s solidarity because of developed peace culture, and when there is little threat of persecution and violent attacks of far-righters,” Sheliazhenko said. “Now the state of emergency is introduced and Ukrainian government started to introduce the state of war, it limits freedom of assembly anyway.”

Plenty of people in Russia, the U.S. and across the world oppose the war in Ukraine. Activists say a return to diplomacy would prevent needless bloodshed, and cooperation rather than fighting among governments is desperately needed to confront global problems such as climate change and the COVID pandemic.

Some peace activists want to dismantle NATO or transform the military coalition into an “alliance of disarmament,” according to Sheliazhenko. NATO has supported multiple U.S.-led wars and enraged Putin by arming Russia’s neighbors with weapons, and the conflict in Donbas escalated after the U.S. and its allies rejected Putin’s demand that Ukraine be barred from joining the military alliance.

“The conflict is the product of thirty years of failed policies, including the expansion of NATO and U.S. hegemony at the expense of other countries as well as major wars of aggression by the USA, Britain and other NATO powers which have undermined international law and the United Nations,” said a statement from the Stop the War Coalition in Britain this week.

In a poll this week, 72 percent of Americans said the U.S. should play either a minor role in the conflict or no role at all. Respondents want Biden focused on domestic issues such as gun violence and inflation, according to The Washington Post. Still, the threat of war in Ukraine did not prompt large protests in the pandemic-weary U.S. as negotiations between the U.S. and Russia over NATO expansion broke down.

Public opinion is muddled by former President Donald Trump, whose praise for Putin continues to be a favorite attack line for liberals. In fact, the poll found that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support the U.S. taking a “major” role in the conflict, with 32 percent of Democrats in support compared to 22 percent of Republicans.

However, antiwar groups in the U.S., Russia and beyond oppose the U.S. and NATO’s role in the conflict while also condemning Putin’s militarism and autocratic control of Russia.

“This is an act of imperialist aggression by Russia,” said Autonomous Action, a Russian anarchist collective involved in the 2014 antiwar protests, in a statement this week. “We have no illusions about the Ukrainian state, but it is clear to us that it is not the main aggressor in this story — this is not a confrontation between two equal evils.”

Putin’s supporters see him as a protector of Russian-speaking people in Eastern Ukraine, but there are also dissidents who dismiss Putin’s latest moves as blatant imperialism that will spread Russian authoritarianism. Indeed, the conflict in Ukraine puts Russian leftists in a difficult position. While many oppose Putin, they also oppose paramilitary right-wing ultranationalists on the Ukrainian side.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to deploy troops, attack helicopters and fighter jets to Eastern Europe, although Biden has said U.S. troops will not fight a war in Ukraine. In Russia, the U.S. and NATO are seen as the aggressors after meddling in Ukrainian affairs for years and surrounding Russia with advanced missiles in Poland, Romania and on the Black Sea.

“This conflict, in the first place, happened because of right-wing nationalists on all sides and their militant policies,” Sheliazhenko said. “Western governments and private benefactors invested a lot in development of right-wing and moderate nationalist Ukrainian civil society, while Russia funded networks of right-wing and moderate Russian nationalists and Putin sympathizers.”

For now, Ukrainian peace activists are pushing back against forced conscription into the Ukrainian military and “telling the truth about the belligerents” on both sides of the conflict “amidst their battle of arrogant lies,” according to Sheliazhenko. Activists are calling on the U.S. to pursue diplomacy above all, sending a message to all parties that peace talks must resume before more people die.

“Any apologies of war are essentially based on a mother of all lies: We are angels and they are demons,” Sheliazhenko said. “All wars are usually alleged to be defensive.”