A new Russian protest movement is coalescing, but it’s neither pro-democracy nor anti-war. Instead, it’s the most extreme of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supporters, who have grown increasingly furious at the unfolding military disaster for Russia in the six-month-long war in Ukraine. They want Putin to escalate the war, use more devastating weapons, and hit Ukrainian civilians even more mercilessly. And they’ve openly attacked the Russian military and political leadership for supposedly holding back Russia’s full might—even as they rarely mention Putin by name.
Their push to escalate the war, including widespread demands to use nuclear weapons, is dangerous in itself. But by creating a fantasy world in which a supposedly all-powerful Russian army is being defeated by domestic enemies—instead of by superior Ukrainian soldiers fighting for their own land with modern tactics and Western weapons—the movement has potentially disturbing implications for a postwar and possibly post-Putin Russia. In fact, the narrative sounds a lot like the Dolchstosslegende, the German “stab-in-the-back” conspiracy theory that blamed the country’s defeat in World War I on nefarious enemies at home, including Jews. This narrative of military defeat became an integral part of the propaganda that brought the Nazis to power.
The promoters of the Russian stab-in-the-back myth aren’t a single party, movement, or group. Rather, the protesters are a loose coalition—mostly active online—of far-right ideologues, militant extremists, veterans of the 2014 Donbas war, Wagner Group mercenaries, bloggers, war reporters running their own Telegram channels, and individual Russian state media staff. Some are soldiers or mercenaries fighting in Ukraine, and their channels have doubled as recruitment tools. Others already had a modest following before the war by promoting different causes, some obscure but mostly nationalist or right-wing issues: restoring the Soviet Union’s rule over Eastern Europe, building a new Russian empire, or promoting “Russia for the Russians.”
Their loyalty to the Kremlin varies from veneration of and complete submission to Putin as a godlike historical figure to activism in right-wing opposition movements. But unlike the Kremlin’s mouthpieces on state television and in its troll factories, members of this amorphous war escalation camp are united in their scathing criticism of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. [Continue reading…]