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Beyond the Frontline Roar: Understanding Russia’s Societal Whispers

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Last December, we published a paper highlighting that, even for Russia, time is not unlimited in the war in Ukraine. Beyond the facade of regained confidence and the retaking of the initiative on the Ukrainian frontline, the Kremlin’s material, personal resources, and domestic support are not inexhaustible.


Beyond the Frontline Roar: Understanding Russia’s Societal Whispers

Last December, we published a paper highlighting that, even for Russia, time is not unlimited in the war in Ukraine. Beyond the facade of regained confidence and the retaking of the initiative on the Ukrainian frontline, the Kremlin’s material, personal resources, and domestic support are not inexhaustible. In other words, also the Kremlin must walk a tightrope, balancing between geopolitical ambitions and its military and societal capital.[1]

In this context, we’ve observed the hesitant yet clear actions of the mothers and wives of those mobilized in the war in the provinces. Despite attempts by Russian authorities to silence these voices of discontent through personal threats or by announcing repercussions for those on the frontlines – a standard FSB strategy – these actions, supported by the “Bring Them Home” (Put’ Damoi) movement, persist into January 2024. For instance, on January 6th, a small group of 15 women organized a picket in Moscow.[2]

These actions are not necessarily moral objections against the war but rather expressions of injustice imposed by the state and consequences of broken promises by the Kremlin. The burden of the war is indeed unevenly distributed among the Russian people, revealing numerous dysfunctions and perverse effects of Russia’s mobilization strategy. In other words, individuals directly or indirectly involved in the war cannot afford to be apathetic or indifferent, as is often observed among the majority of the Russian population. This situation places the regime in a precarious position, limiting its room to maneuver in suppressing this movement. Thus, contrary to the self-delusional views from the Kremlin, which claim that the main threat to Russia is from the West, the most imminent danger to the Russian state emerges from within, not from outside.

From a different perspective, one can assert that the outcome of the war between Russia and Ukraine will be determined not only by the roar on the frontline but also by the whisper coming from society. Setting aside all moral considerations, the motivations on which Russian discontent is based prompt us to question whether we are sensitive enough to discern and heed these whispers. It urges us to reflect on whether we are directing our attention to the right messages conveyed by the discontented and assessing the subsequent reactions of the Kremlin appropriately.

The need for attentiveness to societal movements is not solely tied to an evaluation of the war’s outcome; it also stems from the recognition that even an authoritarian regime requires legitimacy.[3] This awareness is evident in the actions of President Putin and his ‘Pharmacy,’ a colloquial term for the Presidential Administration (PA), possibly Russia’s most powerful institution.[4] The regime is acutely aware of the importance of maintaining public legitimacy, and these orchestrated events indicate a strategic response to the challenges posed by dissenting voices within society.

Notably, events unfolding in the first week of 2024 may underscore this awareness. During this week, Putin engaged with representatives of those involved in the war: the injured, those on the frontline, and the relatives representing those killed in action. This calculated engagement seems to be part of a broader strategy aimed at managing public perception and addressing concerns related to the ongoing conflict.

On January 1st, for instance, President Putin conducted a highly scripted visit to the Vishnevsky Central Military Clinical Hospital, where military personnel injured during the war receive treatment. Remarkably, the questions posed by Putin to the injured soldiers mirrored almost verbatim the concerns articulated by the women’s movement since the autumn of 2023. These inquiries delved into the soldiers’ experiences regarding the quality of their medical treatment, the process of returning to their unit’s post-treatment and rehabilitation, the administrative procedures for necessary documents and certificates, the clarity on military medical commission examinations and documentation, and the resolution of housing issues. Despite the appearance of well-regulated proceedings, clearly an expression of Russia’s well-known Potemkin-complex, the fact that these public concerns were directly addressed by the President sheds light on the PA’s keen awareness of public sentiment, an awareness most probably more pronounced as the President finds himself in the electoral season, gearing up for the March 2024 presidential election.

On January 6th, Orthodox Christmas, Putin extended an invitation to a carefully chosen group of relatives of five soldiers who lost their lives in the Ukraine conflict. They were welcomed to his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo to join him for dinner and attend a Christmas service together. During this gathering, Putin aimed to convey “a clear and understandable signal to all my colleagues throughout the Russian Federation, and at all levels.”[5] This signal emphasized that every echelon of government should consistently stand by these families, offering support, assistance, and aid whenever needed. Putin expressed his hope that these families would always find the support they require, acknowledging the complexities of life. In contrast to the discontent voiced by women directly impacted by the war, Putin sought to address their concerns by asserting that the government would consistently be there for them, stating, “we will always be by your side.”

What insights can we draw from these seemingly small events? Firstly, it underscores that expressions of public discontent with the war, no matter how modest or hesitant, are indeed genuine. This is further substantiated by recent public opinion research and other indicators that unveil, beyond the surface, Russia’s growing war fatigue.[6] Secondly, it highlights the Kremlin’s heightened sensitivity to societal discontent, particularly in light of the upcoming elections in March 2024 and the necessity for public support for the war. Contrary to some critiques in the Western public discourse that Russian public opinion is inconsequential, these events demonstrate its significance. Putin’s attentiveness to it, despite potential methodological concerns, underscores its crucial role, possibly influencing the outcome of the war.

Does this imply that Russian society is on the verge of revolution? Not at this point. Social action seems to be more driven by the prospect of a potentially successful alternative and organized opportunity rather than strictly moral considerations or expressions of discontent. Thus far, the Kremlin, led by the president and his ‘pharmacists’, is employing various tactics to discourage, silence, sideline, or eliminate potential rivals and mobilizing ideas. As a result, our role remains that of patient observers, closely monitoring Russia’s societal movements, including the Kremlin’s reactions, and other indicators of change.


[1] Joris Van Bladel, “The Ticking Clock for Russia’s Endless War: Unveiling Silent Turmoil on Putin’s Second Front”, Egmont paper 126, 19 December 2023. (Joris-Van-Bladel_Paper_126_vFinal.pdf (

[2] Pavel Myl’nikov, Zheny mobilizovannyh proveli odinochnye pikety v Moskve” [The wives of those mobilized held single pickets in Moscow ], Deutsche Welle Russian service, 6 January 2024. DW – 06.01.2024

[3] Timothy Frye, Weak Strongman, The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia, Princeton: Princeton University press, 2021, pp. 66-84.

[4] Verstka, “Dayte nam mir—i vso!”[Give us peace, that’s all.], 8 January 2024. (

[5]  Meeting with families of service personnel who died in the special military operation. Official internet resources of the President of the Russian Federation, 7 January 2024. (Meeting with families of service personnel who died in the special military operation • President of Russia (

[6] See end note Nr. 4.



(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)