Life in Russia, a year after the invasion

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(NEW YORK) — A year ago, President Vladimir Putin plunged Russia into the war in Ukraine, pulling his country into a bloody military debacle and reigniting a global stand-off with Western countries.

Nearly 200,000 Russian troops are estimated to have been killed or wounded in the past 12 months. Over half a million — by some estimates as many as a million — Russians have left their country, fleeing conscription, political persecution or hopelessness. Russia’s economy has been hit by unprecedented sanctions that has blocked it off from much of the global banking system and isolated it from Europe.

But in Moscow, on the surface it can seem little has changed. The Russian capital looks as it did, still sparkling with street decorations, its shops and restaurants bustling with people. Many of the world’s top brands, like Apple and H&M, have left, but many of their products remain available.

Brief protests were snuffed out by police at the start of the war and now are all but non-existent. Virtually all prominent political opposition figures are either jailed or in exile and most independent media has been driven abroad.

For many Russians, the response throughout much of the war, has been to largely pretend it isn’t happening.

“The more mainstream attitude, if you had to sum up in one word, I think would be a sort of acquiescence. Apathetic acquiescence,” Jade McGlynn, a researcher and author of Russia’s War, who has been looking at attitudes among Russians towards the conflict, told ABC News.

“Russian society has assumed the fetal position,” Andrey Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Center, wrote recently.

The Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent has made it difficult to judge public attitudes in Russia towards the war based on polling.

But Russians are receptive to the broad framing of the conflict by Putin and regime propaganda, McGlynn said: that Russia is defending itself against a hostile NATO, that Ukrainians are hapless puppets of the West, and that Ukraine is not a fully independent nation from Russia.

“I think the narratives resonate. I think that these narratives have always been a co-creation” she said.

But a far smaller number of Russians actively and enthusiastically support the Kremlin’s most aggressive visions, such as conquering Kyiv.

“I think we’re certainly talking about less than 10% of the population,” McGlynn said.

Dmitry Popov, a long-time nationalist activist, falls into that category.

“Ukrainian people and us are one nation,” he said. “Now many are fooled by the mass media and propaganda but we always support our fraternal people of Ukraine, although they are fighting against us.”

Popov and other volunteers have been collecting aid to send to people in now Russian-occupied Ukraine, as well as Russia’s troops. Last week, he was packing barrels that had been turned into portable stoves for soldiers to use in trenches.

“Ideally, I think we 100% should be in Kyiv to end the neo-Nazism once and for all. Ideally we should also be in Lvov and Ivano-Frankivsk in all these cities,” he said, referring to cities in Ukraine’s West. “First of all, to come there and tell people the truth.”

In Moscow, many have plastered “Z” stickers, a pro-war symbol, to their cars. The claim that Russia is defending victimized Russian-speakers and that Kyiv provoked the war is a welcome one to many.

But that bumper sticker support is shallow, experts said, and quickly shifts when people are asked to take major sacrifices.

The disastrous retreats in Ukraine, followed by Putin’s military mobilization in the autumn, sent a shock through Russian society, and sent hundreds of thousands of military-age men fleeing abroad. Afterwards, a poll by Russia’s only independent pollster, the Levada Center, in November showed 57% of Russians favored peace talks to end the war and only 27% preferred to continue the war.

The Kremlin has found it easier to insulate Russians from the war, because for now Russia’s economy, though severely battered by Western sanctions, has survived better than expected.

When the war began, many of the best-known international brands announced they were pulling out. For a time, that left empty storefronts in some malls, as brands like Zara and H&M packed up.

Researchers at Yale University have found more than 1,000 foreign companies have said they are leaving or suspending their activity in Russia.

But most top brands have become available again, sold by re-sellers who purchase them abroad and bring them in from Turkey and elsewhere. H&M clothes and iPhones can be bought easily. Some brands have been bought by Russian businesses and demonstratively reopened under new names. A Kremlin-friendly rap star bought up some of Starbucks’ cafes and relaunched them as “Stars.” Another businessman reopened McDonalds as “Tasty. Full Stop.”

Russia’s economy has shrunk from between 4.5% according to the World Bank to as little as 2.2% according the IMF’s assessment. The IMF believes it may even grow very slightly by 0.3%.

“I think the prices have risen. Otherwise I can’t say that I have noticed it,” a woman, who gave her name as Oksana, told ABC News when asked on a Moscow shopping street.

The Kremlin’s narratives are also backed up by fear.

New laws have effectively made criticizing the war a criminal offense, carrying fines and potentially long prison sentences. A Russian court this month sentenced journalist Maria Ponomarenko to six years for a social media posting that Russian military jets were responsible for bombing a theatre in Mariupol where civilians were sheltering.

At an event in Moscow last week about two dozen people were writing letters to political prisoners — a small act of dissent.

Maksim Lypkan, 18, was there. He has held one-man protests, detained repeatedly for holding signs condemning Putin and the war.

“We need to talk about war crimes in Ukraine,” he said. “Without honest people Russia can’t exist.”

A few days after ABC News spoke with him, police raided Lypkan’s house and detained him. He was charged with spreading supposedly “fake” information discrediting Russia’s armed forces, a new crime that carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 to 15 years.

The scale of Russia’s losses and the chaos of mobilization has seen criticism begin to bubble in previously unlikely places.

Irina Chistyakova has been looking for her son Kirill for 11 months. She believes he was captured as a prisoner of war in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region last April.

Putin had promised that Russian conscripts would not be deployed to Ukraine but, like Chistyakova’s son, thousands have been.

“I am a law-abiding citizen, born in the USSR. I am conditioned to trust people in power,” Chistyakova told ABC News. “So in April I believed them. But in June, I stopped believing them.”

Chistyakova is part of a group of mothers that have publicly criticized Russia’s leadership for how the war is being fought and the treatment of troops. The Council of Soldiers’ Mothers and Wives claims that 20,000 mothers are involved in it.

Its founder, Olga Tsukanova, attracted attention last year publicly calling out Putin on social media, calling him a coward for refusing to meet with members of the group.

She and Chistyakova both said they had been followed by security agents since and Tsukanov has been detained by police.

“Basically they are closing the mouths of mothers,” she said. “These methods … they’ve used them for years, but without taking into account that there’s a limit to everything.”

Tsukanova said she believed the “Special Military Operation,” as Putin calls it, was beginning to make Russians more socially engaged.

But she did not say she believed Russia was to blame for the war itself.

“I believe in my people,” she said. “Whatever they say about us– we were never aggressors, Russia is not an aggressor.”

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