Russian-American at UC Santa Barbara Speaks on Putin’s Aggression

Puppet Government Will Never Be Accepted Even If Russian Army Overruns Ukraine

Russian-American at UC Santa Barbara Speaks on Putin’s Aggression

Puppet Government Will Never Be Accepted Even If Russian Army Overruns Ukraine

By Nicholas Liu | March 17, 2022

“I am encouraged by the international response, even if my sister will suffer as a result of the sanctions,” says UCSB grad student Sergey Salushchev, whose sister still resides in Russia. “It is extremely important to hold Putin accountable for his actions.” | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

UCSB graduate student Sergey Salushchev, 34 years old, looks pensive at his office desk, his chin resting on interlaced fingers. Behind him, shelves are lined with books about slavery in the Caucasus, asymmetrical dependency in Central Asia, and cultural exchanges between the Ottoman Empire and its neighbors. He is set to finish his PhD dissertation this year, but in the last few months, much of his thoughts have been in Russia and Ukraine, where he retains deep personal and social connections despite living in the United States since 2005. 

Most of his family came from Russia, but his paternal grandfather was born and raised in Ukraine before he married Salushchev’s grandmother. Many friends and colleagues live in both countries. The most proximate connection for Salushchev is that of his 38-year-old sister, who resides in Russia near the Black Sea coast, several hundred miles from Ukraine’s eastern borders and the breakaway pro-Russian republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Now, as the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine approaches its third week, Salushchev and his parents (both of whom live in the United States) are trying to get her out. 

“Nobody in our family wants this war,” he said. “But it’s been very dangerous to speak out against it. There is increasing repression of independent news outlets, civil rights groups, and citizens who participate in anti-war protests. It is no longer safe for my sister to remain in Russia.” 

For Salushchev, his family, and many Russians and Ukrainians, the invasion came as a shock even as the Kremlin deployed ground forces all along the border. “The war just seemed so irrational … nothing could come of it but death and destruction. Even if there was to be a war, we thought it would be more limited in scope [i.e., in the areas around Donetsk and Luhansk] rather than an invasion with multiple points of entry. When it actually did happen, I felt sick to my stomach.” Salushchev also expressed doubts that Putin could achieve any of his objectives, even if Ukraine was overrun. “People under occupation will have no allegiance to whatever puppet government [Putin] tries to install. Russia lost the war the moment it started. Even if Russia wins some military victories, most of the world has already rallied against them. Before the invasion, NATO didn’t really have a clear purpose. Now, it does.” 

Broadly speaking, Salushchev says that it is hard to define and categorize Russian public opinion toward the war. “Unlike in previous conflicts with Ukraine [e.g., the annexation of Crimea], there is no unified support for this war … there is actually significant opposition, even if not everyone is able or willing to actually talk about it for fear of punishment. There is a portion of the population who withdraws from making any principled decisions and calls themselves ‘apolitical.’ And there are still others who believe the official narrative that Ukraine is a threat to Russian national security and needs to be dealt with.” 

Despite becoming separate polities after the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Russia and Ukraine share a long history together, and with it, cultural practices, religious beliefs, lived experiences, and kindred blood. The notion that the two nations are brethren has played a role in shaping how Russians view this war. “There is a widespread expectation that we should be friends, and united somehow,” Salushchev explained. “For some people, especially in the older generation, this means political unification as it was before 1991; for many others, this means more of a cultural friendship. Moreover, such closeness makes it even less justifiable that war should be brought to their country.” 

Generational gaps in public opinion have been influenced by patterns of news consumption. According to Salushchev, older Russians are much more trusting of Russian state media, which yields unstinting optimism for the war’s aims and conduct. Journalists on the Kremlin’s payroll are instructed to refer to the conflict as a “special operation” and condemn the Ukrainian government for allegedly being controlled by neo-Nazis. Even as the invasion stalls in the face of heavy Ukrainian resistance, the official narrative continues to emphasize Russian military successes. 

Younger Russians rely more on independent news outlets and social media, both of which have been blocked by state censors. Human rights organizations are also the target of suppression. One such organization cited by Salushchev is Memorial, which documents human and civil rights abuses by the former Soviet state. “It was already designated as a foreign agent in 2012, which heavily restricted its ability to fundraise and organize public events. In the months leading up to the invasion, it was completely banned.” 

Despite the fear of punishment, there has been a noticeable (if not massive) presence of anti-war protesters in Russian cities. State security responded to those protests with force. “There have been protesters who carried blank signs — nothing written on it — and they are still being arrested by police. Of course it would be nice to see hundreds of thousands of protesters marching on the streets, but it’s important to understand that the Russian government has been very skilled in undermining civil society and removing the means by which activists can mobilize.”

The only recourse for some Russians, like Salushchev’s sister, is to leave the country before borders close and martial law is imposed. The shuttering of social media and the means to communicate with the outside world has further fueled a sense of urgency. Even those who are more apathetic about the invasion on principle are beginning to panic as international sanctions inflict heavy blows on the Russian economy. 

In the city where Salushchev’s sister lives, products such as sugar have already disappeared from shelves. “There is considerable anxiety and lots of panic-buying,” he said. “The ruble has lost much of its value; prices are going up. There are long lines of people trying to withdraw cash from ATMs, because no one knows if cash and savings accounts will be available in the future. In some ways, Russians are reliving the times right before everything closed down during the pandemic…”

UC Santa Barbara | Credit: Courtesy

Russian state media has often aroused feelings of resentment and mistrust, justified or not, against institutions and people who roughly constitute the “Western liberal order.” But despite the economic sanctions and resultant hardships, Salushchev says the response has been mixed on who to blame. “A number of people and many independent Russian media outlets have accepted that the sanctions are a punitive measure on Putin and his government. There are also those who blame the United States for trying, over a long period of time, to stall Russian development or prevent Russia from rising as a global power. Some people are just confused and apprehensive, and don’t know why they should share the burden for what their government has done.” 

Despite the broad range of responses, however, there is a common thread of discussion among Salushchev’s contacts: the double standard of political backlash against Russia’s war in Ukraine compared to the United States’ own military interventions. “They’re asking, ‘Why were there no sanctions on the United States when they invaded Iraq in 2003, or bombed Libya in 2011? Now that Russia does something, the entire world is suddenly up in arms.’” Salushchev emphasized, however, that for him neither double standards nor any of other stated grievances justified an invasion of Ukraine. “I am encouraged by the international response, even if my sister will suffer as a result of the sanctions. It is extremely important to hold Putin accountable for his actions.”

As he tries to support his sister financially and logistically, Salushchev has also reached out to Ukrainians in his social circle and community. One week ago, he attended a concert at a Ukrainian church. “I wanted to share my grief and my rage with Ukrainians who are going through this,” he said. “And I hope that this solidarity continues to grow.”

Catch up on the rest of our cover package, “Ukrainians Speak Out in Santa Barbara,” here.


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