“It’s a long bumpy road”: the mood of Moscow residents | Russia

Like many of her friends, Tatyana, a barista at the fashionable Moscow cafe chain Skuratov, was glued to her mobile phone screen as Vladimir Putin addressed the nation.

“Usually I don’t watch television, especially when our president is speaking. But I felt like I had to tune in this time. I was witness to history in the making,” she said, smoking an e-cigarette. “But I don’t know yet if the story is going in the right direction.”

In the aftermath of the Russian leader’s late-night speech, in which he recognized the independence of the self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, Muscovites were digesting what Putin’s decision could mean for them and their future.

As he ended his speech by “congratulating” his fellow Russians on the recognition of the two territories, a festive mood was absent in the capital, with many worrying about the political and economic consequences his decision could have.

“If recognition brings peace to the region, fine, why not do it,” said Andrei, regional manager of a large logistics company in Moscow. “But it’s already costing me money. I invested a large part of my savings in shares of Russian companies.

Quick Guide

What are the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk?

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The self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk are two territories ruled by separatist governments widely seen as Russian proxy states inside Ukraine. Since 2014, they have been in conflict with Kiev, which describes them as “temporarily occupied territories”, like Crimea. They have received military and financial support from Moscow since declaring their existence after the Ukrainian revolution in 2014.

The territories cover an area of ​​approximately 6,500 square miles and were known primarily before the war for their heavy industry and coal mining. Donetsk, the largest city, previously had an international airport and hosted matches during the UEFA Euro 2012 championship. The fighting destroyed the airport and left the territories, mostly cut off from the rest of Ukraine, in an economic state disastrous. The borders with Russia remain open.

What is their relationship with Moscow?

On February 21, Vladimir Putin declared that he would recognize the territories held by the separatists as independent states. Until then, at the official level, Moscow considered the territories to be part of Ukraine, when in reality they were fully controlled by Moscow. It is not yet clear whether the Russian President will extend his territorial claim to parts of Donetsk and Luhansk not already up to his control.

Who are the people there?

Leaked documents suggest there are just under 3 million people left in the territories, 38% of whom are pensioners. This is less than half of the pre-war population. Public opposition in the territories is almost non-existent. It has become extremely difficult for independent journalists to travel to the region.

How many troops are there?

We do not know how important a present force is. Ukraine claimed there are 35,000 troops, 481 battle tanks, 914 armored fighting vehicles, 720 artillery systems and 202 multiple rocket launcher systems. According to Rochan Consulting, however, these figures could be “overrated”.

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Russian financial markets fell to their lowest level in more than a year on Tuesday, after Putin ordered the dispatch of troops to the two territories the day before. The country’s markets have been extremely volatile lately, with major state-owned banks like Sberbank losing more than half their value since the start of the Ukraine crisis.

As Putin delivered his speech, Russian independent TV channel Dozhd released a live stream of the country’s ruble sliding to a near two-year low.

“I think I can say goodbye to my holiday in Turkey in March,” said Andrei, 41, referring to the decline of the national currency.

Some in Moscow, however, found genuine joy in Putin’s decision to recognize the self-declared republics, in what they saw as a long overdue move by the Russian state. “Bless Putin! He is finally taking the Donbass under our wing,” said Galina Gromova, while waiting for a bus in central Moscow.

Gromova, a high school geography teacher, said she was “horrified” by Russian media reports of Ukrainians bombing the Donbass and felt “enraged” by the “genocide” of local people in Kyiv. The West and Kiev called the reports “fake news”, saying Moscow was creating a pretext for an invasion.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst and senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said there was no expectation that Russians would “rally around the flag” after Putin’s speech in the same way as when the country annexed Russia. Crimean Peninsula in 2014, after which approval ratings soared to highs of 89%.

“Crimea was an absolutely unique event in which Putin practically had the support of all sections of society,” he said. “But the country is much more divided on the future of Donbass.”

He pointed to recent data collected by independent pollster Levada Center, indicating that 53% of Russians would like the two regions to be recognized as independent or part of Russia, while 26% saw the region’s future with the ‘Ukraine. The rest of the respondents, 21%, were undecided on the question.

According to Kolesnikov, how the Russian public ultimately perceives these events will depend on what the Kremlin decides to do next.

“Many will welcome the scenario in which the situation calms down after yesterday’s reconnaissance of the area,” he said. “The Russians don’t want a real war with Ukraine, it’s currently not a militarized society.”

US intelligence continues to stress that Russia is planning a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, while Putin’s impassioned latest speech – with its attempts to rewrite Ukraine’s history – will further stoke fears in Kyiv . But there is also some hope that Putin will not embark on a major military campaign in Ukraine, fearing the unpredictability of what a major war on the European continent could entail.

“The Kremlin gains national legitimacy through confrontation with the West, as long as bullets are not fired,” said Professor Samuel Greene, director of the Russian Institute at King’s College London, whose research examines the sources of Putin’s popularity. “Real war brings uncertainty and we don’t know how it will play out in public opinion or on the battlefield,” he added.

Whatever Russia’s next move, Britain on Tuesday imposed sanctions on five Russian banks and three wealthy individuals and, more worryingly for the Kremlin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he would not certify the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Part of Russia’s business elite said they were now preparing for the worst. Its leaders were once among Putin’s biggest supporters, but have been sidelined over the years as Putin has increasingly surrounded himself with so-called silovikisecurity guards, many of whom served in the KGB.

“I was slightly shocked when I watched the presidential speech, my hair stood on end,” said a veteran private company banker, speaking by phone on condition of anonymity. “I finally understand among many people around me how bad the situation is,” sighed the banker.

“It just feels like the start of a long, very bumpy road.”