Police tackle demonstrators Wednesday during a protest against President Vladimir...

Police tackle demonstrators Wednesday during a protest against President Vladimir Putin's order to mobilize 300,000 troops for the Ukraine war, in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Credit: AP

Any veil of mystery regarding what regular Russians really thought about Vladimir Putin's war against Ukraine began to lift last week when thousands of them, to borrow a Western phrase, voted with their feet. 

That came after the Russian president announced that his remedy for his flailing offensive was the mobilization of 300,000 civilians, and possibly more. Long lines of cars quickly swamped border crossings, and airports became clogged as thousands of men of military age tried to escape the call-up. And this despite a law conveniently passed last week by Russia's parliament codifying prison sentences of up to 10 years for draft dodging.

It wasn't just the exodus that was telling. Protests broke out all over Russia. More than 1,300 people were arrested before the weekend, when new demonstrations were planned. Some protesters blocked a highway in the southern Dagestan region. A local military recruitment office in western Russia was set on fire.

Russians who had been able to ignore the war found themselves unable to do so any longer. Suddenly, they had to confront the fact that, contrary to Kremlin bluster, Putin's euphemistic "special military operation" wasn't quite that and wasn't quite going well.

For some, especially those living near Ukraine, the natural reluctance they felt at attacking neighbors with whom they had a decadeslong coexistence and many interrelationships now bubbled to the surface.

We've seen this play before. Our own history teaches us that most people are willing to sacrifice when they believe in the cause (World War II) but that some are not when they don't embrace the rationale or even understand it (Vietnam). And when they don't, it can tear a nation apart.

Whether Russia faces its version of the anti-war turbulence that roiled America in the late 1960s and early 1970s remains to be seen. Sustaining those kinds of protests in a country that clamps down viciously on such free-speech exercises is difficult, even when pop star Alla Pugacheva is on your side. The beloved Soviet-era legend registered her objections to the war last week with her 3.5 million Instagram followers, and now is being investigated by Russian authorities for "discrediting" the army.

But fuel for this fire probably will come from the conscripts themselves, once they reach the front lines. Regular Russian soldiers have not performed as anticipated, hampered apparently by poor training, incompetent leadership and planning, and bad morale. Some fled in the face of Ukraine's recent counteroffensive. Are these new recruits, with all of 15 scheduled days of training and a lack of desire for the fight, going to be any less inept? How will their loved ones view what happens to them?

Putin seems to have crossed his own Rubicon. There is no going back from this.

He has unleashed an information flow on which he has up to now kept a tight grip, a gusher that will not accrue to his advantage. He also has revealed a weakness that runs counter to his big-game hunting, hockey-playing, bareback-horseriding brand. He has called into question his self-burnished reputation as a master tactician and strategist. And he's been caught in a lie — a very public whopper. In this country, we've seen that lying sometimes carries no consequences, but that calculation changes when dead bodies become part of the equation.

There is an obvious lesson here about the dangers of allowing one person to accumulate so much power with no limits or guardrails, and letting that person flaunt the norms and conventions meant to ensure order and stability. But it would be really wonderful to learn that even that person can go too far and that a people long cowed can stand up and say: Enough.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.

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