The Kremlin has urged Russians to “unite” around President Vladimir Putin, more than one week after he ordered troops into neighbouring Ukraine.
Anti-war protests have taken place in a number of Russian cities since the invasion began on February 24, with police detaining more than 8,000 participants, according to OVD-Info, a rights group tracking political arrests. Meanwhile, a number of prominent Russians have also joined a chorus of international condemnation of the war.
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“Now is not the time to be divided,” the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday, responding to a question on pleas from public figures to end the war.
“Now is the time to unite, to unite around our president,” he said.
Since Russia began what it calls its “special operation”, Russian public figures have been divided.
“Yes, indeed, there are heated debates among cultural figures,” Peskov said. “Many support the president, sincerely the president. There are those who completely misunderstand the essence of what is happening,” he added.
Other Russian celebrities are signalling their support.
The Munich Philharmonic, amid a growing cultural backlash, fired conductor and Kremlin loyalist Valery Gergiev on Tuesday after he failed to denounce Moscow’s invasion.
Peskov said Putin had no immediate plans to speak with US President Joe Biden about the conflict, and said any contact between Russian and Ukrainian officials should be through conflict negotiators, not leaders.
“Now is not the time,” he said in response to another question about a possible meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
On Thursday, Zelenskyy had urged Putin to hold direct talks, saying “there is no other way to stop this war”.
“What do you want from us? Leave our land,” he said, addressing Putin. “Sit down with me, just not 30 metres away”, he added, making a reference to the Russian president receiving world leaders at an enormously long table.
Meanwhile, Russia’s media watchdog said on Friday it restricted access to several independent media websites, including the BBC, tightening controls over the internet, following a request from prosecutors.
Separately, the Russian parliament backed a legal amendment that will pave the way for heavy fines and up to 15 years’ imprisonment for the spread of false information about the country’s armed forces.
It comes amid a sweeping crackdown on media freedoms that has seen two of the country’s most liberal outlets – TV Rain (Dozhd) and Ekho Moskvy radio station – closed.
Russia rejects the term invasion, and says the military actions are not designed to occupy territory but to destroy Ukraine’s military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists – a pretext rejected by Ukraine and the West as baseless propaganda.