- - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

MOSCOW — Opposition demonstrators here have marched in the streets to protest President Vladimir Putin’s incursion in a neighboring Slavic nation, even as pro-Moscow protesters in eastern Ukraine have raised the Russian flag over government buildings in their homeland and welcomed Russian troops.

“No war! Hands off Ukraine!” several hundred Russian protesters chanted this week outside the imposing Defense Ministry. Burly riot police quickly moved in to make arrests, dragging one young man with a “No war!” placard from the steps of a nearby chapel.

Chased from the ministry, the demonstrators regrouped opposite the Kremlin’s red walls, where they were again met by security forces. Dozens of people were taken into police custody.

“War with Ukraine would be a disaster and a crime,” said Sergei Bogdanov, a fresh-faced economics student, as police carried off another demonstrator. “We have to do all we can to stop this.”

Protests against Russia’s military incursion may be limited, but the very fact that they are taking place at all represents a remarkable shift in public attitudes.

In 2008, when Russian troops marched into South Ossetia to drive back Georgian troops from the tiny breakaway republic, Mr. Putin’s popularity rocketed to more than 80 percent on a wave of patriotism.

“Putin’s Plan for Russia is Victory!” read the propaganda posters in the months before fighting broke out. For many, the destruction of the Georgian military in the South Caucasus was mere confirmation that the “national leader” was a man who delivered on his promises. Dissenting voices were almost non-existent.

This time, Mr. Putin is unlikely to have such a smooth ride. Several high-profile figures, from national celebrities to much-loved writers, already have made clear their opposition to any war with fellow Slavs in Ukraine.

About 30 percent of Russians have relatives or friends in Ukraine, according to the Levada Center, an independent Moscow-based pollster.

“What are you trying to achieve? Do you want to drive a wedge between two peoples, who live side by side?” wrote Soviet-era rock star Andrei Makarevich, whose songs are known to be popular among the Kremlin elite, in an open letter to the authorities.

“You must know how this will end,” he added. “The guys on Maidian know what they are fighting for — for their country, for their independence. And what are we fighting for? For Yanukovych?”

Best-selling novelist Boris Akunin called the decision to invade Ukraine proof that Mr. Putin’s Russia is now a “police state and a dictatorship.”

Even opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny, a self-confessed “Russian nationalist” who has in the past called for Ukraine to become part of Russia, has spoken out against the Kremlin’s pressure on the new authorities in Kiev.

In opinion polls in late February, some 70 percent of Russians said there was no need for Russia to get involved militarily in Ukraine’s internal affairs.

But analysts believe support for military action is likely to grow as the Kremlin rackets up its pro-war rhetoric.

State media have portrayed Ukraine’s new government as “radicals and fascists” set upon persecuting Russian speakers. It also has reported that more than 600,000 people have fled Ukraine since the start of the year, a claim mocked by independent media.

Meanwhile, Russia’s neighbors — many of them former Soviet republics with large ethnic Russian minorities — are expressing alarm about Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.

Iurie Leanca, the prime minister of Moldova, Ukraine’s southwestern neighbor, warned on a visit to Washington this week that the crisis risks becoming “contagious” if not promptly addressed.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili last week said the events unfolding in Ukraine underscore the immediate need for the EU to give a “clear promise of membership” to countries like his.

Poland called for a special meeting of NATO this week, and even the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — have voiced concern.

Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington contributed to this report.

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