In a startling turn of events, Natalya Komarova, a prominent member of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and the governor of the Russian Khanty-Masiysk region, has found herself embroiled in controversy after making candid remarks about Moscow’s unpreparedness for the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. During a community meeting in the Siberian city of Nizhnevartovsk, a concerned woman, the wife of a Russian soldier deployed in Ukraine, questioned Komarova about the lack of necessary equipment for her husband.
In response, Komarova, clearly caught off guard, retorted, “Are you asking me why your husband doesn’t have equipment, knowing that I’m the governor and not the minister of defense?” She went on to express that Russia did not anticipate nor desire the war, stating, “As a whole, we did not prepare for this war. We don’t need it. We were building a completely different world, so in this regard, there will certainly be some inconsistencies and unresolved issues.“
These remarks, captured on video, swiftly spread across social media platforms, eliciting strong reactions from pro-war activists who condemned Komarova for allegedly discrediting Russia’s armed forces. In response, a Siberian non-profit organization’s director, Yuri Ryabtsev, sent a letter to Russia’s Minister of Internal Affairs, urging further investigation into Komarova’s comments. Additionally, an activist filed a report with the local police, seeking accountability from Komarova under Russia’s Code of Administrative Offenses for supposedly tarnishing the reputation of the army.
It’s important to note that Russia passed a law last year, making it illegal to refer to the conflict in Ukraine as a “war” or an “invasion” by Russia. Instead, the Kremlin termed it a “special military operation.” This legislation also prohibits any criticism of the military and the dissemination of “false information” about Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine. Consequently, citizens, businesses, and media outlets have been compelled to adhere to the government’s narrative, and critics of the war have faced fines or imprisonment under this law.
This incident with Komarova adds to a series of events where individuals have faced repercussions for speaking out against the conflict. Last year, an artist and musician named Sasha Skochilenko was arrested for replacing supermarket price tags with antiwar slogans, charged with spreading false information about the military. Furthermore, a former FSB agent and battlefield commander, Igor Girkin, was detained on charges of extremism after he criticized Putin’s handling of the situation in Ukraine.
Simultaneously, Russian media outlets are in a precarious position, extensively covering the Ukraine conflict yet restricted from labeling it a “war.” Protesters using the term on placards are hit with hefty fines, and independent news sites face blockades. Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have been banned, and even prominent media outlets, like the Novaya Gazeta newspaper led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, have lost their licenses.
As the controversy surrounding Natalya Komarova unfolds, it sheds light on the challenges faced by individuals and media organizations in Russia when addressing sensitive topics, revealing the complex landscape of free speech and public discourse in the country.