St Petersburg, Russia – “No to war!” chanted the crowd of mostly young Russians gathered on Nevsky Prospekt, the main street in St Petersburg, on Thursday night.
In the morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered what he called a “military operation” into Ukraine after months of tensions with Kyiv and its Western allies.
In a speech before the attacks began, Putin claimed he had been left with “no other option” but to invade Ukraine because “the war machine is moving and … coming close to our borders”, referring to NATO.
Russian forces attacked far beyond the conflict-ridden zones of eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists run areas recently recognised by the Kremlin as independent, with air attacks hitting apartment blocks in Kharkiv and beyond.
By night, as Ukrainians fled to escape their country, thousands in Russia, where protests are tightly restricted, rallied in solidarity.
While East-West frictions grew over Russia’s military build-up at the Ukrainian border these past few months, dissent in the world’s largest nation was limited to a handful of one-person pickets.
Few here believed the standoff would actually lead to war.
But after Putin opened what has been described as one of Europe’s “darkest chapters” since the Second World War, dissent has sharply risen.
“I have no words, it’s just disgusting,” a young woman at the St Petersburg rally told Al Jazeera. “What is there to say? We feel powerlessness, anguish.”