For many Russians, speaking aloud or writing a simple three-letter word online could result in fines or even jail time.
On February 24, 2022, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow euphemistically dubbed a “special military operation”.
Russia has cracked down harshly on any internal criticism of the war, in March last year banning media and schools from using the words “war”, “invasion” or “attack” to describe its actions.
Many citizens opposed to the invasion now use three asterisks to represent the Russian word for “the war”, bойна, when speaking online.
“We can’t say ‘the war’, so we put it under asterisk [***] on social media or we just refer to it as ‘that time’ or when ‘that started’,” Moscow resident Sascha, 28, told ABC Radio National’s Earshot program.
“Some people use just 24 February, and everyone knows what you mean.”
The photographer said there was “always news about someone being snitched on by their colleague [or] university mate and … being detained because of the most innocent things”.
Prosecutions for social media posts and comments have spiked since the war began, many foreign websites and platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been blocked, and Russian security services have stepped up their pervasive digital surveillance of citizens.
Sascha, who used a pseudonym and shared her story via an encrypted messaging app, told the ABC most people outside of Russia don’t understand what it’s like to live in a “dictatorship like this”.
“[Outsiders] don’t consider the amount of protests that have been held here and how they have been suppressed,” she said.
“They don’t think about how most of the people sent to war are from the poorest regions. They have families to feed, they are being promised large sums of money and they don’t have anyone to tell them that it’s all a lie.”
According to Human Rights Watch, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “also marked the start of a new, all-out drive to eradicate public dissent in Russia”.
“Russian authorities doubled down in their relentless attack against civic activism, independent journalism, and political dissent, in an apparent attempt to silence public opposition to the war, any criticism of the government, or any expression of social non-conformism,” the group says.
“Parliament adopted a broad range of new bills introducing war censorship with long prison sentences for ‘offences’ such as referring to the armed conflict in Ukraine as a ‘war’, criticising the invasion, discussing the conduct of Russian armed forces, and reporting on war crimes by Russian military or Ukrainian civilian casualties.”
The laws, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 4, 2022, “criminalise spreading information about the conduct of Russian armed forces that deviates from official information and discrediting them or calling for them to withdraw”.
“The maximum penalty is 15 years’ imprisonment,” HRW says.
New military aid for Ukraine
The United States on Tuesday announced a new $US250 million ($386 million) military assistance package for Ukraine that includes equipment for clearing mines and obstacles.
Kyiv’s forces are struggling to make substantial gains in a counteroffensive launched earlier this summer that has run into tough Russian defences including minefields, trenches and tank obstacles.
The assistance will “help Ukraine counter Russia’s ongoing war of aggression on the battlefield and protect its people”, the Pentagon said in a statement.
Also included in the package are air defence missiles, artillery rounds, anti-armour missiles and more than three million rounds of small arms ammunition.
The United States has spearheaded the push for international support for Ukraine, quickly forging an international coalition to back Kyiv after Russia invaded in February 2022 and co-ordinating aid from dozens of countries.
Washington has committed to providing tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Kyiv since Russia’s invasion began.
“I am grateful to all American people, the Congress and personally to President Joseph Biden … for the new defence package,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“Freedom needs protection, and this protection is growing strong.”
Ukraine ‘advancing on southern front’
Ukraine said on Tuesday that its forces had pushed deeper into Russian defensive lines near the village of Robotyne, a day after claiming control over the village on the southern front.
Kyiv also ordered children to be evacuated from five settlements near the focus of their assault, as Russia claimed to have repelled Ukrainian forces.
Kyiv launched a grinding counteroffensive in June after stockpiling Western-supplied weapons and building up assault battalions, but progress has been slow.
Military spokesman Andriy Kovalyov said Ukrainian forces were edging further in the Zaporizhzhia region, which Moscow claims is part of Russia.
“Ukrainian forces had successes in the direction of Novodanylivka to Verbove,” he told state media on Tuesday, naming two hamlets in the war-battered region.
He added that the troops were holding captured territory and attacking Russian artillery.
Ukrainian troops have also been trying to surround the eastern town of Bakhmut, which was captured by Russian forces in May.
The Russian-installed head of the Donetsk region, where Bakhmut is located, on Tuesday played down the Ukrainian push, after Kyiv claimed successes.
“The flanks are being held. The situation there is already stabilising,” Denis Pushilin told Russian state media.
In the nearby Russian-controlled town of Gorlivka, its Moscow-aligned mayor said Ukrainian shelling had killed three civilians.
Mayor Ivan Prikhodko described the fatal shelling on a milk production facility as “horrifying”.
Compared to Ukrainian offensives last year in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions, this time Kyiv’s forces are crashing into Russian defensive lines of trenches and minefields that are kilometres deep.
But analysts say the capture of Robotyne is evidence that Ukrainian forces can puncture Russian lines as they push south.
‘No fall in Western support’
Ukraine does not fear any fall in Western war assistance, its foreign minister said Tuesday, dismissing a US poll showing declining public support and critical comments from some American conservatives.
As Ukraine’s counteroffensive to win back occupied territory makes only slow progress, a poll conducted for CNN and released in early August showed that more than half of Americans were against additional US support for the country, representing a fall.
“We are not feeling any fall in support from the [US] Congress, in the European parliament,” Dmytro Kuleba told reporters in Paris during a press conference with his French counterpart Catherine Colonna.
“We see some people making statements in America and in Europe too that we should support Ukraine less. In the United States it’s linked to the start of the electoral cycle.”
Mr Kuleba added Ukraine would “overcome it … we will find a way through”.
During a first debate last week among contenders to be the Republican nominee for the 2024 US presidential elections, several candidates criticised President Joe Biden’s policy of backing Ukraine and suggested they would reverse it.
The views of ex-president Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, remain unclear but he has claimed he could end Europe’s most intense conflict since World War II in a day.
To counter the uncertainty, which could encourage Russia to play for time and continue the war, Ukraine’s Western allies are seeking to lay out long-term plans for weapons supplies and funding for Ukraine.
Ms Colonna stressed that it was important to tell Russia that “time is not on your side”. “France will offer and will continue to offer all of its support to Ukraine, in every domain, to help the country to exercise its legitimate right to self-defence,” she said. “It will carry on and intensify for as long as it takes in order to ensure the Russian aggression is a failure.”
Mr Kuleba dismissed the idea of peace negotiations with Mr Putin to freeze the conflict, saying the Russian leader was not be trusted.
He pointed to at the example of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former Putin ally, who died in a plane crash last week, two months after he launched an aborted rebellion against the Russian state.
“Mr Prigozhin was in conflict with Mr Putin,” he said.
“He had talks and agreed security guarantees. And then Putin killed him. There’s no reason to think that Putin would behave differently in any other negotiations.”
Originally published as ‘***’: Word Russians are banned from saying