The war launched by Putin against Ukraine is now in its second year. The hopes of the first weeks and months that Putin’s regime would collapse and the Russian army would leave Ukrainian territory have not materialized. The war is protracted and bloody with no end in sight.
The disappointment with this turn of events has led, among other things, to new criticisms of the Russian political opposition in exile. They are accused of being unable to influence the situation in Russia now or in the foreseeable future. Additionally, there are unfounded insinuations about the presence of agents from the Russian security services within the ranks of the emigrants. All these discussions often culminate in calls to cease support for the Russian emigration and to no longer take it seriously.
The reality is that Russian political emigrants themselves are most interested in having Putin’s agents identified and neutralized. For these political emigrants from Russia, Putin’s agents in the West also pose a consistent threat of physical violence. Furthermore, in the past year and a half, no notable figure from Russian emigration has been accused by Western counterintelligence agencies of working for the Russian security services, nor arrested, convicted, or expelled on such grounds. It’s worth noting that during the same period, many disconcerting details of continuous interactions between the Russian authorities and intelligence services and members of the Western elites have come to light.
Therefore, any claims regarding the alleged infiltration of Russian political exile communities by Putin’s agents should be seen as manipulative and baseless unless legally substantiated evidence is provided. If one wonders who stands to gain from spreading such views, the Kremlin immediately comes to mind. It has a vested interest in ensuring its critics abroad are viewed with skepticism, if not outright suspicion, by Western elites. This should be remembered each time you encounter another baseless claim about Putin’s agents in exile. Perhaps it’s worth examining the backgrounds of those who frequently make such claims — have they not previously maintained close ties with Russian authorities, pro-government media, or major businesses? Regrettably, many of these instances, widely recognized within the emigrant community, either don’t reach Western audiences or are disregarded by them. Meanwhile, “experts” with questionable pasts continue to gain traction with their derogatory accusations about Russia’s present and future, and the purported futility of collaborating with emigrants.
Nevertheless, a year and a half into war, the issue of Russian political emigrants remains in limbo. Should the West assist Russian politicians in exile, or is it sufficient to merely grant them asylum and explore alternative methods of engaging with Russian society?
For starters, let’s stop interfering with the work of pro-democracy Russians in exile as they continue fighting Putin’s regime. Endless issues with documents and bank accounts pose more serious challenges for the activities of Russian oppositionists than any deliberate opposition to them. For instance, a significant blow to the financial sustainability of the Kremlin’s critics was the prohibition on monetizing YouTube content in Russia. This decision was made by a private business but under pressure from political elites. It stripped all opposition media outlets of a considerable portion of their revenue — revenue from their Russian audiences! This has forced them to seek assistance from various international foundations and charitable organizations, putting them at a real disadvantage vis-à-vis the Kremlin’s propaganda machine which remained unaffected.
Let’s recall that during the Cold War, the West spent substantial resources not only to support the anti-Soviet opposition and emigration, but also to create from scratch an entire system of broadcasting to the USSR in order to convey an alternative point of view to the population. The actual impact of the then dissident and emigrant groups on public opinion in the USSR was negligible, even when amplified by “Western voices”. Nevertheless, the Soviet government’s first attempt to initiate reforms in the mid-1980s instantly opened a window of opportunity, and the marginal anti-Soviet position of yesterday became the position of an active part of society. The democratic, pro-Western political position became dominant in Russia for several years, and only the mistakes of the “reformers” of the 1990s made a significant part of Russian citizens turn away from the pro-Western course and its supporters.
Today’s Russian opposition is not a handful of home-grown dissidents, although some would like to look up to them. Those who are now in political exile have gone through a great school of public politics in Russia: they have successfully participated in elections and even won them, conducted nationwide political campaigns, organized mass protests, and engaged in legal human rights, educational, and environmental work in Russia. The experience of these people is incomparable to that of the Soviet dissidents, who from the very beginning were doomed to exist in deep underground and isolation from society, and in many cases deliberately opposed themselves to the majority loyal to the Soviet regime.
Perhaps it is the failure to recognize how today’s exiles from Russia differ from Soviet dissidents that is the root of many prejudices. The portion of Western observers who, either consciously or out of inertia, view the contemporary Russian opposition through the prism of the history of the dissident movement in the USSR quite reasonably raise the question whether it is pointless to expend resources on supporting the marginalized. Therefore, the best thing might be to simply allow Russian emigrants to live quietly in safety, without regarding them as a significant force and without inviting them to expert discussions about Russia’s present and future.
Such naysayers are right about one thing — there is no point in helping and listening to those who happily declare themselves marginalized, oppose the Russian population, curse, and indiscriminately label all Russian citizens, declare them all as Putin’s accomplices, and promote radical ideas that understandably are rejected not only by those living in Russia but also by a significant portion of the emigration. These individuals are placing themselves in the position of the most marginalized Soviet dissidents and will likely follow their trajectory: even if a window of opportunity opens in Russia in the foreseeable future, they will remain on the fringes of political transformations, will never be elected to any position, and will have no influence inside Russia.
Modern Russian political emigration, at least the portion that was engaged in political and public activity in Russia from the early 2000s until its departure, consists of real leaders capable of leading millions of people, given any chance and the opportunity to return to Russia. This is evidenced both by the aggregate audience of the opposition media targeting the Russian audience and by the data from various polls conducted before the war and Putinism’s transition to its repressive phase — prior to the second half of 2020.
The year 2020 is even more important for understanding the situation inside Russia than 2022, because it was during that year that the escalating pressure of the opposition on the government, especially in the context of the mass protests that erupted in Belarus, alarmed Putin to such an extent that he ordered the assassination of Alexei Navalny and several other prominent opposition figures. When this caused an international aproar, he abandoned all norms and decorum. He dismantled all significant opposition structures in Russia.
This was done with an eye toward the planned war against Ukraine. The fact that no powerful anti-war movement emerged in Russia at the start of the war is not due to the anti-war position being unpopular, but to the fact that by the beginning of the war, there were virtually no leaders or experienced organizers of mass protests left in Russia or at large.
Western governments allocate substantial budgets for their official Russian-language broadcasters. However, the quality of their products and the extent of their influence on Russian society often fall short of that of Russian exiled media outlets. While these outlets are far from perfect, they are a significant draw for Russian audiences due to their diversity and the deep and personal dedication to the cause by the producers. They connect with Russian citizens more effectively than the products of foreign broadcasting in Russian. It’s evident that the materials from Western broadcasters in Russian become especially popular when emigrant broadcasting leaders or opposition commentators are involved in their production and bring their audience with them.
According to our estimates, the total reach of independent exiled social and political social media and blogs among the Russian audience reaches 30-35 million unique users per month, of which 10-15 million are a relatively regular audience. These are not small or marginal numbers.
The new wave of Russian emigration is not just a few hundred or even thousands of prominent political activists, journalists, and human rights defenders. It comprises hundreds of thousands of people, mostly young, educated, and politically active. A significant portion of them left Russia not due to the immediate threat of repression or mobilization but because of a profound internal rejection of the processes currently unfolding in Russia and, above all, the war that Putin’s regime initiated against Ukraine. All these individuals, dispersed across the European Union, North and South America, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Asian countries, remain active, striving to stay connected with one another and, most importantly, with friends and relatives still in Russia. They participate in numerous grassroots anti-war initiatives, projects to support Ukraine and its citizens, mutual aid networks, and solidarity efforts with political prisoners and activists who remain in Russia. Many of them still have the chance to visit Russia, providing an essential means to obtain first-hand information about the country’s situation. It’s worth noting that they undertake all these actions on their own initiative, sourcing resources and time amidst the often challenging material and living conditions they face.
To dismiss all these people, devalue their efforts, indiscriminately label them as Putin’s collaborators and spies, and refuse to work with them or support their valuable endeavors aids Putin’s regime in isolating Russian society from channels of alternative information and severs millions of ties between the people of Russia and the rest of the world.
Each year of war and emigration surely increases the percentage of those who will never return to Russia. The cautious and even negative stance toward Russian citizens conveyed by some Western commentators, further amplified by Russian propaganda, contributes to the rise of apathy, despair, and marginalization within Russian emigration. These processes benefit neither the West nor those still fighting for a democratic, European future for Russia.
Russian emigration is not a monolithic entity, but a diverse community. This is to be expected given Russia’s vastness. Yet within this diversity lie immense opportunities for engaging with the people inside Russia.
Sooner or later, Putin’s regime will collapse— this is a belief held by many, even within Russia. Western elites must ask themselves —what other avenues do they have to influence Russia’s future besides connecting with those Russians in emigration or those who remain loyal to emigrant politicians and journalists in Russia? And how effective are these alternative strategies?
The worst-case scenario would be for the Western elites to repeat their mistake from the 1990s: embracing the suddenly “reformed” bureaucrats, forgoing the opportunity to offer Russia a ready-made, ideologically-prepared elite. This elite would be comprised of the genuine political opposition to Putinism in exile and their supportive networks within Russia.
Western nations have already poured over a hundred billion dollars into military aid for Ukraine, and that figure’s set to rise. When you stack that up against the cost of even a single piece of modern military equipment, the funds allocated to support emigrant programs seem pretty modest. Sure, we could trim those funds even more. But here’s a thought: Wouldn’t it make more sense to support those willing to stand up to Putin, ensuring we never have to spend hundreds of billions mitigating a Russia-made war again?