Natalia Arno

President of Free Russia Foundation

Dec 30, 2023
FRF Impact in 2023: Finding Resilience through Crisis

Most Russians, born before Putin’s era, grew up hearing their parents repeat the same mantra: “At least there’s no war“, as they tackled the worst economic and social crises, the indignity of economic downfall, growing corruption, inequality, and violence. This ultimate unfathomable deep-seated taboo was broken when on February 24, 2022, Putin unleashed his heinous and senseless war on Ukraine sending Russian civil society into a deep shock.

To survive, we could not let this shock paralyze us. In 2023, as we were coming to grasps with the new reality – of the war that stretched into months and now years, of the failure of the international community to respond with decisive military or economic measures, with domestic repressions plunging to the level of Stalin’s Russia – we continued our work.

When you don’t know what to do, do the right thing. In 2023, there were three main “right things” to do for Free Russia Foundation: work to end the war in Ukraine, support Russian at risk activists inside the country and in exile and break through to the Russian people with factual information about the war and its real costs.

Support to Ukraine. In 2023, FRF’s analytic and advocacy work made a decisive contribution toward strengthening the international sanctions regime aiming to cut off Putin’s access to capital and technology fueling his war machine. Methodology developed by FRF as part of our report Effectiveness of US Sanctions Targeting Russian Companies and Individuals and the data we acquired and freely shared with NGOs, media outlets and government agencies around the world have transformed the sanctions evaluations field. Today, thanks to our groundbreaking work, sanctions analysis is a discipline that measurably improves policy effectiveness through hard data, not mere anecdotes. We are proud to say, that the report’s findings and recommendations have directly informed the US and EU Russia policy and virtually all of our recommendations have already been implemented. In 2024, we will continue to investigate and publicize mechanisms of sanctions evasions used by the Kremlin and gaps in international compliance and enforcement.

FRF has worked to remedy in every way possible the sufferings and injustices of the Ukrainian people. We have stood up a multinational effort searching for Ukrainian prisoners of the Kremlin, including POWs, civilians and children. Our work has already provided direct support to thousands of Ukrainian families and helped locate Ukrainian citizens inside Russia including children. 

Since our founding in 2014, FRF has worked to document and publicize the Kremlin’s war crimes against Ukrainian citizens and use this body of work to activate international mechanisms to seek justice for victims and punishment for perpetrators. Based on these materials, FRF submitted two Article 15 Communications to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s Office seeking accountability for Crimean and Russian authorities. In response to this communication, the ICC opened a full probe into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In 2023, FRF expanded the scale and geography of this effort, and augmented it with an extensive in-country court-monitoring program. FRF has used materials collected through this legal documentation and analysis effort to ensure that the plight of Ukrainian prisoners remains prominent on the policy agenda of the EU, UN, US, and in the public spotlight by directly engaging over 2,000 policymakers in 50 countries and reaching 800,000 people.  

Preserving Russian Civil Society. As Putin unleashed his full-scale military assault on Ukraine, he simultaneously waged another battle of annihilation— aimed at the Russian civil society. This second war front has dramatically reshaped the domestic social and political environments yet has mostly gone unnoticed by the world.

In 2023, FRF worked to improve awareness on the plight of Russia’s civil society. We are proud to have been invited to direct a formal assessment for the 2022 Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index for Russia. Using our convening power and in-country partners, we analyzed the developments along seven dimensions and found there was a significant overall deterioration in sustainability, with notable declines in all dimensions. New repressive laws and toughening of existing ones constrained the sector’s legal environment. Organizational capacity diminished as mass emigration led to staffing cuts, while the flight of international businesses and sanctions caused technological disruptions and foreign funding cuts, which affected financial viability. Advocacy opportunities and service provision narrowed, especially for independent CSOs, due to the government’s prioritization of war-related activities. Sectoral infrastructure suffered as the availability of support services declined. The Russian government’s increased stigmatization of foreign-funded CSOs had a negative effect on the entire sector’s public image.

This trend continued throughout 2023. The Russian government passed numerous repressive measures that dramatically curtailed civil rights and political freedoms, silenced dissenting voices, and sought to neutralize the independent segment of Russian civil society. Tens of thousands of Russians have been detained for protesting the war and other policies and 8,431 people have been arrested for “discrediting the Russian army” since that law was adopted in March 2022. According to the Memorial Political Prisoners Project, the number of political prisoners increased from 430 in 2021 to 634 in 2023 (not including 628 persecuted without imprisonment). Most foreign and international CSOs were removed from the registry of legal persons and were therefore forced to leave Russia. The remaining independent media outlets, including Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow, and TV Rain, were forced to shut down. It is estimated that more than 1 million people left Russia because of the war, including hundreds of CSO representatives and over 1,500 journalists.

In 2023, FRF continued its work to ensure that Russian civil society does not perish in exile, but exiles are stabilized and supported as they seek to reinstate their work for affecting political change. We expanded our international infrastructure, which today includes five resource centers in the following cities:

In 2023, FRF centers provided coworking and networking space, studios, legal and psychosocial assistance, and professional services to 9,148 exiled Russian activists and 153 organizations. We offered 2,701 consultations by accountants, immigration lawyers, and psychosocial health professionals, conducted 882 locale-specific training sessions for 12,662 exiled activists, covering topics such as organization registration, audience growth inside Russia, project execution while in exile, securing new funding sources, improving physical and digital security, and maintaining optimal psychosocial health. These facilities have emerged as regional centers of gravity, covering underserved regions such as Turkey, Central Asia, the Balkans, Western and South Europe—dramatically expanding the geography of our services and incorporating key diasporas into one interconnected ecosystem.

Projects launched by our residents and graduates crossed borders and supported Russian activists globally, and, most importantly, inside Russia. Reforum Spaces supported 69 civil society leaders with its Fellowship Program, and 212 anti-war and pro-democracy projects and campaigns have already been executed by these Fellows, reaching a cumulative audience of nearly 5 million people around the world. As part of our Accelerator programs, we organized intensive training and offered mentorship and mini-grants to implement programs for several winning initiatives. In 2023, FRF awarded more than 30 grants to organizations, initiatives and activists to execute their anti-war projects.

FRF is committed to increasing the reform competence of Russian civil society so that it is qualified to steer Russia in the right direction post-Putin.  Our Reforum think tank published hundreds of policy papers, blueprints, and articles on reforms and organized many reform-oriented discussions. In their enthused manifesto “Yes, We Can: The Normal Russia of the Future,” our colleagues Vladimir Milov and Fedor Krasheninnikov shared their vision of how Russia can overcome Putinism and become a democratic and civilized nation.

“Friendly fire” of Western government policies and private sector initiatives that fail to discern between perpetrators of war and those risking their lives to stop it continued to undermine the work of Russian civil society in 2023. Inexplicable holdups at the border, visa rejections, denial of services have greatly increased the risks for Russian activists.

With our international advocacy campaigns, FRF works to inform European decision-makers on reasons why supporting prodemocracy Russian civil society is critical to ending the war and sustaining peace. Our strong and trusting working relationships with key EU agencies and those within individual European states have enabled us to make impactful interventions on behalf of activists, facilitating evacuations and safe passage.

Our teams met with European MFAs and parliaments to brief them on activities of in-country and exiled anti-war Russians. High-profile engagements have included those with Annalena Baerbock, German Minister for Foreign Affairs, Angeles Moreno Bau, Spanish Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and Urmas Reinsalu, Estonian Minister for Foreign Affairs. Throughout 2023, we closely worked with the European Parliament, the PACE, the OSCE and the UN.

FRF was central to major policy breakthroughs at the European Union Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In early June 2023, Free Russia Foundation participated in the inaugural session of the Brussels Dialogue— Roundtable of EU and Democratic Russia Representatives. The event was held at the seat of the European Parliament in Brussels and organized at the initiative of the EU Special Rapporteurs on Russia—MEPs Andrius Kubilius (Lithuania), Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz (Poland), Bernard Guetta (France) and Sergey Lagodinsky (Germany). Without question, this gathering was remarkable in its scale and diversity. It convened and engaged in an open discussion of representatives from major ethnic and gender minority movements, prominent cultural and literary figures, world-renown legal defenders and journalists, environmental protection activists, youth organizations, and many other sectors of Russian civil society.

Building on the momentum at the EU Parliament set by the Brussels Dialogue, FRF attained status as a key member of its Steering Committee—developing concepts for follow-on sessions, engaging Russian civil society leaders and experts in its initiatives and in-depth investigations of the Kremlin’s malign influence, and articulating formats and approaches to the transatlantic coordination of policy on Russian exiles.

FRF also serves as a key member of the exclusive Russian Democratic Forces Contact Group at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The group’s work, which began in the fall of 2022, was formalized in its first public session held in Strasbourg in October 2023 as a “recurring contact platform” for dialogue with prodemocracy Russians and the PACE. Remarkably, it was a joint hearing of the PACE’s Political Affairs, Legal and Human Rights, and Migration Committees and chaired by the PACE President Tiny Kox.

We anticipate that the threats faced by Russian activists in 2024 will be even more dire. Growing domestic repressions, including Putin’s new law essentially making it a crime to be gay in Russia, and the increasing cooperation of some governments in apprehension and extradition of Russian exiles will undoubtedly give rise to new waves of migration and emergency relocations. Remaining realistic and clear-eyes, FRF is constantly expanding its capacity to meet this challenge.  

Working with the Russian people. It is our deepest conviction that change in Russia cannot come from outside. Ultimately, it is the task for the Russian civil society and the Russian people to reclaim their active position and to build a democratic, prosperous and peaceful Russia. Such active position requires awareness of the reality and tools for making a change. FRF works to ensure that Russian people have access to facts despite Putin’s censorship and propaganda and despite information flow greatly hampered by big tech service restrictions. While we keep such programs discrete for obvious reasons, a coordinated PR attack on FRF in 2023 has made our Strategic Communications work public. FRF Stratcom’s initiatives, including Elf Legions, Elf Bot, The Coalition Against Propaganda, and the Analytical group, united the efforts of hundreds of media strategists, managers, and volunteers from among Russian exiles. They connected with ordinary Russians within the country and engaged them in discussions about the war and its impact on Russian civil society. In 2023, the Elf Legions program alone generated and distributed over 1.7 million units of content, resulting in more than 17 million engagements within pro-governmental or undecided audiences. Campaigns of FRF’s Coalition Against Propaganda reached over 42 million people. Our Analytical group worked in two shifts and without weekends to monitor and reverse-engineer the Kremlin’s campaigns. We tracked the evolution of the Kremlin’s propaganda methodologies, formulated counters, and applied tested messages through our own content. 

This work made a critical contribution to reduce support for war in Ukraine among in-country audiences. According to recent sociological surveys, the support for the war among Russian citizens has dropped significantly and now lingers between 10-15%.

The forced publicity in late 2023 was aimed to harm our reputation, but has turned out to be a blessing. Millions of Russians have learned about Free Russia Foundation and our important work, and hundreds have reached out offering support.

On the eve of 2024, in a country where it is illegal to call a war a war, where one can get a 10-year prison sentence for liking an anti-war post on social media or holding a blank piece of paper while standing on a public square. But also on the eve of 2024, more than 50% of Russians say their biggest wish for the New Year is the end of the special military operation in Ukraine and finding peace.

Free Russia Foundation enthusiastically shares this hope and stays resolute to channel it into a realistic strategy and practical initiatives in 2024. We are thankful for your support: https://www.4freerussia.org/donate/