The Free Russia Foundation team condemns the crimes of Putin's regime against Ukraine

No to War: New Prohibited Words

Mar 24 2022

How the Kremlin intimidates Russian citizens who speak out against war and persecutes them through new repressive laws

The “special military operation” in Ukraine, which the Kremlin has prohibited calling a war, has shocked the Russian society. Protests are taking place daily, and people are speaking out on social media. Putin’s government has responded to these actions with more repression.

In the first weeks of the war in Ukraine, the Russian authorities launched an unprecedented campaign of pressure against Russians who oppose the war. After the outbreak of hostilities, the State Duma adopted, in record time, a law banning activities that “discredit” the Russian armed forces, effectively outlawing any statements that deviate from the official line on the “special military operation.” At the same time, the authorities began blocking social networks and independent media, cracking down on protests, and putting more pressure on people who oppose the war through their employers. Most independent media outlets covering the war have been blocked. Many media outlets have stopped working or refused to cover the topic because of the adoption of a law imposing imprisonment for up to 15 years for “disseminating false information about the actions of the Russian armed forces.” The main social networks — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — were also blocked by the authorities.

Below are the most important things that are happening to Russian civil society right now.

Silencing of the Media

On February 24, 2022, the Kremlin’s censor agency Roskomnadzor informed the media that when preparing materials concerning a “special military operation,” they must use only the information and data received from official Russian sources. Otherwise such media outlets can be fined up to 5 million rubles for disseminating knowingly false information under Article 13.15 of the Code of Administrative Offences. In addition, such materials are subject to immediate blocking in accordance with Article 15.3 of Federal Law № 149-FZ “On Information, Information Technology and Information Security”, which was amended in late 2021 to tighten censorship.

On February 26, 2022, Roskomnadzor sent notices demanding to restrict access to “inaccurate information” to 10 media outlets (among them were Echo of Moscow, Mediazona, The New Times, TV Channel Dozhd, and others). Among the reasons for the restriction, Roskomnadzor indicated that these media outlets distributed “materials in which the ongoing operation is called an attack, an invasion, or a declaration of war.” A similar notice was sent to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, with claims to the article “Russian Invasion of Ukraine (2022)”.

After that, some media outlets began adding notes to their materials stating that, at the request of Roskomnadzor, they were quoting information about the war in Ukraine based on Russian official sources.

By March 4, Roskomnadzor had blocked 16 media outlets in Russia: Meduza, BBC Russian Service, Deutsche Welle, Current Time, The New Times, The Village, DOXA, Taiga.info, Dozhd, Echo of Moscow, TV2, Radio Liberty, and six related projects: “Idel.Realii,” “Siberia.Realii,” “Sever.Realii” and “Radio Azatlyk.”

On March 6, it became known about the blocking of the media outlets Mediazone and Republic, as well as websites of Snob, Sobesednik, Agent, 7×7, Echo of Moscow in Chelyabinsk, and Echo Kavkaza.

Later, due to numerous blockages and the threat of criminal prosecution, many media outlets have announced closure. The online journal “The Village” has released a statement about the office closure in Russia. TV Channel “Dozhd”, Tomsk agency TV2, Znak.com, Bloomberg, CNN, BBC,ABC, CBS and CBC and others announced a temporary suspension of work in Russia.

Radio station “Echo of Moscow” has also stopped broadcasting. Yet, the decision to close the radio station was made not by the editorial board, but by the board of directors controlled by the state corporation Gazprom. Frequency of “Echo of Moscow” was transmitted for broadcasting to the state channel Sputnik.

Media outlets The Bell, Novaya Gazeta, It’s My City, Republic, Snob, Advocate Street, Silver Rain Radio and others decided not to cover Russia’s armed hostilities in Ukraine and delete (or change) existing publications on this topic.

On March 21, 2022, the Euronews website and the broadcasting of the TV channel itself were blocked in Russia.

According to the RoskomSvoboda project, which tracks updates to Roskomnadzor’s registry of banned sites, more than 500 different resources have been blocked in total since the war began.

Attack on the Social Media

In addition to silencing the traditional media, the authorities began restricting access to popular social networks. Thus, the Prosecutor General’s Office has recognized that the social network Facebook was involved in violations of the fundamental rights and freedoms of Russian citizens. The corresponding decision was made following Article 3.3 of the Federal Law “On measures to influence persons involved in violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms, rights and freedoms of citizens of the Russian Federation” in connection with the “discriminatory actions” of the administration of this social network (owned by the American company Meta Platforms Inc.) to impose restrictions on the accounts of individual Russian mass media such as “Lenta.ru”, “Zvezda” and “RIA Novosti”. In this regard, Roskomnadzor first began to slowdown traffic, then restricted access, and then blocked Facebook in Russia.

Roskomnadzor also blocked Twitter. The agency considered that false information about military operations in Ukraine is being distributed on the social network. In addition, Roskomnadzor demanded that TikTok exclude military content from the recommendations for minors and explain the reasons for the removal of news stories published on the official account of “RIA Novosti”. Subsequently, TikTok itself restricted its work in Russia due to increased legal risks.

Roskomnadzor also demanded that Google and YouTube remove “fakes” about the situation in Ukraine, distributed as contextual advertising.

Instagram Facebook’s parent company, Meta, was declared an “extremist organization” by the Prosecutor General’s Office on March 11, 2022, and Instagram was banned in Russia.

On March 21, Tverskoy District Court of Moscow satisfied the request of the General Prosecutor’s Office and declared “extremist organization” the company Meta, which owns the social networks Facebook and Instagram, as well as the messenger WhatsApp. At the same time, the court decided to block both of the company’s social networks. The decision to declare Meta “extremist” will take effect in a month if the company does not challenge it in court, or immediately after an appeal if the company loses. But the decision to block Facebook and Instagram went into effect immediately.

From now on, Russian media outlets must not display the logos of Meta, Facebook and Instagram. They will have to mark Meta as a banned organization in the Russian Federation.

Blocked media outlets, however, continue to operate and many Russians keep reading them using anti-blocking tools, such as VPN clients or plug-ins. In addition, the Tor browser in traffic obfuscation mode is used to bypass blocking. Telegram news channels are extremely popular: the number of subscribers of some of them has exceeded one million these days.

Harsher Punishment for “Discrediting” the Military

On March 2, 2022, amendments to the Criminal Code and the CAO were introduced to the State Duma, providing for penalties for:

1. public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation;

2. public actions discrediting the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, including calls for uncoordinated public events;

3. calls for sanctions against Russia.

The public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Russian armed forces as a new type of crime is now provided for in Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code. The punishment varies from a fine of 700 thousand rubles to imprisonment for three years and under aggravating circumstances up to five years. For the same acts that have entailed aggravating consequences, a penalty of up to 15 years in prison may be imposed (with deprivation of the right to hold certain positions or engage in certain activities for up to five years).

The new article 20.3.3 of the CAO establishes punishment for public actions “discrediting the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” in the form of a fine of up to 50 thousand rubles for citizens, up to 200 thousand for officials and up to 500 thousand for legal entities. In the presence of qualifying signs (among them are calls for “unauthorized” public events, as well as the creation of a threat to the life and health of citizens, public safety, etc.), the fine increases to 100 thousand rubles for citizens, up to 300 thousand for officials and up to 1 million for legal entities.

If a person brought to administrative responsibility under this article repeatedly commits such an act within a year, criminal liability ensues following the new Article 280.3 of the Criminal Code. Punishment varies from a fine of 100 thousand rubles to imprisonment for up to three years (with deprivation of the right to hold certain positions or engage in certain activities for the same period). If these actions caused death by negligence and/or harm to the health of citizens, property, mass violations of public order and/or public safety, or interfered with the functioning of life support facilities, transport or social infrastructure, credit institutions, energy, industry or communications facilities, the maximum penalty increases up to a fine of 1 million rubles or imprisonment for up to five years (with deprivation of the right to hold certain positions or engage in certain activities for the same period).

According to the new article 20.3.4 of the CAO, calls for sanctions against Russia are punishable by a fine of up to 50 thousand rubles for citizens, up to 200 thousand for officials and up to 500 thousand for legal entities. In case of repeated violations within a year, a person will face criminal liability under the new Article 284.2 of the Criminal Code. The maximum penalty for this crime is imprisonment for up to three years (with or without a fine).

The State Duma and the Federation Council approved the amendments on March 4, and on the same day Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that criminalized “fakes” about the actions of Russian military personnel.

The Ominous Letter Z: War Propaganda Inside Russia

The first pictures and videos of Russian military vehicles with obscure markings appeared on social networks a few weeks before the start of the war. The Latin letter Z, with or without a square, was the most common, but a V was also seen. Most likely, the letters were used as tactical markings to distinguish equipment from different Russian military districts — but in a few days Z and V (but especially Z) became almost the official symbols of the “special operation.”

The Russian Defense Ministry itself has issued no public explanation, and when it finally released several posts mentioning Z and V in its social networks, it did not become any clearer. The markings of military equipment in these statements were used in propaganda slogans: for example, “Zakanchivayem voyni” (“we finish wars”) or “Za mir” (“For Peace”) (first in the usual spelling, and then with the replacement of the Cyrillic Z and V in the hashtags with the Latin Z and V).

Russian gymnast Ivan Kulyak, who took third place at the March 5 competition in Doha, went to the awards ceremony with the letter Z on his uniform (the International Gymnastics Federation demanded to open a disciplinary investigation in connection with “shocking behavior” of Kulyak). The governor of the Kemerovo region Sergey Tsivilev announced that since March, 2 the name of the region will be written as “KuZbass” in the official materials of the regional government. According to Tsivilev, Z is “a sign of support for our fighters” involved in the “military special operation” in Ukraine. The letter Z was put on the logo on its website by the Legislative Assembly of the Kemerovo region.

At the same time, events were organized in several Russian regions in support of the “special operation” in Ukraine, with participants lining up in the shape of the letter Z.

Two events in Kazan were particularly discussed. First, on March 5, the local children’s hospice lined up its wards with the letter Z. Then, on March 9 in the Kazan Mall an action took place, in which students of Kazan State Institute of Culture (KazGIK) took part: dressed in white hoodies with St. George ribbons pinned on them in the form of letter Z, students were throwing in the air their right and left hands alternately with clenched fist and chanting the slogan “For peace!”

There have been cases of pro-war actions and demonstrations. On March 6, 2022, a motor rally in support of the “special operation” in Ukraine was held in 12 regions of Russia. In some regions, people — mostly from a state-financed organization such as schools and hospitals — lined up in the shape of the letter “Z” for a photo.

The letter Z was also found on the door of his apartment by film critic Anton Dolin, who announced his departure from Russia on March 6, as well as a theatre critic Marina Davydova.

On March 18, 2022, a rally of many thousands was held in Moscow to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. A concert at a full Luzhniki Stadium with star supporters of Russian power was shown on all major Russian TV channels. President Vladimir Putin, speaking in a million and a half rubles down jacket, began his speech with a quote from the Constitution, continued by acknowledging Russia’s merits in developing Crimea, and then once again explained the need for a military operation in Ukraine. Then Putin quoted the Bible: “There is no greater love than that someone should give his life for his friends.” This, as it turned out, was about Russian servicemen who “help, support each other, and if necessary, like a brother cover their own body from a bullet on the battlefield,” Putin concluded.

War propaganda has also touched the youngest Russians. In the first days of the war, Russian schools received recommendations for conducting lessons for students from grades 7-11 about the war in Ukraine. These lessons were supposed to convey the official point of view of the government about the reasons for the “special military operation”, as well as to condemn anti-war rallies to the children. The training manual sent to teachers quotes the speech of President Vladimir Putin and emphasizes that there is not a war, but a “special military operation”, which is a “forced measure” taken to “save people” and “deter nationalists who oppress the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine”.

On March 3, the Ministry of Education held an All-Russian open lesson “Defenders of Peace”, where schoolchildren were presented with the background of current events in the official interpretation and also explained what danger the “NATO infrastructure” poses to Russia and how to distinguish lies from the truth.

In addition, similar conversations were recommended to be held at some Russian universities. For example, on March 1, 2022, Saint Petersburg State University of Aerospace Instrumentation (SUAI) published a decree calling to take “measures to prevent crimes and other anti-social activities of students” and “to ensure that the educational work aimed at the formation of students all-Russian civil identity, patriotism, civic responsibility, a sense of pride in the history of Russia, the preservation of historical memory, respect for the memory of defenders of the Fatherland and the exploits of Heroes of the Fatherland.”

The administrations of some Russian universities, including Moscow State University, have publicly expressed support for Russian military actions in Ukraine.

On March 21, 2022, a resident of Krasnodar city was fined with 30 thousand rubles under article on discrediting Russian military. He spit in the letter Z in the form of a St. George’s ribbon. In court, Alexander Kondratyev confirmed that he spit in the letter Z, which he perceived as a swastika, and that “spitting on a swastika does not discredit the armed forces. Kondratyev did not admit guilt, but “explained that by his actions he wanted to show his attitude towards the special operation conducted by the Russian military, in which people from both sides were killed.”

Squashing Anti-War Initiatives

A broad anti-war public campaign, despite the official rhetoric of the authorities, manifested itself quite noticeably from the very beginning taking various forms.

Petitions, open letters and statements against the war were being launched on the Internet. A petition created by human rights defender Lev Ponomarev on the Change.org has gained more than a million signatures. At the moment, there are around 100 such documents from representatives of various professions and other associations of citizens. The Economist analyzed 50,000 posts on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #nowar, determined the geolocation of 7,000 of them and found publications in 83 Russian regions and 50 cities all over the country — the geography and scale of support are unprecedented.

After the publication and dissemination of such statements, reports began to arrive concerning visits by law enforcement officers to the people and organizations that signed the petitions.

There are also some cases of dismissals. Managers and employees of state-funded or government-affiliated structures — theatres, museums, or large companies — resign due to moral considerations and disagreement with the policies of organizations. There are examples of forced dismissals and pressure on employees of various institutions who spoke out against the war.

A special attitude was also shown to the citizens of Ukraine. Ukrainian citizens detained at anti-war rallies since February, 24, 2022, are being questioned separately by security forces. Two citizens of Ukraine, permanently residing and working in Moscow, applied for legal assistance because of the district police officer’s visit. He asked questions about their purposes of staying in Russia, collected their data, photographed the documents, motivated the procedure with the “war with Ukraine”, warned against “information on the Internet” and suggested not to interfere “in things like sabotage and terrorism.”

On February 27, 2022, it became known that more than 10 Ukrainians living in Russia were detained, allegedly for violating migration legislation.

Marina Ovsyannikova of the news outlet Channel One, who broke into a live broadcast of Russia’s state TV channel during prime time on March 14 with an anti-war poster was arrested and fined for inciting people to participate in protests. In addition, the Investigative Committee launched an investigation into her case.

The Russian authorities Refuse to Approve Anti-War Rallies. Police Unleashes Violence Against Protesters

The authorities of Russia’s largest cities consistently refuse to permit anti-war actions and individual pickets, explaining this by the continuing pandemic of the coronavirus. At the same time, “OVD-Info” stresses that virtually all other events involving large gatherings of people have long been held without restrictions.

The number of arrests at rallies is unprecedented. Between February 24 and March 13, almost 15,000 people were detained in 155 cities across Russia. The reasons for the detentions were not only mass actions, but also any other forms of protest, such as the use of anti-war symbols, laying flowers or dressing in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The detentions, contrary to legal requirements, were also carried out by unmarked security forces.

In addition, the police meticulously look for any anti-war statements of any kind. This includes personal correspondence on the devices of detainees and even bystanders. While vandalism can be prosecuted regarding anti-war graffiti, arrests and administrative prosecution can be initiated for placing pacifist symbols on clothing or backpacks.

Criminal Prosecution

As of March 12, 2022, 21 criminal cases are known, allegedly related to the people’s reaction to a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Detailed information about cases is not always available.

At least six cases have been initiated against people who took part in anti-war rallies. All of them were initiated under the article on the use of violence against a representative of the authorities (Article 318 of the Criminal Code provides for punishment, depending on the part from a fine of up to two thousand rubles to imprisonment for up to 10 years). Three cases were initiated in St. Petersburg, two in Yekaterinburg, one in Moscow.

On March 16, 2022 the Investigative Committee announced the first criminal cases under the article on “discrediting” the army. The defendants are two residents of the Tomsk Region and Nika Belotserkovskaya, a well-known blogger and influencer. The latter, according to the agency, “discredited the state authorities and the armed forces. According to the IC, Belotserkovskaya is currently abroad; the issue of her international wanted list is being resolved.

Veronika Belotserkovskaya commented on the opening of the case: “I have been officially declared a decent person!” She continues to write about Ukraine and says that she will not be intimidated.

Probably the most high-profile criminal case brought to trial so far is that against the famous Russian publicist and social activist Alexander Nevzorov. On March 22, 2022, the criminal case was opened on article “public dissemination of intentionally false information about the actions of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.”

According to the investigation, on March 9, 2022, Nevzorov published “deliberately false information about the intentional shelling of a maternity hospital in the city of Mariupol by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on his page on Instagram, which is banned in Russia, and on March 19 on his YouTube channel. The publication was accompanied by unreliable photos of civilians injured by the shelling. The sources of distribution of these images are the Ukrainian media.” The statement of the Investigative Committee notes that measures are being taken to establish the whereabouts of Nevzorov. According to the media, Nevzorov himself, like many other Russian journalists and public figures, left Russia.

The Free Russia Foundation team condemns the crimes of Putin’s regime against Ukraine

May 18 2022

Since day one of the full-scale war unleashed by Putin’s regime and its supporters against the sovereign state of Ukraine, Free Russia Foundation, which supports Russian activists, journalists, and human rights defenders forced to leave Russia because of direct security threats, has changed the operation of its regional offices, mobilizing resources and capabilities in support of international efforts to end the war, restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and counter the lies and propaganda of the Kremlin.

The Free Russia Foundation team, which include many Russian citizens—political immigrants,  living in various countries around the world, condemns the crimes of Putin’s regime against the sovereign state of Ukraine. We respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states. We consider the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbass, and the occupation of Georgia—crimes. As citizens of Russia, we share responsibility for the actions of the Russian authorities, who commit crimes against humanity on behalf of all Russians. We regret that many Russians, susceptible to propaganda and misinformation, have supported the aggression against Ukraine.

Since February 24, we have intensified education campaigns throughout Russia. Dozens of Russian activists from different countries participate in these campaigns. We will not let fascism, dictatorship and lies prevail and will continue to fight for a democratic future for Russia. 


Many Russians around the world, including thousands of Russian activists, journalists, human rights defenders with whom we have been working for years, are also engaged in this work. Our main task, what the entire democratic world expects of us, what Ukrainians expect, and what no one will do for us, is to unite all Russians who oppose war, inside and outside Russia, to develop common strategies of resistance and to act jointly,  shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine and the entire civilized world.

Over the years we have been able to contribute to the creation of a successful vibrant community of democratically minded Russians and representatives of the anti-war movement in many countries. These are Russians who have always opposed the imperialist ambitions of the Kremlin, who want and need to live in a free European Russia. In the past few months, since February 24, we have involved hundreds of them in active work on various important issues. 

A new stage in our work is the creation of resource centers in a number of key countries, which, together with our offices, will become platforms where activists, journalists, and human rights defenders can find safe places for active joint efforts, planning and implementation of pro-democracy and anti-war initiatives and projects, assistance, and necessary support. We approach the creation of these centers with a heightened focus on the safety of the activists themselves, as well as on the possible risks for the countries with growing concentration of Russian political immigrants. Like the Foundation’s offices, these centers will promote democracy, counter misinformation, and integrate Russian activists into local and international formats and communities.

Natalia Arno
Grigory Frolov
Egor Kuroptev
Dmitry Valuev
Nikolay Levshits
Anton Mikhalchuk
Nina Aleksa
Pavel Elizarov
Nadia Valueva
Vladimir Zhbankov
Aleksey Kozlov
Evgenia Kara-Murza

Another Round of Repression in Russia. Politician Vladimir Kara-Murza Arrested; Alexander Nevzorov, Alexei Venediktov, and Other Independent  Media Figures Recognized as “Foreign Agents”

May 06 2022

Rarely does a Friday in Russia these days go by without another round of Kremlin repression of prominent members of civil society. It seems, however, that last Friday was a record-breaking week for the number of big names sanctioned by the Russian authorities.

The Case of Vladimir Kara-Murza

On April 22, 2022, Judge Elena Lenskaya of the Basmanny Court has ordered Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent public figure and journalist, one of the initiators of the Magnitsky Act (2012), to remain in custody until June 12. On the same day, the Ministry of Justice recognized him as a “foreign agent.” The criminal case against him was opened for alleged “false statements ” against the Russian army, motivated by political hatred (point e, part 2, article 207.3 of the Criminal Code).

Vladimir Kara-Murza is a prominent Russian opposition politician, journalist, and former chairman of the board of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom. As a reminder, on February 11, 2021, an investigative effort publicized that a group of FSB officers, who have been implicated in the poisoning of politician Alexei Navalny and several other people, also made two attempts to poison Vladimir Kara-Murza in 2015 and 2017. This conclusion was made by investigative teams at Bellingcat and The Insider, which discovered that FSB officers shadowed Kara-Murza on his trips.

The politician is represented by lawyers Olga Mikhailova and Vadim Prokhorov. According to Prokhorov, the reason for the criminal case against Kara-Murza was his March 15, 2022 address before the House of Representatives of the State of Arizona. Kara-Murza’s lawyers, as well as the defendant himself, cannot explain why, out of a series of his public speeches in the United States, the IC has chosen that particular one.

According to the ruling on the initiation of criminal proceedings, Kara-Murza “has knowingly spread false information under the guise of reliable reports, containing data on the use of the Russian Armed Forces to bomb residential areas, social infrastructure facilities, including maternity homes, hospitals and schools, as well as the use of other prohibited means and methods of warfare during a special military operation in Ukraine, thus causing substantial harm to the interests of the Russian Federation”.

The content of Kara-Murza’s speech in question is not much different from the Anti-War Committee’s first declarations, and is, in fact, a brief critical analysis of the 23-year development of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The Basmanny Court zoomed into the following statement made by Kara-Murza: “…today, the whole world sees what Putin’s regime is doing to Ukraine. It is dropping bombs on residential areas, on hospitals and schools… These are war crimes that were initiated by the dictatorial regime in the Kremlin.”

Independent resources pointed out that the translation of the speech was not made by a professional interpreter, but by a certain Danila Mikheev, who had consulted as an “expert” on several other cases against the opposition on behalf of the IC.

Kara-Murza faces between five to ten years in prison. He has plead not guilty. The court has admitted personal testimonies of the deputies of the Moscow City Duma Mikhail Timonov, Maxim Kruglov and Vladimir Ryzhkov.

“I have never committed any offenses or crimes, and all the documents of the investigation have nothing to do with reality. I am an honest politician and journalist, I have been working for more than twenty years, and all this time I have continued to exercise my right to express my opinion,
guaranteed by the Constitution,” Vladimir Kara-Murza himself said in his statement in court. “I categorically deny any involvement in any crimes. There is no corpus delicti in these documents, and my entire case is 100% political from beginning to end. All of this is an attempt to point me to my political position, to which I am entitled <…> Despite the repressive laws that were passed in March of this year, I have no intention of hiding or fleeing anywhere. My whole life and my activity prove that I am not going anywhere. I ask you to appoint a measure of restraint not involving detention,” said Kara-Murza.

Vladimir was arrested on April 12 under Article 19.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (noncooperation with a police officer). On April 11, Kara-Murza was detained near his home and taken to the Khamovniki Police Department, where the politician spent the night awaiting trial. The reason for his detention was that he allegedly “behaved inappropriately at the sight of police officers, changed his trajectory, accelerated his step and tried to run away at their demand to stop.” This became known from the police reports published by the lawyer.

The criminal case against Kara-Murza is expanding rapidly. As early as 12 April, when the politician was arrested for 15 days for “disobeying a police officer,” a report on the discovery of “crime” was lodged with the IC’s desk. On the same day, Mr. Zadachin, the investigator of the Investigative Committee, examined the report and demanded to open an investigation. Ten days later, the politician was taken from the detention center in Mnevniki for questioning, and then immediately to court.

Now his wife, translator Yevgenia Kara-Murza, is fighting for Vladimir’s freedom. She left her job at international organizations to help him and continue his political activities.

“Frankly, we knew it could happen at some point. He had already been poisoned twice, there had been attempts on his life, he barely survived. Now they will hide all the opposition figures behind bars so that they can’t work, continue their activities effectively, and Volodya is very effective,” says Yevgeniya Kara-Murza.

Vladimir Kara-Murza is known to political leaders around the world as a tireless advocate for the Magnitsky Act. This crucial document, adopted in the United States in 2012, allows for the imposition of sanctions on those responsible for “extrajudicial killings and other gross human rights violations.” It now includes those who, according to the U.S., were involved in the death in custody of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had uncovered a scheme to steal 5.4 billion rubles.

It is believed that the two poisonings of Kara-Murza were revenge for the fact that he and Boris Nemtsov lobbied the U.S. (and later Canada and the European Union) to pass this document. As a result, sanctions were imposed on employees of the FSIN, the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Investigative Committee of Russia, and judges. Later, the list was expanded to include the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov; Andrei Lugovoi, a deputy (who is suspected of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko in London); and other Russian politicians and officials.

“The Magnitsky Act is passed every day in a new country, sanctions are imposed, we saw this at the beginning of the war. Yes, if these sanctions had been imposed seven or ten years ago, there would not have been a war. But the fact that such legislation was passed in different countries made it possible to impose sanctions very quickly after the invasion began. The work of Vladimir is very effective, and he is, of course, very troublesome to them. His poisonings in 2015 and 2017 were clearly linked to his activities aimed at having personal sanctions imposed on the murderers and thieves of this regime <…> Vladimir is an honest, up to his bones honest, decent, absolutely inflexible in matters of principle. He is a true patriot of his country. He says that as a Russian politician he should be where people fight evil. And he believes that he has no moral right to call on people to fight if he himself is safe. For him, the two concepts are incompatible — if he calls for a struggle, he must be at the forefront of that struggle. Again, absolute honesty. To himself, first of all,” said Yevgenia Kara-Murza.

Just before his arrest Kara-Murza in an interview to CNN predicted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would lead to Putin’s downfall. “It’s not just corrupt, it’s not just kleptocratic, it’s not just authoritarian,” he said of the Putin government. “It is a regime of murderers. It is important to say it out loud.”

International Reaction

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement on his twitter account that the U.S. is “troubled” by Kara-Murza’s detention. He called for his immediate release.

In a statement on Friday, The Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan said Kara-Murza has “repeatedly risked his safety to tell the truth about Vladimir Putin’s heinous violations of human
rights” and said the charges against him were for a “sham offense.” He added, “Americans should be infuriated by Putin’s escalating campaign to silence Kara-Murza. … And everyone who values press freedom and human rights should be enraged by this injustice and join in demanding Kara-Murza’s immediate release.”

“We are deeply concerned for our friend Vladimir Kara-Murza’s personal safety, and we call on Russian authorities to release him immediately,” said Michael Breen, President and CEO of Human Rights First. “Putin and his regime have shown themselves to be willing to break any law, domestic or international, to suppress political opposition at home and subjugate neighboring countries like Ukraine. We call on all of democracy’s allies to oppose criminal behavior like this to protect human rights in Russia, Ukraine, and around the world.”

“Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people. He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately,” reads a joint statement by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, co-chairman Rep. Steve Cohen and ranking members Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Joe Wilson.

New “Foreign Agents”

On April 22, 2022, the Russian Ministry of Justice also added eight more people to the register of “foreign agents”.

The list includes prominent independent journalists and political observers— the former editor-in-chief of the “Echo of Moscow” radio station Alexey Venediktov, the publicist Alexander Nevzorov, journalist Sergei Parkhomenko, the authors of Radio Liberty Yekaterina Lushnikova, Arthur Asafyev and Vladimir Voronov, sociologist Viktor Vakhshtayn, LGBT activist Yaroslav Sirotkin.

Opposition politicians Leonid Volkov and Vladimir Kara-Murza were added to the “foreign agents” registry, the latter’s case was described above. This became known when the Basmanny Court in Moscow arrested Kara-Murza in the case of “false reports” about the Russian military. According to the Ministry of Justice, Volkov and Kara-Murza were engaged in political activities in the interests of Ukraine.

Alexey Venediktov immediately said that he would file a lawsuit to protect his honor and dignity “against the person who signed the decree” to include him in the register of media outlets that perform the functions of a foreign agent. According to the journalist, there are no reasons for
including him into the list. He said that at the moment he is waiting for the Ministry of Justice to justify and prepare a suit because “this is a criminal offense — insult and slander”.

Journalist Alexander Nevzorov wrote in his Telegram channel that he was completely indifferent to the status assigned to him by the Russian authorities and predicted their defeat in the war against Ukraine.

Sergei Parkhomenko learned about his inclusion in the register during a live broadcast on YouTube and said that he was quite calm about it, because he understood that the process of inclusion in the list of “foreign agents” had turned into a conveyor system.

Until now, there had been 142 designated persons and entities (including outlets, journalists, and activists) on the “foreign agents” list. The last time it was updated on April 15, 2022, nine people were added to the list, including the blogger Yury Dud, political analyst Ekaterina Shulman, and
cartoonist Sergei Elkin.

On April 5, 2022, the authorities for the first time added a new registry of “individuals who perform the functions of a foreign agent.” Journalists Yevgeny Kiselyov and Matvey Ganapolsky, who had worked in Russia in the past and now work in Ukraine, were included on it. Like Kara-Murza and Volkov, they also have Ukraine as a source of foreign funding. Now there are four people on this registry.

Like media “foreign agents,” “individual foreign agents” must mark their public materials and appeals to government agencies with a note on the status, as well as regularly report to the Ministry of Justice on their income and expenditures. The penalties for violating the requirements under the new register are more severe. Whereas the Criminal Code provides for penalties ranging from a fine of 300,000 rubles to two years in prison for media “foreign agents,” “individuals” can be imprisoned for up to five years.

Transatlantic Interparliamentary Statement: On arbitrary arrest of Russia’s leading dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza

Apr 29 2022

“We, the undersigned leaders in legislatures around the world – the duly elected democratic voices of our constituents and countries – unreservedly condemn the arbitrary arrest of Vladimir Kara-Murza and call for his immediate release.”

On Monday, April 11th, Mr. Kara-Murza was detained by Russian Security Services as he was about to enter his home following an international media interview, arrested on the false charges of not obeying the police. He has since been charged under the new law criminalizing opposition to the invasion of Ukraine, and is now facing up to 15 years of imprisonment.

A violation of the Russian constitution and of the country’s international legal obligations, the arbitrary arrest of Mr. Kara-Murza – who is also a UK citizen, a US Permanent Resident, and a Senior Fellow at a Canadian institution – represents the continued criminalization of freedom in Putin’s Russia. United in common cause, we call for an end to Putin’s punitive persecution and prosecutions of Russian civil society leaders, the release of Mr. Kara-Murza and all political prisoners, and the expansion of targeted Magnitsky sanctions against Russia’s architects of repression.

Vladimir Kara-Murza has emerged as one of Russia’s most respected democratic opposition leaders, a noted public intellectual and voice of conscience. He has testified before our Parliaments, and represents the very best of what Russians stand for and the country that Russia can aspire to be. Targeted for his principled leadership, Mr. Kara-Murza has survived two assassination attempts, and nonetheless continues to shine a spotlight on the Russian people’s opposition to Putin and his war of aggression.

The unjust imprisonment of Mr. Kara-Murza is emblematic of the crimes perpetrated by Putin’s regime against both the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, and the international community more broadly. Left unchecked, its internal repression has often morphed into external aggression, with the atrocities in Ukraine being the latest and most pernicious manifestation in a long line of wars, murders, thefts, corruption, disinformation and election interference. We must stand with those heroes on the front lines, like Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is putting his life on the line in defence of our shared values, sacrificing his freedom to help others secure theirs.

While Russia’s leading defender of political prisoners has now regrettably become one himself, we pledge to not relent in our efforts until he is free, bringing the same dogged determination to securing his release as he has brought to building a better Russia. Our shared commitment to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law demand no less.

Contacts:

Honourable Irwin Cotler, PC, OC, OQ, Ad.E Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights +1 514.735.8778 media@rwchr.org

Natalia Arno Free Russia Foundation +1 202.549.2417 natalia.arno@4freerussia.org


Endorsements

Zygimantis Pavilionis, Deputy Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Lithuania; Former Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Lithuania (2020-22); International Secretary of the Homeland Union/Lithuanian Christian Democrats

Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Marco Rubio, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues; member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States

Mario Diaz-Balart, Member of the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations of the United States; Chairman of the US Delegation to the Transatlantic Legislators Dialogue; Member of the U.S. Delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and Vice-Chairman of the Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Relations (PCTR) of the Political Committee

Ali Ehsassi, Chairman of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights; Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of Canada Anita Vandenbeld, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Development; Member of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of Canada

Garnett Genuis, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of Canada Heather McPherson, Member of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights; Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of Canada

Heidi Hautala, Vice-President of the European Parliament Klára Dobrev, Former Vice-President of the European Parliament (2019-2022); Member of the European Parliament Urmas Paet, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; Former Foreign Minister of Estonia

Andreas Kubilius, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; Standing rapporteur on Russia; Former Prime Minister of Lithuania

Guy Verhofstadt, Member of the European Parliament; Former Leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (2009-2019); Former Prime Minister of Belgium

Anna Fotyga, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; Secretary-General of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party; former Foreign Minister of Poland

Radosław Sikorski, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; former Foreign Minister and Minister of Defence of Poland

Frances Fitzgerald, Member of the European Parliament; Former Deputy Head of Government of Ireland; Former Minister of Justice of Ireland

Rasa Juknevičienė, Member of the Subcommittee on Security and Defence of the European Parliament; former Minister of Defence of Lithuania

Csaba Molnár, Member of the European Parliament; Former cabinet Minister of Hungary

Raphael Glucksmann, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; Vice-Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights; Chair of the Special Committees on Foreign Interference in All Democratic Processes in the European Union

Bernard Guetta, Vice-Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights; Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Viola von Cramen-Taubadel, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; member of the Special Committees on Foreign Interference in All Democratic Processes in the European Union

Thijs Reuten, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Mounir Satouri, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Michael Gahler, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Juozas Olekas, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Ioan-Dragos Tudorache, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Petras Austrevicius, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

David Lega, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Miriam Lexmann, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Javier Nart, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Charlie Weimers, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Eugen Tomac, Member of the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament

Attila Ara-Kovács, Member of the Subcommittee on Security and Defence of the European Parliament

Sergey Lagodinsky, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs of the European Parliament

Morten Løkkegaard, Member of the Special Committees on Foreign Interference in All Democratic Processes in the European Union

Ausra Maldeikiene, Member of the European Parliament

Ivan Stefanec, Member of the European Parliament

Liudas Mazylis, Member of the European Parliament

Vlad Gheorghe, Member of the European Parliament

Jan-Christoph Oetjen, Member of the European Parliament

Sándor Rónai, Member of the European Parliament

Nicolae Ștefănuțăm, Member of the European Parliament

Nils Ušakovs, Member of the European Parliament

Pavel Fischer, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security of the Czech Republic

André Gattolin, Vice-Chair of the Senate Committee on European Affairs of France

Gabor Grendel, Deputy Speaker of the National Council of the Slovak Republic

Kerstin Lundgren, Deputy Speaker of the Swedish Riksdag and Foreign Affairs Spokesperson of the Centre Party

Margareta Cederfelt, President of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly; Former President of Parliamentarians for Global Action; Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Swedish Riksdag

Michael Roth, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag

Nils Schmid, Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag and Foreign Affairs Spokesperson of the Social Democratic Party

Ulrich Lechte, Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag and Foreign Affairs Spokesperson of the Free Democratic Party

Ines Voika, Deputy Speaker of the Latvian Seimas

Rihards Kols, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Latvian Seimas; Representative of the Latvian seimas to the OECD

Michal Kaminski, Deputy Speaker of the Polish Senate

Bogdan Klich, Chairman of the Foreign and European Affairs Committee of the Senate of Poland

Samuel Cogolati, Deputy Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Belgian Parliament

Charlie Flanagan, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Ireland; former Foreign Minister

Tom Tugendhat, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom

Mark Pritchard, Member of the National Security Strategy Committee of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom; Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party Parliamentary Foreign Affairs & Defence Committee; 

There must be a Ukrainian ‘Nuremberg Trial’ and it should be hosted in Mariupol

Apr 12 2022

By Vlada Smolinska

Over the weeks since the start of Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine, the world has witnessed in horror massive, purposeful, and unremorseful violations of international humanitarian law perpetrated against the people of Ukraine by Russian armed forces. Convicting those responsible for carrying out flagrant crimes against international law in Ukraine, in particular war crimes, is not just a matter of keeping faith with high moral standards and the rule of law by the international community, but is an existential imperative for global governance.

Evidence of new crimes is uncovered every day, and these crimes are ongoing.  As you are reading this text, the world is learning about the horrific events in towns and villages 20 km from Kyiv – in particular, Bucha and Irpin — liberated from Russian occupiers. Ukrainian civilians – men, women, and children – shot dead in the back of their heads, with their hands tied behind their backs, lying on the ground in the streets for weeks. Bodies trampled by Russian tanks. Toddlers raped and tortured to death. Family members forced to watch. Mass graves with at least 280 people executed have been found.  Accounts of Russians shooting unarmed civilian refugees as they tried to evacuate cities and villages occupied by Russia soldiers.

As the world is processing, shell-shocked, the photos of the Russian genocide in tiny Bucha, we must remember that an even greater catastrophe is unfolding in Mariupol –– a city the size of Miami. Russia’s forces have besieged the city for over a month now, leaving residents without water, food, and electric power, under constant shelling and bombing. Residential buildings, hospitals, schools, kindergartens have been intentionally leveled to the ground by air strikes.

Most of the sites hit by the Russians in Ukraine were clearly marked as in-use by civilians. This includes Mariupol maternity hospital and Mariupol theater, clearly marked with the word “дети” — Russian for “children” — in huge letters visible from the sky. As a result, the number of civilians killed could be as high as 25, 000 according to the Mariupol Mayor’s advisor.

Yet, Russia has not stopped there. On April 11, in Mariupol, Russian armed forces used chemical weapons, presumably sarin — a nerve agent prohibited by international law, against both military and civilians. Exposure to Sarin is lethal even at very low concentrations, such that death can occur due to suffocation from respiratory paralysis within one to ten minutes after direct inhalation of a lethal dose, unless antidotes are quickly administered. People who absorb a non-lethal dose, but do not receive immediate medical treatment, may suffer permanent neurological damage. Mariupol residents subjected to prolonged siege do not have access to medical treatment. While the standard recommendations for civilians exposed to chemical weapons attacks are to close all the windows and remain close to a source of running water, residents of Mariupol no longer have either glass windows or running water.

That Russian armed forces were prepared to employ chemical weapons in their military assault against Ukraine was foreshadowed by their typical false-flag information line accusing the Ukrainian side of readiness to use chemical or biological weapons. The United States and United Kingdom highlighted the propaganda approach and its meaning, issuing warnings that the Russians likely intended to employ such devices themselves and assign blame to Ukrainian defenders.

Russia’s deliberate genocide of the Ukrainian population, including Mariupol residents, is readily discerned.  In the wake of the initial international outcry in response to the horrific tragedy of Bucha, Russia deployed mobile crematoria in Mariupol to cover up its crimes.

Carla Del Ponte, the former chief prosecutor of United Nations war crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, asserted there were clear war crimes being committed by Russians in Ukraine and called for an international arrest warrant to be issued for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Biden publicly called Putin a war criminal. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken declared that the U.S. government assessed that members of Russia’s forces had committed war crimes in Ukraine.

Now, these powerful words must be followed with effective actions. Putin must be brought before a tribunal to be tried and sentenced for his crimes. Russia as a State must be held responsible for each and every violation of international law, including the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.

Bring Putin and his Regime to Justice

Putin’s regime proclaimed “denazification” to be the main goal of its war — what they call a “special military operation” — against Ukraine. Yet even a superficial examination of the situation and history dispels this ruse.

The official transcript of Day 68 of the Nuremberg Tribunal, established at the end of the Second World War to try and convict Nazi leaders, says: “Before their retreat from Mariupol the German occupational authorities burned down all the 68 schools, 17 kindergartens…and the Palace of the Pioneers.”

Reading this passage, one gets an eerie sense that the quote describes the present. With the single exception of the Soviet-era Palace of Pioneers, the contemporary Russian Nazis have followed in the footsteps of the original German Nazis.

All these are horrendous, fully documented crimes that warrant prosecution under international criminal law:

  • Killing of tens of thousands of civilians, including children and volunteers who were bringing food and water to people in need;
  • Using chemical weapons;
  • Wantonly targeting for destruction Mariupol hospitals, homes, schools and kindergartens; and
  • Shelling of people moving through the so-called “green corridors” (for humanitarian evacuation to safety).

There is a critical issue to keep in mind with respect to bringing Russians to justice for their crimes –– the International Criminal Court (ICC) lacks status to prosecute Russia’s leaders and military personnel because Russia is no longer a signatory to the Rome Statute establishing it.

In theory, the UN Security Council (UNSC) could ask — and thus empower — the ICC to investigate these offenses. However, Russia is a UNSC Permanent Member and would most definitely veto any such motion.

A more viable option thus would be the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute the crime of aggression in Ukraine — a Ukrainian “Nuremberg Tribunal”.

The Precedent of the Nuremberg Tribunal

On August 8, 1945, after the end of the World War II, the Allied powers — the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union — established the International Military Tribunal (IMT) to consider cases of crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and conspiracy to commit any of those crimes.

The Allies chose Nuremberg, Germany, as the venue for the trial owing to its role as the epicenter of the Nazi propaganda rallies leading up to the war. Nuremberg was supposed to symbolize the death of Nazi Germany.

While more than three quarters of the city lay in rubble, there was one facility in Nuremberg — the Palace of Justice — that was sufficiently spacious and undamaged to accommodate the trial. Thus, in November 1945, the court convened in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg.

When the trial began, there was no electricity, no water supply, and no sewage in Nuremberg. So the Allies assigned highest priority to early resolution of these critical issues for the resident Germans themselves. Democratization, denazification, and demilitarization followed the reconstruction works. Realizing that their well-being depended on the occupying authorities, the Germans were more accepting of the Tribunal.

The outcome of the Nuremberg Tribunal set an important precedent. New categories of crimes were defined: the crime of genocide, killing of groups, crimes against humanity, the killing of individuals. It established the concept that rule of law stands above any individual state and that criminals among a nation’s top officials can and would be prosecuted, tried, and convicted.

Why is Mariupol the right place for a tribunal

Mariupol holds profound symbolism within the chronicles of the Russo-Ukrainian war. It is a city that will forever preserve in history the horrific crimes of the Russian Federation against Ukrainians and Ukraine. Lives lost forever, young girls — some under the age of 10 — tortured and raped by the Russian army, destroyed hospitals, residential buildings, schools, and kindergartens.

This is not the first time that Mariupol has had to fight back Russian forces. In 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, Mariupol was occupied for a month by Russia’s army and Russia-backed forces. However, the situation in the city back then cannot be compared to what hundreds of thousands of Mariupol residents are facing now.

“Before the barbarity of the killing of children, of innocents and unarmed civilians, there are no strategic reasons that hold up,” — Pope Francis said in his Sunday Angelus address regarding Russia’s army having besieged and attacked the city named in honor of Mary. The only thing to do is “to stop the unacceptable armed aggression before it reduces the cities to cemeteries”, — he added.

Once Russian military aggression has been defeated, an international coalition must be prepared to help Ukraine rebuild Mariupol.  Greece and Italy has already made such proposals.  And, as the rebuilding takes place, a war crimes tribunal must be held in the city.

Putin himself, those who issued criminal orders, and those who carried out such orders — those who personally used force, inflicted torture, or otherwise criminally abused civilians, as well as conducted other crimes in violation of international law, humanity, and common decency in Ukraine –– must bear full responsibility in accordance with international law.

The best way to hold those responsible is via a special war crimes tribunal, following the example of Nuremberg.

The best place to administer such justice is Mariupol.

What is the Russian public opinion regarding Putin’s war against Ukraine?

Apr 12 2022

Many in the West have been easily convinced by assertions that an overwhelming majority of Russians support the war. Such claims are based on the interpretation of recent opinion polls, including the latest poll by the Levada Center which came up with shocking figure of 81% supporting the war. Many far-reaching conclusions and generalizations are articulated based on this data— that Russians are hopeless as a nation, that the problem is not just with Putin but with the whole Russian society espousing imperialistic, chauvinist worldviews, and so on. 

I would like to warn against drawing such conclusions from the raw wartime polling data, as it may result in severely misguided policy choices for which the West will pay dearly. 

Besides the obvious challenges related to conducting reliable polls within the context of a brutal totalitarian regime in time of war, examination of the survey’s methodology uncovers a lot of nuances. 

Let’s look at the latest Levada poll stating that “81% of Russians support Putin’s war”. When asked whether they follow the events related to Putin’s “special operation”, only 29% of respondents said they follow them “quite closely”. This detail alone should give us a pause, as the poll primarily reflects Russians’ unawareness of what’s really going on in Ukraine. 

For Westerners, it is difficult to imagine the kind of propaganda and disinformation bubble that characterizes the Russian information space. This misreading of the environment, naturally, feeds the shock and grief in response to the polling data churned up, a profound disbelief that Russians can possibly support such barbarity. 

It begs to be reminded that in Russia, the television tells people every day that what’s going on is not a war but a ‘limited scale military operation’. Russians have grown desensitized to military operations over the past few years— with continuous reports on the operations in Donbas, Crimea, Syria, Georgia, Abkhazia, Ossetia. Practically an entire decade has passed under the shadow of some war going on in the background somewhere. As long as they are not affected directly, Russians just don’t pay much attention to foreign operations anymore. 

This is what the Levada poll actually reflects. The 81% of popular support for Putin’s war should never be mentioned without the second figure— the meager 29% who follow the events in Ukraine closely.

Moreover, when one examines the range of support from “full” to “partial”, the picture becomes even more complicated. Solid support for the war (“definitely support the Russian military action in Ukraine”) stands at 53%. Given the conservative estimate that 10-15% are against the war but are afraid to answer questions honestly, the actual support for the war is below 50%. The rest of what’s bundled under support is a partial, or conditional support (“closer to supporting than opposing”)— light blue on the Levada graph below.

Among Russians under 40, this group is above 30%, and among Russians younger than 25 it stands at 42%. That’s a large portion of the Russian society, which is confused about what’s going on, is leaning toward supporting the government propaganda, but at the same time isn’t fully sure about this stance. 

This is a profound point that begs reiterating—even after years of heavy bombardment with poisonous propaganda, more than a third of “supporters” aren’t really sureThis gives us a good reason to double down on the counter-propaganda efforts. If members of this group are purposefully targeted with truthful coverage of the events, there’s a decent likelihood that they may change their minds.

The disparities between age categories are significant. 

Admittedly, the respondents in the age group of 55+ are the most entrenched supporters of Putin’s war, and at that, most informed supporters — 39% say that they follow the war “quite closely”, and 76% of others who follow less closely are added (as opposed to just 29% and 64% overall respectively). The support of the war among older Russians is not only the highest, but also quite deliberate — seniors watch TV and truly believe it. That’s the bad news. 

The good news is, that, once we look beyond this demographic group, the support for Putin’s war is drastically different. Among Russians younger than 25, only 29% “definitely” support the war. Among Russians aged 25-39 —just 42%. Putin’s support here diminishes. 

When asked about the reasons for supporting the “military operation”, Russians generally do not come up with narratives of bloodthirsty imperialism. Only 21% of those who support the war echo Putin’s “denazification” argument, and just 14% speak of the need to contain NATO enlargement and “demilitarize” Ukraine. These figures are the percentage of those who support the war, not the overall percentage of Russians—which will be even smaller, in the range of 10-15%. It means that a large number of people does not buy into Putin’s geopolitical propaganda constructs.

Higher frequency responses include “protection of Russian-speaking peoples” (43%) and “preventing an attack on Russia” (25%)”. It means that Putin’s propaganda has been successful in instilling the sense that Russia is besieged, and Russian-speaking peoples are under threat. Similar narrative surrounded the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. People were told that that if the USSR hadn’t invaded, the U.S. would, and would place missiles to target them. However, even in the 1980s, the support for that argument steadily dissipated as the Soviets realized that the reality of the Afghan war was very different from what TV told them.  

The point is, even among supporters of the war, the prevailing rationale is defensive, not that of aggression.Russians do not share Putin’s worldview, nor his motivators of imperialism and conquest. They have been duped  by the propaganda into thinking that Russia is “under attack”. These fallacies will become evident to them over time, and the support will fade.

Now, let’s turn to the domestic context for these poll results. Russia has just adopted a number of harsh laws threatening up to 15 years in prison for criticizing the actions of the Russian military. Every day, at their places of employment, people are subjected to government-mandated lectures and warned to not even dare to express opposition to Putin’s “military operation”. When they come home in the evening, and their stationary phone rings, and they are asked whether they support the war, it is fear that may be the main driver for their responses.  Notably, pollsters report a skyrocketing number of refusals from respondents to talk and dropped calls.

How many of those dropped calls can be interpreted as anti-war voices?  A group of independent Russian opinion polling experts led by Alexandr Romanovich from the Kvalitas Opinion Polling Center, has conducted an experiment comparing the results of polling by phone with anonymous street polling. Their conclusion is that the real proportion of respondents who are against war is substantially higher, often in the range of 10-15%, but they are afraid to speak when conversation is not anonymous. (The data can be found here.) Similar conclusions can be drawn from a list experiment that is presented here.

Given a significant proportion of anti-war minded people who refuse to answer questions as part of polls, it’s clear that the “solid” support for Putin’s war— without reservations and conditions— is much lower than 53% cited by the Levada poll discussed in the beginning of this piece. Or, to put it simply, it is well below 50%.

None of this is to categorically assert that there is no sizable aggressive portion of the Russian population that supports the war. There is. Many members of the Russian diaspora have been deeply disturbed in recent weeks by conversations with their Russian relatives and acquaintances, who have been aggressively channeling Putin’s propaganda verbatim as heard on TV. We don’t know how many exactly take the aggressive pro-Putin stance currently— according to the available data, it can be anything up to 30-40%. But not 50%, and quite certainly not 70% or 80%.

Why is it so dangerous to amplify the message that “70% or 80% of the Russians support the war”? There are two major problems which create serious long-term negative consequences. Firstly, believing in the non-existent “70-80% pro-war majority in Russia” is a prelude to giving up efforts to inform the Russian society and attempts to change the public opinion in Russia. If successful, such efforts would open a “third front” against Putin. In addition to the Ukrainian resistance and Western sanctions, Putin would face domestic political challenges, which will help weaken him and may contribute to his demise. On the contrary, if the domestic “third front” is not established, Putin will remain completely free to behave as he will in Ukraine and beyond. That is an opportunity that the democratic West simply can’t afford to squander. 

Secondly, the Russian civil society is further alienated by such generalizations.  The message they are getting now is “because 80% of you support the war, you’re all guilty and bad”. Without question, all Russians— even those who have opposed Putin’s regime and his policy of perpetual war for a long time —will bear some collective responsibility for Putin’s actions, which is an inevitable consequence of the scale of Putin’s barbaric attack. But purposefully alienating the Russian people now contributes to the consolidation of public opinion around Putin, strengthening him. Paradoxically, the more some commentators in the West and in Ukraine blast all Russians as “hopeless imperialists by genetic code”, the easier it is for Putin to consolidate resources to continue his attacks on Ukraine. On the other hand, if Russian public opinion shifts and people start to openly question his policies, Putin may be forced to adjust his actions. 

Our data shows that the interest in points of view alternative to what the Russian propaganda is saying on the war has grown significantly in the recent weeks. The monthly audience of the Navalny Live YouTube channel in March exceeded 20 million people, the great majority of them from inside Russia. That’s comparable with the audiences of state television channels. The number of subscribers of the MilovLive YouTube channel has jumped by about a quarter since the start of the war and is nearing 400,000— and this is just one of the many channels providing the point of view on the war diametrically opposed to Putin’s propaganda.

Putin understands this.   Since the beginning of the war, he has quickly criminalized spreading of the truth about the war, and doubled down on censorship. People are arrested for simply standing on the street with anti-war posters quoting Lev Tolstoy’s books. Why would he do that, if he has the full backing of his people?

This presents us with a great opportunity.  Feedback from Milov YouTube viewers suggests that some of them have been able to convince even  the most hardline supporters of Putin that something is wrong. Not to mention the “grey zone”: people who don’t pay enough attention, are unsure, etc.

Again, it’s helpful to recall the experience of the USSR in the 1980s: in the early years of the war in Afghanistan, people were unaware of its scale and negative consequences, they thought it was some sort of limited operation in their genuine interests, military servicemen were escorted to war by their families with honors. But by mid-1980s, it was all gone, and people cursed the Soviet leadership for getting involved in Afghanistan.

Without doubt, Putin’s propaganda is effective, and its roots run deep. But this weed can be uprooted. Many passionate and talented Russians— opposition activists, journalists, public opinion leaders— have practical ideas on how to break through an information blockade. These efforts are currently in demand and successful, against all the odds. The West needs to support them, and to calm down the hotheads rushing to throw out the baby with the bathwater, labeling all Russians as “hopeless imperialists”. They are not. They can be an important ally of the free world in defeating Putin. Let’s make it happen.