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Can Russia be democratized, and how will Putin’s system collapse? How can we avoid past mistakes and overcome Putinism’s legacy and the Ukraine conflict? These questions are asked by Russian advocates of democratic change and our democratic Western allies. In their paper, “The Normal Russia Of The Future: Yes, We Can,” political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov and Vladimir Milov, Vice-President of Free Russia Foundation, attempt to answer them.

The uncertainty surrounding a free Russia hinders the drive for change and Western support for Russian democracy, playing into Putin’s propaganda. Both Russians and the international community fear post-Putin chaos, discouraging support for the opposition by portraying them as weak without a constructive program.

Various public figures have explored essential paths for Russia’s transformation. In this paper, the authors outline their vision for the future of Russia in politics, the economy, and social relations. This document serves as a proactive summary of the many ideas they’ve discussed with colleagues.

Despite the abundance of concrete ideas and writings regarding Russia’s transformation and the growing consensus within independent and democratic circles on key aspects of future governance, such as parliamentarism, federalism, independent courts, and robust local self-government, there remains a noticeable absence of comprehensive texts that synthesize these concepts. Here are the primary concepts, as Mr. Krasheninnikov and Mr. Milov see them, for crafting a future free Russia.

Please join us for an in-person discussion on The Plight of the Kremlin’s Political Prisoners on Monday, October 30 from 12:00 noon to 1:30 pm at the Victims of Communism Museum located at 900 15th St NW in Washington, DC. The event will give a voice for those who can no longer speak for themselves and will include an interactive exhibit featuring photos and quotes of prominent political prisoners held by the Kremlin.

Space is limited, RSVP is required. The conversation is public and on-the record, members of the press are welcome.

The event will mark the International Day of Political Prisoners and feature substantive updates by:

  • Sergei Davidis, Head of Political Prisoners Program, Memorial Human Rights Center;
  • Evgenia Kara-Murza, Advocacy Director at Free Russia Foundation;
  • Mariana Katzarova, the UN Special Rapporteur on Russia;
  • MEP Andrius Kubilius, the Standing Rapporteur on Russia at the EU Parliament;
  • Karinna Moskalenko, Russia’s leading human rights lawyer, Founder of the Center de la Protection Internationale; and
  • Vadim Prokhorov, lawyer for political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza.

Expert presentations will be followed by an extensive Q&A session with the audience. The discussion will be moderated by Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation. To reserve your spot, please register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/743473939567?aff=oddtdtcreator

Speakers’ Bios:

Andrius Kubilius is a Lithuanian politician and a Member of the European Parliament (MEP). He served as Prime Minister of Lithuania from 1999 to 2000 and again from 2008 to 2012. He was the leader of the conservative political party Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats. Kubilius became a member of the pro-independence Sąjūdis movement, which favored separation from the Soviet Union. He later became the Executive Secretary of the Sąjūdis Council. Soon after the re-establishment of Lithuania’s independence, Kubilius was elected to the Seimas (parliament). Since then, Kubilius has been an active figure in Lithuanian politics. Kubillius is the current Standing Rapporteur on Russia at the EU Parliament.

Mariana Katzarova (Bulgaria) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Russian Federation by the UN Human Rights Council on April 4, 2023. Ms. Katzarova led the UN Human Rights Council’s mandated examination of the human rights situation in Belarus in 2021-22. During the first 2 years of the armed conflict in Ukraine (2014-16), she led the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission team in Donbas as head of the regional office in Eastern Ukraine. For a decade she headed the Amnesty International investigations of human rights in Russia and the two conflicts in Chechnya. Ms. Katzarova founded RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in War) in 2006 after working as a journalist and human rights investigator in the war zones of Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya. At RAW, she established the annual Anna Politkovskaya Award for women human rights defenders working in war and conflict zones. She was Advisor to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on combating human trafficking, and a senior advisor at the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe).

Evgenia Kara-Murza is a Russian human rights activist and wife of political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza, the twice-poisoned Russian opposition leader, imprisoned since April 11, 2022 for speaking out about the war on Ukraine. She worked as a translator and interpreter in Russian, English, and French for pro-democracy NGOs including the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, the Institute of Modern Russia, and Pen America. She subsequently joined her husband Vladimir at Free Russia Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan international organization supporting civil society and democratic development in Russia. Advocating for human rights accountability and promoting civil society and democratic change in Russia, she serves as FRF Advocacy Director.

Sergei Davidis is Head of Political Prisoners Support Program and Member of the Council at the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, Russia. He was educated in Sociology at Moscow State University and on Law at Moscow State Law Academy. For many years, he was a participant and one of the organizers of the democratic opposition movement. His research interests are closely related to activities to support political prisoners in Russia, and he studies the sociological and legal aspects of politically motivated deprivation of liberty, in particular, in the context of world practice and international norms.

Karinna Moskalenko is Russia’s leading human rights lawyer. She was the first Russian lawyer to take a case to the European Court for Human Rights and won the first ever case against the Russian government at the court in Strasbourg. She founded the Center for International Protection in Russia in 1994. She is a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. While some of her clients are household names: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Garry Kasparov, Igor Sutyagin, Alexander Litvinenko to name a few, she has also represented countless victims of human rights abuses. She won more than 100 cases including AH & others v. Russian Federation where she was representing the rights of American families who were in the process of adopting children when Russia banned US adoptions with their so-called Dima Yakovlev law. Karinna moved her family to Strasbourg in 2006 where she founded the “Center de la Protection Internationale,” a human rights litigation NGO focused on litigating cases in international courts, which has filed and won more than 500 cases on behalf of its clients. For nine year, Karinna was a Commissioner for the International Commission for Jurists for which she is an Honorary member. Currently she is a head of the experts’ group, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council for the UN High Commissioner working on the UN mandated examination of human rights situation in Belarus. Vadim Prokhorov is a Russian human-rights lawyer who has defended critics of the Kremlin, including prominent opposition politicians and anti-corruption campaigners. He has defended many human rights activists, such as Boris Nemtsov, Ilya Yashin, Vladimir Kara-Murza and Vladimir Bukovsky. Prokhorov’s work as a lawyer has made him an important figure in the human rights field, as the Russian government has increasingly suppressed public dissent and oppositional work. This increase in governmental repression gravely impacted Prokhorov’s work, who has been representing human rights defender and opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza for the last ten years. Currently, Vadim Prokhorov continues his advocacy to protect the Russian opposition, political prisoners in Russian courts – online from abroad.

Authors: Natalia Arno, Natalya Lunde, Olga Khvostunova

Free Russia Foundation (FRF) is proud to have supported the production of the 2022 Civil Society Organization Sustainability (CSOS) Index for Russia released earlier this week. 

Since 1997, the Index or CSOSI reports annually on the strength and overall viability of civil society sectors. By analyzing seven dimensions that are critical to sectoral sustainability, the Index highlights both strengths and constraints in CSO development. The Index allows for comparisons both across countries and over time. 

The assessment conducted by a panel of prominent Russia civil society experts coordinated by FRF as part of this effort, has concluded that the overall CSO sustainability deteriorated significantly in 2022, with notable declines in all dimensions of sustainability. New repressive laws and toughening of existing ones further 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.

Despite the unprecedented circumstances and difficulties, independent Russian civil society showed remarkable resilience and agility. Hundreds of CSO activists and many independent CSOs relocated to other countries and resumed operations serving in-country beneficiaries. Some in-country CSOs managed to adapt and meet the growing demand for humanitarian assistance. Russian CSOs also proved they can do more work with fewer resources, partially offsetting the deterioration’s effects.

“Many will be surprised to hear it, but there are still elections ,”
— Alexey Navalny commentary from prison, August 21, 2023.

Russia’s 2023 elections were the largest regional elections in the country’s five-year cycle. Yet, for many Russian citizens, these elections went almost unnoticed. Putin’s regime tried to divert public attention away, neutralizing ordinary voters and mobilizing their core electorate.

According to the voters rights movement Voice, these elections were even less free and fair than those in the previous electoral cycle. Coordinated nationwide propaganda, censorship, suppression of dissent, and brazen misuse of administrative resources to coerce voters to support the United Russia party have been documented.

Nevertheless, there were still opposition candidates fighting for a role in Russian politics, for an opportunity to improve their cities and regions, and convey democratic values to voters. NGO projects providing support to candidates, observers, and voters continue to operate. Coalitions are being formed and evolving, organizing politicians with different viewpoints around common goals and tasks.

In this brief, we examine the recent elections; identify those which were tightly managed and those which remained fairly competitive; describe the voting process administered in the illegally occupied territories of Ukraine; and ways in which the war has impacted pre-election campaigns.

We assess the agendas and strategies of opposition candidates, and the monitoring efforts. As part of this report, we also attempt to forecast ways in which these elections are setting the stage for the presidential elections in March 2024.

Authors: S. Ross, E. Dorrer, Vitaly Bovar, Artem, Anna, Alexandr, Vladimir.

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?

Russian dictator threatened by multiple crises, with more to come

It’s been a turbulent summer for Vladimir Putin. It saw the Ukrainian counteroffensive building up to a markable progress, the shock of the Wagner revolt and the subsequent oath-breaking assassination of its leader Prigozhin, the plunging course of the ruble and Russia’s deepening economic woes, more setbacks at the international arena, and worrisome trends in the domestic public opinion. These events are the harbingers of the tougher times ahead for Putin’s regime.

Some argue that Putin’s system has demonstrated a remarkable resilience in the face of Western pressure and despite its growing international isolation. The economy hasn’t collapsed and is actually showing signs of recovery. There’s a seeming unflinching unity among Putin’s elites in support of his war against Ukraine. Prigozhin’s mutiny was effectively mitigated and Prigozhin subsequently eliminated.  The Russian public generally appears quite calm and shows no inclination to revolt against the government. The state maintains significant resources to continue the war for a protracted period. Despite its barbaric aggression against Ukraine, major powers of the Global South are willingly doing business with Russia, undermining the effectiveness of international sanctions.

However, under this surface,  several powerful sources of disruptive change are brewing.

The June Wagner rebellion exposed profound schisms within Putin’s military and security structure and came perilously close to sparking major infighting between armed groups. Many assumed Putin would eliminate Prigozhin in the aftermath of the revolt, the prediction that materialized within two months. The circumstances surrounding Prigozhin’s demise leave little room for doubt that it was orchestrated by Russian authorities. Notably, Russia declined Brazil’s request to investigate the crash of the Embraer jet carrying Prigozhin.

However, the problems that blew up into an open conflict between the Wagner group and the Defense Ministry— inefficient military management, non-transparency, corruption, shortage of resources— still remain. Three weeks after the revolt, a senior Russian general Ivan Popov, who has recently been dismissed from his post as the Commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army, published an angry audio message, blaming the Defense Ministry for “betraying the troops” by failing to provide adequate support on the battlefields of Ukraine.

The problem is systemic. The resources allocated are wildly insufficient for  sustaining the current scale of military operation in Ukraine. Although Russia’s annual military budget was increased by over 40% in 2022-2023 from pre-war levels, it is still not enough for the current intensity of combat. For starters, the total annual budget allocated for supplies of the army barely exceeds $6 billion per year under the current exchange rate— and that is for the entire Russian military, not just for units deployed in Ukraine. This a biproduct of a deliberate prioritization of the military production in spending allocations. Over two-thirds of the Russian military budget is traditionally spent on procurement of weapons and ammunition, with only about one fifth on salaries of military personnel, and the remaining 10-12% on supplies. Increasing focus on supplies will require significant de-prioritization of military hardware and ammunition or a dramatic increase of the overall military budget. Putin can’t afford either.

Frustration around these issues is likely to intensify in the coming months. The Russian government’s finances are under severe stress due to sanctions. After the first 7 months of 2023, the federal budget deficit reached almost 100% of the anticipated annual deficit for the whole year. Oil and gas revenues were down 41.4% year-to-year during this period. To bring the deficit under control, the Ministry of Finance chose to dramatically reduce federal spending (from nearly 3 trillion per month in January-May 2023 to just 2 trillion in June-July) and suggested that ministries and agencies cut at least 10% of their non-essential budgets to add up to 4 trillion.

Most of the funding allocated for the Ministry of Defense for 2023 has already been spent, but the military is clearly running out of cash and supplies. This may lead to a showdown between the military and the Ministry of Finance when, by the end of September, the government will send the amended 2023 federal budget and the 2024 draft budget to the State Duma. Powerful lobbyists fighting for their own slice of the pie will be active in this scuffle. In the 2023 budget, spending on the “national economy” was cut by nearly 20% compared to 2022, and that was even before the recently announced cuts. Influential lobbying groups won’t be pleased.

The primary standoff, of course, will be between Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Defense— in which the MoD’s calls for increased spending will be amplified by “turbopatriots”and milbloggers to shape public opinion.

Neither did  the murder of Prigozhin solve fundamental elite in-fighting risks for Putin’s system. Yes, he has demonstrated to his elites, the military and to voters how far he is ready to go to silence criticism and disloyalty. But the key underlying challenges just won’t go away, and have a great chance erupt some time soon— most likely, under pressure from mounting Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Despite the lack of significant breakthroughs during the summer 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have achieved a major objective— they have significantly depleted Russia’s forces at the front. The number of combat-ready and skilled Russian troops is growing thin; those remaining on the battle lines are worn out, serving long months without rotation and rest. New recruits mostly fail to meet combat readiness standards. Wounded are treated badly and sent back to the front. Troops are badly equipped and poorly supplied. Army command is forced to haphazardly move combat-able units back and forth between critical battlefield areas, because there’s not enough of them for all the frontline length. “Turbopatriots” and milbloggers are increasingly criticizing Russian military command for failing to recruit and train effective middle-level military commanders for the frontlines. The deficit of skilled officers to command the army units may soon present a serious challenge for the Russian ability to  continue effective combat operations. The supply challenges are increasingly marring the battlefield situation.

In light of these factors, chances are increasing for breakthroughs in Ukrainian counteroffensive in the near future. In turn, Putin’s army will be hardly able to hold on to its defensive positions for too long in such an environment— with such significant lack of personnel, supplies, and funding. This is exactly what Yevgeny Prigozhin, Igor Girkin and other “turbopatriots” have been publicly warning about in the past few months; killing Prigozhin and jailing Girkin won’t solve these systemic problems.

The spectacular murder of Prigozhin— is also a sign of growing turbulence in the Russian power circles. Putin may like to think that he has restored “order” by brutally crushing a challenging opponent. But based on our conversations with insiders, most are deeply troubled by military riots and takeover of major cities by private armed units, and the subsequent brutal downing of business jets in the vicinity of busiest Sheremetyevo airport area. The country has reached the level of instability unseen even in some of the worst years of the post-Soviet period.

Then there are Ukrainian drone attacks on critical Russian infrastructure, which have become a new daily normal and is a major source of anxiety for the Russian elite. Although the authorities try to downplay their significance, their scale is formidable. Virtually any building and facility in Russia is now exposed and emergency airport shutdowns are a new daily reality. These attacks are relatively cheap to carry out, so they will likely persist and even intensify in the near future. The Russian Railways alone has spent an additional 45 billion rubles per year on “extra security measures” to protect the infrastructure from sabotage. This is close to 3% of the total revenue from railway cargo shipments. A debate is ongoing on raising freight rates to finance these extra costs.

Russian economy is in deep trouble too. After the slight rebound of the second quarter of 2023, economic indicators began to out. Investments are  not growing; massive capital flight continues. The relatively stable economic picture is only supported through massive state spending, but the government’s resources are finite— which is why the Ministry of Finance is suggesting austerity measures, which would hamper recovery. Another recovery killer is the Central Bank’s drastic hike of  interest rates (two increases in July and August that have brought the rates from 7,5% to 12%, with even further adjustments planned.

Nearly all current economic issues in Russia— deficit spending, ruble depreciation, expensive logistics of trading with Asia, wild shortages of skilled labor due to war, mobilization and mass emigration— are pro-inflationary. Therefore, it is not clear how the Central Bank rate hikes are supposed to help to calm them down without significantly curbing the economic activity. Putin’s appointee, business ombudsman Boris Titov condemned the rate hikes, saying “new rate puts an end to the development of the debt market, to new sources of financing for investment projects”.

Another problem is the deep depreciation of the Russian currency. Unsurprisingly, the much-advertised “import substitution” never delivered due to the sabotaged international cooperation, monopolism, corruption of key businesses controlled by Putin’s cronies, as well as the lack of favorable business environment. Not capable of producing most goods domestically, Russia relies heavily on imports to keep the economy going— and imports of consumer and industrial goods have restored to pre-war levels and even beyond. This, however,  creates a “foreign currency glut” —export revenues are down significantly due to Western oil embargo and shutdown of gas supplies to Europe by Gazprom, while import bills have recovered to pre-war levels. In the lack of import substitution and with depressed export revenues, this situation will persist – ruble will continue to depreciate, translating into higher inflation, which is justifiably a key concern for the authorities.

Western sanctions against Russia exacerbating all these trends and leaving few instruments for the government. In the coming months, we will likely see continued trends of budget deficit, ruble depreciation, inflation, recovery slowdown, wrangling over budget outlays.

On top of the economic challenges, Putin has suffered major international setbacks. Main humiliation came from the South African government: although current leadership of South Africa may be considered quite friendly to Putin, even President Cyril Ramaphosa was forced to put pressure on Putin to convince him not to attend the August BRICS summit in Johannesburg in person, to avoid challenges related to South Africa’s obligation to arrest Putin under International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant. To many in the Russian elite, Putin giving in to South African demands not to attend the BRICS summit in Johannesburg in person is an incredible humiliation, and a sign of Putin’s major international weakness.

Since the beginning of the full-scale aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, Putin has been trying to convince his elites that he is capable of forging a major international anti-Western coalition of the Global South countries – primarily heavyweights of the BRICS coalition – which will serve as a worthy alternative to severed ties with the West. But that’s not happening. Even some of the closest and most friendly countries demonstrate that they value the rules-based international order higher than ties with Russia. Putin is forced to significantly curb his international travel schedule – he will not attend the September G20 summit in India, limiting his trips only to a handful of safe capitals like Beijing.

There were other setbacks as well. Despite much propaganda fanfare, the Russia-Africa summit held in end-July yielded no visible positive results, and the attendance of top African leaders nearly halved as opposed to the previous summit of 2019 – just 27 heads of state and government attended the 2023 summit, against 45 in 2019.

Russia’s threat to exit from the Ukraine grain deal in July was supposed to be a major show of force against the free world and international food trade – but the blackmail hasn’t worked, Ukraine continues to find ways to export its grain, and Turkish President Erdogan is aimed at bringing Russia back into some sort of similar framework for Black Sea food exports.

But the biggest challenge for Putin is presented by the worsening trends in the Russian domestic public opinion. Public opinion still matters in Russia – not least because it is used to legitimize Putin’s unchallenged domination over other people in power, because he is the only one who has some historic popular backing. However, visibly weakening public support for Putin may change that equation.

The negative public reaction to the first wave of mandatory mobilization in August 2022 was overwhelming, and translated directly into plunging Putin’s approval ratings, so Putin is clearly hesitating to call a second wave, even under the pressure from Ukrainian counteroffensive, and desperate shortage of manpower at the battlefield.

Careful to not disturb public opinion the Kremlin is hesitant to block YouTube (which remains not only a major source of opposition broadcasting for the Russian population, but also a quite popular entertainment platform, to which Russia hasn’t yet created any viable alternatives), or to shut down borders and to introduce exit visas to curb emigration and draft evasion.

Putin has a lot to worry about regarding public opinion in Russia. His effective positive approval is already well below 50% – although aggregate polling numbers suggest that Putin’s support is above 80%, detailed breakdown of public answers shows that the number of those with cautious-neutral attitude (“can’t say anything bad about him”, “neutral or indifferent”) stands at 43%, whereas “sympathy” and “admiration” – just 42%. Another 14% say that their views of Putin are suspicious or outright negative.

For Putin, such trend is unsustainable. As it was the case with the outcry resulting from partial mobilization last August, public opinion may rapidly swing into negative territory after just one unfortunate decision. Putin is afraid to lose legitimacy, which will undermine his domination in power circles.

Putin’s war against Ukraine is not nearly as popular among Russians as many in the West suggest. According to the very recent Levada poll, in August, firm support for Putin’s war in Ukraine – “definitely support” – dropped to record low of 38%, against 53% at peak in March 2022. 50% of Russians favor peace negotiations with Ukraine to end the war, over just 38% who favor continuing the combat.

Independent Russian media Verstka reports that, during the ongoing electoral campaign in dozens of the Russian regions, the ruling United Russia party candidates, as well as candidates from other systemic parties with “ultra-patriotic” positions – Communists, LDPR – prefer not to raise the topic of the war in their campaigns, because it is unpopular and “dangerous”. Independent opinion pollster Russian Field reports a record-breaking number of denials of respondents to talk about the war – 94,1% of refusals or interrupted conversations, or 16 refusals or interruptions per one fully completed interview. Analysis of Yandex and Google search statistics shows that, while Russians are still inclined to watch the official propaganda, their moods are largely anxious and depressed, there are no signs of any kind of patriotic upsurge in the society at all.

The looming Ukrainian counteroffensive and expected battlefield successes in liberating the occupied Ukrainian territories, as well as intensifying drone strikes against the Russian territory, are terrifying the Kremlin in terms of potential repercussions for public opinion. In mid-August, an influential group of Russian Senators introduced a draft law banning the distribution of information and evidence of Ukrainian battlefield successes and Russian retreats, as well as strikes against Russian territory. Clearly, the authorities anticipate a war fatigue in the Russian society.

Importantly, Putin has failed to mobilize any significant number of volunteers to fight in Ukraine. All Russian cities are filled with ads of contract military service at generous pay by regional standards, and central town squares are filled with recruitment kiosks which remain empty. Russians don’t want to fight, and many of those engaged in combat operations in Ukraine at the moment are doing so out of fear and under threats, as documented by numerous video public pleas recorded by soldiers stationed at the occupied territories of Ukraine. Putin’s regime is facing mounting challenges on many fronts – on the battlefield, dealing with the internal wrangling within the system, fending off the disturbing UAV attacks against Russian territory, economic problems, international setbacks, negative trends in domestic public opinion. While that does not necessarily mean that Putin’s regime will collapse tomorrow, it does put the system under an enormous stress, forcing him to minimize liabilities. In such a situation, sustained Western sanctions together with demonstrated resolve to uphold the sanctions regime as long as necessary is the most powerful tool to support Ukraine’s victory.

September 2023

In a joint effort with The American Bar Association Center for Human Rights (ABA/CHR) and The Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), Free Russia Foundation (FRF) is proud to announce the release of the comprehensive report “Russia’s War in Ukraine: Filtration and Forced Relocation of Civilians Constitute Gross Violations of International Law.”

This document sheds light on the crimes against humanity committed by the Russian military and its proxies since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, particularly the practice of “filtration” camps, where Ukrainian civilians are subjected to identity checks, fingerprinting, interrogations, and forced transfers to Russian-occupied territories or the Russian Federation. The Russian government is further exploiting these transfers within its propaganda machine to fuel a range of disinformation.

Ukraine’s civil society, supported by international partners, has undertaken the challenging task of documenting and countering these war crimes, as detailed in this report. The report takes a deep dive into the aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion and exposes the horrific conditions, forced transfers, and deportations suffered by Ukrainian civilians. It analyzes these crimes through the lenses of international humanitarian law, international criminal law, and human rights standards.

The report is organized into four primary chapters:

  1. Deprivation of Liberty and Arbitrary Detention
  2. Torture and other Cruel or Inhumane Treatment
  3. Deportations and Forced Transfers
  4. Rights Violations Specific to Children

Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation, stressed the importance of accountability, stating: “We believe it is crucial to hold those responsible accountable for the various crimes committed as part of the ongoing Russian conflict in Ukraine. Our foundation initiated an effort to investigate and gather information about specific cases, aiming to provide a clearer understanding of the situation. This work began in 2014, and last year, we established the Poshuk-Polon initiative to assist in locating and returning prisoners of war and civilians forcibly transferred from Ukraine to Russia. We have received thousands of inquiries from Ukrainians seeking help in finding their loved ones. Whether it’s leadership crimes, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or forcible transfers, we remain committed to seeking justice for the victims.”

Vladimir Zhbankov, Head of Legal Aid Programs at Free Russia Foundation, underscored the gravity of the offenses committed against civilians during Russia’s full-scale invasion in Ukraine: “In this collaborative report, we outline a series of ongoing offenses against civilians committed by the aggressor authorities during Russia’s active military involvement in Ukraine. These actions may be classified as crimes against humanity. The contents of this report provide evidence of acts that could be considered international crimes by a competent international court. The authors of the report have also proposed several recommendations to improve the situation for civilians affected by Russian aggression. Among these recommendations is the urgent need to grant international representatives access to detention camps and other facilities used by Russian authorities for the mistreatment of Ukrainian civilians and other violations of human rights.”

The report concludes with actionable recommendations, calling for global support for Ukraine’s investigations and prosecutions of these war crimes.

The international community should increase pressure on Russian authorities to immediately cease these acts of aggression. By sharing this report, you are providing support to civil society groups working to end the conflict and seeking accountability and justice for crimes committed in Ukraine and Russia. These joint efforts demonstrate unity and solidarity among the global community, with a focus on assisting the victims, survivors, and their families. They also reflect our unwavering commitment to pursuing justice and accountability for these grievous violations, no matter where they occur.

Free Russia Foundation, along with our staff, expresses our deep concern and indignation at the final verdict delivered today, July 28, 2023, by the Stavropol Court in the Russian city of Pyatigorsk, regarding the participants of the “Ingush Case.”

The verdict remains unchanged since December 2021 when Akhmed Barakhoev, Musa Malsagov, and Malsag Uzhakhov were each sentenced to 9 years in a general regime colony. Ismail Nalgiev, Bagaudin Khautiev, and Barakh Chemurziev received 8-year sentences each, while Zarifa Sautieva was sentenced to 7.5 years. They were all found guilty of using violence against representatives of the authorities, establishing an extremist group, and participating in its activities. 

The appeal trial lasted for over half a year, with the defense lawyers presenting their arguments for 12 days during the debates. In contrast, the prosecutor’s speech was remarkably brief, lasting only five minutes, where he simply read out the arguments from the objections, which were concise and fit on just a few sheets of paper.

This stands as one of the most significant political cases in Russian history. It all started on March 27, 2019, when a rally against the alteration of Ingushetia’s administrative border with the Chechen Republic in Magas led to a crackdown on the Ingush opposition. Consequently, administrative cases were initiated against hundreds of participants in the people’s protest, and dozens of them faced criminal charges.

The Memorial Center, an organization that monitors politically motivated cases, has officially designated all those convicted in the “Ingush Case” as political prisoners. According to Sergei Davidis, who serves as the co-chairman of the Memorial Center, this case stands out as one of the most unprecedented political cases in Russian history. He states, “Civil society leaders are being accused merely for being civil society leaders. There is no fabrication involved; instead, they are trying to twist perfectly legitimate actions into criminal acts.”

Free Russia Foundation shares the same perspective as Memorial and urges the international community to take notice of this blatant violation of human rights.

The verdict handed down to the participants in the “Ingush Case” is a true mockery of justice, primarily because the prosecution was unable to demonstrate that the oppositionists had actually formed an extremist group. Additionally, there was a failure to provide evidence of any criminal conspiracy to incite violence against law enforcement personnel. Throughout the indictment, words such as “probably,” “presumably,” and “maybe” were frequently employed, undermining the strength of the case. Notably, the word “approximately” was used more than ten thousand times

A few years back, Ingushetia demonstrated to the entire nation that it was possible to conduct multi-day protests with thousands of people in a peaceful manner, without jeopardizing law and order. However, the Kremlin viewed this as a display of free thinking that clashed with the current regime’s control, leading them to take punitive action against the organizers of the peaceful protest. This move was intended to send a warning to residents of other regions in Russia, showcasing the potential consequences they might face for seeking justice.

The criminal case brought against the organizers is undeniably politically motivated, with the aim of maintaining power and suppressing public activism from critics of Putin’s regime. The verdict delivered today represents yet another step in the direction of quashing constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms of not only the people of Ingushetia but also citizens across Russia as a whole. It highlights the authorities’ attempt to curb any form of public activism and dissent.

Free Russia Foundation calls for the immediate release of all individuals unjustly convicted in the “Ingush Case.” Furthermore, we demand that the officials responsible for their unwarranted persecution be held accountable and brought to justice.

We urge the international community, human rights organizations, and all those who stand for freedom and justice to demonstrate their solidarity with the participants in the “Ingush Case.” It is crucial to support their fight for justice and the protection of human rights. Freedom and justice are fundamental and non-negotiable values, and any violation of these principles demands a resolute response and unified support.

We cannot afford to remain indifferent to the ongoing situation, and by coming together in solidarity, we can work towards fostering a truly democratic society.

Free Russia Foundation is closely following the news surrounding the activities of the Wagner Group inside Russia with grave concern.

The events themselves, the diverging agendas advanced by various Russian power groups, and how they may unfold in the coming days are highly dynamic and uncertain. What is clear is that the political situation in Russia is extremely unstable and volatile, with the potential to escalate quickly and posing risks far beyond Russian borders.

This development, however, is a logical evolution of the lawlessness, violence, and corruption purposefully harnessed by Putin in order to remain in power and brutally wielded against Russian civil society in the form of repressions, and against the people of Ukraine in the form of military aggression.

Free Russia Foundation calls on the democratic world to provide Ukraine with all it requires for a decisive victory on the battlefield against Russian forces and to strengthen its commitment to pro-democracy Russians, both in-country and those forced into exile—as the two prerequisites for peace and stability in the region.

On February 24, 2022, war censorship was de facto established in Russia: Roskomnadzor, the government’s media watchdog, demanded that the media and information resources that cover the situation in Ukraine cite only official sources. For spreading what the Russian authorities deem as “deliberately false information,” media outlets could be blocked and fined. Over a year and a half, Roskomnadzor blocked more than 10,000 sites, dozens of independent publications were declared foreign agents and “undesirable organizations.” About 15 editorial offices moved abroad, some were forced to shut down, some changed their format. Two dozen of the new Russian-language media were launched as well: journalists sought to understand what was unraveling as a result of the war and cover it. These newly emerging media are organized and function differently compared to their old counterparts—they have a different relationship with their audience. The search for a new language, focus on people’s stories, and mutual support make their work possible and even successful.

Defying pressure

New media began to emerge immediately after the Russian full-fledged invasion of Ukraine and the introduction of war censorship. On March 5, 2022, the Astra Telegram channel was launched: its team publishes news, videos and photos, eyewitness accounts, interviews with Ukrainians and Russians affected by the war, and conducts investigations.

In April, one of the first socio-political online publications in Russia Polit.Ru, creator and partner of many humanitarian projects, launched its project called After, which is dedicated to conversations “with various interesting people about possible options for the Russian future.”

At the end of April, another new publication, Verstka, was launched. Without initial funding or established audience, the team could only respond to readers’ requests, according to its founder, journalist Lola Tagaeva, who spoke about it at the recent Brussels Dialogue forum. “There is plenty of issues: the state creates problems for people every day and simultaneously imposes its agenda. We could not and cannot leave these people to be overcome by propaganda. They need free journalism. It turned out that if you answer [people’s questions] on time, if they get something first, readers come.”

On May 11, 2022, Ilya Krasilshchik, former publisher of Meduza and former head of Yandex.Lavka, a food delivery service, launched Helpdesk.Media, a media project and assistance service for the war victims in Ukraine and beyond. In March 2023, Ilya introduced the mobile app through which readers can set up a news feed, get support and donate to deliver urgent help to those in need.

At the end of May2022, the Cedar (Kedr) project was launched focusing on how the war affects the environment in Russia, Ukraine, and the world.

On June 1, Ochevidtsy (Eyewitnesses) was launched, offering a public platform for Russians and Ukrainians, both celebrities and ordinary people, to speak about the ways their lives have changed since the outbreak of the war. “There is this large-scale historical event that will change the lives of many people forever,” says one of the project’s creators Viktor Muchnik, former editor-in-chief of the independent Tomsk television channel TV2. “And I have witnesses of these events—ordinary people to whom I can come with a camera talk [about it].”

Political scientist Kirill Rogov and his team launched the Re:Russia project, an expert platform for discussing Russia’s political, social, and economic issues. “Russia is at a tragic turning point in its history, the events taking place are comparable in significance, perhaps, only to the events of a century ago—the Bolshevik coup and the civil war, because their consequences are likely to determine Russia’s place in the world and its historical track for decades to come. In this situation, a deep, non-opportunistic understanding of the processes taking place in the country seems to be critically important and, in the end, can influence the future, exposing its imaginable scenarios and forks,” the project manifesto says.

Journalists Farida Rustamova and Maxim Tovkailo launched the Faridaily news channel: “Today, simply informing the public to promote [certain] values is not enough. Direct communication with the audience is very important to us. Every day people write to me, saying ‘thank you for not leaving us alone.’ Russian officials also read [our channel], it is, too, important to keep in touch with them: not all of them are directly involved in the war crimes,” Farida said during the Brussels Dialogue forum.

On June 30, 2022, the independent research media Beda (Disaster) was launched. The publication was founded by an anonymous team of journalists, translators, anthropologists and researchers, whose goal is to tell the stories of “those who have faced authoritarianism, military and police violence, exploitation and oppression,” creating a knowledge-based platform dedicated to Russian colonialism.

In the summer of 2022, Drone was launched, one of the few Russian-language publications that does not only focus on news from Russia, but also covers events in Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and, of course, Ukraine.

Writer and journalist Linor Goralik and her team launched two anti-war media projects—News-26, a daily publication about Russian politics for teenagers, and ROAR (Russian Oppositional Arts Review), an online magazine that publishes literary and artistic work about the war in Ukraine.

This is, by no means, a complete list. Below are the projects that appeared instead of the ones that had been forced to shut down.

Media: reassembly

The community of journalists who do not support the Putin regime was agile even before the war: many were familiar with each other, moved easily from one media to another; former colleagues launched their own projects (as happened, for example, with The Bell). Overall, mutual support was strong. The closure of individual projects could have become a disaster, but the habit of reassembling, creating new associations and new formats has already been in place.

On March 1, 2022, at the request of Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office, the Echo of Moscow radio station stopped broadcasting. On October 3, the online edition of Echo was launched: the new media includes shows from YouTube channels of several editorial teams and independent journalists who previously collaborated with Echo of Moscow, including the Zhivoy Gvozd (Live Nail) channel.

Ilya Shepelin and Masha Borzunova, former employees of TV Rain (an independent television channel, which was forced to stop broadcasting in Russia and restarted abroad), created individual YouTube channels dedicated to exposing fake news.

The journalists of Novaya Gazeta who left Russia after the suspension of the publication on March 28, launched Novaya Gazeta Europe. The publication covers both Russian and European news, and also offers a Free Space service that allows readers to subscribe to the topics and authors of their interest. The editor-in-chief of the new publication Kirill Martynov also writes weekly personal takes on recent Terrible News.

On March 6, 2022, Roskomnadzor blocked the website of the main publication of the Russian scientific community, Troitsky Variant—Science, for publishing an anti-war letter signed by more than 8,000 scientists—one of the first statements by a professional community condemning the invasion. The T-invariant project, edited by scientific journalist Olga Orlova, was relaunched in February 2023, focusing on science under the conditions of war in Ukraine.

The Bell project, created by a team of journalists who had departed leading Russian business publications Vedomosti and Forbes, launched the Telegram channel titled What do you get out of it?, which discusses how political economic news affect everyone on a personal level. Meduza also started a newsletter titled Signal, which explains the current developments instead of simply delivering facts, since “under the new conditions, the ability to understand news is not just useful, it is a vital skill.” The St. Petersburg-based Bumaga (Paper) created a newsletter titled Inhale. Exhale. Every evening, the publication recounts the events of the day, and then gives “one story about people that allows [readers] to look at the world with hope. It’s an exhale.”

Closer to the ground, closer to the common pain

“The Russia of the future, if it is meant to be, must be reassembled from below. If the reassembly begins again in Moscow, [the country] will most likely become the same as it is now: imperial, colonizing, a threat to its neighbors. Therefore, the assembly point of the new country should be in the regions: Siberia, Kuban, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, the Urals …”, this is how independent regional journalists from Russia announced their new project about the regions titled Says NeMoskva (some of them continue to work on the ground, others fled the country). The online publication covers issues of local identity and interests, possible institutions and tools for protecting these interests and coordinating efforts.

In May 2022, the New Tab was launched, another online publication featuring longreads about life in the regions. “It was literally a new tab that you can open and where you can read a dramatic story—not from the battlefield, but about how people’s lives are changing at home,” the authors explain.

Employees of some regional media faced issues of splitting the team: while leaders left the country due to persecution and settled to manage editorial offices remotely, correspondents continued to to their job on the ground. “We have to protect our employees: hide their names, remove bylines, encrypt communication,” explains Ivan Rublev, editor-in-chief of Yekaterinburg media It’s My City.

Andrey Maslov, editor-in-chief of the Belgorod publication Fonar.tv, offers another view: “We haven’t left Russia: I may disagree with something, but I have an audience, and I believe that it is necessary to work here, otherwise the context is lost, you start thinking abstractly, not fully understanding how the audience perceives it. When you are away from the place you are writing about, it is harder to understand the pain.”

“Journalists in Russia, I think, need to write about what ordinary people in Russia are worried about. As for the foreign policy situation, I think there are enough high-quality and very good journalists who have left Russia and can write on these topics calmly,” argues Vladislav Postnikov, editor-in-chief of Vecherniye Vedomosti from Yekaterinburg.

The possibility of collective action

“It is important that new projects live for a long time, even if they are small,” notes journalist and publisher Sergey Parkhomenko. “The duration of the effort and the ability to cooperate are important.”

Among such collective projects is the project titled “Who answered for the words”—the result of the work of three teams: Tomsk TV2, St. Petersburg Paper, and the Editor-22 project. This is a platform where editors and media owners, media lawyers and other legal professionals explain what happened to Russian regional journalism after February 24, 2022.

For the Russian audience, investigative media, such as Project, Important Stories, The Insider, Bellingcat, and Alexei Navalny’s team have launched a free mobile application Samizdat, which gives access to their texts without a VPN.

The latest impressive example of the collective efforts of independent media and their audience inside the country has been the June 12 marathon of solidarity with political prisoners and all Russians who oppose to war. In 12 hours, the participating publications managed to collect 34 million rubles ($400,000) in donations. “We are doing great at helping [civil society] organizations and media: they are effective, indestructible, recover even after a direct “nuclear strike,” relentlessly self-renew, and adapt to the needs of reality. And look with what energy and appreciation people use the opportunity to do something noble and at the same time effective,” commented political scientist Ekaterina Shulmann, who joined the marathon with her own YouTube channel. “That is, not to sacrifice yourself for symbolic purposes, but to take a risk in order to really help someone.”

Independent media themselves, new and old, also need help to stay in touch with readers and viewers. In June, Reporters Without Borders and independent Russian media appealed to the Big Tech companies, including Meta, Google, Twitter, etc., with a request to create a group “Engineers against Dictatorship” to prevent the shutdown of the Russian segment of the Internet: “As the [presidential] election time approaches, we have serious reasons to suspect that this fall, YouTube and Telegram may be completely blocked in Russia, which will turn more than 140 million people into hostages of the state propaganda apparatus.” The initiative was supported by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta Dmitry Muratov (“Now in Russia, the entire system of content delivery is under threat of destruction. Freedom of speech today is about technology,” he noted) and was signed by 40 human rights activists and editors of Russian media, from Mediazona to Memorial. The European Federation of Journalists and the Association of Journalists of the Netherlands also joined the initiative. February 24, 2022, put an end to the market of independent Russian media as we knew it. Almost all media that are not controlled by the Kremlin now are forced to work from abroad, their websites are blocked in Russia, while free journalism inside the country became dangerous. Nevertheless, we observe the growth of a diverse group of independent media projects; new ones sprout in place of the liquidated ones, journalists react to the audience’s changing needs and continue to carry out their mission. This includes serving as a bridge between those who left Russia and those who stayed, working to ensure that Russian civil society not only does not split, but also expands.

When President Vladimir Putin addressed the Russian public to announce that the full-scale invasion of Ukraine had begun in February 2022, he claimed that a key aim of the “special military operation” was “de-Nazification,” the removal of the supposedly neo-Nazi leadership in Kyiv.

It ought to go without saying that this was not true and that the Jewish, Russian-speaking, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is not leading a fascist effort to subjugate ethnic Russians, necessitating a “humanitarian” campaign to obliterate cities across the country, regardless of the real presence of neo-Nazis within certain units of the Ukrainian armed forces and other allied paramilitary outfits.

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In what might be described as a case of Freudian projection, the Russian government of today hews closely to the traditional definition of fascistic, certainly in contrast to the country it has tried to conquer. No shortage of Russian state media coverage has been dedicated to the complete militarization of society, the veneration of empty symbols, genocidal rhetoric about Ukrainians, paranoia about the American and NATO enemy at the gates and corrosive fifth columnists within. Then there is Putin’s open embrace of a “holy war” against the degenerate liberalism of the West as embodied, as he sees it, by LGBTQ rights, “cancel culture” and the erosion of traditional values.

But none of this should be surprising. Despite years of documentation, the Russian government has somehow persuaded a surprising number of foreigners that the first eight years of the current war, waged by the puppet “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, was in some way a left-wing or even “antifascist struggle.”

The actors whom the Russian security services relied upon to realize this project, which began in 2004, developing quietly before shifting gear into outright warfare in 2014, had long strived to rebuild the fallen Russian Empire. All of them had come of age in the 1990s when the shock of the Soviet Union’s catastrophic implosion left many of those on the right, who had been among its fiercest critics, enraged by its territorial disintegration. What is more, these individuals had relationships with each other, often close, that went back well before the war, to the 1990s.

This report is a history of how Russia’s war against Ukraine was, from its very inception, led by figures from the extreme far right of Russia, politicos, intelligence operatives, mercenaries and military commanders whose career-defining personal relationships and eccentric religious and ideological beliefs were developed in the chaotic final days of the USSR.

It is also a story of how the Russian security services cultivated these individuals and ideas, despite their apparent hostility to the incumbent regime, not just to use as assets for provocations or plausible deniability, but also as a long-term strategy for survival and dominance.

Since the days of the Tsar’s own secret police, the Okhrana, the Russian security services have infiltrated and used the fringes of the political opposition to stage provocations and control dissent. What is different about the figures in this report is that these political extremists, with their eccentric personalities and ideologies that were anathema to the official line, would not just be employed as tools but also given critical, public-facing tasks of state in wartime. Rather than operating in the murk, these individuals, bringing along much of their ideological baggage, became household names at home and international pariahs.

The ascendancy of the far-right in the Russian state had a long gestation. Back in the 1980s, as it became apparent that communism had reached an ideological and economic dead end, the security services appear to have decided to use fascism as a lifeboat to ensure the survival of their authoritarian “deep state.”
This process was taking place not only on the battlefields of newly independent republics but also within the halls of power. While the KGB’s rivals in the CIA are much better known for investing time and money in search of paranormal phenomena such as remote viewing1 and telekinesis, such ideas were also circulating among Russian spooks in the social and political turmoil of the ’90s. Nikolai Patrushev, the former head of the FSB (the successor to the KGB) and current chair of Russia’s powerful security council, has cited “statements” made by the former and late U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright purportedly demonstrating American desires to conquer and carve up Siberia. These statements were credited to Georgy Rogozin, a psychic general in the KGB and Presidential Security Service.

Against this background, the KGB concocted their own esoteric cult, drawing on a logic-destroying combination of dry, management theory jargon, pseudo-paganism and old-fashioned antisemitism.

On June 5-6, 2023, the European Parliament in Brussels at the initiative of Lithuanian MEP Andrius Kubilius and others, hosts a two-day conference “The Day After”, with the participation of over 200 representatives from Russia’s anti-war and opposition groups, journalists, prominent cultural figures, as well as European politicians.

On June 5, 2023, Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation spoke at the European Parliament in Brussels. In her opening remarks to the inaugural session of the Brussels Dialogue— Roundtable of EU and Democratic Russia Representatives, Ms. Arno described the heroic efforts by Russian civil society to stop the war and stand up to Putin’s regime; and called for a closer cooperation between Russian and European democratic forces to support Ukraine’s victory and ensure a lasting peace in Europe.

Below is the transcript of her full remarks.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished members of the European Parliament and EU institutions, esteemed representatives from across the transatlantic community, and my dear friends and colleagues who are selflessly fighting for a free and democratic Russia, 

Thank you all for being here today. My special thanks to the MEP from Lithuania, Standing Rapporteur on Russia, Andrius KUBILIUS and to Shadow Rapporteurs – Messrs. CIMOSZEWICZ, GUETTA and LAGODINSKY – and their amazing teams who worked tirelessly to gather us all for this historic event. We are thankful for a very timely realization at the EU level that we, pro-democracy anti-war anti-regime Russians, are an important actor in efforts to stop the war and the key force in transforming Russia into democracy. 

The Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February shook the world with its brutality and aggression, wretchedly echoing World War II. This war has been the first war watched on social media, brought to our living rooms– with every brutal death, every destroyed hospital, every orphaned child—staring into our face, breaking our heart, hundreds of times per day. But it’s not something that only exists on a computer screen. The reality on the ground is both unspeakable destruction and human cruelty that defies who we crave to be as humans. This war is black and white. The fight between the evil and the good, between the dictatorship and the democratic world with Ukraine on the front lines. There are no half tones, no moral ambivalence. Just like Hitler, Putin is perpetrating a criminal atrocity not only against Ukraine, but against freedom, democracy and our civilized way of life. 

This war is a huge tragedy for Ukraine, but it is also a catastrophic disaster for Russia. It’s a tragedy for so many Russians who understand what this war is, and it’s a tragedy that there are so many Russians who don’t understand it at all. 

This war has forced the world to take a new look at Russia. What is this country and who are these people engaged in unspeakable acts of brutality? Who are these people who passively watch as their army kills and destroys without any reason? They must be pure evil reincarnated! 

As the world, in pain and anger, looked for ways to respond, some of your governments shut your borders to all Russian passport holders, cancelled air traffic from Russia, pulled out businesses, denied services to all Russians, equated all Russians to Putin. We understood the reason for this. 

But let me remind you something. The Russian civil society and independent media were the first victim of Putin’s regime. We were the first ones to warn about the dangerous, corrupt, criminal, murderous nature of Putin’s regime. We were those telling you that his internal repressions will lead to external aggression. We were those who exposed the Kremlin’s export of corruption, influence campaigns in Europe and elsewhere. We were those who discovered Prigozhin’s factory of trolls and other disinformation tricks. We were the ones pleading the West not to enable Putin, not to operate with “realpolitik” and “business as usual”. In Putin’s war against freedom and democracy, Russian civil society has always been one of his priority targets. Many of us have paid a terrible price ourselves – losing our homeland, in many cases losing our freedom to imprisonment and to some of us, losing lives or family members. 

While we often hear there are no good Russians, I know many. All of us who are here today were invited by the European Parliament for our merits. We and our colleagues have moved mountains. Hundreds of us here represent civil society organizations, media outlets, grassroots initiatives with dozens of thousands activists and journalists in our networks. We communicate to millions through our YouTube and Telegram channels, newspapers, programs, and events. All of us are in exile now.

Inside Russia, many keep resisting, too. According to OVD-info, a portal tracking activism inside Russia, since the full-scale invasion there have been only 25 days without arrests for anti-war protests. There is the story of a Siberian grandmother— anti-war activist Natalia Filonova from my native Republic of Buryatia, whose special needs son was taken away from her in retribution for her protests and sent to a remote orphanage, while she herself is in jail awaiting trial. Another political prisoner Ilya Yashin, has just published a story about Natalia Filonova. Yashin himself is in jail for 8.5 years for telling the truth about Bucha.

Another real Russian patriot is a dear friend and man whom most of you know personally— Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has survived two assassination attempts by Putin’s regime, two comas, and still went back to Russia to testify to what is right and what is true. He is now in prison on a Stalin-era 25year sentence. 

Yesterday it was the birthday of Alexey Navalny who also survived Novichok poisoning and is slowly being killed in prison. 

All these names and many others will be mentioned at this conference and shouldn’t be forgotten. There are tens of thousands of documented stories like these. Tens of thousands of “good” humans arrested and prosecuted for their anti-war and pro-democracy stance. 

Why am I telling you all of this? In hopes that you see that Russian civil society was the first front in Putins war on democracy and peace.  As Western leaders dined and shook hands with Putin for 20 years, as Europeans accommodated Putin’s regime in exchange for cheap energy, as they offered citizenships to his associates, Putin was busy eradicating the Russian political opposition, independent media and civil society. 

Today, we address a pressing issue that lies at the heart of our shared destiny and demands our immediate attention and decisive action. Through all this shock from the devastating tragedy that we are all experiencing, I want to bring to you a message of resilience, hope and an urgent plea for solidarity. We, pro-democracy anti-war anti-regime Russians, are not only first victims of Putin’s regime, and not only targets for friendly fire and problems for your governments because we need visas and bank accounts, but most importantly, we are agents of change. Not foreign agents or undesirables as the Kremlin labels us, but agents of change, agents of the Russian people and Russia’s future. We are the part of the solution. We are the ones who are willing to transform Russia, to make it normal and civilized.

No doubt that Ukraine will win, but after the war it won’t be easy. We understand doubts about Russia’s democratization prospects, but we, pro-democracy anti-war anti-regime Russians, can’t afford to believe that freedom and democracy is not possible in our home country. Democracy in Russia is the only guarantee of sustainability of Ukraines victory and a key factor of stability and security in Europe and globally.

Those of us invited to this event have been working tirelessly as supporters of change for years. Our collective resume includes rallies against media capture and Khodorkovsky’s arrest in Putin’s early days, election observation missions proving massive fraud in all levels of elections throughout the country, “Dissenters Marches”, rallies on Bolotnaya and Sakharova and many other squares throughout the country and throughout the years, against the annexation of Crimea and invasion to Eastern Ukraine then and the full-scale invasion now. Our collective resume includes advocating for sanctions, both personal and sectoral, advocating for enforcement of sanctions and for making it harder for the Kremlin to circumvent them. Our collective resume includes assistance to Ukraine – evacuations from the war zone, search for Ukrainian POWs, litigation and advocacy on behalf of Ukrainian hostages of Putin’s regime held in Russian jails, cooperation on international justice mechanisms including the Tribunal and on documenting war crimes, humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians including shelters, clothing, medication. Our collective resume includes huge efforts by Russian independent media, bloggers, influencers, grassroots initiatives to tell the truth about this brutal war, to disseminate the factful information, to counter Kremlin’s narratives, to influence public opinion inside Russia. Our collective resume also includes discussions on how to achieve political transition, how to conduct sustainable reforms, how to make deputinization and even desovietization of Russia. 

We are not Europe’s headache, we are your asset. We ask our European partners to use our expertise, because nobody knows Russia better than us. Nobody knows Putin regime and his methods better than us. Nobody knows the Russian people better than us. Individually we do a lot. Collectively as a Russian pro-democracy anti-war movement we can do even more. With your solidarity, with the support of the democratic world, we can win. Working together is a force multiplier.

When I looked on your website yesterday, the main stated aims of the European Union within its borders are: to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its citizens. 

How do we promote peace now? We do everything we possibly can to make sure Ukraine wins this war. But it is clear, that until there is a real political change in Russia, until democracy and civil rights are reestablished for the Russian people, until Putin’s regime is brought to justice, no lasting peace is possible. It’s very practical for the Western democracies to support, strengthen and grow us— inside and outside of Russia. 

I am here to call on the EU as a community— to give voice to pro-democracy anti-war Russians at European institutions. Regular sessions of this conference, new report on Russia by the EU Parliament, EU Special Representative for Russia and other working mechanisms are important to discuss plans on reconstructing Ukraine after the war, prosecuting war criminals, and reforming Russia after Putin. So that Russians inside Russia see that Putin is wrong— the West does not seek to destroy Russia, and that Russians who are for democracy are not outcasts but are embraced by the international democratic community. 

We need a coherent Europe-wide strategy on how to stabilize the Russian civil society— save us from peril, prevent us from quitting the fight, help us mobilize and engage Russian society. This means clear legalization policies; some standard approach to our ability to work and travel. That means the end of the punitive measures such as denial of services that are not only counterproductive but also are illegal under the EU law. That means judging us on the basis of our values and our actions, not on the basis of our citizenship and nationality. That means support of our programs and initiatives.

In this room there are Russians from different regions and organizations, of different backgrounds, with different opinions and you might see some debates and disagreement throughout the program, but we have one unified position: Ukraine must win the war, and Russia must change from the inside to be a reliable and stable partner for the democratic world. Russia must return to its fundamental values of producing great poets, composers, physicists, and philosophers instead of being hackers, invaders, and war criminals. We in this room are here to join hands with our European partners and work with you to make this happen.

While traveling abroad recently, Free Russia Foundation’s president fell ill under circumstances that cause great concern. The matter is under investigation.

The health and safety of our staff and beneficiaries are our paramount concern.

Free Russia Foundation continues its work for a free, democratic, peaceful and prosperous Russia, reintegrated into the international community as a constructive and positive actor.

Dear colleagues and friends,

Today, on April 17, 2023, the Russian judicial system handed down a monstrous sentence to Vladimir Kara-Murza, a politician, journalist, historian, our colleague and friend — a 25-year prison sentence, which effectively means the rest of his life. The verdict was reached based on false accusations, despite the absence of any evidence to support them.

We are at a loss for words to express our outrage and indignation at this unjust and merciless verdict. This is a clear act of revenge, without any basis or justification. The Putin regime no longer even attempts to make its accusations appear plausible. This is not merely a kangaroo justice, but rather a repeat of Stalin’s criminal statutes, his allegations, and his sentences. It is a new version of the year 1937. The Russian authorities are repeating the errors of the past, and leading the country directly towards the Gulag. In one of his letters from prison, Vladimir Kara-Murza wrote, “When evil is not recognized, condemned, and punished, it will inevitably return. This is the terrible lesson that post-Soviet Russia has taught the world.”

Many of us know Vladimir Kara-Murza not only as a public figure but also as a hero, a fighter for freedom and justice in Russia, and a close associate of Boris Nemtsov. Despite surviving two severe poisonings in 2015 and 2017, which brought him close to death, Vladimir continued to fight for the freedom and rights of Russian citizens. However, his health has significantly deteriorated since being imprisoned, and he is experiencing a loss of sensation in his limbs. Before our eyes, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a true patriot of Russia, is slowly dying in prison and may become another victim of Vladimir Putin’s regime.

The trial of Vladimir Kara-Murza was a ploy to silence his voice and remove him from the path of those who are willing to maintain their power in Russia at any cost. This is a clear act of political revenge from the Kremlin, in response to his longstanding pro-democracy stance and opposition activities, his active participation in advocating for personal international sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, and his public criticism of Vladimir Putin’s war on the people of Ukraine.

Vladimir Kara-Murza is a prisoner of conscience and must be released immediately and unconditionally. The criminal charges against him must be dropped.

Free Russia Foundation is urging the international community, public figures, and human rights organizations to increase their pressure on the Kremlin to release Vladimir Kara-Murza from detention, or to exchange him as part of humanitarian programs. We invite everyone to join our #FreeKaraMurza campaign and condemn this unjust sentence. We strongly believe that only through unity and solidarity can we secure Vladimir’s freedom.

We also want to express our support for Vladimir Kara-Murza and his family during this difficult time for them.

Free Russia Foundation will continue to fight for freedom and democracy in Russia until fundamental rights are reinstated. We encourage all Russian citizens to remain courageous, not to succumb to threats, and to resist evil. Justice will always be on the side of truth and freedom, and light will inevitably overcome darkness.

The question of the efficiency of the sanctions imposed by Western countries on Russia for its aggressive war in Ukraine, is one of the most frequently asked in public and political discussions regarding the resilience of the Putin regime. According to former deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Bank, economist Sergey Alexashenko, despite certain criticisms, sanctions do have a damaging effect on Russian economy, but it is long-term and insufficient to stop Putin’s aggression.

After Russian army invaded Ukraine, unleashing a bloody war in the middle of Europe, not a week goes by without a politician or journalist asking me similar questions: when the Russian economy will collapse because of sanctions or, at the very least, when Vladimir Putin will run out of money to wage the war. In addition, they ask at what point the Russian people will stop tolerating deteriorating standards of living and revolt to force the Kremlin to change its policies.

While Western sanctions did significantly hurt Russian economy, the effect does not seem so devastating when one looks at statistical data. The GDP decline was very modest; moreover, the Kremlin declared that the economy started recovering in the fall. Russian financial system withstood all sanctions, and, following the initial shock, the national currency stabilized and stay so during the year. Budget deficit exceeded expectations, but this was caused not by the revenues decline, but by an extraordinary increase in expenditures in the last week of 2022. Though private consumption contracted by 7 percent compared to the previous year, no significant social (not saying political) unrest emerged, and public support for Vladimir Putin didn’t collapse.

Given all the above, I must first emphasize that sanctions cannot trigger political change. Otherwise, regimes in North Korea, Iran, and Cuba would have not withstood 50 to 70 years under sanctions that are harsher than those imposed on Russia. Moreover, no economy can be shrinking forever, even under sanctions’ pressure. At a certain point, contraction ends, and the economy starts expanding. For example, Iran’s average growth rate from 1990, when the country’s GDP was 17 percent below the pre-revolutionary peak, to 2020, was at 2.8 percent, which is approximately equivalent to the global economy’s dynamics.

Second, sanctions on Russia are actually working, and working hard. The GDP growth in 2021 was 5.6 percent, and the outlook for 2022 was over 4 percent. But instead, last year, Russian economy contracted by 2.1 percent despite being significantly boosted by military expenditures. Such a sharp shift from growth to recession has not been recorded in any country with a GDP of over $100 bn (5 percent of Russia’s GDP) since 2000, unless we consider contractions caused by the 2008 global financial crisis or the 2020 pandemic crisis. Moreover, previously, such a recession in Russia has always been caused by falling oil prices, but in 2022, the price of Russian oil (adjusting for all the discounts) was 10 percent higher than a year before.

Third, Russia’s economy turned out to be very robust because of its role as a supplier of natural resources to the global economy. The combined share of hydrocarbons, metals, wood, basic chemical goods, and grain exceeds 80 percent in Russian goods export. The country accounts for 17.5 percent of global oil sales, 47 percent of palladium, 17 percent of nickel and nearly 25 percent of potash fertilizer sales, not mentioning wheat, lumber, copper, etc. The world economy could perhaps give up Russian raw materials, but then it would have to brace itself for a dramatic price hike and a multi-year recession. The most significant contraction in the Russian industrial production was in the automobile sector (a decline by 70 percent) and so-called white goods, or large electrical goods used domestically, such as refrigerators and washing machines (by 50 percent), which resulted not from the sanctions imposed by various governments, but by the “moral sanctions” stemming from the exodus of international companies from Russia. But the share of these sectors in the Russian economy is miniscule.

Fourth, the G-7 policy, aimed at limiting Russian budget the revenues from hydrocarbon exports, while not removing Russian oil and gas from the market, finally took shape only by February 2023, when the price ceilings for Russian oil products were set. Still, the intention to do so was clearly articulated in the spring of 2022, leading to Russian oil trading falling into a gray zone’s non-transparent pricing. Starting in April 2022, Russia’s Ministry of Finance set Russian oil production and export tax rates at a 25-percent discount to the Brent price, and further increasing the discount up to 40 percent in recent months. According to my estimates, the Russian budget was short about $65 billion in revenues in 2022 (17 percent of its annual revenues).

Fifth, financial sanctions—freezing the accounts and assets of the central bank and commercial banks, restricting international payments and access to capital markets—usually, have the most immediate impact on an economy. In the spring of 2022, it took just two weeks for inflation in Russia to accelerate to 10 percent per month and for the dollar to appreciate by 60 percent. That demonstrates how strong these sanctions were compared to those imposed in the summer of 2014 when Malaysian MH-17 flight was shut down in Eastern Ukraine by a Russian-supplied Buk missile. Back then, it took six months for inflation to accelerate to 4.5 percent per month and national currency to collapse amid simultaneously falling oil prices.

In other words, recent sanctions are harsh, and they are working, and yet Russian authorities might have quite powerful instruments to continue counteracting financial sanctions. By the end of the first week of March, Russia’s Central bank implemented a set of actions to create an effective antidote—depriving the ruble of its free convertibility status by imposing restrictions on current and capital transactions. These measures ensured a strong positive current account that stabilized the exchange rate and suppressed inflation. Moreover, they nullified the effect of freezing the Central Bank’s assets—you don’t need them having a strong current account and restricting capital control.

The real cost of these decisions will be enormous: non-paid dividends, coupons, interest, royalties, capital gains amount to dozens of billion dollars per year, and Russia should make these payments one day, but neither the Kremlin, nor the Central Bank care about it today. They will continue kicking the can down the road until it explodes. But then dealing with that can will be somebody else’s responsibility.

Sixth, though sanctions affected the economy, public opinion polls suggest that less than half of the Russian population is concerned with this issue. According to the Levada Center, about 20 percent express serious concern, and a similar number express moderate concern. At the same time, Russians find it difficult to specify what they are concerned with, pointing mainly to the rising prices and falling incomes (both of which have been cited as significant problems by Russians for over the past 30 years) as well as to the disappearance of familiar drugs from pharmacies. However, no country has imposed sanctions to prohibit export of such drugs to Russia. 

A significant part of the sanctions’ effect is long-term and delayed in time. The technological backwardness of the Russian economy will grow, but this process will be gradual, stretching for years if not decades. Therefore, it should not be expected that, at some point, the quantity of sanctions will turn into quality causing a quantum leap in public opinion.

Does the West have the potential to increase sanctions pressure on Russia in such a way that would make Russians realize that an aggressive war has consequences for everyone? Yes, absolutely, and this potential involves restricting the supply of consumer and food products or goods necessary for their production. For example, Russia imports from the European Union about 90 percent of sourdough to produce sour cream, 90 percent of potato and sugar beet seeds, over 80 percent of vegetable seeds grown in greenhouses and 70 percent of sunflower seeds. The ban on their delivery to Russia will lead to a severe change in the situation in the Russian food market and will be noticeable to everyone. Still, for this to happen, Western politicians must give up the self-imposed narrative that sanctions should not affect ordinary citizens.

Last, but not least. Although sanctions do work, they have not and will not affect Mr. Putin’s determination to continue the war. On the one hand, the fiscal situation is deteriorating slowly, and Russia’s Ministry of Finance has tools to solve the emerging problems: the accumulated fiscal reserve of about 4.5 percent of GDP is twice the budget deficit planned for the current year, and the total public debt is less than 20 percent of GDP. In addition, one should not forget that the Russian budget pays for military expenditures in rubles, while revenues from hydrocarbon exports are tied to the dollar price of oil. Thus, a devaluation of the ruble will always create additional ruble revenues. 

For Mr. Putin, the war in Ukraine is existential. His decisions are not based on carefully weighing the pros and cons. The war dealt Russia and its future a heavy blow. Still, it is not apparent that the Russian leader adequately understands the price the country will pay for his geopolitical adventure. 

The sanctions have disrupted the rhythmic engine of Putin’s economy, but they have not stopped it or brought it to the brink of collapse. The economic problems facing Russia today do not look daunting to Vladimir Putin and do not force him to stop his aggression. Only military force can do that.

Today the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions on several Russian officials responsible for the incarceration and prosecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a politician, journalist, human rights activist, and prisoner of conscience. The update from the U.S. Treasury Department included the names of six Russians who faced sanctions: Oleg Sviridenko, Ilya Kozlov, Elena Lenskaya, Danila Mikheev, Diana Mischenko, and Andrey Zadachin.

Oleg Sviridenko, the Deputy Minister of Justice of the Russian Federation, supervised the department for NGOs in the Russian Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for placing individuals on the register of “foreign agents.” Elena Lenskaya is the judge of the Basmanny District Court in Moscow who ordered Kara-Murza’s detention. Andrei Zadachin is the prosecutor of the Investigative Committee, who ruled to initiate a case of “fakes” against the politician. Danila Mikheev is the Director of the “Independent Expert Center for the Development of Humanitarian Expertise,” whose expertise has formed the basis of a number of criminal cases against Russian opposition figures. In the case against Mr. Kara-Murza, Mikheev acted as an expert and provided a report that served as the basis for the prosecution. Diana Mishchenko is the judge who issued the initial order for Kara-Murza’s arrest and sentenced him to 15 days in jail. Ilya Kozlov is the judge who rejected Kara-Murza’s appeal of Mischenko’s administrative detention order.

The sanctions imposed by the U.S. include asset freezes and entry bans into the country for individuals responsible for human rights violations and suppression of the Russian opposition activist’s freedoms.

“The U.S. Treasury joins our many national and international partners in calling for Vladimir Kara-Murza’s immediate and unconditional release,” said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson. “His arbitrary detention is another instance of the Kremlin manipulating Russia’s legal system to silence dissent. Kara-Murza, Alexei Navalny, and so many others in Russia who are unjustly imprisoned are not forgotten, and we will continue to promote accountability for perpetrators of these abuses on the international stage.”

In 2022, U.S. senators and leading human rights organizations called on President Biden to impose sanctions on those responsible for Kara-Murza’s unjust imprisonment. Amnesty International recognized Kara-Murza as a prisoner of conscience in May 2022, and in September of that year, Senators Jim Risch and Robert Menendez urged President Biden to make determination on whether Kara-Murza’s arrest constituted a gross violation of human rights and whether sanctions would be imposed on those responsible. Last October, Human Rights First formally recommended sanctions to the U.S. Treasury Department and State Department, identifying 13 Russians involved in Kara-Murza’s arrest and prosecution. In November 2022, Canada became the first country to impose sanctions on the persecutors of the Russian opposition activist.

The politician has been imprisoned in Russia since April 2022 and has been facing continuous expansion of charges against him. Initially, he was accused of spreading false information about the Russian military (under Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation), which was initiated after his speech at the Arizona State House of Representatives in the United States where he referred to the bombing of residential areas and social infrastructure facilities in Ukraine. He was later charged under Article 284.1(1) of the Criminal Code for participating in the activities of an “undesirable” organization and subsequently charged with high treason (under Article 275 of the Criminal Code) for making three public appearances in Lisbon, Helsinki, and Washington, D.C., where he criticized the Russian authorities. If convicted, Vladimir Kara-Murza could face up to 25 years in prison.

In December 2022, Kara-Murza was prohibited from talking to his children on the phone by the prosecutor, who claimed that such conversations “could create a real threat to the proper conduct of criminal proceedings, as well as interfere with the production of the case.”

In March 2023, Vladimir Kara-Murza’s was placed in a punishment cell. His health deteriorated, and he began to lose sensitivity in his feet. His lawyer Vadim Prokhorov stated that his client had developed peripheral polyneuropathy as a result of two severe poisonings with military grade chemical agent.

Vladimir Kara-Murza has been involved in political activities for over 20 years. Together with Boris Nemtsov, one of the leaders of the Russian opposition, he actively contributed to the promotion of the so-called “Magnitsky List” in the U.S. in 2012. The document launched the practice of personal sanctions against Russian officials involved in the violation of basic human rights for the first time. On February 27, 2015, Nemtsov was shot right outside the Kremlin. Kara-Murza himself nearly died in May 2015 as a result of severe poisoning with military grade chemical agent at the direction of Putin’s government. In 2017, he was hospitalized again with similar symptoms. In honor of the assassinated Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Kara-Murza organized a series of renaming of streets and squares in world capitals where Russian embassy buildings are located.

In 2022, Kara-Murza was awarded the Václav Havel Prize for Human Rights and the German Axel Springer Stiftung Prize for Courage. In 2023, the Estonian Foreign Ministry handed over the state award for Vladimir Kara-Murza – the Distinguished Service Cross II degree – to the politician’s wife, Eugenia. In letters and articles that Vladimir Kara-Murza regularly writes from SIZO No. 5, he often emphasizes that he does not regret anything, as “the price of silence is unacceptable.” He also expresses support for Russian political prisoners and their aspirations to end the war in Ukraine.

Dear colleagues and friends,

Today we are marking a dark date — the anniversary of the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine, one of the most tragic events in the history of modern Europe. This senseless and brutal act of aggression has taken lives of tens of thousands, destroyed cities and villages, and rendered deep wounds that will take a long time to heal.

We express our deepest condolences to all those affected by this unfathomable tragedy — to those residents of Ukraine who lost their loved ones, friends, homes, and livelihood.

Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine has gone on since the morning of February 24, 2022. Russian military is launching airstrikes against military and civilian infrastructure, destroying not only airfields, military units, or oil depots, but also power plants, schools, kindergartens, hospitals, and churches. The shelling of residential areas is carried out with artillery, multiple rocket launchers, and ballistic missiles, in violation of the rules of warfare, moral standards, and religious precepts.

On this day, we remember the victims of this tragedy and express our deepest sorrow to the families and friends of the victims. The hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians dead and wounded, the millions of broken lives, and the cities razed to the ground — they cannot be brought back nor forgotten. We remember those who continue to languish in the shadow of the war, suffering from its consequences.

We denounce the aggressive policy of Putin’s regime as the main cause of this war. For years, the Kremlin had conducted hybrid operations, violating Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity with impunity. Free Russia Foundation condemns Vladimir Putin and his accomplices for their role in perpetrating countless crimes against humanity. International law and Ukrainian sovereignty are inviolable and should never be threatened by other states.

Today we recognize not only the pain, loss, and suffering, but also the courage and resilience of Ukrainians who defied evil and stood shoulder to shoulder to defend their homeland. When Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, his delusional plan was for the Russian military to capture Kyiv in three days. One year later, the Russian military is nowhere near achieving that objective. We express our admiration and unconditional solidarity with the people of Ukraine who fearlessly fights for their rights to life, freedom, and independence. We pledge our support in this struggle every step of the way.

We are grateful to the Russian anti-war activists and organizations who are courageously speaking out against this war and Putin’s aggressive policies, to those who said without equivocation “No to war!” We commend the Russians who continue to fight to end this conflict. Ending this war is an absolute prerequisite for any positive future for the Russian nation.

We must not remain silent or inactive in the face of Putin’s regime and its aggressive foreign policy. Such complacency will only serve to bolster his hold on power and further his expansionist agenda. We call on our fellow compatriots in Russia to take action against Putin’s rule using all available methods, to disseminate information about the situation in Ukraine and human rights violations in Russia, to support independent media and journalists, and to endorse anti-war initiatives. Let us stand together in solidarity and fight for a better future, free from the clutches of tyranny.

We demand an immediate and unequivocal end to the inhumane war that has plagued Ukraine, and we call for the swift withdrawal of all Russian troops. Furthermore, we firmly assert that those responsible for the heinous crimes committed during this conflict must be held accountable for their actions and face justice to the fullest extent of the law. 

We urge all those who cherish peace and democratic ideals to join efforts for ending this senseless violence and offer unwavering support to those who strive for freedom and human rights of Ukrainian citizens. Light will always triumph over darkness.

This report evaluates the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions targeting Russian companies and individuals using the detailed trade data from 2021-2022 compiled by the Federal Customs Service of Russia. By cross-referencing this data with the comprehensive list of U.S. Russia-focused sanctions produced by the Free Russia Foundation, the report identifies and analyzes sanctions-related changes in trade volumes, costs and geographies following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In particular, the analysis examines Russia’s imports of UAVs and microchips— two categories of controlled commodities critical to the Kremlin’s ability to wage war and sustain military aggression.

In recent months, the context of the Armenian-Russian relationship has been dramatically transformed. After a sustained period of decline, the strategic partnership between the two countries has now reached its lowest point. In contrast to other cases, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, much of its deterioration with Armenia has been driven by the Kremlin’s lack of action and attention.

The Impact of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Despite the now obvious mistakes, missteps, and miscalculations in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has excelled in one area—making enemies and losing friends. From Central Asia to the South Caucasus, each of Russia’s neighbours now understands its weakness and recognizes that Russia is deeply isolated, even if it is ever more dangerous. And nowhere this perception is as clear as in Armenia.

For over twenty years, Armenian foreign policy has been defined by a pursuit of “complementarity”—a struggle to maintain a strategic “balance” between its security partnership with Russia and its interest in deepening ties to the EU and the West. This policy has been difficult to maintain over the years, especially given Armenia’s underlying dependence on Russia, which is driven by security and military ties. But since the 2020 war for Nagorno-Karabakh, the limits of Russian security promises to Armenia have become obvious. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Armenia now faces an even more imposing and, perhaps, impossible challenge to meet Moscow’s expectations for loyalty and support for its aggression against Ukraine.

Dispelling the Myth of Russian Power

Since the unjustified and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s fraught military campaign has demonstrated that its military is much weaker than previously thought. The repercussions from this unexpected weakness have fostered a new realization among many of Russia’s neighbours that Russian power and influence are limited. 

More broadly, President Putin’s failed plan to take over Ukraine has gravely, if not fatally, undermined Russian power and influence. Following the demonstrable blunders of the overpraised Russian military, we now see an isolated, angry, and vengeful Putin, who is particularly sensitive to any signs of weakness. This means that in other “frozen” conflicts, ranging from Georgia to Moldova, he may seek to boost Russia’s declining power by a show of strength. Failures in Ukraine may result in a more dangerous and resentful Russian leadership, which, out of desperation, could demand greater loyalty from “allies” like Armenia and the Central Asian states.

Beyond the now clear challenge of Russia as an unreliable security partner, Armenia has also lost confidence in the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as a security provider. This perception stems from the CSTO’s failure to adequately respond to Azerbaijani attacks on Armenia, reaffirming the moral bankruptcy of the so-called alliance, which now could be more aptly described as the Collective Insecurity Treaty Organization. This perception motivated the Armenian government’s January 2023 decision to refuse to host the CSTO military exercises in a rare display of Armenian frustration, if not rejection of the organization. Russia’s failure to properly respond to Azerbaijani incursions and continued illegal presence of military forces within Armenia also marked a pre-existing crisis in relations well before the current Russian incapacity to end the Azerbaijani-imposed siege of Nagorno-Karabakh. This is especially significant, given the presence of some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers who remain the only source for security and protection of the Karabakh population.

The Siege of Karabakh

In strictly military terms, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has little to no direct impact on the Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh. But in diplomatic terms, Azerbaijan has already taken advantage of the situation by increasing pressure on Armenia and Karabakh, as seen by its blockade of the latter in December 2022. Azerbaijan’s strategy includes more than simply taking advantage of distractions, such as Russia’s war in Ukraine, to increase pressure on Armenia—it stands out as a bold defiance of Russia. Bolstered by Turkish support, Azerbaijan is likely to pursue this strategy further.

The latest disaster is the siege of Karabakh, where roughly 140,000 Armenians currently reside. Since December 12, 2022, the Karabakh Armenians have been cut off from the world because of Azerbaijan’s blocking of the only road that leads to the Karabakh enclave. Under Azerbaijan’s long-term authoritarian rule, any protest or public dissent is strictly banned and subject to immediate arrest and harsh criminal penalties. Yet, Azerbaijan is using the pretest of environmental activism to frame the Karabakh crisis as a civic protest and thus cover up its more basic, nationalism-driven pursuit of this territory. This is clearly a state-directed strategy rather than a spontaneous civic protest.

The situation in Karabakh has turned into a humanitarian disaster marked by serious shortages of critical medications, basic food and other supplies, and evoking comparisons with the siege of Stalingrad during World War II. The crisis is exacerbated by Azerbaijan’s refusal to allow access to Karabakh by the UN or international aid organizations, with the sole exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

For Azerbaijan, the 2020 war for Nagorno-Karabakh ended without a clear victory, but failure to retake control of the Karabakh enclave left Baku with a sense of incomplete victory, which drives the current escalation. The December 12 decision to cut off the sole lifeline between Karabakh and Armenia is only the latest step in Azerbaijan’s campaign to retake control of Nagorno Karabakh. Previously, it had cut natural gas supplies, engaged in sporadic interference in cellular and internet coverage, and threatened to hinder supplies of water and electricity. This so-called “climate change” campaign aims at fostering a new environment of insecurity and uncertainty, designed to force an exodus of Armenians from Karabakh as a prelude to Azerbaijan’s forcible annexation of the enclave. 

The timing of Azerbaijan’s imposition of the Karabakh blockade is largely rooted in the combination of Armenian weakness, following its devastating loss in the 2020 war, and Russia’s inaction, caused by its engagement in a disastrous war in Ukraine. The Armenian government, too, has little leverage to come and aid Karabakh, but this crisis is less about Armenia and more about Azerbaijan’s bold disregard of norms and standards of international behavior. In terms of diplomacy, this escalation does little to inspire confidence in Azerbaijan’s promises of post-war security.


The key takeaway from the current humanitarian crisis in Karabakh is two-fold. First, the siege of Nagorno-Karabakh stands as a direct challenge to Russia, which has assumed responsibility for protecting the population as part of its peacekeeping mission and mandate. Second, the crisis is also a challenge to the international community, which has a responsibility to protect the Armenian victims in the face of Azerbaijan’s egregious aggression. Given Russia’s failure to respond to the crisis, the solution is the immediate and urgent engagement of the Western and international community.

Azerbaijan remains emboldened and empowered by both the perception of Azerbaijani leverage over the EU in the light the strategic gas deal and the reality of Turkey’s influence and command in the region. Still, Azerbaijan is playing with fire, dangerously testing the limits of Russian patience, and inviting a possibly deadly “day of reckoning” between Moscow and Baku. But even if such a showdown is to take place, it will be too late for the Karabakh Armenians.

In the period of insecurity and uncertainty after the Nagorno-Karabakh war, only one thing is clear: Russia has become unreliable and unpredictable. It poses a new deadly challenge; and, given its blunders in Ukraine, the logic and expectations of Russian security obligation to Armenia no longer apply.

Ekaterina Mishina, PhD in law, Professor at the Free University, Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan (2012–2016), Assistant Professor at the Department of Constitutional and Municipal Law at the School of Law at the Higher School of Economics (2005–2014)

For nearly three years already, the Day of the Russian Constitution has ceased to be a day that brings joy. It is no longer even a holiday that “brings tears to one’s eyes”; rather, it is a day of remembrance for the original Constitution that was adopted in 1993. This Constitution was obviously not perfect and was tailored, like a French-patterned suit, to a specific Russian president, but, at the same time, it enshrined the principle of the separation of powers, the supremacy of international law, human rights and freedoms as the highest value, and the independence of courts and judges. It granted enormous powers to the Russian president, but Boris Yeltsin, for whom the document was written, did little to extend the list of presidential powers envisaged in it—and for that reason the Boris Yeltsin era is known as the period of “weak presidentialism.” His successor has taken a different road—the road of unrelentingly strengthening the power vertical, which reached its ultimate expression in the 2020 constitutional amendments. By the power granted by these amendments, the now nearly irremovable president holds all branches of power tightly in his hands. This article covers the evolution of different paths of presidential power in Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Georgia.

Russia: Constitution and the president

The initial design of the 1993 Russian Constitution provided for a powerful president, which is unsurprising: Russia’s constitutional model is largely based on the 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic in France. That document was a response to a dire political crisis that showed that the parliamentary model of the Fourth Republic was incapable of effectively resolving the emerging situation. In early May 1958, the leaders of the Fourth Republic concluded that it was necessary to bring General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the French Resistance during World War II and the head of the first post-war government in France, back into power. On June 1, 1958, President René Coty, who had threatened to resign unless the parliament approved de Gaulle’s candidacy for the prime minister’s office, offered to form a new government. De Gaulle agreed under one condition: development of a new Constitution.

The Constitutional Law of June 3, 1958,  gave De Gaulle’s government the power to prepare a draft of the new Constitution and bring it to a referendum, and, additionally, it established the five foundational principles of the future Constitution[1]:

  1. Universal voting rights as the source of power: legislative and executive branches are only formed through universal voting or by institutions that were created through such voting
  2. Separation of legislative and executive powers, so that each of the branches carries the responsibility for implementing its powers
  3. Accountability of the government before the parliament
  4. Independence of judicial power in order to guarantee the freedoms established in the preamble to the 1946 Constitution and the Declaration of Human Rights
  5. That the new Constitution should include a model for organizing the Republic’s relations with its associated people[2]

The Constitution of the Fifth Republic went down in history as a classic ad hoc constitution: it was tailored, like a suit, to a specific charismatic leader—General Charles de Gaulle. This Constitution is sometimes referred to as “Caesarist,” since the powers it granted the president of France were similar in scope to those of the Roman emperors. It’s no surprise that it was the French model, tailored to a powerful president, that was eventually adopted by the developers of the 1993 Russian Constitution.

In the Russian constitutional model, the president is not simply a powerful figure—he is the main organ of state power. Article 10 of the Constitution, establishing that state power in Russia is implemented on the basis of its separation into legislative, executive, and judicial branches, does not mention the president. But Article 11, which lists the organs of state power in the Russian Federation, includes four branches of power—and it is the president that is mentioned first.[3] Analysis of the text of the 1993 Constitution, even in its original version, leaves no doubt that the president is the main actor and the most important organ of state power. At the same time, the president is not even a part of the system of separation of powers.

This conclusion is also reflected in Russian legal doctrine. Many Russian constitutionalists and legal scholars share this point of view. In the volume titled “Commentary on the Constitution of the Russian Federation” (edited by legal scholars Valery Zorkin and Leonid Lazarev), it is noted that “while remaining outside of the bounds of the traditionally delineated three branches of unified state power, […] the president integrates Russian statehood, […] de jure and de facto he is ‘present’ in every branch of power.”[4]

Russian academician Vladik Nersesyantz wrote back in 1999 that the “system of separation and interaction of powers [established by the 1993 Constitution] is, on the whole, of an asymmetric and disbalanced character, with an obvious tilt towards the powers of the president and his domineering role in the administration of state affairs, while other branches display clear weaknesses compared to the powers of the president. The Constitution grants the president a very broad scope of rights, which, in essence, span all spheres and directions of organization and administration of state power in the country.”[5] Nersesyantz noted that “even though in accordance with the principle of separation of powers into legislative, executive and judicial branches that is entrenched in Article 10, it is clear that all presidential power (the entire summation of the President’s constitutional powers) lies specifically with the executive branch, the meaning of a number of other articles indicates that presidential power seems to be placed out of the bounds of the classic triad and be constructed as a separate (initial, basic) power that sits above this standard triad.”[6]

According to legal scholar Oleg Kutafin, due to the fact that the statement “the president provides for the mutually agreed upon functioning and interaction of the state power organs” [7] was included in the text of the constitution, a specific institute of presidential power that sits above all other branches of the government has emerged.[8] Legal scholars Mikhail Krasnov and Ilya Shablinskiy note that “by excluding the president of the Russian Federation from the triad of branches of power, the Constitution places him above them.”[9]

An enormous quantity of new presidential powers emerged through the efforts of the parliament. For over two decades, through the adoption of federal laws, the president has been accumulating additional powers in the executive branch. Legal scholar Elena Glushko confirms that “one can hardly doubt the fact that the presidential powers in the sphere of the executive branch are quite extensive, and even dominating in a number of directions.”[10]

The president was granted an impressive quantity of new powers by the federal constitutional laws “On the government of the Russian Federation” (1997), “On the state of emergency” (2001), “On martial law” (2002), as well as by federal laws “On foreign intelligence” (1996), “On countering terrorism” (2006), and others. The president received especially extensive powers in the sphere of public service. Glushko notes that the powers of the president in this area have a tendency to expand relentlessly and “in fact, the president has been acknowledged as the main ‘patron’ of public service in Russia.”[11] In addition, a number of federal laws established new presidential powers in the spheres of the economy, foreign trade, social policy, etc. It is noteworthy that some of the president’s new powers are established by decrees.[12]

A continuously widening, panoramic, and, at the same time, mandatory vision of certain constitutional legal issues is provided by the actions of the Constitutional Court. First and foremost, this concerns the span of presidential powers that were initially provided for by the Constitution. In Resolution No. 10-P from July 31, 1995, the Constitutional Court clearly established the following: The Constitution determines that the president acts according to the order established by the Constitution. For cases wherein this order is not detailed, as well as in regard to powers that are not listed in Articles 83-89 of the Constitution, their common bounds are defined by the principle of separation of powers and the requirements of Article 90, Part 3 of the Constitution, in accordance with which the decrees and orders of the president must not contradict the constitution and laws of the Russian Federation.[13] This ruling is nothing but a confirmation of the presence of extensive powers inherently endowed to the president.

The Constitutional Court has repeatedly heaped helpings onto the president’s plate. Resolution No. 11-P from April 30, 1996, has expanded the norm-setting function of the head of the state. In this resolution, the Constitutional Court stated that, as the guarantor of the Constitution, the president provides for the mutually agreed upon functioning and interaction of organs of state power, issuing presidential decrees that fill in the gaps in the regulatory framework regarding issues demanding a legislative resolution, as long as such decrees do not contradict the Constitution of the Russian Federation and federal laws and their temporal scope is limited to the period prior to the adoption of the corresponding legislative acts.

In Resolution No. 28-P from December 11, 1998, the Constitutional Court granted the president the right to “push through” his candidate of choice for the office of government chairperson. If the president’s proposed candidates are rejected by the parliament three times—regardless of whether it was three different candidates or one candidate put forward three times—the State Duma becomes subject to dissolution.

Another power that the president has the right to exercise under conditions of a “lazy parliament” was provided by the Constitutional Court’s Resolution No. 9-P from June 25, 2001, according to which when the subject of regulation is a power corresponding, in its essence, to the functioning of executive power and its organs, and the federal legislature has not made the necessary corrections to the pertinent legislative acts for a long time, the president, to implement the power proscribed by the Constitution on the provision of mutually agreed upon functioning and interaction of the organs of state power and to exercise his assigned responsibility on the protection of human rights and freedoms, has the right to undertake legal regulation through a decree, under the condition that the temporal scope of such a decree is limited to the moment when the pertinent legislative act comes into force.

The Constitutional Court also helped tap the magical powers of Article 80, Part 3, of the Constitution, according to which the president determines the state’s domestic and foreign policies. This is a very odd norm that only weakly coheres with the principle of separation of powers, and which has, unfortunately, drifted from the Soviet constitutions into the post-Soviet one. It had appeared in the first Soviet constitution—the 1918 Constitution of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). According to its Article 49 (b), the general course of all foreign and domestic policies fell under the purview of the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets and the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, along with other issues of state importance. Let me remind you that, in accordance with the 1918 Constitution, the former was the RSFSR’s highest authority, and the latter was its highest legislative, administrative, and controlling organ, serving as the highest power of the republic in the period between the congresses.

In the 1997 Constitution of the Soviet Union, the course of both domestic and foreign policy was defined by the Communist Party. In the late 1980s, after the adoption of amendments to the 1978 Constitution of RSFSR, determination of the country’s domestic and foreign policies was attributed exclusively to the RSFSR’s Congress of the People’s Deputies, the highest state power authority.[14] This norm of Soviet constitutions has outlived the Soviet Union itself, and, following the adoption of the new Russian Constitution, the determination of domestic and foreign policies became the head of state’s privilege.

Krasnov and Shablinsky note that a typical Soviet trait was the doctrinal acknowledgement of the necessity of Soviet sovereignty as opposed to the idea of separation of powers. They view this presidential privilege as a time bomb and the cause for the constitutional construction of power being stripped of balance with a significant tilt toward presidential authority.[15] The Constitutional Court, however, did not see the disbalance and highlighted that the binding force of determining the state’s domestic and foreign policy was constitutionally implied as belonging with the government first (Resolution No. 28-P from December 11, 1998) and then with all organs of public power (Resolution No. 9-P from November 29, 2006).

Former Soviet republics: Different trajectories

The Russian constitutional provision that granted the president the power to determine domestic and foreign policies was popular in the post-Soviet space, and some former Soviet republics that were predisposed to a constitutional model with a powerful president have included the same norm in their constitutions (Kyrgyzstan’s 1993 Constitution, Kazakhstan’s 1995 Constitution, etc.) In the first version of Georgia’s 1995 Constitution, this norm was also present: “the president of Georgia determines and directs the state’s domestic and foreign policy.”

It would seem that this provision, by strengthening the president’s personal power, should inevitably result in the head of state falling to the temptation of growing authoritarianism. However, these countries’ further constitutional development demonstrate that this is not the case. Following the April 2010 revolutionary events in Kyrgyzstan, a new constitution was adopted establishing a constitutional system with a much stronger parliament (the Jogorku Kengesh, or Supreme Council) and a significantly weaker president. Unfortunately, this oasis of parliamentarism in Central Asia lasted not even a decade. During the April 11, 2021, constitutional referendum, new amendments to the constitution were adopted bringing Kyrgyzstan back into the era of strong presidentialism. On May 5, 2021, President Sadyr Zhaparov signed the new version of the country’s constitution.


In Georgia, constitutional events unfolded differently. In 2010, the country saw a constitutional reform focusing on restricting presidential powers and significantly strengthening those of the prime minister and the government. The government became the highest executive authority that determines domestic and foreign policies and is no longer accountable to the president, but to the parliament only. The prime minister no longer needs the president’s consent to appoint and remove government officials. The president, as the head of state, retains the powers of commander-in-chief, guarantor of national independence and unity of the country, and is the country’s representative in international relations. Additionally, the procedure of countersignature was introduced and the president was prohibited from holding any positions in political parties. 

September 26, 2017, saw a new turn of constitutional transformation in Georgia—a noticeable strengthening of the parliament, which now determines the country’s domestic and foreign policies. The mixed electoral system was discontinued, and both chambers of the Georgian Parliament (the Council of the Republic and the Senate) are now elected according to a proportional system. The key change in the chapter concerning the president was the cancellation of direct elections. From now on, Georgia’s president is selected by the electoral college. The same individual may be elected as the country’s head of state only twice.


There are, however, other examples wherein post-Soviet states relentlessly follow the path of strengthening presidential powers. The process of constitutional transformation in Azerbaijan looks particularly impressive. First, this country’s turnover of power sustained a huge blow in 2009. The key change that was made to Azerbaijan’s 1995 Constitution was the lifting of the restriction previously imposed by Article 101, according to which no one could be elected president more than two times in a row. The new wording allows the current president to run for subsequent terms an unlimited number of times.

This amendment provoked a negative reaction from the Venice Commission, which noted in its own brief that “separation of powers is the cornerstone of any law-bound state. In countries with a presidential (or sometimes semi-presidential) republic, there is a tendency to concentrate authority privileges in the hands of the president, whereas the corresponding powers of the legislative and judicial branches of government are significantly weaker. Therefore, a regular regime change through the means of elections is an appropriate method of preventing the excessive concentration of power in the hands of the president.”[16] The Venice Commission also noted that Azerbaijan, whose Constitution establishes a presidential republic as the country’s constitutional system, is, doubtlessly, a country where the president has concentrated excessive powers in his hands, whereas the system of checks and balances is significantly restricted. Therefore, it was completely logical that the original version of Azerbaijan’s Constitution established the restriction of only two presidential terms.[17]

In September 2016, Azerbaijan held a constitutional referendum followed by the adoption of constitutional amendments, including the following:

  • The term of presidential powers was increased from five to seven years.[18]
  • The president received the right to call for early presidential elections.
  • The provision that only an Azerbaijani citizen aged at least 35 can be elected president was excluded.
  • New offices of the first vice president and vice presidents of Azerbaijan were introduced, with the president having the power to appoint and remove them.
  • Citizens who hold voting rights, possess a higher education diploma, and have no obligations before other states, can be appointed to these offices.[19]
  • Vice presidents of Azerbaijan have personal immunity. They cannot be arrested unless caught at the scene of a crime, are not subject to administrative liability, and may not be searched or personally inspected. A vice president caught at the crime scene may be arrested; the agent that performed the arrest must immediately inform the attorney general. The vice president’s immunity may only be terminated by the president at the counsel of the attorney general.[20]
  • If the president steps down from office prior to the end of his term, until a new head of state is elected, his powers will be transferred not to the prime minister, as was provided in the previous constitution, but to the first vice president in accordance with the suggested amendments.[21]
  • The president may delegate the right to enter into interstate and intergovernmental agreements to the vice president, members of the cabinet of ministers, and to other individuals as established by the president of the Azerbaijan Republic.[22]
  • The president was granted the right to dissolve the Milli Mejlis (the national assembly of Azerbaijan) if, over the course of one year, the same session of the Milli Mejlis twice delivers a vote of no confidence to the cabinet of ministers or vetoes the president’s candidates for the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, or the Board of the Central Bank. Additionally, if it is unable to perform its duties outlined in the constitution, the president can also dissolve the Milli Mejlis.[23] 


In 2022, Kazakhstan reconsidered certain provisions of its 1995 Constitution. The law on amendments and additions to the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which was approved by referendum on June 5, 2022, contains more than 50 amendments that concern nearly a third of the text of the basic law.[24] Unlike earlier changes to the Constitution, which all extended the powers held by the head of state, the 2022 amendments move toward restricting presidential powers:

  • Article 43 established that, while in office, the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan shall not be a member of a political party. Another new constitutional ban is quite noteworthy: the president’s close relatives may not hold government office or head quasi-public sector companies. The new wording of Article 50 restricts the presidential powers in formation of the upper chamber of the parliament.
  • The 2022 amendments abolished the constitutional provision on the status and powers held by the First President of Kazakhstan (abolishment of Article 46, part 4). In particular, the First President of Kazakhstan is no longer a lifelong member of the body of constitutional jurisdiction ex officio.
  • The amended Constitution of Kazakhstan establishes an unconditional ban on the death penalty.[25]
  • The power of constitutional review now belongs to the Constitutional Court (Article 71) instead of the Constitutional Council, which is to be abolished.
  • Article 83.1 entrenches the status of the ombudsman, the accredited representative for human rights in the Republic of Kazakhstan, on a constitutional level. The ombudsman aids in restoration of violated human and civic rights and freedoms, encourages their promotion, and is independent and unaccountable to state organs and officials while exercising his powers.

Unfortunately, the 2022 changes did not touch upon a very unfortunate constitutional provision regarding presidential impeachment, which is applicable only in cases of high treason. The presidential power to determine the country’s domestic and foreign policies (Article 40, Part 1), which is so popular in the post-Soviet space and so destructive to the principle of separation of powers, was also preserved. 

International evaluations

The Council of Europe characterized Azerbaijan’s constitutional referendum as a blow to the country’s democratic development. Austrian lawmaker Stefan Schennach, co-rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for the monitoring of Azerbaijan, critiqued that the referendum on constitutional amendments had been announced too close to the date it was to be held. In an interview, he noted that, in June 2016, neither the Azerbaijani president, nor any other government official, had said a single word about the referendum they were planning for September, stating that “when issues of such significance are brought to a referendum, more time should be provided for discussions in the country.”[26]

The Venice Commission, too, criticized the amendments to Azerbaijan’s Constitution in their “Preliminary opinion on the draft modifications of the Constitution submitted to the referendum of September 26, 2016.” According to the commission, the suggested amendments violate the balance between the branches of government. “The new powers of the president, introduced by the draft, are unprecedented even in comparative respect: they reduce his political accountability and weaken the parliament even further. The Venice Commission is particularly worried by the introduction of the figure of unelected vice presidents, who may at some point govern the country, and the president’s prerogative to declare early presidential elections at his/her convenience.”[27]

The experts of the Venice Commission posited that the extension of the presidential term up to seven years will strengthen executive power in Azerbaijan even more. The power to dissolve the parliament will limit the parliament’s independence and restrict the judicial system, since judges are appointed by the parliament. The commission has also noted that too little time was dedicated for the preparation of the referendum, and the amendments were not discussed in the parliament or in the public.

Some of the 2020 amendments to the Russian Constitution drew the Venice Commission’s attention as well—though, unfortunately, not all of them. In its “Opinion on the draft amendments,” the Venice Commission analyzed the following changes:

  • The decisions of interstate bodies adopted on the basis of the provisions of international treaties of the Russian Federation which collide with the Constitution that may not be executed in Russia;
  • the power of the Constitutional Court to resolve matters concerning the possibility of enforcing decision of interstate bodies adopted on the basis of international treaties ratified by the Russian Federation, in case they contradict the Constitution of the Russian Federation, is entrenched on a constitutional level (part 10).[28] 

Having repeatedly noted the importance of executing decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for the effectiveness of the system established by the European Convention, the Venice Commission highlighted that adherence to the court’s decisions is a key responsibility of the convention’s member countries. The commission stressed the important role national courts play in the effective execution of ECHR’s decisions, as well as the fact that, having joined the commission, member countries directly accepted the court’s competence not only to apply, but also to interpret the convention. At the same time, the Venice Commission acknowledged that in the process of executing such decisions, the legitimate supremacy of a state’s constitution can turn into a “complex problem to overcome.” As a result, some states have deemed it necessary to initiate constitutional reforms, thereby finding an appropriate solution to the issue (p. 56 of the Opinion).

The Venice Commission highlighted that the Strasbourg Court’s decisions are of a mandatory character, but in countries whose constitutions have priority over the European Convention, the constitutional courts might find contradictions between the national constitution and ECHR’s interpretation of specific provisions of the convention. Nevertheless, such contradictions do not make the country exempt from its obligation to implement the ruling made against it and do not indicate an automatic termination of the issue. A compromise may be found through a dialogue between the ECHR and the national courts. In the most challenging cases, the question of potentially amending the national constitution could be brought to the agenda.

Having praised Russia’s Constitutional Court, the Venice Commission expressed concern with the new presidential right to initiate the termination of the powers of Constitutional Court justices in the Federation Council, as proposed by the constitutional amendments. Having noted that the right of the executive power to initiate the procedure of judicial dismissal is not per se problematic, provided that the removal process is a judicial one, the commission underscored that introducing such a power in the existing context—in the absence of regulation of this process in the Constitution—will increase the likelihood of the executive power having influence over the Constitutional Court (p. 60). Additionally, the right of the Federation Council to terminate the powers of the Constitutional Court justices at the president’s request makes the Constitutional Court vulnerable to political pressure.

Previously, the Venice Commission noted that the Constitutional Court’s 2015 ruling that ECHR’s decisions cannot be executed in Russia contradicts the country’s obligations as a member of the European Convention. Now, the commission is extremely concerned with the constitutional entrenchment of this power and with the fact that the new amendments extend the powers of the court to rule on the impossibility of executing decisions of interstate bodies made on the basis of international treaties of the Russian Federation, if their interpretation contradicts the Russian Constitution. The commission also points to the worrisome fact that the amendments use the notion of “contradiction to the Constitution of the Russian Federation,” which is exceedingly vague, especially when compared to the original edition of Article 79, which “does not entail limitations of human and civic rights and freedoms and does contradict the foundations of the Constitutional order of the Russian Federation,” according to the commission.

The conclusion, overall, is unpromising: a number of post-Soviet states that initially chose a constitutional model with strong presidential powers currently display a tendency to further expand these powers. After a decade of fast-paced strengthening of parliamentary powers, Kyrgyzstan is returning to strong presidentialism. Russia and Azerbaijan don’t appear to have so much as veered from this path. Therefore, transformations in Georgia consistently oriented toward strengthening the parliament and restricting presidential powers look especially inspiring.

[1] The text of France’s 1958 Constitution is available here:


[2] Ibid.

[3] This was noted by Professor Vladik Nersesyantz of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Problems of the general theory of state and law. Ed. by Nersesyantz, Moscow, 1999.

[4] “Commentary on Article 80 of the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation.” Ed. by Zorkin, V.D., Lazarev, L.V. Full text (in Russian) is available here: https://kommentarii.org/konstitutc/index.html

[5] Problems of the general theory of state and law. Ed. by Nersesyantz, V.S. Moscow, 1999. p. 688-690.

[6] Ibid, p. 689.

[7] Article 80, part 2, of the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation (original version).

[8] For more, see: Kutafin, O.E. Russian Constitutionalism. Moscow, 2008.

[9] For more, see: Krasnov, M.A., Shablinsky, I.G., Russian system of power: One-angle triangle. Moscow, Institute of Law and Public Policy, 2008.

[10] Glushko, E.K “Powers of the President of the Russian Federation in the sphere of executive power. In: Executive power: Problem of organization and activity. Anthology. Moscow, 2006, p. 21.

[11] Ibid., p. 35.

[12] Ibid., p. 43

[13] Ruling No. 10-P of July 31, 1995, part 4. 

[14] Article 104 of the 1978 Constitution of the RSFSR.

[15] For more, see: Krasnov, M.A., Shablinsky, I.G., Russian system of power: One-angle triangle. Moscow, Institute of Law and Public Policy, 2008.

[16] Opinion on the Draft Amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan (adopted by the Venice Commission on March 13–14, 2009), p. 10.

[17] Ibid, p. 13.

[18] Article 101, part 1, of the Constitution of Azerbaijan. The amended text of the Constitution is available here:


[19] Article 103.1 of the 1995 Constitution of Azerbaijan.

[20] Ibid, Article 106.1.

[21] Ibid, Article 105.

[22] Ibid, Article 110.1.

[23] Ibid, Article 98.1.

[24] Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On the introduction of amendments and additions into the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan” (adopted at the republican referendum on May 6, 2022; results officially published on 06.08.2022). URL: https://online.zakon.kz/Document/?doc_id=39894735&pos=1;-8#pos=1;-8

[25] Ibid, p. 15. URL: https://online.zakon.kz/Document/?doc_id=39894735&doc_id2=1005029#pos=3;88.33332824707031&pos2=59;-96.33332824707031

[26] Quoted in: Mischenko, O. “Azerbaijan held a referendum on changes to the Constitution.” Deutsche Welle, September 26, 2016 (in Russian). URL: https://www.dw.com/ru/в-азербайджане-прошел-референдум-об-изменениях-конституции/a-35887567

[27] Point 86 of the Preliminary Opinion of the Venice Commission of 20 September 2016 on the Draft Modifications to the Constitution of Azerbaijan submitted to the Referendum of 26 September 2016. URL: https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-PI(2016)010-e

[28] The full text of the Opinion of the Venice Commission is available here:


For several months now, FRF has been analyzing the shifts in Russian public opinion on the war. The key insights are as follows:

  • The level of Russian public support for the war, while significant, is not as high as purported by some media outlets. Unconditional support for the war is below 40%, rather than the 70-80% reported.
  • The support has been steadily decreasing. This trend is likely strengthened by the counter-propaganda efforts.
  • Opposition to the war is astounding, especially in the face of horrendous repression. Polling results should be deciphered with caution and not simply taken at face value, as those opposing the war are likely to refuse to answer questions out of fear of persecution. Some studies estimate this group to be as large as 10-15% of the population.
  • Within the spectrum of propaganda narrative, the strongest driver of support are defensive motives, i.e. “countering the genocide of Russian-speaking peoples in Donbas” and “responding to the threat of NATO expansion,” rather than imperialistic goals of territory expansion.
  • Polls of Russians capture growing anxiety, fear, and uncertainty about the future, as well as loss of trust in state media, which has seen a dramatic decline in viewership. These trends do not support the claim of “unanimous backing of Putin’s war by Russians.”
  • It is possible to change Russian public opinion, despite resistance from state propaganda and repression.”

These interpretations are largely confirmed by the latest polling data. In the recent published Levada Center poll on the war against Ukraine, unconditional support for the war (“definitely support”) has dropped to an all-time low of 41%, against all-time high of 52% recorded in March.

Bundled up with conditional support (“more support than oppose”) it does add up to over 70% of the society, which is a number that the Western media is frequently citing. But doing so is a mistake, as those two numbers are not a contingent of one another, as conditional support often goes with a lot of reservations and concerns . If one looks into more detailed data like focus groups, it becomes clear that “more support the war than oppose” is largely signaling of minimal allegiance to the authorities, rather than the actual backing of the military action against Ukraine.

As noted above, about 10-15% of the Russians that are opposed to the war are afraid to admit it to pollsters — this had been revealed through differential between anonymous street polls and phone polls, as well as field experiments posing indirect questions (as was explained here). Once that factor is taken into account, the actual solid unconditional support for the war falls confidently below 40%.

According to various available indirect data (like focus groups), that is the actual honest assessment of the number of people consciously supporting the war — within 30-40% range. That is far below the “majority” which is widely discussed — but still an appallingly high number. However, is this number proving that Russians are an aggressive imperialist nation, driven by post-imperial nostalgia and seeking conquest of other countries? Facts on the ground cast doubt on that assertion.

Prior to the war, there was never any bottom-up demand from Russians for conquest of Ukraine, and Russians in their views have simply gone along with state propaganda. Polls show that Putin’s aggression against Ukraine came as much a surprise for the Russians as for anyone else. According to pre-war Levada poll published in February, only 5% of Russians thought that war with Ukraine was “inevitable”; plurality (49%) believed that the war wouldn’t happen, and that war rumors are largely a ‘provocation’ by the West (very much in line with official propaganda at the time, which had flatly denied that Russia was planning an invasion of Ukraine). 51% of Russians in that pre-war February poll said that they were “frightened” by the prospect of a war with Ukraine; there was clearly no upbeat ultra-patriotic enthusiasm about that.

When Russians are being asked about causes of the war, they mostly cite defensive, not offensive reasons to justify the invasion. Only a limited number of people (about 20% of war supporters, fewer than 10% of Russians overall — not a unique number of aggressive members of society, even by the standards of developed democracies) says that Ukraine should not exist as a nation and the goal should be to incorporate Ukraine into Russia (as explained here).

Most of those who express support for the war repeat the following propaganda lines:

  • That Ukraine was involved in some sort of “genocide” of Russian-speaking peoples in Donbas since 2014;
  • That NATO enlargement presented a serious threat to Russia’s security, that Ukraine’s possible NATO accession could have prompted deployment of NATO troops, weapons and “missiles” aimed at Russia, and that Russia “had to react defensively”.

Without question, Russian propaganda has been very effective in promoting false narratives, and efforts should be increased to counter them. Many Russians deeply believe in these narratives, which have been promoted for nearly a decade. There is a popular “sorting question”, ” where have you been for 8 years?”, which implies that, according to Russian propaganda, Ukraine has been shelling Russian-speaking people in Donbas for 8 years and that Russia only intervened “to save them” after its patience worn out. Debunking a long-promoted propaganda narrative is not easy, but it can be effective. Another important propaganda narrative that helps create support for Putin’s actions is the idea that “everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we?” This narrative suggests that other countries are also engaging in questionable or nefarious actions, so it is justified for Russia to do the same.

People in the West, shocked by the atrocities committed by Russians in Bucha, Irpin, Izyum, and the barbaric bombardments of Ukrainian cities and towns, are bewildered by the insensitivity of Russians to these tragedies. However, if you are an ordinary Russian living your daily life and watching Russian TV, you reside in a completely different information space.

For years, Kremlin-controlled media has taken every opportunity to brainwash Russians with coverage of Western bombardments of places like Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 remains a particularly strong trigger used by the Russian propaganda. Of course, Russian narratives about these military operations are biased and distorted. But how could ordinary Russians know this? They have been desensitized with the footage of Western military interventions in other countries, with an emphasis on civilian casualties, destruction, and other negative consequences, for decades.

So, unfortunately, many Russians, after all these years of propaganda, treat war and aggression as some sort of “new normal”. “America is doing that all the time in its interests — why can’t we?” In the view of many Russians brainwashed by propaganda, Russia had simply chosen to defend its interests “in the same way that America has been doing for years”.

Of course, this type of whataboutism is deeply flawed, but it offers a straightforward way for “friend or foe” sorting during wartime. Putin himself frequently references Western military operations in Iraq and other countries, drawing incorrect parallels that are quickly internalized by ordinary Russians. These individuals may lack sufficient knowledge and simply be motivated by tribalistic instincts of the “it’s my country, through thick and thin” type. They may even dislike what their country is doing but have a deeply skeptical view of the West due to its past wars and bombardments.

Those in the West who depict Russians as an aggressive, imperialistic nation should keep in mind that many Russians genuinely believe that what Russia is doing in Ukraine is no different than what America has been doing in previous decades. They often view the universal condemnation of Russia’s actions as a sign of “hypocritic Russophobia” in the West, rather than a sign that their own country is engaged in something terribly wrong.

It is important to remember that inside Russia, information about  atrocities and war crimes in Ukraine is heavily censored, and the awareness of the Russian public about these crimes is low. Shortly after the start of the war, Russian authorities introduced new amendments to the Criminal Code that included punishment for “spreading fake information about the actions of the Russian military” (i.e., telling the truth about the war) with up to 15 years in prison. Practice shows that courts do not acquit those charged under this new article of the Criminal Code; 100% of those charged are convicted. Early sentences are particularly harsh: politicians Ilya Yashin and Alexey Gorinov were sentenced to 8.5 and 7 years in prison, respectively, and activist Altan Ochirov from Kalmykia was sentenced to 5 years.

Russian propaganda insists that Russia’s military “only bombs military targets and carefully avoids civilian casualties”; however, evidence to the contrary is heavily censored, and there is a highly effective media machine that portrays reports of civilian casualties and military atrocities as “fake news” (such as the infamous “corpse moving its hand” attack against the video of the aftermath of the Bucha massacre).

Despite this, brave Russians continue to spread the truth about Russia’s aggression and war crimes in Ukraine. Unfortunately, many counter-propaganda efforts are quite ineffective and even counterproductive. However, when information about atrocities by the Russian military does manage to get through in credible formats it becomes an eye-opener, and many Russians do change their minds. When, in recent months, the Levada Center asked detailed questions about what concerns Russians most regarding the war, 47% said that human suffering and deaths were the most concerning factor, while only 6% cited “the presence of fascists and Banderites” in Ukraine (a dominant narrative promoted by the Kremlin).

Negative sentiments about their lives in general, and about the war specifically, as well as a sharp decline in trust for state media also suggest that Russians are not happy about the actions of their military in Ukraine and the state propaganda. According to Kremlin-linked pollster FOM, in the fall of 2022, Russians were more likely to be in an “anxious mood” than “calm” (54% vs. 38% by the end of December). When asked about their emotions regarding the war, only 42% (a number consistent with the measurement of solid unconditional support for the war) say that they feel “pride for Russia”. That is followed by 34% who say that they feel “anxiety, fear, horror”; 11% feel “anger, outrage, shock”; 7% feel “depression, numbness”; and 6% feel “shock.” “Satisfaction, joy, excitement” about the war are felt by 5% of respondents.

Another indirect sign that support for the war is much lower than claimed is the plunging ratings of state propaganda channels. This development has been reported by various pollsters throughout the year, including advertiser GroupM, Levada, and Romir. According to Romir (which itself is quite loyal to the authorities), there has been a significant drop in the audience of main state television channels since the beginning of the war. Channel One’s audience share fell from 33.7% in February to 25.5% in July; the share of Russia 1 fell from 30.9% to 23%; and the NTV channel’s share fell from 21.1% to 16.6%. These figures have remained more or less stable since then. According to the Levada Center, by the end of 2022, trust in state television had dropped to 49%, near all-time lows. Earlier in the year, the GroupM advertising company reported a drop in trust in state-run television channels from 33% to 23% after the beginning of the war.

That is not a picture of a nation particularly thrilled by what Putin is doing in Ukraine.

Another source of hope emerging from the polls is a solid anti-war minority in Russia. According to Levada polls, currently 21% of Russians dare to openly say that they are against the war – a brave enough act given the potential consequences. Keeping in mind the percentage of those who may oppose the war but are afraid to say it, it is likely that over 30% of the population is consciously against the war. These are not marginal numbers; this is a sizable part of Russian society. Another telling number is that provided by independent human rights NGO OVD-Info, according to which about 20,000 Russians have been detained at anti-war protests since the war broke out on February 24, 2022. This is a verifiable, trusted number based on a careful count of individual detention cases.

The OVD-Info statistics uphold stringent standards and therefore tend to underreport. Moreover, the number of detentions at protests is usually significantly lower than the number of participants, as only a fraction of protesters are arrested immediately (though most do face a persecution in following months). This means that the overall number of Russians protesting the war since February 24 is likely in the six digits. This is a very sizable number, considering the significantly elevated risks and real prison terms for speaking out against the war.

There is a misconception that Russians are not protesting the war. This is fueled by the expectation of highly visible protests like those that occurred during the Anti-War Marches of 2014-2015 and the Navalny era rallies of 2017-2021. However, these types of protests are no longer possible because opposition rallies in Russia have been criminalized and opposition groups have been dismantled, with their leaders either arrested or exiled. The government is also reducing the public visibility of protests by surrounding main city squares with fences, forcing protesters to disperse on nearby side streets.

Moreover, oppressive policies against journalists and independent media outlets have led to many being shut down or exiled, even before the start of the war. Since the war started, reporting on anti-war protests has been classified as a criminal offense of “spreading fake news about the special military operation,” significantly reducing the ability of journalists to report on the scale of protests. Many social media platforms have also been shut down, further diminishing the reporting on protests.

As a result, anti-war protests in 2022 have been less visible to the international community compared to protest rallies in previous years. However, a careful examination of cross-regional news on protests reveals that the number of people on the streets was significant.

In the absence of organized opposition on the streets, and with the increased police brutality and criminalization of anti-war protests, they quickly faded as people saw no point in getting arrested. According to our feedback from across the country, society is currently in a regrouping phase, adapting to the new repressive reality, and we can expect to see more protest activity in the future. Therefore, it is deeply unfair to blame Russians for “not protesting the war.”

The shifting public opinion can serve as a driving force behind the mobilization of masses and the fueling of protests. Throughout 2022, we have observed a trend of steadily declining support for Putin’s war, but there is still room for improvement. What can be done to accelerate this shift in Russian public opinion?

Data suggests that certain approaches of counter-propaganda campaigns are not effective and may even be counterproductive. One example is projects that involve phone calls to ordinary Russians to discuss the war. The authors of such initiatives likely envisioned that this direct, person-to-person communication would be effective in breaking through the wall of state propaganda. However, several realities of the actual Russian situation are underestimated:

  • Russians are annoyed by unwanted spam calls, which have become a major problem nationwide. In 2022, the growth in spam calls was estimated at 73% year-on-year. Many calls about the war from unknown callers, particularly from foreign numbers, are seen as spam and only foment annoyance rather than producing a positive result.
  • A call from abroad raises suspicion by definition – is it CIA propaganda? Or a disguised FSB loyalty test? It is very difficult to break through suspicion and distrust when talking to an unknown person calling from foreign countries labeled as “hostile” by the Russian state.
  • Volunteer callers often lack the skill to effectively counter well-developed Russian propaganda narratives and their emotionally driven appeals often only make things worse. Receiving an emotional call from a stranger who is not truly prepared to counter professionally crafted Russian propaganda is hardly helpful in convincing anyone.

The belief that all Russians are narrow-minded people who just need to be lectured on basic things is deeply misguided. The reality is different: Russians are victims of sophisticated, professional propaganda that is based on a deep understanding of Russian psychology and worldview. Emotions and lightweight approaches don’t work here; a professional approach is needed, with a native level understanding of sensibilities, sentiments, and the information environment.

Foreign narratives like “Russia should be broken apart into separate territories” are especially counterproductive. Many of these narratives, contrary to the intentions of their authors, strengthen the Kremlin’s propaganda rather than disproving it (“we told you – their real intent is to destroy Russia “; “you see, the West has no concern about your well-being”)

On the other hand, Russian opposition activists and independent journalists have made significant progress in changing the propaganda-distorted worldview of the Russian people. Independent broadcasting through social media channels has reached an unprecedented high in 2022, while trust and viewership of state media have declined. According to Forbes Russia, YouTube’s average daily outreach in Russia increased from around 45 million in February to closer to 50 million by the second half of the year. Telegram’s average daily outreach also grew from around 25 million at the beginning of the war to over 40 million.

The most successful independent media outlets have proven to be visible alternatives to state-run propaganda. Major Russian independent media channel TV Rain has nearly 4 million subscribers on YouTube after reopening in July 2022 (it was forced to shut down and relocate from Russia since March). YouTube channels linked to Alexey Navalny’s team are also thriving: Navalny Live has crossed the 3 million subscriber threshold, and the newly-launched channel Popular Politics went from just over 400,000 subscribers to 1.7 million by the end of the year. There is growing public interest in independent investigative journalism and relevant media outlets and YouTube channels, such as Proekt, Important Stories, and The Insider.

The combined regular audience of the independent and opposition Youtube channels in Russia is reaching as high as 30-40 million. Putin turned out to be afraid to block Youtube in Russia because of its widespread popularity among ordinary Russians, and the absence of comparable convenient and demanded platform.

Russian independent social media broadcasting has had a significant impact on shifting public opinion about the war in Ukraine and decreasing support for Putin’s war. These outlets deserve support, but it has become difficult for them to sustain themselves due to restrictions on cross-border financial transactions and the departure of Visa and Mastercard from Russia. Most of their audiences and donors are still located in Russia.

Supporting independent anti-Putin and anti-war Russian broadcasting is worthwhile. Major broadcasting outlets and personalities have built a reputation with the Russian audience over the years. It is important that the current independent broadcasting is done by Russians, for Russians, as this significantly increases its credibility. Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has set in motion a myriad of destructive processes whose toll will continue to grow.  No one in Russia wants a long-term war, and the mobilization for the war is unpopular. The economic forecast for 2023 looks grim, and Russians’ well-being has steadily decreased since the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. We can expect a more receptive audience for efforts to further turn public opinion against Putin and continue the trend that emerged in 2022. Supporting this trend is important, and the most effective way to do so is by supporting independent media and activist outlets that have already demonstrated success and growth.

In May 2015, a report titled “Putin. War” was launched in Moscow, detailing the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and direct involvement in the military conflict in Donbass. The work on this report had been originally initiated by Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic leader of the Russian opposition, who tragically assassinated in the center of Moscow before he could finish it. His allies, including politician Ilya Yashin, who has been recently sentenced to a lengthy prison term in a clear case of political persecution, completed the report. Its preamble is a powerful call to action: “We should mass-print this report and give it out on the streets. Let us tell the Russian people how Putin started this war.”

The war. Since 2014, this menacing word has been encroaching, like a dark cloud, on European skies, until it finally exploded in 2022, raining down on Ukraine with thousands of rockets, destroying cities, killing and wounding civilians, sending millions of refugees away from home. February 24, 2022—the day the Kremlin began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine—has divided the life of millions into before and after.  

The past year has been life-changing for many. Last December, few could have imagined that the Donbass conflict would turn into an all-out war in the heart of Europe, precipitating humanitarian, energy, and other crises of global scale. With the onset of war, in Russia, we have seen a disturbing deterioration of state institutions, a massive wave of repression against dissidents, an imposition of military censorship, an increasingly unhinged propaganda, and a dramatic exodus of the Russians who opposed the war. The main challenge—the crisis of confidence—has emerged against the backdrop of Russia’s blatant violation of international treaties, norms, and human decency, but has not reached its peak yet. This war has also exposed flaws and failures that we all, as humankind, will be confronting for years to come.

Since its inception in 2014, Free Russia Foundation has been setting off alarms about the Kremlin’s growing aggression that threatens not only Russian citizens, but the entire world. On February 24, 2022, we strongly condemned Russian authorities’ criminal decision to launch an unprovoked, aggressive war against sovereign Ukraine. Russia’s forceful seizure of another country’s territory, its war crimes, and nuclear blackmail cannot be justified under any circumstances.

The invasion of Ukraine was shocking, painful, and profoundly traumatic for all of us. Yet, instead of incapacitating us, it strengthened our resolve, giving us new energy and purpose. Ending the war and alleviating the suffering it has unleashed became our focus. Since day one of the war, we have been campaigning to tell the truth about Putin’s war in Ukraine to the Russian people, spearheading efforts to free Ukrainian citizens taken hostage by the Kremlin, and assisting Russian activists, journalists, and politicians in exile so that they could continue their pro-democracy and anti-war efforts.

Helping Ukrainians brutalized by the war has been our priority. FRF has organized over 60 evacuation missions from the war zones in Kyiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhya, Kramatorsk, and others, taking to safety thousands of people—and their pets. We purchased medical equipment for Ukrainians in need, sending from the U.S. 200 tactical turnstiles (CAT), 70 equipped first-aid kits (IFAK), 70 anti-burn stickers, 70 breathing tubes; from Israel 105 emergency bandages, 110 anti-blood patches, 50 hemostatic bandages; from Turkey 80 walkie-talkies, and from Poland over 200 sleeping bags. We were sending tourniquets and drones to Ukraine.

On June 12, Free Russia Foundation coordinated anti-war rallies in 80 cities across 37 countries, striving to amplify Russians’ anti-war voices, show activists inside Russia that they are not alone, that there is international support for their fight, and counter the Kremlin propaganda’s claim that all Russians approve of the war.

On June 16, the Foundation launched an international campaign—#NOTOWAR / #НЕТВОЙНЕ—to unite voices of the Russian speakers around the world and help stop the war. In the wake of the Kremlin’s suppression of domestic dissent, this campaign calls on Russian diasporas and Russians in exile to speak out against the war—including on behalf of those Russians who, for objective reasons, cannot openly express their views. Through protests, information campaigns, and human rights activities, we pressure Russian authorities to withdraw troops from Ukraine, demonstrating the presence of a global anti-war Russian-speaking community. Our campaign includes both expert analyses and stories of ordinary Russians who have been affected by the war.

In September, the announced partial mobilization in Russia triggered a second wave of emigration. According to some estimates, between 150,000 and 1,500,000 citizens left the country—potentially amounting to the largest exodus in Russia’s recent history. Due to the drastic nature of this emigration wave, many Russians faced serious challenges along the way—from visa issues to financial hardships to acute emotional and psychological crises. FRF addressed this situation by providing legal and counseling support as well as drawing attention of European officials, diplomats, and journalists to these issues. Our legal aid program reached over 600 citizens of Russia and over 500 residents of Belarus. We helped several ethnic minority groups to evacuate thousands of people to Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

In the second half of 2022, Free Russia Foundation opened Resource Centers throughout Europe—in Berlin, Tallinn, Vilnius, and Tbilisi. These are public spaces where exiled anti-war Russian activists as well as Ukrainian activists working on humanitarian projects can get much needed assistance. Resource Centers offer legal aid and counseling, hold discussions, and organize anti-war events. We hope that these spaces will help build a strong global community committed to promoting democratic values, advancing peace, and facilitating political change in Russia.

The persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza, our former colleague (until August 2021) and Russia’s prominent politician and human rights activist, has been another unhappy development in 2022. Vladimir was detained in April in front of his apartment building in Moscow. At first, he was charged with an administrative offense—for allegedly disobeying police orders. Criminal charges were consequently added to his case. Vladimir was accused of disseminating false information about the Russian military (this charge referred to his March 15 speech at the Arizona House of Representatives, in which he said that the Putin regime “is dropping bombs on residential areas, hospitals and schools” in Ukraine). Next, he was charged with collaboration with an “undesirable organization” on the account of his organizing a roundtable in support of political prisoners at the Sakharov Center in Moscow in October of 2021.

Finally, in October, an additional criminal charge was brought against Kara-Murza — high treason. This accusation is based on three public speeches he had given abroad, including one in which Vladimir had said that Russia was persecuting political opposition and introducing total censorship. The charge of high treason for public speaking is a cynical cover for the Putin regime’s persecution of the freedom of speech. This high-profile political case is clearly designed to fully silence Russia’s pro-democracy movement.

In response to these outrageous attacks on Vladimir, Free Russia Foundation has launched a global campaign calling for his release. Hundreds of media outlets around the world covered his case. Human rights organizations, U.S. and European politicians, Russian opposition leaders and international opinion leaders issued statements in Vladimir’s support, condemning his political persecution.

This campaign has been spearheaded by his wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza, who became FRF’s  Director for Advocacy in 2022. Evgenia has spoken in support of Vladimir and all Russia’s political prisoners at hundreds of meetings with stake holders and opinion leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Her speeches were heard at forums and conferences in the U.S. and Europe and in the interviews with CNN, BBC, The Washington Post, Deutsche Welle, Voice of America, and many others. Public and political figures, such as Steven Cohen, William Browder, Irvin Cotler, Tom Malinowski, Roger Wicker, Robert Menendez, Michael McFaul, Ben Cardin, Marco Rubio, Dick Durbin, Vladimir Milov, Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Lyubov Sobol, Sergey Aleksashenko, and many others joined the fight for Vladimir’s freedom. A group of the U.S. senators made a joint appeal to President Joe Biden, calling for action, under the Magnitsky Act, against those responsible for Vladimir Kara-Murza’s persecution.

Despite Vladimir’s arrest, decades of his anti-war and pro-democracy work have not been disrupted. He continues to write and share his work with the world through his lawyer. His resilience is truly inspiring. In recognition of his efforts, Vladimir has been the recipient of several international prizes and awards. In October, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) announced that its most prestigious award, the Václav Havel Prize for Human Rights, would be given to Vladimir. In November, the Geneva-based UN Watch also awarded him with its highest prize — the Morris B. Abram Human Rights Award. Vladimir dedicated this award to the thousands of people who had been arrested or detained in Russia for protesting Putin’s war in Ukraine.

This year, our team welcomed a prominent Russian pro-democracy politician, Vladimir Milov, as Vice President for International Advocacy. Vladimir is a recognized opposition leader, member of Alexey Navalny’s team as well as an economist and energy expert. Under Vladimir’s leadership, FRF continues combating autocracy and repression in Russia and countering aggression that the Putin regime unleashed on Ukraine and Belarus. Vladimir Milov is well-known for his unequivocal anti-war stance. In April 2021, he left Russia for Lithuania following persecution of Navalny’s organizations. In February 2022, he categorically condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On May 6, 2022, Russia’s Ministry of Justice added the politician to its blacklist of “foreign agents.” Milov is a regular guest on CNN and CNBC, and is often cited by The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal.

This year Vladimir Milov published several important papers: “The EU’s Relations With a Future Democratic Russia: A Strategy”, “Beyond the Headlines: The Real Impact of Western Sanctions on Russia”, “Yes, It Hurts: Measuring the Effects of Western Sanctions Against Russia”. A series of his articles were also written for FRF and published on the Foundation’s website, among them — “What is the Russian Public Opinion regarding Putin’s war against Ukraine?”, “Saying “Nothing Will Ever Change in Russia” is not Only Unhelpful, It is Wrong”, “Russian Society is in the Midst of a Profound Transformation not Captured by Traditional Opinion Polls”.

Free Russia Foundation continues to integrate the insights acquired through our “field” work into studies and reports. This year, we have released the following reports: “Russian Emigrants: The Cost of Freedom,” “The Russian Economy and Sanctions: Who’s Who?”, “A Case for Supporting Free Democratic Russia,” “Russia-Turkey Relations in the Context of War in Ukraine,” “Yandex — the Kremlin’s Weapon Against Democracy,” “Decolonization in Real Time: Why the World Should Support Russians Running from Mobilization.” We have also penned profiles of political prisoners in Russia. Hundreds of posts on our social media accounts have focused on exposing the truth about the war in Ukraine, repression and censorship in Russia, highlighting the activities of the anti-war movement in Russia and the work of the Foundation.

In early December, our organization celebrated its eighth anniversary. Back in 2014, Free Russia Foundation first announced itself to the world as a group of activists supporting civil society and democratic development in Russia. In just a few years, we have grown into a powerful global movement uniting hundreds of talented professionals—civil society activists, human rights advocates, entrepreneurs, scholars, politicians, and journalists. What unites us is the vision that a free and peaceful Russia should and can be part of a secure and prosperous international community. It is our willingness to devote time, knowledge, and experience to achieving a common goal that has contributed to the Foundation’s success.

In 2022, the threat posed to the world by the Putin regime became evident to many. With its nuclear blackmail, this personalist authoritarian regime now endangers not only the neighboring nations but the entire world. In his 22 years in power, Vladimir Putin managed to largely insulate his regime from external challenges and secure his position in power for life. His regime destroyed the opposition and the independent media, subjugated the elites, and instilled fear in the Russian public. He also uses the war to ramp up repression and strengthen control over the country, signaling willingness to escalate internationally as well.

At Free Russia Foundation, we are convinced that an end to this conflict and a lasting peace in the region are only possible if we work together towards this goal. We believe that Ukrainian people will prevail, and the resolute anti-war stance of many Russians gives us hope. We will continue to fight against the Putin regime, following our vision of the future where Russia can become a beacon of peace and prosperity.

Russia keeps using multiple instruments to influence Georgia. These instruments include but are not limited to:

  1. Direct military threat;
  2. Leveraging the occupied territories: threats of annexation, creeping “borderization,”[1]
    exerting pressure on Georgian population that still live in these territories;
  3. Manipulating access to the Russian market;
  4. Hybrid threats, including disinformation and manipulations of pro-Russian social, political, and religious groups.

There are other tools of influence as well, but their impact is limited or unclear. Among them are: Russian energy exports to Georgia, ethnic Russians living in Georgia, including recent migrants, Russian state media.

This report will mainly discuss the main four tools of influence but will touch upon secondary threats as well.

Direct Military Threat

Russian invasion of Ukraine made it abundantly clear that Russia disregards international law. The Kremlin claimed that the existing international order is unfair, and Moscow is willing to use force to change it. Rules and principles of non-use of force, territorial integrity and sovereignty, Geneva Conventions, freedom of navigation, freedom of trade, nuclear safety have no meaning for the Putin regime. Moreover, this regime is willing to pay huge price in terms of international isolation, sanctions, and economic decline to achieve its objectives. This tectonic, albeit not so sudden, shift immediately put Russia’s every neighbor in a much more dangerous strategic environment.

Despite major differences regarding the ways of handling the Russian threat, Georgia’s political class uniformly understands its severity. The Georgian government opted for a low-key approach: Georgia aligns with the West in voting in the UN and other international bodies and condemns Russian aggression, but refuses to join Western sanctions,[2] declines to provide even symbolic military support to Ukraine, and, moreover, tries to use the Ukraine war for its domestic propaganda purposes, presenting itself as the only force capable of preventing military action from reaching Georgia. Opposition, civil society, and most of Georgia’s international partners harshly criticize this approach.[3] Indeed, it has caused major friction between Georgia and its Western partners, who have taken a clear and principled position supporting Ukraine. Georgian opposition and civil society criticize the government because they think that the government should ally with Ukraine and the West not only because it is morally justified, but because it also provides Georgia with the only security guarantee. General population overwhelmingly supports Ukraine, but is also afraid of Russian invasion, which it had witnessed not so long ago—in 2008. Among international volunteers fighting on Ukraine’s side against Russia, Georgia has possibly deployed more combatants than any other country and so far suffered the greatest number of casualties—36 as of December 14, followed by Belarus and the U.S.

To be fair, Russia has not made any public threat to Georgia or undertaken any military deployment that would show hostile intent, but latent threat causes major friction both within Georgia and between Georgia and its partners.

As the Russian army gets bogged down in Ukraine and is taking major losses, threat of invasion of Georgia is decreasing. 

Occupied Territories

South Ossetia has turned into a recruiting ground by the Russian military.[4] This occupied has already lost 23 men fighting in Ukraine. While there are no reliable data on South Ossetia’s population size, it has been reported that about 7,000 people participated in the recently held “presidential elections.” Assuming that the entire population amounts to 15,000, this territory could thus have lost 0,15% of its people to the Ukraine war.

The September 28 visit of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to Abkhazia heightened fears of possible Belarusian recognition of Abkhazia. For Lukashenko, that would be highly damaging, because Abkhazia and South Ossetia could then join Russia-Belarus Union, diminishing the Belarusian dictator’s status and legitimacy. However, such a move cannot be ruled out since Lukashenko’s autonomy is highly questionable.

Outright annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains a possibility for the Kremlin, although the Russian army’s fumbling in Kherson makes it less likely. The Kherson debacle has also shown that annexation can be reversed.

Meanwhile, even as Russia has withdrawn significant number of troops from its bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the “borderization” process did not subside. Ethnic Georgian population in both regions remain vulnerable as demonstrated by the continued detentions[5] of local Georgians on occupied territories as well as across the administrative boundary line (ABL)
in South Ossetia. After losing their Abkhaz passports, ethnic Georgians get deprived of their political rights.

There has been a consensus in the Georgian society that there can be no military solution to the problem of occupied territories, even if Russia continues to be humiliated on Ukrainian battlefield. However, as shown by most the recent escalation in Nagorno Karabakh, areas once dominated by the Russian military are turning into power vacuums, which get quickly filled by other powers—by Turkey in the Karabakh case. This also signifies that, going forward, the EU might play a much more important, even crucial role in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Market Access Manipulations

Manipulation with access to its markets remains a prominent feature of Russian foreign policy. In 2006-2013, Russia almost entirely denied access to its market for Georgian agricultural products over disagreements—and later war—with Tbilisi. Following the change in the Georgian government, Russia promptly reopened its market to Georgian fruits and wines thus creating one of the most effective leverages against Georgia. Moscow has clearly demonstrated that it will not hesitate to shut down markets again when it quickly moved to close air traffic between Russia and Georgia after the so called “Gavrilov’s affair.”[6]

As Georgian export to Russia increases, Georgian government acts with increased caution. Threat of losing the Russian market is one of the key reasons why Tbilisi refuses to join sanctions against Russia. It is mostly government-affiliated businesses that take advantage of the trade with Russia as well as significant numbers of impoverished farmers in the Georgian regions where other jobs are scarce.

One the other hand, after most of the land transportation routes between Russia and Europe were closed over the Ukraine war, transit through Georgia has increased dramatically. Georgia can now feel safer, because Russia will find it much more difficult to lose Georgian transit should it consider imposing embargo against Georgia.

Hybrid Threats


The Kremlin’s narrative in Georgia before the war was based on the following major premises:

  1. Russia is militarily strong; it is located next door and willing to use force; the West, while also militarily strong, is far and is not willing to fight for Georgia. (This created a false impression that Russia is militarily stronger than NATO.)
  2. Russia is the only market for Georgian goods (fruits, vegetables, wine, mineral water), while nobody needs these goods in Europe.
  3. Georgia and Russia are co-religionists, and Russia is the power that guards ancient traditions, while the West is promoting modern values that are alien to Georgians.
  4. Putin is a strong and successful leader, while Western leaders are weaklings and losers.
  5. After the Ukraine war broke out, new items were added to this list: Zelensky is a clown and a drug addict, the West is equally or more to blame for the war than Russia.
  6. And, most importantly, no matter what is happening, Russia is somehow still going to win the war.

Naturally, Russia’s resort to hard power and especially brutalities in Ukraine, undermined its soft power influence. The common values argument suffered the most: nobody believes in the Kremlin’s support of the Christian or humanist ideas anymore. As Russian economy takes a dive over sanctions amidst growing expectations that the worst is yet to come, Russian market’s importance will likely suffer as well.

Now, when Russia claims that it is fighting against the entire North Atlantic Alliance, it cannot simultaneously claim that the West has no willpower to come to Georgia’s aid.

Therefore, one can expect that Russia will work harder to shift the blame for war to the West and claim that it is the West that brought so much destruction on Ukraine to achieve its strategic goals—and that it will gladly sacrifice Georgia, too. “Evil Anglo-Saxons provoking the war between brotherly nations to consolidate global domination” will likely become the next slogan of the Kremlin propaganda as Russia’s military humiliations continue. Another Georgia-specific argument that Russian propaganda will likely advance will be that “even if Russia loses in Ukraine, Georgia should stay quiet, because Putin might turn to Georgia seeking a new small victorious war.”

In the medium-to-long term, however, it is clear that Putin has staked his reputation and the power of the decades of propaganda on the results of the Ukraine war. His regime cannot survive a clear military defeat, no matter how hard Moscow claims that war was provoked by the West.[7] If, however, Russia can claim some success after the war ends, the propaganda’s power will be preserved.

Pro-Russian groups

1. “Democratic Movement—United Georgia” party and Ms. Nino Burjanadze.

Democratic Movement—United Georgia is a political party founded in 2008 by Nino Burjanadze, former speaker of the Georgian parliament. Georgian opposition and experts criticize Burjanadze for her pro-Kremlin statements, visits to Moscow, and narratives against Georgia’s NATO membership. On November 4, Obieqtivi TV aired excerpts from the 60 Minutes, a talk show on the Russian state’s Rossiya 1 TV channel, where Ms. Burjanadze discussed Russian military intervention in Georgia in August 2008 and occupation of Ukraine’s territory in 2014, claiming that the new Ukrainian government were making the same mistakes that former Georgian authorities had made before them by yielding to provocations and getting involved in the armed conflict with Russia. She also alluded to some “serious forces that wanted to portray Russia as an aggressor and enemy of Ukraine, as it had happened in August 2008 with respect to Georgia,” according to mythdetector.ge.

2. Alliance of Patriots

Alliance of Patriots is a Georgian political party founded in 2012 by Irma Inashvili and Davit Tarkhan-Mouravi, leaders of the Resistance Movement, which opposed Mikheil Saakashvili’s government. The party is known for its campaigns against Turkey and the West—the powers that oppose the Kremlin’s policies in the region. The party’s leaders are known to have visited Russia in attempts to establish the so-called “groups of friendship” with the State Duma deputies, even though they had been given no mandate from the Georgian parliament. They are also implicated in making xenophobic, anti-LBTQ+, anti-democratic statements. Alliance of Patriots lost almost all credibility during the 2020 election campaign when the Dossier Center published evidence of the party’s cooperation with the Kremlin.[8]  

3. Alt-Info, party and movement

Alt-Info is a right-wing private TV company and an online media outlet founded by Shota Martinenko and Ciala Morgoshia in 2019 to “counter aggressive liberal censorship.” One of its sponsors is Georgian businessman Konstantin Morgoshia, founding member of the Georgian March, a national-conservative party and movement, and the aforementioned Alliance of Patriots. Alt-Info organized several protests, including one against the 2021 Tbilisi Pride, resulting in over 50 journalists being violently beaten by the Alt-Info members.[9] On December 7, 2021, members of Alt-Info created a new political party called the Conservative Movement. Both the party and the media outlet are known for hostile rhetoric towards minorities, aggressive actions and threats against pro-democracy actors, anti-Western and pro-Kremlin statements.

Over the past decade, the openly pro-Russian political parties in Georgia have been getting increasingly more radical. If Nino Burjanadze’s party[10] had avoided calls for violence, the Alliance of Patriots,[11] which replaced it, was more eager to use provocative, violent rhetoric, but still relied on political methods in its work. The Alt-Info[12] (which includes both a political party and a TV station under the same name), which, in turn, replaced the Alliance of Patriots in the winter of 2022, appears more as a group of thugs than a political entity. Alt-Info did not enjoy much success: their claims that Russia would destroy Ukraine in three days and then would possibly focus on Georgia turned out to be completely wrong. Reportedly, this group had ties with General Sergei Beseda of Russia’s FSB.[13] Allegations against Beseda resulted in his summons to Moscow and cutting of the funding for the pro-Russian organizations abroad. Revival of Alt-Info is highly questionable.

Pro-Russian electorate, which now styles itself as “pro-peace,” is mostly affiliated with the ruling party, the Georgian Dream. As its relations with the West deteriorates, the alliance of pro-Russian forces is probably going to strengthen. The Georgian government hopes that this can help it maintain electoral majority.

Other tools

  • Unlike much of Europe, Georgia is not threatened by Russia’s energy cut-offs in any important way. It imports almost no gas and only small amounts of electricity from Russia. Georgia’s oils imports from Russia have increased dramatically taking advantage of lower price.
  • The Georgian government has announced that about 112,000 Russian citizens have arrived in Georgia since the outbreak of the Ukraine war.[14] Although vast majority of the Georgian public disapproves of this massive immigration flow, so far, no major problems have been reported. Russians have settled mostly in Tbilisi and Batumi.
  • Russian state media enjoy very limited viewership in Georgia. Azerbaijani and

Armenian minorities have generally switched to broadcasting in their respective languages. Russian propaganda is also delivered in local language rather than in Russian.

  • After Ukraine has sanctioned Bidzina Ivanishvili’s (founder of the ruling party) family members[15] for helping Russia avoid sanctions, corruption has come to the forefront of public discussion. Fight against corruption is also one of the twelve conditions Brussels has put forward for Georgia’s achieving the status of the candidate member of the EU.[16] Corruption seems to be a very serious long-term problem for Georgia.

Overall, the degree of Russian influence over Georgia depends largely upon the situation on Ukraine’s battlefield. As recent stages of the war have not gone well for Russia, its influence in the region has declined. However, things look more complicated in Georgia, where the so-called “peace coalition” is trying to take advantage of the situation, while corrupt ties between Georgian and Russian ruling elites seem to be strengthening.

[1] Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies: Borderization – Creeping Occupation. URL:

[2] “Why does Georgia not join anti-Russian sanctions?” Jam News. June, 2022. URL:

[3] “The face of Georgia’s turn from the West.” OC-Media. August, 2022. URL:

[4] “South Ossetian troops fight for Russia in Ukraine.” EurasiaNet. March 2022. URL:

[5] “Georgian citizen detained near occupation line.” Civil.ge. December 2022. URL:

[6] “Gavrilov’s night in Tbilisi.” OC-Media. June 2020. URL:

[7] “Putin blames the West for war in Ukraine.” BBC. May 2022. URL:

[8] Russian Watchdog: Kremlin Interferes in Georgia Polls, Aids Alliance of Patriots, Civil.ge 2020. URL: https://civil.ge/archives/363628

[9] Activities of the Alt-Info in Georgia. ISFED. July 2022. URL: https://isfed.ge/eng/blogi/220711014334test 

[10] Nino Burjanadze is a Georgian politician and lawyer who served as a chairperson of Georgia’s parliament in 2001-2008 and was acting head of state twice: first, from November 23, 2003, to January 25, 2004, during the Rose Revolution, and then again, from November 25, 2007, to January 20, 2008, when then-president Mikheil Saakashvili stepped down to rerun in an early presidential election.

[11] Russian Interference in Georgian Politics: The Activation of Ultra-Right Forces.” Eurasia Daily Monitor, August 2021. URL: https://jamestown.org/program/russian-interference-in-georgian-politics-the-activation-of-ultra-right-forces/

[12] “Face of Georgian pro-Russian group Alt Info dropped as party leader.” OC Media, April 2022. URL: https://oc-media.org/face-of-georgian-pro-russian-group-alt-info-dropped-as-party-leader/

[13] “Russian Beseda’s party in Georgia.” Alia. April 2022. URL:

[14] “112,000 Russians have relocated to Georgia this year.” CNBC. November 2022. URL:

[15] “Ukraine sanctions Ivanishvili’s relatives.” OC-Media. September 2022. URL:

[16] “Georgia recommended for EU candidacy, but with conditions.” EurasiaNet. June 2022. URL:

Leading up to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Putin regime had moved to systematically destroy all independent media inside Russia. Hundreds of journalists were forced to leave the country due to the Kremlin’s pressure and fears for their freedom and physical safety.

Dozens of media outlets were forced to relocate to Riga, Vilnius, and Prague, while still working to tell the truth about the war. They set up makeshift studios in rented apartments or coworking spaces. Their reporters were scattered all over the world, in Tbilisi, Istanbul, and Berlin. Even those “lucky” journalists who managed to escape Russia now face real hardship – uncertain status in host countries, lack of housing, inability to access even their own bank accounts due to Western sanctions, challenges getting information to Russian audiences due to Facebook and YouTube restrictions, and psychological trauma.

Today, as a result of the war, hundreds of Russian media professionals find themselves outside of Russia. Most of them are committed to continuing their work, informing and educating Russian audiences, and telling the truth about the war in order to advance positive change in the country. It is in the interest of the transatlantic community to ensure their success.

Why Vladimir Putin destroyed journalism in Russia

For over two decades, Putin has ruled over Russia, gradually taking away the rights and freedoms of its citizens, most notably freedom of speech and the freedom to disseminate information. Like any KGB operative, the Russian president is “allergic” to a free and independent press.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the declaration of freedom of speech in Russia, the demand for honest journalism in the country was enormous. Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, had to contend with independent media, even as the 1990s were plagued by the assassinations of prominent journalists – a trend that continued in the 2000s. Vladimir Putin, however, was much less tolerant. Critical media coverage of the Second Chechen War, the 2003 hostage-taking at the Moscow Theater Center, the 2004 terrorist attack on the school in Beslan, and the 2008 war with Georgia only confirmed Putin’s belief that a free and independent media is an existential threat to his regime and to him personally.

Early in his rule, Putin’s crony oligarchs took over many independent media outlets, notably the nationwide TV networks NTV and Channel One, marginalizing those that remained in opposition. After two decades, Putin has managed to establish control over virtually the entire media system in Russia. Under the pretext of increasing information security, the Russian president has also turned the media from an emerging democratic institution and a check on political power into a powerful instrument of state propaganda.

For some time, while the Putin regime still attempted to present a democratic façade to the West, independent media were allowed to operate in Russia, albeit in a very small niche. However, following the 2011-2012 mass protests and especially after the 2014 Crimea annexation, this niche began to narrow.

In a 2021 interview with Meduza, an independent media outlet, Russian journalist Ilya Azar discussed the importance of independent journalism in Russia, saying: “We, journalists, are the last line of defense in the war of the [Russian] state against its people. And I say this not for the sake of drama – it is, alas, the truth. <…> The more restrictions the state imposes on us, the more important and necessary it is for all of us to remain in the profession, to continue to write and take photographs. In my opinion, there is nothing more important for humanity than journalism <…> Journalists, although it happens much less often than we would like, do save people. They protect the country by telling stories about torture, corruption, lies, and persecution. And we will definitely continue to do so!»

At the time, Azar had not yet known how much things would change only a few months later. Within days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, several independent media outlets that were actively covering the war were blocked by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s state media watchdog, for allegedly disseminating “untrustworthy” information. Even the word “war” was deemed “false” by the regulator; Russian media can only refer to the war as a “special military operation.” Azar summarized the effect of these developments for the Russian independent media in a post on his Facebook page: “In just one week, an entire profession, my profession, was destroyed in Russia.» This seemed like the final nail in the coffin of Russian journalism, but the destruction of the free media space in Russia had been a long and painful process.

The gradual closing of the free media space

Early in his first term as president, Vladimir Putin relied on television to control public opinion. However, censorship was soon imposed on virtually all politically significant media – federal TV channels, mainstream newspapers, and most popular online media – despite the fact that Article 29 of the Russian Constitution guarantees every citizen’s right to freedom of thought and speech, as well as the right to freely seek, receive, transmit, produce, and disseminate information by any legal means.

In March 2008, Vladimir Pozner, a well-known TV anchor at Channel One, a state-owned television network, declared that there is no freedom of speech in Russia. In 2011, Pozner officially acknowledged the existence of “stop lists” – lists of people who are deemed “undesirable” by the authorities and therefore denied access to mainstream media – on Russian television for the first time. Since 2010, opposition politicians such as Boris Nemtsov, Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Eduard Limonov, Alexei Navalny, and other political figures have been denied access to federal television channels.

“In 2012, amendments were made to the law ‘On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development’ to create formal conditions for blocking online media and other outlets. While these changes were supposedly introduced to protect children, activists and experts raised concerns that they could be used to limit freedom of speech. Other laws that restrict political freedoms were also passed, such as increasing fines for participating in unauthorized rallies and the law on ‘foreign agents.’

The “Lugovoi Law,” which was introduced at the end of 2013, brought about the most radical changes. It allowed for the extrajudicial blocking of media materials on the grounds of “extremism,” specifically for publishing “information containing calls for mass civil disorder, extremist activity, participation in mass (public) events held in violation of the established order…” This law started as an attempt to “protect children,” but gradually became a tool for restricting freedoms.

In 2014, among the first outlets blocked under the “Lugovoi Law” were the independent media projects Ezhednevny Journal, Kasparov.ru, and Grani.ru, as well as the blog of opposition politician Alexei Navalny and its 28 mirrors.

In April of that year, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the Internet to be a “dangerous” tool for Russian society and advocated for government control over its usage. He argued that the Internet was initially developed as a “special project of the CIA” and continues to be manipulated by the U.S. To strengthen the country’s information security, Russian authorities demanded that major international and national internet companies operating in the country host their servers on Russian soil, asserting that “Americans control the information flows” passing through them. The engagement of the Russian government with the Internet is indicative of its increasing influence in the country. By 2014, the audience size of online media outlets in Russia had become equal to that of traditional media outlets, and the level of trust in online sources often surpassed that of traditional media. Additionally, around this time, opposition politicians like Alexei Navalny gained immense popularity through online investigations into corruption. Furthermore, the opposition protests of the early 2010s were coordinated largely through blogs and social media platforms.

2017 marked a serious milestone in the “purging” of Russia’s media system with the passing of the law that allowed to recognize media as foreign agents. The law was purported to be Russia’s response to the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to add RT America, a state-funded propaganda TV channel, to the list of foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. For four years, the law on media as foreign agents had not been widely applied in Russia, but in spring 2021, a full-fledged campaign against independent media was launched. Possible triggers for this development range from the Russian government’s fear of mass protests by the Belarusian scenario (the 2020 protests that almost led to the change of Lukashenko regime were widely covered in the local media) to preparations for the attack on Ukraine.

By 2021, Russia’s “Lugovoi Law” had become the main legislative instrument of censorship. For alleged “calls for mass civil disorder and extremist activities” several websites supported by Putin’s critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky were blocked (e.g. Open Media, Open Russia’s Human Rights Defense, MBKh Media), as well as dozens of websites related to the activities of Alexei Navalny (e.g. the YouTube channels of his associates Lyubov Sobol, Georgy Alburov, Leonid Volkov, and Vladimir Milov; the politicians’ own channel Navalny LIVE; navalny.com was blocked even earlier, in 2018).

2021 was a harbinger of the catastrophe that came in 2022: numerous independent news organizations were declared “foreign agents,” reporters and editors were systematically raided by security forces, some media projects were shut down, dozens of journalists left the country for fear of persecution. Below is an incomplete timeline.

On April 14, 2021, the apartments of journalists from the student magazine DOXA were searched. On April 23, 2021, Meduza was declared a foreign agent. On May 14, 2021, VTimes was declared a foreign agent and subsequently shut down. On July 15, 2021, the leading investigative media outlet Proekt was declared an “undesirable organization.” Its editor-in-chief, Roman Badanin, and other members of the editorial board were declared foreign agents, and many were forced to leave the country. On July 23, 2021, The Insider was declared a foreign agent. On August 20, 2021, the independent television channel Dozhd and the investigative project Important Stories, along with its editor-in-chief Roman Anin and other editorial staff, were declared foreign agents. On September 29, 2021, Mediazona and its editor Sergei Smirnov and founder Pyotr Verzilov were declared foreign agents. On October 8, 2021, the media outlets Kavkazsky Uzel and Bellingcat, as well as media lawyer Galina Arapova, were declared foreign agents. On October 15, 2021, Republic and Rosbalt received the same status. Finally, on December 30, 2021, publicist Viktor Shenderovich and the editor-in-chief of the independent media project Holod, Taisiya Bekbulatova, were declared foreign agents.

The Purge

By the time Russia invaded Ukraine, the government had already developed and implemented various measures to control the media. These measures made it possible to quickly suppress non-state sources of social and political information. The Kremlin has been trying to impose full censorship since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. On February 24, the day of the invasion, the Russian government agency Roskomnadzor warned journalists to use only official sources of information. This decision was made because of the increased number of “leaks and fakes” in both traditional media and on social media platforms. From that day on, any information that had not been confirmed by an “official” government source was considered unreliable, and media outlets that published it were subject to banning.

On March 5, 2022, President Putin signed a law stating that “disseminating knowingly false information of public significance” about the “special military operation” in Ukraine could be punished by up to 15 years in prison. After this law went into effect, many independent Russian media outlets were forced to suspend their work or remove all materials related to the war in Ukraine. Both Russian-language and foreign media, as well as social media platforms, were affected by these laws. There was also an increase in self-censorship, as people started to avoid making anti-war posts for fear of administrative and criminal prosecution.

On the sixth day of the war, at the request of the Prosecutor General’s Office, access to Dozhd’s website was blocked in Russia on the grounds of spreading “false information” about the nature of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, the way combat operations were conducted, Russian army losses, shelling of Ukrainian cities, civilian casualties, and “calls to organize mass events” in Russia. On March 3, Natalia Sindeyeva, the general director and owner of Dozhd, announced that the channel would temporarily suspend operations.

“It was obvious that the media that covered the war didn’t have much time. It’s a short race. How much can we publish before we get whacked?” notes Kirill Martynov, the political editor at Novaya Gazeta and now editor-in-chief of its spinoff, Novaya Gazeta Europe. Novaya Gazeta managed to operate for just over a month after the war had begun, and then suspended its work. Its license was revoked in September 2022.

The fate of Echo of Moscow, a popular radio station whose editorial policy was largely viewed as independent despite its affiliation with the state-controlled Gazprom Media, was even more dramatic. After 30 years on the air, it was shut down overnight on March 1, 2022 for its coverage of the Ukraine war. It was first blocked by Roskomnadzor and then shut down by Gazprom Media. The frequency of Echo of Moscow was then passed on to the state-owned Sputnik radio station.

Since the beginning of the “special military operation,” Russian authorities have methodically blocked dozens of independent media outlets, including Dozhd, Meduza, the BBC Russian Service, Radio Liberty and all its regional projects, Deutsche Welle, Voice of America, Current Time, TV-2, Taiga.info, The New Times, DOXA, The Village, Mediazona, 7×7, Pskov Gubernia, Republic, and many others.

In addition to being unable to provide accurate information about the war in Ukraine to millions of Russians, independent media faced another problem: loss of income. Following the imposition of sanctions on Russia, many Western and later Russian advertisers stopped doing business with independent media outlets (most Russian businesses refrain from cooperating with media recognized as “undesirable organizations” or “foreign agents”). Visa and MasterCard’s suspension of operations in Russia led to millions of Russian bank cards no longer working, resulting in a significant drop in crowdfunding and paid subscriptions that independent media had relied on. YouTube’s cancellation of all forms of monetization (advertising, sponsorship, etc.) for the Russian segment of the platform was an additional blow. While sponsorship integration remains, it has also been declining due to economic reasons.

The remaining independent media outlets have little chance of surviving under such conditions. Taiga.info, a Siberia-based independent media outlet, has been blocked by Russian authorities since March 1. As a result, the project lost almost all of its advertisers, and its traffic dropped almost fivefold. Advertising in The Bell, an independent business media outlet, reportedly dropped by 80-90% following Western sanctions. Mediazona, which collected more than 4 million rubles (about $55,000) per month in donations at the beginning of 2022, lost 80% of that income. These are just two examples of hundreds of similar stories.

Russian authorities also made sure that foreign media outlets stopped working in the country. Some, such as The New York Times, decided to pull their staff out of Moscow, even though their bureau had operated in Russia for over a century, including during the Russian revolution and World War II. Leading news agencies like Reuters and Bloomberg also left Moscow (Bloomberg relocated its entire Moscow office to Dubai). TV networks like CNN, CBS, ABC, and the CBC also suspended their work. Western publishers revoked the licenses of their lifestyle magazines in Russia, including Esquire, Vogue, GQ, Glamour, AD, Tatler, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, Harper’s Bazaar, and National Geographic.

According to RoskomSvoboda, an independent Russian NGO that supports open self-regulatory networks and the protection of digital rights, more than 9,000 websites were blocked in the country. In Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2022 survey, Russia’s score for internet freedom dropped by 7 points compared to the previous year, ranking it 65th out of 70 countries – the largest decline among surveyed countries.

Life in exile

Between 150,000 and 1.5 million people have left Russia since February 24, according to various estimates. If the lower figures are correct, this is the largest wave of emigration in decades. Many of those who have left are journalists and media professionals. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Russians who fled out of fear of mobilization, closed borders, economic collapse, or for moral reasons, media workers left under very real and tangible threats of repression, arrest, and even physical assault. Many had to “evacuate” in a matter of hours.

Riga became one of the main centers for journalism emigration. Following Meduza, which settled in the Latvian capital in 2014, Riga has provided a home for the editorial teams of Dozhd, the Moscow branch of Deutsche Welle, and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe – a total of around 60 exiled Russian journalists. The first issue published by former Novaya Gazeta journalists came out in two languages – Latvian and Russian – and many newspapers reprinted their articles in solidarity.

Despite relocating, Russian media in exile continue to face physical surveillance and intimidation by Russian security services. In March 2022, the Washington Post reported that Lithuanian intelligence agencies had noticed an increase in the number of Russian agents in Vilnius. Lithuanian authorities warned Russian media workers arriving in the country about potential retaliation and even infiltration into their ranks. Vitis Yurkonis, project manager at Freedom House and the lead of its Vilnius office, responded to the threats from Russia by advising: “I don’t think journalists [in exile] should focus on any single country [when they relocate].»

Host countries’ natural apprehension of the influx of Russian exiles is another problem. Strong anti-Russian sentiment, fueled by decades of Russian aggression and exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, creates challenges for acquiring legal status in a new country. The risk that a host country might expel exiled activists on a whim adds to the insecurity and psychological turmoil they are already enduring.

The psychological and emotional health of exiled journalists is another concern. Some had to hastily learn new professions due to income shortages. Others are increasingly realizing that their situation might last for a long time and that they not only need to survive, but also to work out a new identity and develop strategies for their journalism, now that the shock of relocation has subsided.

Another serious challenge is financial solvency. On average, exiled independent media continue to struggle, and the non-profit model has become the most in demand, with requests for grants from institutional donors increasing significantly. Mediazona has managed to partially rebuild its donation system. According to its editor, Sergei Smirnov, “the example of Belarus helped a lot in relocation. Our main problem is that the primary source of funding was donations. We are rebuilding [the donation collection], but I’m not sure we will get back to the previous level.» At the same time, the outlet has managed to preserve its staff and has relocated 30 people abroad – mostly to Lithuania and Georgia, but also Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, Israel, and the United States.

In March, Germany’s Schöpflin Foundation and Rudolf Augstein Foundation, along with Reporters Without Borders, established the JX Fund to help independent journalists in exile. “No journalist is safe from the threat of serious charges under vaguely worded draconian laws that were often adopted in haste. <…> Beyond censorship – which has forced many media outlets to close and has impoverished the few remaining independent journalists, forcing them to change professions or go abroad – the regional media will be among the first victims of this economic crisis,” Reporters Without Borders noted in a statement about the media environment in Russia.

The organization also works with Russian-language media that have been blocked in Russia and with individual journalists whose platforms have become inaccessible. They create mirror websites to provide access to blocked information and help circumvent blockades. Demand for this service is high. “We… encourage all independent media to contact us if they need a similar service. We have done the same for the Russian-language version of the German Deutsche Welle. It is important to support all initiatives, such as the Radio for Peace International project, which broadcasts on shortwave in Russia. We are working with them now. A lot of what we do now in working with journalists in Russia is not publicized for security reasons,” Pauline Ades-Mevel, editor-in-chief of Reporters Without Borders, told Voice of America.

Technology Helps

The newly exiled Russian media should not be equated to the “voices” of the Cold War era or the source of counterpropaganda to the Kremlin’s information war. Today’s media are much louder; new technologies and social media opportunities make it difficult to fully silence their work.

Millions of Russians are actively seeking out independent, accurate information about the war. They are still looking for names and faces that they know and trust. These dynamics are reflected in the rapid audience growth on independent media’s social media accounts that are still available to Russians. From February to June 2022, the number of subscribers of 16 Russian independent media on Telegram increased by 219%. Meduza showed a growth of 153%, increasing its audience to 1.3 million across its three accounts, and Mediazona saw a growth of 152%, reaching 202,000 subscribers. The audience of the 12 independent news channels on YouTube grew by 43% on average in the early months of the war, partly because many independent journalists, having lost their editorial offices, made this video service their main platform. This was especially true for the reporters of Echo of Moscow and Dozhd. The YouTube channel of The Insider grew by 109%, from 62,500 subscribers in February to 131,000 in June. Independent bloggers also saw gains: on average, 16 bloggers increased the number of their subscribers by 15%. Some, like Yekaterina Gordeyeva, saw an almost threefold growth – from 430,000 subscribers in February to 1,190,000 in June.

Since the Kremlin effectively banned independent journalism, the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and free apps to bypass censorship has surged. In May 2022, the Washington Post reported, citing Apptopia’s data, that the top ten VPN apps in Russia saw a surge from 15,000 downloads per day before the invasion to a March peak of 475,000 per day.

The Internet Protection Society, a digital rights group associated with jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, launched its own VPN service and reached its limit of 300,000 users within 10 days, according to executive director Mikhail Klimarev. Based on internal surveys, he estimates that the number of VPN users in Russia has risen to roughly 30% of the 100 million Internet users in Russia. To combat Putin, “Ukraine needs Javelin and Russians need the internet,” Klimarev said.

VPN use not only helps millions of Russians access accurate information on the actual state of the war and the extent of Russian military losses, but also limits the Russian government’s surveillance of activists.

“Offshore Journalism”

In the fall of 2021, lawyer Ilya Novikov (designated as a “foreign agent” in Russia in November 2022 and added to the wanted list) may have been the first to use a term that now describes the existing phenomenon – “offshore journalism.” He referred to Russian editorial teams that had been forced to flee Russia. By mid-2022, virtually all independent Russian journalism had become “offshore.”

One question that often arises given its current “offshore,” or exiled, status is whether Russian independent journalism is worth it. The investigative project Proekt, whose work focuses on corruption and crime in Russia’s top power echelons, offers a potential answer to that question. As its editor-in-chief Roman Badanin notes, “some people wonder whether independent journalism means anything to average Russians. Do they need reliable information? And does truthful journalism have an impact? The answer is very simple: if Russian journalism does not impact anything, then why do the Russian authorities suppress it so harshly? All independent journalists have become enemies of the state now. The Kremlin is truly afraid of journalists,” says Badanin, who was forced to leave Russia in 2021 after Proekt had been declared an “undesirable” organization.

Even under harsh conditions, Russian journalists in exile have continued to create new media projects. In 2021 alone, Proekt published several groundbreaking investigations about high-ranking officials and businessmen, including those in Putin’s inner circle: businessmen Arkady Rotenberg and Yuri Kovalchuk, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, and head of Russia’s National Guard Viktor Zolotov. In 2022, Proekt has published investigations about the people who control the Ukrainian territories seized by the Russian army, a guide to hundreds of Russian occupants and collaborators, a story about the people taking over Western companies that had left Russia, a story about Federal Security Service (FSB) officers who manufactured a treason case against journalist Ivan Safronov, and many others.

Former Meduza publisher and media manager Ilya Krasilshchik has created Helpdesk Media, a media outlet that operates mainly on social media platforms Instagram and Telegram. Former editor-in-chief of Russian Esquire, Philip Bakhtin, who has been living in Estonia for several years, has launched the Repost project. Another independent media outlet, Verstka, was founded by Russian journalist Lola Tagaeva.

This is just a few examples of how Russian ‘offshore journalism’ can be effective even in exile. Western policymakers, experts, and journalists frequently ask FRF as to what can be done to help them.

Ksenia Luchenko, a columnist for the independent outlet Republic, highlights three main problems facing Russian media in exile that require urgent solutions. The first is limited access to the audience. Because of Roskomnadzor’s blocking of independent information, media must use VPNs, Telegram, newsletters, and other auxiliary tools to deliver their content, while the audience must actively seek out quality information. The second problem is that journalists, who used to work on the ground, must now adapt their methods of work in reduced circumstances. It is becoming more difficult to report on Russia from a distance, and sources are more wary of requests from ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesirable organizations.’ Meanwhile, the risks for journalists who remain in Russia and are willing to collaborate with exiled outlets continue to increase. The third problem is the loss of income and the need to operate under extremely difficult conditions. Therefore, assistance with technological, financial, and security tools could be vital for the survival of independent media.”

It is unlikely that exiled Russian journalists will be able to return home in the coming months or possibly years. Many of them may find better opportunities in industries such as marketing and entertainment, while working from various locations around the world. However, if this critical ecosystem – which can still reach the Russian audience, earn the trust and respect of its readers and viewers, and thus influence their opinions even from abroad – is allowed to dissipate, we will permanently lose a crucial tool for guiding Russians towards peace and democracy.

Despite the fact that Serbia remains one of the most pro-Russian countries in Europe, and its political elites show no desire to change this status quo, Russia sustains efforts to consolidate its malign influence in Serbia. In this Special Issue, we spotlight four areas where Russia’s presence is not only clearly visible, but also politically prominent: energy politics, the military domain, the cultural sphere, and Russian media operating in Serbia. It remains to be seen whether Serbian political elites would be willing to make a pro-EU turn were Russian influence to be weakened for whatever reason, but it is doubtful that genuinely pro-democratic developments are possible in Serbia as long as Russia retains its malign influence there.

Anti-war protests in Russia unfolded from the early hours of February 24, 2022. While millions did not take to the streets, tens of thousands of the Russian citizens actively resisted the aggression. They were unable to stop the militaristic madness or even to cool it down. They are reproached for not being active enough, their participation not massive enough, but critics often forget to consider historical and political context of the Russian situation.

Residents of the Far East, Siberia and the Urals were the first to speak out against the war, taking to the streets on February 24 afternoon, when it was still early morning in the Russian capital, but tanks had already crossed the border of Ukraine.

At first, anti-war protests were massive, taking place across almost all Russian cities. But on March 4, in three hasty readings at once, the State Duma adopted a law on “discrediting the Russian armed forces,” which provides for harsh punishments of up to 15 years in prison. According to OVD-info, an independent human rights media project, by mid-December 2022, the total number of detainees for anti-war actions, has amounted to about 20,000 people.

In Khabarovsk, police detained a man standing in a solitary picket with a poster “Children should live in peace.” He suggested that “it is a shame to remove such a poster,” but it was nevertheless removed, and the picketer himself was taken to the police station. Since virtually any poster is now banned, protesters are trying to express their views in a different way. Deputy of the Novosibirsk City Council Helga Pirogova came to the session wearing a Ukrainian embroidered shirt and a flower crown, which provoked a scandal among her colleagues who accused her of “betrayal.” Lawyer Viktor Vorobyov, deputy at the parliament of the Republic of Komi, who spoke out against the war in the first days of Russia’s military aggression, was arrested for 15 days in violation of the laws on parliamentary immunity.

The Buryat Democratic Movement, banned in Russia, appealed to Russian servicemen that come originally from this republic to refuse the criminal orders of their commanders. The independent Bashkir publicist Shamil Valiev posed a reasonable question: “Do we, the peoples of the Volga region, need this war, if today we, ourselves, do not have normal democratic self-governance in our republics?”

In Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia, as elsewhere, protests have been dispersed since March. But the local residents found a creative way of “silent protest”: the trees and lanterns in the city are decorated with symbols of peace—white paper cranes, which the security forces regularly remove, but the cranes reappear every morning.

In Tomsk, students are expelled from the university for speaking out against the war. Literary critic Lyubov Summ was detained on Pushkinskaya Square in Moscow for reading Nikolai Nekrasov’s poem “As I hearken to the horrors of war,” which is part of the school curriculum.

If all possibilities of peaceful anti-war protest are blocked, it is not surprising that the protest takes on more radical forms. Since February, more than 50 attempts to set military enlistment offices on fire have been made in different regions of Russia.

And yet, these protest actions have no influence on the Russian government’s policies. This is the fundamental difference between the Russian situation and well-known protests in the United States against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s, which ultimately led to its end. This historical parallel helps to understand the reasons for what looks like a failure of the Russian protests.

In the United States, already in that era, a developed system of civil institutions capable of influencing the government had been put in place. There were Senators and House Representatives critical of the war. Here, an analogy can be drawn with the Ukrainian EuroMaidan in 2013-2014—its supporters could be found in the Rada, which ensured the political representation of the protest.

Nothing of the kind can be said about Russia today. Not a single State Duma deputy dared to oppose the start of the war in February and Putin’s decree on mobilization in September. Only the above-mentioned local deputies in Novosibirsk and the Komi Republic dared to do so. Russia’s political system is not adequate to the public interests: while massive anti-war protests took place in Moscow and St. Petersburg earlier this year, not a single deputy of the Moscow or St. Petersburg city assemblies spoke out to support them.

Paradoxically, today’s Russia, which calls itself a “democracy” and a “federation” in the Constitution, lacks the civic institutions that had once existed even in the Russian Empire—for example, zemstvos (locally elected councils), which since 1860s had been an effective mechanism of local self-government. While municipal elections do take place in modern Russia, the deputies’ powers are minimal, and local communities can’t even collect taxes on their territory—everything is controlled by Moscow. And when they try to carry out independent political projects, their assembly can be dispersed.

At the same time, some Western observers reproach Russians for not protesting enough against the war. But these reproaches do not take into account the political dimension of the moment. Could one imagine mass protests against the Stalin regime in Soviet Union in 1939? Or in against the Hitler regime in Germany? Given complete destruction of civic institutions in Russia, the absence of free elections, the regime of state propaganda and censorship, any protest is doomed to be suppressed. Should observers from democratic countries, for whom civil liberties come naturally, demand “active resistance” from those who find themselves under totalitarian rule?

Despite all repressions, anti-war resistance in Russia continues. It takes on new forms, in some places it develops into public criticism of the Russian state as such. Take, for example, a bright and very revealing slogan in protests against mobilization in Dagestan where people blocked federal highways: “Ukraine did not attack us! Moscow attacked us!” Ingush human rights activist Zarina Sautieva, currently a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center, writes that in her home republic, “attempts to forcibly conscript young people into the army are likely to meet with growing resistance from citizens, up to and including armed confrontation with authorities.” The Kremlin, having unleashed a war against Ukraine, risks getting a “second front” in the Caucasus.

Still, the main form of protest against the war and mobilization was Russians’ mass exodus from the country. Up to one million people left in 2022 alone. Most often, they flee to post-Soviet countries neighboring Russia, where a visa is not required for entry—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Armenia. And they relocate their businesses from different Russian regions and invest in the economies of these new home countries, while Russia falls deeper into international isolation.

This exodus, unprecedented in recent history, demonstrates that Russians feel that they cannot change their country’s politics on their own. And this situation calls into question the very existence of the Russian state. If one tries to imagine the post-war period, it is likely that Russia will need to be re-established as a state and a federation with the active support of the international community. The catastrophe of the imperial war against Ukraine, as if coming from past eras, can only be overcome by the “whole world” effort.

On September 26, 2022, police raided the apartment of a 31-year-old Moscow poet Artyom Kamardin. They beat and tortured everyone in the apartment. Mr. Kamardin was raped with a dumbbell. Consequently, Nikolai Daineko, Artyom Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba were prosecuted under part 2 of Article 282 (“Degrading social cohesion with threat of violence with the use of the Internet,” up to 6 years in prison), because of writing anti-war poetry. Here is the story of three poets.

Who are Nikolai Daineko, Artyom Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba?

Nikolai Dmitrievich Daineko, born June 2, 1996, is a resident of Moscow. He is a poet, participant of Mayakovsky Readings event, civil activist, and a rock-musician. Accused under paragraph “a” of part 2 of article 282 of the Criminal Code (“Degrading social cohesion with threat of violence with the use of the Internet”, up to 6 years in prison). He has been imprisoned since September 25, 2022.

Artyom Yuryevich Kamardin, born on October 10, 1990, is a resident of Moscow. He is a poet, participant of Mayakovsky Readings event, and a civic activist. After graduating college, Artyom worked as an engineer. Accused under item “a,” part 2, article 282 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Degrading social cohesion with threat of violence with the use of the Internet,” up to 6 years in prison). He has been imprisoned since September 26, 2022.

Yegor Olegovich Shtovba, born on December 26, 2000, is a resident of Moscow. He is a poet, participant of the Mayakovsky Readings event, and a civic activist. He is a student of Russian philology at the Institute of History and Philology specializing in pedagogical education. He is charged under item “a” of part 2 of article 282 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Degrading social cohesion with threat of violence with the use of the Internet,” up to 6 years in prison). He has been imprisoned since September 25, 2022.

Case Background

On September 25, 2022, the Mayakovsky Readings, a traditional monthly poetry recitation, took place on the Triumfalnaya Square in Moscow. This tradition was established in Moscow in 1958, as a tribute to poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and after a break was revived in 2009. The last installment of the Mayakovsky Readings had been conceptualized by organizers as  “anti-mobilization,” protesting forced mobilization of Russian citizens for the war with Ukraine. On September 25, 2022, about three dozen people attended the readings.

That same evening, videos of the event were published on the Internet. Poet Artyom Kamardin, addressed the audience: “Do you remember how the Luhansk and Donetsk terrorists were called eight years ago? Militia!” He then moved to read his 2015 poem “Kill me, militiaman!” Then, Mr. Kamardin recited what he called “a folk couplet about referendums” (referring to the so-called referenda on the annexation of Ukraine’s regions to Russia: “Glory to Kievan Rus’! Novorossiya — suck it!”.

The police arrived forty minutes after the start of the event and began detaining participants and even members of the audience. Nikolai Daineko, Yegor Shtovba and several other people were taken to the police station, accused of participating in an unauthorized rally and issued protocols.

The Arrest and the Criminal Case

The next day, on September 26, 2022, Ilya Myalkin, the prosecutor of the Investigative Committee’s Tverskoi district department of Moscow, opened a criminal case under paragraph “a” of part 2 Article 282 of the Criminal Code against “unidentified persons.” According to his ruling, during readings of literary works, an unidentified person made statements “regarding members of the volunteer armed formations of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” that “allegedly contain signs of inciting hatred or hostility, and also called for the use of violence against them and members of their families.”

On the same day, around 2 p.m., the apartment where Artyom Kamardin, his girlfriend Alexandra Popova, and their roommate Alexander Menyukov lived, was stormed by the police offers yelling  “Get down! On the floor!”. All three of them were beaten. Their injuries can be seen in the photographs and police footage, and are confirmed by medical records and testimonies of the victims. Under the pretext of a search, the law enforcers, judging by the photos and Ms. Popova’s testimony, ransacked the apartment.

Artyom Kamardin then reported through his lawyer that during the “search” he was severely beaten and had the bar of a dumbbell forced up his anus, and was compelled to apologize for writing his poems. Alexandra Popova, who, as she says, was aggressed in the adjacent room, heard the sounds of violence towards Artyom Kamardin, and the law enforcers showed her a video of his rape. Alexander Menyukov also heard Mr. Kamardin’s screams.

During the search, Mr. Kamardin was forced to apologize on camera because of his words. The video shows the activist kneeling in an apartment with handcuffs behind his back, his face showing signs of beatings. In the footage, he apologizes for what he said at the Mayakovsky Readings. “I apologize, ask for forgiveness and repent in front of the Russian multinational people for what I said yesterday at theTriumfalnaya Square.” In the recording, Mr. Kamardin promises “never again to read” the poem “Kill me, militiaman!” which he delivered at the Mayakovsky Readings, nor to engage in political activities.

Ms. Popova reported that she was also tortured in the meantime: she was threatened with gang rape, her hair was pulled out, and her face and mouth were covered with superglue. In addition, she discovered that $600 was missing from her apartment after the search.

Mr. Kamardin’s lawyer Leonid Solovyov was not allowed into the apartment, saying that it was not a search, but an operational and investigative measure (ORM), which, allegedly, does not provide for the presence of a lawyer.

Then the detainees were taken to the Investigative Committee’s Tverskoi district office in Moscow and formally interrogated. The ambulance team there did not find any bleeding in Mr. Kamardin, but preliminarily diagnosed concussion of the brain, closed cranial trauma, bruised chest and numerous facial abrasions. The activist was taken to the hospital, where he was examined.

Alexandra Popova and Alexander Menyukov were released as witnesses in the criminal case, and Artyom Kamardin was detained as a suspect and sent to the temporary detention center (IVS).

Nikolai Daineko and Yegor Shtovba were arrested in connection with this case and held for two days as suspects.

After they were released, Ms. Popova and Mr. Menyukov visited doctors. The woman was diagnosed with concussion of brain, contusion of soft tissues of head, hips and shins, crushing of skin of the left hand and closed craniocerebral trauma. The young man sustained multiple contusions to his right auricle, left wrist and back.

On September 28, 2022, a judge of the Tverskoy District Court of Moscow, Anatoly Belyakov, put Yegor Shtovba and Nikolai Daineko in pre-trial detention, and another judge of the same court, Irina Buneeva, put Artyom Kamardin in pre-trial detention for two months as suspects during the preliminary investigation.  On October 6 and 7,  2022, Mr. Savchenko, prosecutor of the Investigative Committee, issued orders to bring them in as suspects. On November 24, 2022, the court extended the defendants’ detention for another month.

All three now face up to six years in prison for reading poetry.

Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Nikolai Daineko, Artyom Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba as Political Prisoners?

Having examined the documents of the case, the Human Rights Center Memorial concludes that Nikolai Daineko, Artyom Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba are the victims of political persecution.

The expert who examined the statements and the poem “Kill me, militiaman!” by Artyom Kamardin at the request of the prosecutor, concluded that they contained linguistic attributes of degrading the “militia”. The expert did not find any incitement to violence, and the Memorial lawyers would agree with him. The leading expert organization in the field of extremism, the Sova Information and Analytical Center, holds the same opinion.

Thus, the prosecutor, in his decisions to bring the defendants in custody, unreasonably refers to the expert opinion and asserts without evidence that the defendants called for violence against the “militia.” This means that the charges under paragraph “a” of Part 2 of Article 282 of the Criminal Code are unlawful.

Lieutenant Savchenko brought up threats of violence as pretext because he could not otherwise bring charges in principle, the Memorial believes. Since 2019, degrading people without the threat of violence is a crime under part 1 of Article 282 of the Criminal Code only after being brought to administrative responsibility for a similar act (Article 20.3.1 KoAP RF) within one year. None of the three defendants had been brought to such responsibility.

In addition, Memorial agrees with the Sova Center’s earlier position that the undefined, evaluative concept of “social group” should be removed from anti-extremist legislation. Its presence in Russian criminal law is criticized not only by human rights activists, but also in the academic legal community. The concept of a social group is not disclosed in the criminal law, and there are no relevant explanations in the acts of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.

If we still analyze Artyom Kamardin’s poem for “degrading the dignity” of the Donbass “militia,” then we can call the work provocative, and his words could possibly be perceived as insulting by the “militia” and their family members. However, Memorial lawyers believe that people, especially poets, have the right to express angry irony, negative emotions, and critical assessments of other people and groups. In the poem the author obviously expresses his negative attitude to the fratricidal war in Ukraine, indicates his rejection of war crimes provoked by Russian state propaganda, which were committed by the “militia” with the explicit support of the Russian state. The author’s rejection of the unprovoked armed aggression of his country against the people of the neighboring state goes as far as “screaming” and “calling” on the “militia” to kill him.

In fact, there is no explicit humiliation of the “militia” in the poem: neither a statement about their inferiority, nor a statement about the superiority of others over them. The poem only expresses, in an artistic, figurative form, the author’s legitimate and justified critical attitude toward this group.

In the Memorial’s opinion, Artyom Kamardin’s harsh rhetoric is permissible within the framework of the exercise of the rights to freedom of speech and expression, guaranteed by Art. 29 of the Russian Constitution and international conventions. Moreover, it is worth taking into account that the validity of his critical position regarding the “militia” is proven by numerous factual data and court decisions, that this is criticism of persons who are members of illegal armed formations, with whose hands the Russian authorities unleashed a war against the people of Ukraine.

Artyom Kamardin’s speech did not contain incitement to any actions against the “militia”, and the probability of harm to them as a result of his speech is practically zero.  In addition to the lack of inherently humiliating dignity of this group in the speech in question, recall that it was made before an audience of only less than three dozen peaceful, non-aggressive Muscovites.

The texts of the investigator’s rulings on arraignment of all three defendants are short and identical. They do not specify what specific criminal act each of them committed. Memorial hypothesizes that the prosecution might claim that Nikolai Daineko and Yegor Shtovba repeated the incriminating statements in the square after Artyom Kamardin. Or were they just nodding? Memoria considers imprisonment and prosecution for such “deeds” to be obviously inhumane, unjust and unlawful.

The independent human rights project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial”, which continues the work of the thematic Program of the liquidated by the state HRC Memorial, in accordance with the international guidance on the definition of “political prisoner,” finds that the criminal case against Artyom Kamardin, Nikolai Dayneko and Yegor Shtovba is politically motivated, aimed at involuntary termination of their expression, public activities of critics of the authorities and intimidation of society as a whole, i.e. consolidation and retention of power by subjects of authority. Their imprisonment violated the rights to freedom of speech, fair trial, and other rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Russian Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Based on the above, Memorial considers Artyom Kamardin, Yegor Shtovba, and Nikolai Daineko political prisoners and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.

In the light of Putin’s brutal aggression against Ukraine, media reports about significant public support for his war among Russians as well as the lack of mass protests in Russia against the war, many Western observers concluded that a democratic change is not to be expected in the country, that Russians are an imperialistic and undemocratic people by default, and this would never change. For many, the most reasonable strategy seems to be isolating Russia or even achieving its fragmentation as a state, rather than making “unrealistic”—as the proponents of such views say—efforts to facilitate Russia’s democratization. Attempt to restore democracy in Russia, some argue, may even propel to power more dangerous, ultra-nationalistic forces, which would pose a greater danger to the world.

This paper briefly explains why such views are erroneous, as they ignore or dismiss facts on the ground and are counterproductive in the long term, because isolating the country will only incentivize imperialists, nationalists, and other extremists to hold ground. The paper also argues that Russia’s democratization is based on genuine bottom-up public demand for democracy and, therefore, democratization is the only way to pacify Russia in the long run. 

In the few months following the start of its war on Ukraine, Russia became the most sanctioned nation in the world. The total number of sanctions levied against Russia is currently estimated at 11,000. Notionally, these sanctions can be grouped into four categories: 1. financial, imposing restrictions on the activities of Russian financial institutions, 2. restrictions on the export of Russian goods, 3.  restrictions on the import of goods and technology to Russia, and 4. individual sanctions. 

Free Russia Foundation’s Sergey Aleksashenko analyzes the individual and cumulative effectiveness of the four main categories of international sanctions on Russia’s critical sectors; considers key factors that have blunted their impact or fell short of intended outcomes; and offers a forecast of how the current sanctions regime will affect Russia in the mid- to long-term. 

The key takeaways from the analysis are: 

  • the sanctions imposed on Russia are better suited at undermining the long-term potential of the economy rather than limiting its current capabilities
  • financial sanctions for several reasons (favorable external conditions, incomplete decisions taken, structural features of the Russian economy, the reaction of the Russian authorities) had a much less significant impact than they did in 2014/15; 
  • the most significant impact on the dynamics of the Russian economy was made by  “moral sanctions” —Western companies leaving Russia and/or refraining from doing business there.

Individual sanctions, with a few exceptions, have had no impact on economic activity or government policy. In contrast to the practice of 2014-15, when the imposition of sanctions on individuals automatically led to their imposition on companies controlled by them, in 2022 the position of Western countries has changed. Russian businessmen who controlled significant assets evaded sanctions through a simple procedure: once sanctioned, they transferred/sold their assets to other persons and left the management bodies of the companies/banks. Therefore, the sanctions have failed to stop Kremlin-affiliated actors from penetrating the U.S. through investments, lobbying contracts, and property purchases.

Financial sanctions had a powerful but short-lived effect due to external conditions favorable to Russia, an incomplete and inconsistent sanctions policy, structural features of the Russian economy, and thorough preparation and skillful maneuvering by the Russian authorities.

Aleksashenko anticipates that the most damaging consequences for the Russian economy may come in 2023, after the withdrawal of global oilfield service companies, which, almost on the same day in mid-March, announced their departure from Russia. The departure of foreign oilfield service companies will not stop the Russian oil industry but will severely slow its development. 

The analysis makes it clear that the imposed sanctions have caused the economy to slow down and slide into recession. While the decline of the Russian economy is not likely to be profound, it could last for several more quarters, followed by stagnation. The technological isolation of Russia stemming from the sanctions is the biggest challenge that will likely persist and  contribute to this trend.

In the coming weeks, Free Russia Foundation will publish a follow-on analysis of economic data to show how the US sanctions have affected specific Russian sectors and stakeholders using case studies; as well as a public database of all Russian entities and individuals sanctioned by the United States.

Hieromonk of the Russian Orthodox Church Ioann (Dmitry) Kurmoyarov was detained in St. Petersburg and charged under the criminal article for public dissemination of false information about the Russian Armed Forces. Kurmoyarov faces up to 10 years in prison for this charge. The following is his story.

Who is Ioann Kurmoyarov?

Dmitry Kurmoyarov was born in 1968 in the region of Perm. Because Kurmoyarov’s father was a Soviet military officer who was often transferred from one region of the USSR to another, he and his family would later move to Belarus, and then to Ukraine. At the time of Kurmoyarov’s arrest, he was a resident of St. Petersburg. Kurmoyarov is a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), an alternative to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). It was in 2011 that Dmitry Kurmoyarov was tonsured as a monk by the name of Ioann. In the same year, Father Ioann received his PhD in theological studies from the Orthodox Theological Institute in Chernivtsi.

Kurmoyarov was active on his social media, with his earliest posts on Facebook dating back to2014, following Euromaidan and the change of power in Ukraine. Father Ioann wrote extensively about church issues, although political topics remained in a prominent focus. He referred to the war in Donbass “civil”, criticized Euromaidan and some Ukrainian politicians.

Kurmoyarov also denounced the shutdown of Russian television channels in Ukraine.

After moving to Russia in 2017, Father Ioann accepted a position as Associate Professor at the Novosibirsk Theological Seminary, where he taught theology for two years. At the same time, Ioann actively posted on Facebook and in 2017 he created a YouTube channel Orthodox Virtual Parish. On social media, Father Ioann criticized the reality of modern Russia, including the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Father Ioann became notorious for his systematic criticism of the Church of the Armed Forces in Moscow (which he dubbed “pagan temple”) for featuring of NKVD officers, Yuri Gagarin, other secular characters, and Soviet symbols. As direct retribution for this criticism, in the summer of 2020, Kurmoyarov was banned from conducting services, wearing a cassock and cross, teaching, and preaching in church. This ban was imposed due to “inconsistency” within the title of a cleric of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Father Ioann tried to find another place of service since the ban was technically only valid for two months, but he could not secure employment due to derogatory references issued by the Novosibirsk Diocese.

Father Ioann tried to sue the diocese to get reinstated in the service, but so far these attempts have been unsuccessful. He later moved to St. Petersburg, joined the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR), found a secular job at a security company, studied music, and continued to be active on social media. Kurmoyarov did not give up his criticism of the Church of the Armed Forces. In December 2021, he even filed a lawsuit against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu asking to prosecute him for insulting the feelings of worshippers. The suit was related to this particular church. During this time, independent media outlets such as Snob and Dozhd interviewed Kurmoyarov which boosted his popularity.

Case Background

Father Ioann condemned the “special military operation” in Ukraine two days after it began in a video titled “Why Putin will not win this war”. Father Ioann later released many more videos criticizing the military’s actions, however his video “Who will be in hell and who will be in heaven”, which was posted on March 12, 2022, attracted particular attention from law enforcement. In the video, Kurmoyarov comments on Putin’s statement that “we as martyrs will go to heaven, and they will just croak.” Father Ioann commented that, instead, only peacemakers will go to heaven “and the one who unleashed aggression, well, he won’t be in heaven, no matter how hard he tries”.

The authorities didn’t react to the published video immediately, however, according to Father Ioann’s brother, Alexander Kurmoyarov, some action was anticipated. “We discussed the situation with these videos and so on, in principle, we were ready for the arrest, we expected it, we assumed that some pressure from the authorities would be. We thought that they would summon us, talk to us. He thought that if the persecution were to be very aggressive, he would be pushed out of the country somehow, or he would leave on his own, but we didn’t make any specific plans. He was going to stay in Russia and live here,” said the priest’s brother.

In April, Father Ioann was stripped of his priestly ministry by a decree of Patriarch Kyrill, who stated that the “former hieromonk Ioann (Kurmoyarov) was actively engaged in media activities in support of the nationalist regime in Ukraine, forming false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation, and the schismatic organization of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR).”

The Arrest and Criminal Case

On June 7, 2022, law enforcement officers searched the home of Ioann Kurmoyarov, known as Father Ioann, and confiscated equipment, two icons, a wooden cross and a cassock. The man was detained and charged under “e” part 2 article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. According to the ruling of the investigating authorities, Kurmoyarov was charged, because of four of his video uploads to the social network VKontakte. In the videos, Father Ioann expressed his views on the war with Ukraine. Linguists, who conducted an assessment of the videos, concluded that Kurmoyarov “expresses ‘knowingly false information’ about the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”.

In his videos about the war with Ukraine, Father Ioann criticizes Russian aggression from the standpoint of the Christian doctrine. A popular segment of his was a video where Father Ioann stated that Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine will go to hell, not heaven. “In heaven turn out to be ‘blessed peacemakers’, ‘peacemakers’ you know what the problem is? And those who unleashed aggression — they will not be in heaven,” the priest says in the video.

Kurmoyarov’s YouTube channel features not only his own videos, but also videos by other authors, such as reposts of the Popular Politics channel, which was created by associates of Alexei Navalny, as well as Ilya Varlamov and Maxim Katz. Here are just some of the titles: “Putin and Repression in Russia: Who is the Real Traitor of the Motherland?”, “Why Does the Kremlin Propaganda Make Russians Hate Ukrainians?”, “About 40,000 Residents Dead in Mariupol!”, “The Patriarch Blessed Aggression Against Ukraine!”, “Why Did Putin Start This War?”

On June 8, 2022, Judge Tatyana Alkhazova of the Kalininsky District Court of St. Petersburg ordered Father Ioann was to be held in jail. The session was held without the participation of Kurmoyarov’s defender, lawyer Leonid Krikun, despite the fact that he had been notified of the investigation during his entry into the case the same morning. The prosecutor, on the contrary, assured the lawyer that the trial would take place only on June 9, 2022.

Kurmoyarov pleaded not guilty in the “military fakes” case, noting only that “he may have seemed harsh in his statements to some,” but they were “only evaluative, with reliance on the Gospel.” “I am a Christian pacifist. In my videos I insist that the basic commandment is ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ there should be no war. I’m not talking about extremism. I’m for peace! — Ioann Kurmoyarov said at the trial. — I didn’t blame everything on Russia. I was talking about the two sides where people were dying. The accusations are far-fetched. My position is that everyone should stop the war and everyone should sit down at the negotiating table.”

The clergyman also assured the court that he posed no threat to society and had no intention of going into hiding. However, the court granted the petition of the prosecution and sent Kurmoyarov to custody until August 6, 2022.

Under a new Russian law, Kurmoyarov faces up to 10 years in prison for “knowingly spreading false information about the Russian Armed Forces”.

On June 10, 2022, attorney Krikun was not able to locate his client in pre-trial detention center-1 (Kresty-2) where he was supposed to be held after the June 8, 2022 trial. Father Ioann was also not located in pre-detention center-6 (Gorelovo), nor at the temporary detention center, where they reported that he “had already departed.”

It was not until June 14, 2022, that Leonid Krikun found his client in SIZO-1. The lawyer fears that his client may have been subjected to torture: “I have a strong conviction that the behavior of the prosecutor Luzhetsky on the first day of ‘work’ with Father Ioann, his hints to me that he would continue exercising pressure against the accused, as well as the absence of Father Ioann for his defense counsel in all institutions of the SPbFU, point to the use of unauthorized investigation methods and attempts to cover the tracks of this crime”. According to the lawyer, the prosecutor previously said that “despite all his efforts Father John does not want to admit guilt,” and asked the lawyer to “work” with him, promising to add mitigating circumstances to the case.

Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Ioann Kurmoyarov as a Political Prisoner?

Having examined the documents of the case, the Human Rights Center Memorial came to the conclusion that Ioann Kurmoyarov is a victim of political persecution.

A week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, on March 4, 2022, the Russian State Duma adopted emergency laws (not as separate bills, but as riders, by amending others that had already passed their first readings) to amend the Code of Administrative Offenses and the Criminal Code. These laws penalize calls for sanctions, “spreading fakes” about the Russian armed forces, “discrediting” them, as calls to obstruct their usage. These laws were approved by the Duma and signed by President Putin on the same day. The amendments took effect on March 5, 2022, the date of their official publication. Memorial attorneys firmly believe that this article contradicts both the Russian Constitution and Russia’s international obligations, as well as the basic principles of law.

According to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference … shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Similar guarantees are contained in Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought and speech.

The Memorial emphasizes that the restrictions on freedom of expression established by Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code hold no ground.

Restrictions on freedom of expression cannot be justified by military censorship, as stipulated by par. 15 of Article 7 of the Federal Constitutional Law “On Martial Law.” Even under martial law, the law cannot impose special restrictions on freedom of speech and opinion. Moreover, there are no grounds for them in a situation where martial law is not imposed.

De facto, the norms of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code allow prosecution for expressing any opinions on the use of the Russian Armed Forces and the activities of its government agencies abroad.

The aforementioned features of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation establish its unlawful nature and cannot be applied in good faith. For instance, the circumstances surrounding the adoption of this article into the Criminal Code—immediately following the start of the armed aggression against Ukraine—along with the rhetoric of officials who encouraged its adoption and, more importantly, the circumstances surrounding its application alongside state military propaganda—exclude such good faith. In an environment where only official Kremlin-affiliated sources are deemed as those purveying truthful information and assessments—justifying the war of aggression, denying facts of civilian deaths as a result of Russian strikes and war crimes committed by Russian forces and even prohibiting calling events that from any perspective constitute war “war”, the application of this article of the Criminal Code, which is by its nature illegal, is also extremely unconscientious and unlawful.

Based upon the provided information, the Independent Human Rights Project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” asserts that Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code is illegal, was created to conduct political repressions against critics of the authorities, and must be abolished. Any prosecutions under this article are unlawful and must be stopped.

Memorial also notes that this is not the first time Father Ioann (Kurmoyarov) has been persecuted for expressing an opinion. In the summer of 2020, after criticizing the Church of the Armed Forces, he was suspended by the Archbishop from the ministry for two months due to “non-compliance with the title of clergyman of the Russian Orthodox Church”. Father Ioann was also stripped of his position as Associate Professor of Church Theology in the Novosibirsk Seminary.

On April 1, 2022, by decision of Novosibirsk diocese and decree of Patriarch Kirill, Father Ioann was stripped of his rank for his public position against the war with Ukraine. Father Ioann is currently ordained in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia under the omophorion of Metropolitan Agafangel. This is a non-canonical Orthodox association that broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 2007. The residence of the head of this church is in Odessa.

The independent human rights project Support for Political Prisoners and Memorial continue work of the liquidated HRC Memorial. According to the international guidance on the definition of “political prisoner”, Memorial finds that the criminal case against Ioann Kurmoyarov is politically motivated and aimed at involuntary termination for his critiques on the changes of the nature of public activities, of authorities, and of his thoughts about society at large, most particularly the consolidation and retention of power by subjects of authority. Father Ioann’s incarceration is in violation of his right to freedom of expression. Moreover, the human rights organization believes that the persecution of individuals for their anti-war stance is related exclusively to their political views and the exercise of their freedom of expression.

Because of these circumstances, Memorial recognizes Ioann Kurmoyarov as a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.

On the morning of October 10, the Russian military launched missile strikes against Ukrainian cities. They targeted Kyiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv, Khmelnytskyi, Ternopil, Lviv, Zhytomyr, Kremenchuk, Kryvyi Rih, Konotop, Odessa, Rivne, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Poltava. According to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, more than 80 rockets were fired at the territory of Ukraine. A total of eleven people were killed and dozens were injured.

The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that the strikes were carried out strictly against military, communications, and energy facilities in Ukraine. This is not true: museums, philharmonic halls, business centers, residential buildings, parks, and public transport stops are not military targets. One video circulated on social media shows a huge shell crater on a children’s playground. Fear, death and destruction have once again come to the capital of Ukraine. This is yet another demonstration of the Kremlin’s absolute cruelty and Vladimir Putin’s determination to continue his inhuman war against the sovereign state and its people.

We are deeply shocked by today’s large-scale missile attacks of the Russian Armed Forces on Ukrainian cities, which have caused widespread damage and resulted in the death and injury of many innocent people. We mourn the victims and express our sincere condolences to all Ukrainians who have suffered today. 

The Russian Federation’s escalation of war in Ukraine is unacceptable and must cease immediately. We call on world leaders, governments, and international human rights organizations to pressure the Kremlin to stop attacks on civilian infrastructure, withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine, and resume diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the war. We also demand that Vladimir Putin and all those involved in today’s attack be prosecuted for war crimes.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties, Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, and Russia’s Memorial HRC.

The Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties is engaged in promoting human rights and democracy in the country, assistance programs for “Kremlin prisoners” — Ukrainian political detainees held in Russian jails, investigation of war crimes, tracing missing citizens, and providing assistance to thousands of Ukrainians affected by the war unleashed by the Putin regime.

Ales Bialiatski was one of the initiators of the democratic movement that emerged in Belarus in the mid-1980s. He devoted his entire life to the promotion of democracy and peace in his country. The Human Rights Center ” Viasna,” which he founded in 1996, collected information about those detained at the protests and torture in detention centers, provided help to the victims of law enforcement excesses.

Memorial, Russia’s most important human rights organization, was founded in 1987 by a group of likeminded activists who wanted to commemorate the victims of Soviet-era political repression. Members of the movement created a complex of sites dedicated to the victims of repression, and held demonstrations, exhibitions, and seminars on the subject of state terror. The first chairman of Memorial’s board was Andrei Sakharov, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

In announcing the winners, Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, stated that “the Peace Prize laureates represent civil society in their home countries. They have for many years promoted the right to criticise power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens. They have made an outstanding effort to document war crimes, human right abuses and the abuse of power.”

Natalia Arno, president of Free Russia Foundation, in congratulating her fellow human rights activists on their award, noted that the protection of civil liberties should be the space that can still unite the citizens of post-Soviet countries, dragged by the will of one man into the most grievous of conflicts.

“I welcome the decision of the Nobel Committee and salute all the laureates for the recognition of their merits. The award goes to people who embody not only the struggle for truth and justice, but also the very fundamental notion of freedom. It is also an indication of the plight of civil society in our countries, divided by the will of one man and now separated by history for decades to come. Just look at where we are today: the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, headed by Oleksandra Matviychuk, has been investigating the thousands of war crimes committed by Putin’s army on Ukrainian soil since February; Viasna, Belarus’ leading human rights organization, has been demolished, with Ales Bialiatski and many of its staff arrested; Memorial has been fined and liquidated, its assets have been seized by the authorities, and its team has been forced to flee the country. But I believe that we will not allow this regime to finally destroy our lives and the historical destinies of our peoples. Protecting basic human rights is still the space that unites us in 2022. I congratulate you, colleagues! Peace, freedom, and justice to our countries!”

Today, Russian media outlets have reported that new charges of high treason (Article 275 of the Russian Criminal Code) have been filed against opposition politician, human rights activist, and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza.

Vladimir Kara-Murza’s attorney Vadim Prokhorov confirmed that the charges of state treason have been filed against the politician on three counts. They allege speeches criticizing the Russian authorities at public events in Lisbon, Portugal; Oslo, Norway; and Washington, DC. According to the lawyer, the speeches, that indeed took place, posed no threat to the security of Russia, on the contrary, they were aimed at protecting the interests of Russia and its citizens and at correcting the current catastrophic situation.

The pro-democracy leader faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Vladimir Kara-Murza has pleaded not guilty.

Natalia Arno, president of Free Russia Foundation, in her comments on the new charges expressed outrage at the illegal prosecution of Kara-Murza.  “Charges of state treason for public speeches are absurd especially with regards to Vladimir, who is globally recognized as a true patriot of Russia and revered for his work in defense of the interest of the Russian people and democratic principles.”

Arno noted that Vladimir Kara-Murza served as Foundation’s Vice President, but was relieved from that position on August 3, 2021. “This decision was made by our board in recognition of the fact that Vladimir had been spending most of his time working in Russia, that was his main focus and his plan,” she explained.

The Foundation considers the criminal case against Vladimir Kara-Murza fabricated and politically motivated, a retribution for his work in support of human rights and his courageous quest against Putin’s autocracy.

“It has been absolutely clear from the very beginning that the detention and persecution of Kara-Murza is part of the wider campaign by the Russian authorities to punish and suppress any dissent,” said Natalia Arno.

“Today, accusations of discrediting the Russian military and participating in activities of an undesirable organization have been further inflated by charged of high treason, one of the most severe criminal offenses that can send a person to prison for decades. Vladimir Kara-Murza is a Russian patriot who has fought for many years for a prosperous future for his country. For this, the Kremlin tried to kill him twice, but, having failed to achieve its aim, arrested him and is now persecuting him on false charges that could lead to years of unjust imprisonment.

This is a tragic case  that shows us the ways Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial regime is suppressing all opposition in order to sow fear among Russians and remain in power at any cost. For years, Vladimir Kara-Murza has been one of the most consistent and determined advocates of democracy and human rights in Russia. His bogus arrest only underscores the importance of the idea of justice for the people of Russia and Ukraine, who have suffered too long from the actions of the Kremlin kleptocracy.” Free Russia Foundation, which supports Russian activists, journalists, and human rights defenders, considers the charges against Vladimir Kara-Murza unjust and politically motivated, and calls for his immediate and unconditional release. We demand the Russian authorities to stop manipulating the law to achieve false, illusory goals that destroy the very foundations of democracy and international security.

Originally published at The Insider

“There’s no money, but you hold on” is a phrase uttered in May 2016 by then-Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during a visit to Crimea in response to a pensioner’s complaint about her small pension.

As for the economic aspect of Putin’s mobilization, most commentators focus on the disastrous consequences for the skilled labor market and the loss of jobs by companies. This is all true: for example, back in July Putin admitted at a meeting with his ministers that a shortage of a million skilled workers is expected in the IT industry alone over the next two years, and now it is clear that this shortage will only get worse.

According to a Rosstat survey of entrepreneurs, the lack of qualified workers is one of the top 5 factors limiting industrial production growth, and the importance of this problem in 2022 has increased. Mobilization poses the most unexpected threats, particularly with regard to the attempts to circumvent Western sanctions: for example, it affects small companies that specialize in complex schemes of parallel imports.

But the magnitude of the impact of mobilization on the skilled labor market has yet to be assessed; for now, we can only guess. But what has now become abundantly clear is that Putin will not have sufficient budget to maintain, equip, and supply the newly mobilized troops.

This is clear from the document titled, “Basic Trends in Budget, Taxation, and Customs Tariff Policy for 2023-2025,” obtained by Vedomosti. This document, for the first time, allows us to see the scale of the increase in military spending in connection with Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. Its main conclusion is hard-hitting: Putin will not have enough money for further financing of the war and mobilization. All of his efforts are doomed, primarily financially.

What does the document say? That military spending in 2022-2024 (the government does not have plans for a later period, and we want to believe that a different government will be deciding this question in the future) is supposed to increase from the previously approved about 3 trillion rubles per year to about 5 trillion rubles per year (by a total of 3.4 trillion over three years, from 2022 to 2024 inclusive).

This is absolutely insufficient even to finance the current war – not to mention the cost of mobilizing a few hundred thousand additional manpower. We don’t know how many Russians will be ultimately drafted as part of the mobilization – maybe the declared 300,000, maybe more or less. But relatively speaking, this is a force comparable to the current number of contract servicemen announced by Shoigu (the Russian Defense Ministry talked about 400,000 contract servicemen).

To put it simply, according to the peacetime military budget approved earlier, of the 3.5 trillion rubles approximately 1.2-1.5 trillion rubles was spent on maintaining the army itself (salaries and supplies) (the rest was spent on military industrial complex and armament procurements, mainly via the “classified” items of the military budget). It’s way too little for the second largest army in the world. For example, in December, at the board meeting of the Defense Ministry Putin admitted that the average salary of an army Lieutenant was only 81,000 rubles.

It is clear that with such a large-scale war effort the amount of money spent on salaries including combat pay must increase dramatically. By these items alone, the maintenance costs of the troops deployed in Ukraine today should be increased by at least 3-4 trillion rubles a year, according to my estimates, but not by the planned 1-2 trillion rubles in any event.

However, in addition to the active troops Putin wants to mobilize a second army, comparable in size, officially equating the newly mobilized with contract servicemen. It is obvious that even the increased 5 trillion-ruble annual military budget will not be enough for these purposes. It seems that Putin and the Ministry of Finance are preparing for “cheating” military servicemen out of their salaries en masse (show these figures to your relatives and friends and warn them about it) – there is no other explanation in sight (in the case of deaths, large compensation will still have to be paid to the families).

The situation is very bad with the supply of the army in general. The current military budget allocates only 436 billion rubles for these purposes for the entire army (the data are taken from the materials for the federal budget approved in December 2021). We can see this miserable “supply” on the battlefield in all its glory. In order to ensure a normal supply of the army, Putin would have to allocate funds for this purpose of a completely different order of magnitude: several trillion rubles per year. No one is going to do that. Apparently, the government counts on the military obtaining food and uniforms “by themselves.”

Besides the fact that it will not be possible to finance the newly recruited troops and their supplies from the newly proposed 4.5-5 trillion-ruble annual budget, there is a more serious problem. In the previous years, about two-thirds of the military budget was spent not on the army itself but on the production and purchase of weapons, the military-industrial complex. This amount equaled approximately 2 trillion out of the total 3 trillion spent on the military. Arms expenditures were mostly classified (the disclosed one third of the military budget was used to maintain the army itself, which appeared to be a sort of unloved Cinderella in comparison with the main recipient of military spending, the military-industrial complex, favored by Putin).

Although we do not know exactly how the items of the increased military budget will be distributed, we can say with certainty that amid the enormous losses of arms in Ukraine and the depletion of ammunition reserves, the share of MIC spending in the 2022-2024 military budget will certainly not decrease and may even increase. Therefore, most likely no additional money will go to the army itself.

It turns out that nobody is going to finance or supply this enormous newly recruited 300,000-strong (or whatever) force. Leaving aside other aspects, we shall make only a single point – the army which is not paid and which is not provided with any supplies will not be able to fight. The fact is that the newly mobilized troops are being literally marched to certain death, because insufficient money has been allocated for their gear and supplies. Given the current scale of the war effort, one would expect Putin to increase the military budget to, say, 9-10 trillion rubles a year – but nothing of the kind has been observed.

One may ask: is it possible that there are some secret expenditures that we don’t know about? No, there are not. The above figures for total military spending include classified items and are reflected in the generalized figures of the Ministry of Finance. If there were anything else, it could be reckoned. Any conclusions as to why Putin has been throwing the newly mobilized into battle without allocating money for such basic things as salaries and army supplies are for you to draw – it seems we are witnessing one of the most glaring examples of a complete breakdown of the Russian system of governance, which is not capable of adequately assessing reality. If true, Putin’s catastrophic defeat is just around the corner.

The mobilization announced by Putin a few days ago has become a watershed event for Russia. Most Russians are against it, regardless of their ideology, political leanings or previous attitude toward Putin and his policies. For many, this is the first time that they have refused to accept a mandate from the government and, specifically, one vocalized by Putin personally, which creates a unique opportunity in terms of working with public opinion.

We can anticipate that a new wave of protests in response to mobilization will rise when dead bodies and maimed conscripts start returning from the front and as those deployed begin sharing information with their families, relatives, and friends on what is really happening in Ukraine and in the Russian military.

We may have a few weeks or even months before this process is full swing, but the unprecedented wave of refugees —males leaving Russia to avoid mobilization— is already a massive crisis that demands a thoughtful response.

Minus one soldier

Let’s be clear— every man of conscription age leaving Russia now (and sometimes even a woman, especially with a medical profession) is one man that the Russian Armed Forces do not get. Therefore, it just makes sense to enable this exodus, with financial and emotional support.

Since it is impossible to go from Russia directly to Europe, Britain, or the United States, and many refugees do not even have international travel passports, the main flow of refugees is absorbed by neighboring countries that have visa-free regimes with Russia or allow entry with domestic  Russian IDs. Among them are Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia. Georgia and Kazakhstan receive the largest numbers of refugees from all over Russia, while Mongolia receives significant numbers from Russia’s border regions.

While the Baltic states have closed their borders to all Russian citizens, Finland has only announced its intentions to do the same. Latest reports from the Finnish Border Agency show a significant increase in crossings by Russians with Schengen visas, residence permits, or passports from other countries. Therefore, by closing their borders, the Baltic states have not solved any real problems, but merely forced Russian citizens with visas, residence permits and passports to seek other routes — via Finland, Georgia and even Mongolia.

For some of the exiles, the initial destination was meant to be just a transit point. They may have plans to move elsewhere or even return to Russia — after the end of mobilization or the war itself. But it does not always work out that way. Those without a long-term plan may soon face serious hardships: they would have to live in locations where they ended up accidentally and without any means of sustenance for much longer than expected.

Modern weapons systems cost an enormous amount of money, and their purpose is to kill soldiers who have been sent to war. If we proceed from this harsh logic, we may look differently at the cost of providing minimal relief to the Russians fleeing mobilization. Think of it as a way to realize savings on military supplies that, thanks to their unwillingness to serve in the Russian army, will not be needed.

By the fall of 2023, Putin will be short 200-300,000 young men fit for military service. Despite the bombastic assertions about a mobilization reserve of 25 million, in reality, the demographic situation in Russia is not favorable at all to Putin’s plans. According to published reports, men over the age of 40 are already being actively drafted into the army, which in itself says a lot about the human resource situation in Russia.

Thus, any flight from conscription should be welcomed — for the sake of defeating Putin as soon as possible.

Decolonization in Real Time

There are plenty of complaints about the people fleeing the mobilization: that they are actually apolitical and had supported Putin until very recently, that they carry with them the values and ideas of Putin’s propaganda.

Never in modern Russian history, have tens or even hundreds of thousands of Russians, and for the most part ethnic Russians, voluntarily fled to neighboring countries from their government, relying only on the mercy and hospitality of Georgians, Armenians, Kazakhs, Mongols, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Even during World War II, the evacuation of Russian residents to Central Asia was carried out by the authorities. Here, however, we see a unique experience of private exodus, when an  average citizen decides on his own that leaving for Kazakhstan or Mongolia is now the way to save himself.

Thus, before our eyes, hundreds of thousands of Russians are undergoing a unique experience of decolonization to which they would never have been exposed in any other setting.  For the first time in their former colonies, they are not the masters, not the emissaries of the empire, not its pioneers, missionaries or exiles, and not even tourists, but refugees who depend on the mercy of governments of countries whose existence they either did not think of at all or viewed with imperial arrogance until recently.

Obviously, the hubris does not evaporate all at once. But for some, the experience will determine whether they return to Russia or live the rest of their lives in other countries forever. Therefore, we have an opportunity to actively support a sustainable decolonization narrative for Russian society. It is now that the conversation about decolonization should begin, and it will be much more successful if it begins not with ridiculing and hazing refugees, but with supporting them and demonstrating to them that the world around Russia is not at all what they have been led to believe. This is the time to lay the foundation for a future in which Russia will be a neighbor and partner to adjacent countries and peoples, rather than a constant threat to them.

New Opportunities and Challenges

Hundreds of thousands of refugees and their families are not the traditional audience of the opposition and Western media, with their established worldview and familiar terminology. In fact, we now have a unique chance to work ideologically with a wide cross-section of Russian citizens outside the area of Putin’s propaganda, or in a situation where trust in it has been lost. This moment should not be missed and should be used wisely instead of dumping on an untrained audience all the information that the opposition and émigré media are accustomed to imparting.

Regardless of the views held by those who left, by their refusal to deploy they have already committed a transgression against the authorities. It is important to note that so far the Russian authorities have not launched a wide campaign to smear the exiles. At the same time, there is every reason to believe that a significant portion of the xenophobic and suspicious posts in social networks are the work of Russian structures engaged in propaganda. The objective of this activity is clear: on the one hand, to set the local population against the newcomers, exposing them as bearers of imperial ideology and potential agents of war and Putin, and, on the other hand, to show those who have left Russia that Russophobia really reigns in the world and it is easier for them to return to Russia than to suffer the promised humiliation and abuse. And we must not forget the main goal of Putin’s propaganda, which is to create chaos. Closure of borders, discrimination against refugees and even more so, violence against them — this is what Putin’s propaganda really needs right now to work both inside Russia and with the refugees themselves.

What can and should be done now?

First, it is necessary to review communications aimed at the Russian audiences, turning down the  attacks on those who have left and encouraging refusal to serve in the army among those who remain in Russia. It is important to show them that their behavior is approved by the international community and that there may even be help, albeit within reasonable limits, without privileges or special statuses.

Second, plans should be made for working with the local population and local authorities in the host countries is necessary. This can only be done with the support of the United States and other Western countries, which can not only financially support the host countries, but also express moral and political support for them and their population. It is important to support local volunteers, NGOs and public organizations helping refugees — so that these people also get positive experience from their activities and get in touch with international organizations.

For countries like Georgia, accepting refugees is a serious strain on the infrastructure; and for Kazakhstan, it is the first serious attempt to politically resist Russian pressure. Therefore, each country should get its own package of support measures — based on the peculiarities of the situation.

Third, we urgently need programs to help the refugees themselves. Shelters, relief funds and structures of cooperation with local authorities and communities should be created in countries where refugees are concentrated or where there is willingness to accept them further. Existing emigrant and opposition structures should be actively involved. It may be necessary to move refugees from places of spontaneous concentration to other regions or countries, so as not to create unnecessary social tension where it may arise.

Fourth, there is a dire need to develop and launch programs of ideological work with those who have left. It is necessary to involve prominent figures from among emigration leaders, artists, writers, musicians, etc. Pro-Western, pro-democracy, anti-imperial mind set must be actively formed in those who are ready to listen. Decolonization happens not so much by speeches made at conferences as by working with specific groups and reformatting their thinking. Everything that has been accumulated in this sphere must be used now, but taking into account the real state of mind of each and every Russian.

An important problem for the implementation of the third and fourth paragraphs of the above-mentioned program is the complicated relationship between the authorities of the countries bordering Russia and the Russian leadership and its critics. In a practical sense, it is important  to explore whether they are ready to allow not only international, but also emigrant organizations to work on their territory. If there are issues with the entry of some opposition figures even into Georgia, can we guarantee that some leaders of the anti-Putin resistance will be able to visit Central Asian countries without the threat of extradition to Russia? Are the authorities of Russia’s neighboring countries ready to stop broadcasting Russian channels on their territory and replace them with Western and opposition Russian-language content? Maybe a compromise could be the creation of new local Russian-language media outlets with the help of emigrants and opposition activists, which would allow for interaction with the local Russian-speaking community. All of these issues need to be resolved as soon as possible, especially in view of the potential emergence of new waves of refugees.

On Friday, September 30, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the heads of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic,” as well as the occupation administrations of Zaporizhia and Kherson regions, signed treaties in the Kremlin on “joining Russia.”

Free Russia Foundation strongly condemns the decision of Vladimir Putin and his administration to continue the illegal annexation of the occupied territories in Ukraine. The forcible change of international borders at the expense of another sovereign state and the so-called “referenda” that preceded it are a serious violation of the foundations of international law and cannot be recognized under any circumstances.

Natalia Arno, president of Free Russia Foundation: “Today Vladimir Putin has de facto announced the illegal annexation of the occupied territory of a sovereign state. The signing of this treaty is a blatant violation of the fundamental norms of international law and the Charter of the United Nations, of which Russia is a member. Such actions by the Russian President, together with previously announced military mobilization and nuclear blackmail, only lead to an escalation of the conflict and new human sacrifices. In the modern world, borders cannot be redrawn at gunpoint. Russia’s actions are illegal and unacceptable to the civilized world.”

Free Russia Foundation, which provides support to Russian activists, journalists, and human rights defenders, calls on all countries and international organizations to join us in resolute and public condemnation of Russian military aggression and its illegal actions to tear away the territory of sovereign Ukraine. We urge you to call on the Kremlin to cease its hostilities and leave the territories it has seized.

Right now, an important lawsuit is pending at the European Union court, filed by Tigran Khudaverdyan. With this suit, Khudaverdyan, former CEO of Yandex (a Russian Google-wannabe tech giant), is challenging the sanctions levied against him over the Ukraine war, calling them “discriminatory and disproportionate,” and arguing that he personally “does not support the Russian intervention in Ukraine”.

Over the years, Yandex has portrayed itself as a progressive, independent, privately-owned business, operated by westernized technocrats, advancing knowledge-based economy, and helping Russia transition away from Putin’s primitive extraction economy dominated by oligarchs. However, even the most superficial examination of the actions by Yandex and its executives bring to light a long history of close cooperation with the Russian authorities and security services, actively facilitating systemic suppression of freedom of speech and political expression.

Over the years, Yandex has consistently and methodically suppressed independent content and news critical of the government or countering the Kremlin’s propaganda by removing such materials from its newsfeed. This is not inconsequential for the Russian public opinion, as boasting over 22 million daily users, Yandex News is one of Russia’s top web news aggregators.

In 2020, it was revealed that Yandex intentionally promoted fakes in order to discredit Russia’s prominent opposition leader Alexey Navalny, pushing such content to the top of the search results churned up by the Yandex search engine. In February 2017, after Navalny had launched his presidential campaign challenging Putin, Yandex Money immediately disabled Navalny’s electronic wallet crowdfunding his campaign. In 2021, in the leadup to the State Duma elections, Yandex delisted Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ campaign website, making the real site vanish from the search engine results, and replacing it with a fake impostor site created by the Kremlin.

In 2019, Yandex confirmed that it shared encryption keys for users data with the FSB, Putin’s lead for political repressions and surveillance.

None of this is surprising, given that Yandex is de-facto controlled by the Russian state. Until 2019, the state-owned Sberbank held a golden share of Yandex, with veto rights over key mergers and acquisitions.  In 2019, the golden share was transferred to a ‘supervisory board’ composed of state loyalists, who continue to execute major veto power. In a letter announcing these developments to Yandex employees, company’s founder Arkady Volozh justified this scheme with “the need to protect the country’s interests.” It is unclear how such ‘interests’ are determined without a legitimate publicly elected government and in the absence of free elections. Also puzzling the impetus for a ‘private independent company’, that Yandex claims to be, to define and guard ‘state interests’.

When Putin visited Yandex’s headquarters in 2017, a lavish reception was organized in his honor by the corporate bosses, while some employees whose loyalty was uncertain were blacklisted and told to stay home that day, and others ordered to remain still at their desk for the entirety of the visit to preclude provocations. Tigran Khudaverdyan, who is currently trying to convince the EU court that he “does not support the actions of the government of the Russian Federation”, was present during the visit and clearly approved Putin’s policies— as did other owners and managers of the company.

Moreover, were it not for Yandex’s direct assistance in government’s efforts to suppress opposition between 2017-2021, Russia today would have had a much better chance for political change. The results of the presidential and parliamentary elections may have been different, and Russia may not have started the war on Ukraine. 

The threat posed by Yandex is not limited to Russian civil society. The company is actively expanding its influence in the region, including Kazakhstan, Israel, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Armenia — sharing users’ personal data with the Kremlin, and facilitating Putin’s disinformation campaigns to brainwash people. The court should trash Khudaverdyan’s preposterous lawsuit without hesitation, and the European Union should urgently consider ways to curb Yandex’s creep over Eurasia.

On September 20, 2022, the occupation authorities of the self-proclaimed republics “LNR” and “DNR” and other occupied territories of Ukraine, Zaporozhye and Kherson regions, hastily announced that they would hold “referendums on joining Russia” in the near future. The authorities of the “LNR” and “DNR” added that the vote will take place as early as this week, from September 23 to 27, 2022.

On the same day, the Russian State Duma introduced the concepts of “mobilization,” “martial law” and “wartime” into the Russian Criminal Code. The deputies voted for the law in the third reading unanimously — all 389 of them. Now voluntary surrender, looting and unauthorized abandonment of a unit during combat operations will result in imprisonment.

From the first day of the war unleashed by Putin’s regime and its allies against independent Ukraine, Free Russia Foundation, which supports Russian activists, journalists, and human rights activists forced to leave the country because of direct security threats, has condemned the crimes of Putin’s regime against independent Ukraine. We respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states and consider human life and freedom to be of the highest value.

The forthcoming “referendums”, mobilization, and martial law are a collapse of the whole system of “Putin’s stability,” the illusion of which the Kremlin has been trying to maintain since the beginning of the full-scale war with Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is preparing to blatantly violate international law once again and launch an attack on democracy and freedom in Ukraine and Europe. Any statements by the Kremlin that residents of the occupied territories of Ukraine want to become part of Russia are false.

Three decades ago, the Ukrainian people proclaimed the independence of their state. Since 2014, the world has seen that Vladimir Putin has undermined Ukraine’s sovereignty and any attempts at anti-war protest in Russia through military force, repressive legislation, false statements, and massive state propaganda. Despite all the suffering inflicted on Ukraine, Putin has failed to achieve this goal: Ukrainians continue to show fortitude and determination to defend their country at any cost, and Russian anti-war resistance continues despite repression.

We consider any attempts to tear away Ukrainian territory through so-called “referendums” categorically unacceptable and call on state institutions and international human rights organizations to join the demand for an immediate end to the war and the liberation of the occupied territories. Any war brings suffering to humanity and endangers peace. We will not allow a totalitarian dictatorship to prevail and we will continue to fight for Ukraine’s independence and Russia’s democratic future.

Russian public opinion about Putin’s war in Ukraine continues to be one of the central issues preoccupying Western decision-makers, fueling heated discussions in the European media, and even triggering punitive policy campaigns— the latest of which is a misguided proposal to ban Schengen visas for all Russians.

In polling conducted in a repressive authoritarian state, answers “yes” or “no” to the question of “Do you support Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s war or not?” are not helpful in improving our understanding of the nuances in people’s attitudes. These polls present respondents with a head-on yes-or-no loyalty test and trigger fear of prosecution. We explained it in our April analysis.

Asking indirect questions, however, is not only helpful to understanding the nuances in Russian attitudes toward Putin’s government and how they have changed over the past few months, but they are also uncovering monumental shifts that are taking place within Russian society. One such a shift is the collapsing trust in state media channels that we have observed over the past six months.

Between March-April 2022, the trust in television as a source of information fell thirty percent, leveling off with social media channels, which were on the rise. Updated data shows that this trend continues. A poll published by private Romir group in August captures a significant drop in audience of the main state television channels. Channel One audience share fell from 33,7% in February to 25,5% in July; the share of “Russia 1” TV channel— from 30,9% to 23%; and the NTV channel— from 21,1% to 16,6%.

At the same time, social media is supplanting state TV channels in popularity. According to the same Romir poll, between February- June, 2022, the audience share of Telegram channels in Russia has grown from 19,1% to 26,8%. This means more Russians now are relying on information from Telegram than from any of the state TV channels. This is an extraordinary societal shift with profound ramifications. State TV, which, since the beginning of the war, has significantly curtailed its entertainment content in favor of more aggressive political coverage is losing audience among all generation groups— but at the fastest pace among Russian youth.

Similar trend is detected by the July Levada Center poll on media consumption. Levada shows that only 31% of Russians say that they “completely trust” the state media. The fact that the data is confirmed by various pollsters not connected to each other can help assuage concerns regarding the reliability of opinion polling conducted in a totalitarian state.

The scale and timing of such a sharp drop of trust in the state-run media— coinciding with Putin’s war against Ukraine offers a new insight into our understanding of the attitude of Russians toward the war.

Numbers released by the Levada Center a few days ago purport that the solid unconditional support for the war (“definitely support”) stands at 46%. Combined with the 30% of respondents who “mostly support” the war, that could be interpreted as a whopping 76% -level of support and
justifies a scandalous headline “all Russians back Putin in his aggression against Ukraine”.

However, the two responses are not mere degrees of the same attitude but are qualitatively different responses. One should absolutely not add them up, as any conditionality in “support” for the war in the current totalitarian conditions is a meaningful deviation. When people refuse to fully back Putin’s aggression within the context of unprecedented brainwashing and
intimidation, it means that Putin’s propaganda and repression machine are becoming less compelling. It also offers us hope that those showing even a glimmer of doubt about Putin’s propaganda, are receptive to a continued discussion, open to learning the truth, and maybe even ready to change their mind.

Indeed, the same Levada poll shows that solid support for the war has dropped from 52% in March to 46% in August. That’s still high, but the trend offers optimism. It should be noted that the actual “full support” of the war is likely much lower than 46% —probably below 40% —due
to the silence of those who are largely against the war, but refuse to tell it to pollsters, because they are afraid of consequences. As we estimated in April, the share of such people is probably within 10-15% range— opinion pollsters define this share by a number of methods, including measuring the difference between anonymous street polls and telephone polls where identity of respondent is known.

The bad news, of course, is that these figures have largely stabilized since April, and there has not been a follow-on significant drop in support. War fatigue and the apathy stemming from inability to have any influence over this situation could explain why this is the case. Those who dare to protest face grave consequences. The Levada poll also shows that the number of people who “closely follow” the events around Ukraine fell from 29% in March to 21% in August; with the total number of those who “closely or somehow follow” these events— from 64% to 51%.

There’s little that the ordinary people can do— so they prefer to disconnect from ongoing events to not fall into a deep despair. The fact that there’s little actual enthusiasm beyond the protective “yes” answer to the pollsters’ questions dispels the assertion that “the majority of Russians support Putin’s war”.

All this indirect data— the sharp drop of trust in state media, low interest in the war— suggest that there’s probably a third of Russians who may enthusiastically support Putin’s aggression, actively watch state TV, agree with what it has to say. But beyond that, there’s little indication that the rest of the country really backs Putin’s actions, beyond just the minimal level of loyalty feigned as a self-preservation measure. A third, but no more. That’s still very high, but these numbers do not back the arguments that “it’s the war of all Russians, not just Putin’s war”.

When the Levada pollsters ask people whether they are in favor of continued warfare in Ukraine, or would support peace negotiations, the picture is clearly not in Putin’s favor. Despite all the aggressive propaganda war bravado, the answers are evenly split. Only 48% of total respondents favor continuation of the war (which is consistent with 46% who say they “fully support” Putin’s war— which is in reality below 40%, given the above mentioned 10-15% of anti-war Russians who are afraid to tell the truth to the pollsters), with 44% favoring peace negotiations instead.

Over 50% of Russians under 40 favor peace negotiations and are against continuing the war. Even within the most aggressive and Putin-loyal group—Russians over the age of 55, only 55% favor the continuation of war, with 38% favoring peace negotiations— a strikingly high number for the most warmongering segment of the Russian population.

What we are seeing is that Russians do not really trust Putin’s state as general loyalty numbers purport. There’s no consensus within the Russian population with regard to the war in Ukraine.

War fatigue is taking its toll. Trends over the past six months are clearly not in Putin’s favor. Overtime, these trends are likely to accelerate, turning the Russian public opinion around, reaching the majority of Russians who will favor peace over the continuation of war. Even with unprecedented repressions and brainwashing, Putin is not a decisive winner, as far as Russian public opinion is concerned.

Yes, the number of people who earnestly back Putin’s actions is still alarmingly high and is a major problem, that would take decades to address. But it is false to claim that “majority of Russians supporting the war”. For that reason, efforts to change the Russian public opinion – and create another anti-Putin front in this complex war of a global scale— are a worthwhile undertaking that bears fruit. We need to double down on these efforts, instead of continuing to dwell on the unhelpful and defeatist narrative about the “universal backing” of Putin’s actions by the Russian society.

September 1, 2022. Washington, DC. Free Russia Foundation announces the appointment of Russian politician, publicist, economist, and energy expert Vladimir Milov as FRF Vice President for International Advocacy.

In her announcement of Vladimir’s new role, Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation, remarked: “I am delighted to welcome this distinguished Russian civil society leader to our team. I am certain that Vladimir will become our force multiplier and make a profound contribution to FRF’s mission, including strengthening civil society in Russia, standing up for democracy defenders who oppose war, both inside and outside the country, building coalitions and mobilizing supporters. Vladimir Milov’s professional skills and extensive experience in human rights advocacy will help us come up with effective and innovative approaches to combat the authoritarian regime and repression that the current Russian government has unleashed against citizens of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.”

Vladimir Milov was born on June 18, 1972. From 1997—2002 he worked in government agencies, more than 4 years of which were in senior positions, from assistant to the Chairman of the Federal Energy Commission to the Deputy Minister of Energy of Russia.

Vladimir Milov has bravely and publicly called out the authorities for monopolizing the economy, and encroaching into public and political life of Russian citizens. Milov’s profile as an opposition leader rose thanks to his joint project with Boris Nemtsov. The report titled “Putin. Results,” condemned the activities of the Russian government during Putin’s presidency. In 2010, Mr. Milov headed the Democratic Choice movement, which later served as the basis for the creation of a political party with the same name.

In 2016, Mr. Milov became an associate of the unregistered presidential candidate Alexei Navalny. On May 11, 2017, he began hosting a weekly segment on the economy, “Where’s the Money?” on the NavalnyLIVE broadcast on YouTube.

In April of 2021, he left Russia for Lithuania amidst persecution of Alexei Navalny’s organizations. In February of 2022, he categorically condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On May 6, 2022, the Russian Ministry of Justice added Vladimir Milov to the list of media outlets considered as “foreign agents.” Vladimir Milov is a regular guest expert for the world’s leading media outlets — CNN, CNBC, The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal.

Russian pro-democracy politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, who’s been in jail since April for allegedly spreading “disinformation” about the Russian military, now also stands accused of “carrying out the activities of an undesirable organization,” which names Free Russia Foundation in the newly filed charge.

Free Russia Foundation, unconstitutionally designated as an “undesirable” organization by the Russian government in June 2019, did not organize an event on political prisoners in Moscow in 2021. FRF does not have any presence or programs inside Russia. Additionally, FRF has never conducted any work in the State of Arizona.

FRF strongly condemns the new charges brought against Vladimir Kara-Murza by Russian authorities and demands the dropping of all charges against him and calls for his immediate release.

“All actions of the Kremlin directed against Russian opposition politicians and activists have nothing in common with establishing the truth. They are instead aimed solely at getting rid of opponents of Putin’s regime,” FRF President Arno stated.

Mikhail Savva, a sociologist and human rights activist, who emigrated to Ukraine from Russia in 2015, spoke about his involvement in documenting Russian war crimes on the Ukrainian soil.

Tatyana Felgenhauer, a journalist and former host of the Echo of Moscow radio station (which, similar to thousands of other media outlets, ceased functioning after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine), was among many other independent journalists who left Russia, fearing mass repressions and criminal prosecution for her activities. Over the years, she has written columns for Deutsche Welle, hosted a program on Dozhd TV channel, and blogged on MBH Media’s YouTube channel. Tatiana now runs her own popular YouTube channel and talks to Russian opposition politicians, human rights activists, and experts.

The guest of her latest issue was Mikhail Savva who left Russia at the beginning of 2015 fearing for his safety. Mikhail Savva, a renowned Krasnodar scientist and professor, has been actively involved in public activism for many years. He worked for a non-profit organization Southern Regional Resource Center, lectured at the Kuban State University (KubSU), was Deputy Chairman of the Human Rights Council under the Governor of Krasnodar Krai,  served on the Public Advisory Council under the Regional Directorate of the Federal Migration Service, worked as Deputy Chairman of the Krasnodar Krai Public Supervision Commission (PMC) for three years, and monitored human rights situation with Russia’s prisoners.  

In April of 2013, Mikhail Savva was detained by the Federal Security Service and arrested on charges of fraud. He was accused of misappropriating funds from a grant received from the Ministry of Social Development of the Russian Federation. Savva was also accused of illegal payments while at KubSU on a scale of more than 71 thousand rubles. On April 2, 2014, the Pervomaisky District Court in Krasnodar found the professor guilty and sentenced him to 3 years of suspended imprisonment with a probation period of two years and a fine. He spent eight months in a pre-trial detention on a fabricated criminal case. He was pressured to confess to subversion and to incriminate another person, calling him a member of some intelligence agency. In the second half of 2014, when Savva was already at large, he was summoned as a witness to another criminal case. From the very first interrogation appointment it became obvious that all these persecutions were launched to put him behind bars again. This is when he decided to move to Ukraine.

Today, Mikhail Savva, former political prisoner on the Memorial list, is the chairman of the board of the Sova Expert Group, an NGO that specializes in the examination of political motives behind criminal prosecutions. He partners with lawyers from around the world, non-governmental organizations, and the Free University, and investigates war crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine.

The latter topic, the investigation of the war crimes, was the subject of this interview.

— Mikhail Valentinovich, even before the war began, before February 24th, your biography is quite worthy of a screen adaptation in some kind of a thriller movie: the work within the system, the human rights activities, the cooperation with the governor, the head of the region, the criminal prosecution, the SIZO, the status of a political prisoner, and as a result you are a political refugee in Ukraine. By February 24, 2022, when Russia started this war, when they invaded Ukraine, how did you define yourself by that point: are you a Russian, a Ukrainian, a political refugee, or generally a person above it all?

— I think, yes, you could make a pretty good thriller about “How People Don’t Change.” Because the amazing thing is that it seems to me that I have remained the same all these years since the late 1980s. I did not change, but Russia, my country, has been changing, and changing radically, and, therefore, changing my place in this system. By February 24, I saw myself as an enemy of Putin’s regime. I was no longer a Russian in the full sense of the word. I have a Russian citizenship, but I have been living in Ukraine for 7 years, I have a refugee status here.

I am very closely connected to this country; I love this country. I don’t consider myself Ukrainian yet, although I speak Ukrainian fluently. I have a lot of friends. I am a member of Ukrainian society, yes, but the time has yet to come for ethnic consciousness. Perhaps it will not come, but the fact that I am an enemy of Putin’s regime, that was absolutely certain for me. Otherwise, there would have been no detention center, no court verdict, no immigration. And, so when everything began, I recalled what I was taught very well back in the army, in the Soviet army, during the two years of conscript service: specifically, the algorithm of a prisoner of war. If you are suddenly captured, your first task is to survive, your second task is to escape, and your third task is to inflict damage on the enemy. I already had a very clearly defined foe: the Putin’s regime. I understood that I was at the third stage: I had to inflict damage on them. How, and in what way… The war itself put everything in its place.

War is such a dense stream of events, which carries a man away. Whether he wants it or not, it’s very hard to resist war. You need to find your niche there. It puts everything in its place. In my case, I found that niche very quickly. To be more precise, my colleagues and I from the Expert Council of the Center for Civil Liberties , a Ukrainian human rights organization, talked about what we could do in case of war —just a few days before the start of a large-scale war. On the first day of the aggression, we got together online again and talked about more detailed options: what we would do under the occupation, what we would do if the occupation did not happen, and a few other cases like this. So, I had a pretty good understanding of myself under such circumstances. I was fine. All that was left to do was to act, and so I started.

— But as far as I understand, you started with the territorial defense battalions?

— I first started with the fact that a day after the aggression began, when I realized that the town where I lived (a suburb of Kyiv) would be under the occupation, I moved literally a few kilometers to a neighboring village, to be with my friends who were already in a territorial defense battalion (and I had no other options). Rural territorial defense in Ukraine in those days was a very interesting phenomenon: anyone who wanted could go there. The problems were different: there were not enough weapons, catastrophically not enough, except for light firearms and hand grenades. And not a single person in these small villages in the territorial defense was not officially drafted. That is, there were no lists, no orders, no assignments, people just came and did what they could. I even had a personal foxhole, almost a personal foxhole. We were on duty there together with friends I came to visit. March was freezing, but nevertheless, we worked in shifts. It was important because the Zhytomyr highway was literally five hundred meters away, and we could perfectly see everything that passes along the highway. And the Zhytomyr highway is the main direction that connects Kyiv with the West.

This highway was taken over by the Russian troops literally during the first days. Even though not completely, it was just a small area. But this small area that was taken under control, from Makarovka to Stoyanka, that’s where I was, so we saw everything that was moving along this highway. It was there, that I witnessed and documented the first war crime that happened before my eyes. That began the work, which then went on for several months and continues now (only in a different format), of documenting war crimes. This work is very important (about 50 percent of my time during the war was devoted to documenting war crimes to the west of Kyiv along the Zhitomir highway).

— Mikhail Valentinovich, I want to talk to you about the documentation and how war crimes are recorded in general, but I also want to talk about the territorial defense, about how you, a doctor of political science, sociologist, human rights activist, found yourself in a trench with a weapon in your hands: did you have any doubts on whether or not to take a weapon?

— I would have loved to be in a foxhole with a firearm in my hands, but I found myself in a trench unarmed because there wasn’t enough of weapons. As I said, there was a very small number of weapons available. As for the people who took weapons in their hands… You know, when I started coming to Kyiv in early March, and we found car fuel, we had to go there for humanitarian aid (we organized our own humanitarian aid deliveries for the village where we lived from Europe). I drove past some military recruitment offices in Kyiv and, these are not legends, I saw it myself, I saw men there, crying, lamenting because they were not taken, well, there, they tried to sign up for the territorial defense, but were not taken because there were not enough weapons. There were a lot of people who wanted to fight.

Once, we were loading a minibus with humanitarian aid for our village, and we were helped by guys from the National Guard unit that was there. We needed to load several tons into the car very quickly, we could not have done it ourselves, so they came. I was paired with a man a little younger than me, and we had to bring a big heavy pallet on such a special device (I don’t even know what it’s called, similar to a dolly), he and I walk up to this cart, he says thoughtfully: “My Ph.D. doesn’t allow me to figure it out.” I look at him and I say, “My two degrees don’t allow either, but we’re going to have to do it, there’s no way out.” And we then loaded everything we needed in there.

People took up arms no matter who they were. Regardless of the extent to which they could use a gun. In my estimation, some [people] would have been more useful in another capacity, but there was simply no way to stop that. In the house where we lived, we packed everything we had in the hallway that could be used as a weapon, just in case. There were hay forks, there were axes, there was this big household sledgehammer. Just in case. Because the threat was absolutely real: we saw Russians from several hundred meters away. They did not enter our village: they moved along the road, they did not have enough forces to occupy indiscriminately,  so there was no such direct confrontation. If there had been… well, I did not have and do not have the slightest doubt which side I was on. I am a retired major of the Soviet Army, a former squad leader, I know what weapons are, I love them very much, but in peacetime I have shunned them, because weapons are such a nasty thing … once you take them in your hand, there is a situation where you will need them. But that’s in peacetime, but in war it’s just such a necessity.

— Now, let’s talk about something that you started doing quite soon after the start of the war, as I understand it: collecting and documenting evidence of war crimes. I know that you were involved in proving a political component in criminal prosecutions. When you need to prove that someone is being persecuted for political reasons, you help formulate and analyze this political motive, whether it exists or not. Is there such a story in war crimes or not, how does it work in general?

— Yes, that’s a very good question, relevant, so to say. I spent 7 years, literally from the first days after my emigration to Ukraine, working as an expert with lawyers and providing expert opinions about political motivation behind criminal prosecutions. Cases were very different, but mostly of two types: a person urgently fled somewhere in Europe, for example, filed documents for legalization, and a local judge or migration officer, if it has not yet come to court, just does not understand how you can persecute a person without any slightest reason. Well, I mean, they, I mean, first of all, Europeans, Israelis, Americans, just do not understand this. They have no experience with such cases. And, therefore, a situation arises where this Russian looks like he is not telling the truth. But he is telling the truth. In such cases, independent expertise helps a lot. I did that, and it turned out to be a very useful skill when the war started. Because when you work as a forensic scientist, some very important skills are formed.

For example, consider tough evidence. You’re not allowed to lie as an expert, and you have to provide evidence for everything you state, give all the irrefutable facts and clearly spell out all the dependencies between those facts. In documenting this, it seriously helped. On March 3, literally a few days after the start of the war, there was the first case that literally pushed me into this work, into documentation. We saw a Russian military convoy, a caravan of military vehicles that was driving along the Zhytomyr highway. We went out to get a better look at it, everything was literally visible as in front of our eyes: a combat infantry vehicle (BMP) was in front of the convoy, and then it suddenly opened fire. Two shots, two hits on two civilian cars. Well, I mean, these were ordinary vehicles that still had white rags wrapped around them as a symbol of them not being military vehicles. These cars were not painted in camouflage. There were clear signs on these vehicles that they were not military vehicles. Nevertheless, they were targeted.

On the same day, when it got darker and there were gaps between the Russian military convoys, it was possible to photograph what was left of the two vehicles. I even managed to find the license plates, which were blown off and landed pretty far away. There were three dead people in one car and three dead people in the other. All we could tell was that there were a man, a woman and a child in each car because all that was left was their legs. A 30-millimeter BMP shell literally blew the car apart, sometimes tearing off the top part, but the legs remained where they were. Then relatives of one of the dead, one of the drivers, started looking for him. We knew from the license plate number who he was, and now we know. He was a volunteer, a man from Kyiv, who was taking someone out of the combat zone in his car. He hoped to make it on time. But, unfortunately, he didn’t make it on time. We don’t know who the other people were.

I recorded it all, it was a photo fixation, it was my description that I made as a witness, and then I worked on the documentation as a member of the civil initiative “Euromaidan SOS”. This is an initiative that was created during the hours of the Maidan, the last Maidan, in 2012. It was established to document crimes that were committed against the protesters to protect the rights of these people, and during the war this initiative was renewed. We worked in a video recording mode. That is how it happened in my life, “one day in the life of Mikhail Valentinovich”…

— God forbid anyone such a day, honestly…

— I had those, just not in the Solzhenitsyn format, it was a detention center, but not a Stalinist camp, fortunately. Well, now such a paraphrase is appropriate because it happened many many times. The village where I lived then was not under the occupation, the Russians controlled only the highway, as I said, but they were constantly shelling this village. Why? I cannot say, because apart from the posts of territorial defense, there was nothing in this village, there were no units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine there and then. There were never any military facilities, military units, nothing but a sawmill, nothing at all. And a farm where they grow mushrooms. Nevertheless, every morning, very early, there was shelling, and when it was light, I would go either by car or on foot, if it was close, to the neighbors who had “arrivals”.

There were many hits. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, although sometimes the fact that no one died was just a miracle. I was recording the results of the Grad rocket launcher shells landing in the backyard of a retired village teacher with a profound disability. A grad shell exploded five meters from her house. But he went under a concrete slab (such  massive slabs paved her yard), he went in, the explosion put this slab literally vertically, and this slab took the entire impact. If it hadn’t been there, this woman wouldn’t have been alive, there wouldn’t have been this shack, but even the windows were still intact. Such miracles happen at war. They flew in very often. They flew in, including one that was very close to the house where I lived. The closest arrival was 80 meters away, fortunately, on an empty lot, and it was a Russian tank shell. Shrapnel went into the house of another of my neighbors, who moved out. And when he phoned a couple of days later, my neighbor and I explained to him that no, there was no need to come, no need to repair the roof. The roof was fine, you just have a gate now, you know, a design. And his three-millimeter-thick metal gate turned into such a sieve, which, really, no designer had ever projected.

There were a lot of cases like that. This is also a war crime, I mean the indiscriminate shooting of civilians and civilian infrastructure without any slightest military necessity, —and we have also documented this. As of today, our public initiative “Euromaidan SOS” alone has recorded over 9,000 war crimes of all kinds: murders of civilians, rapes, destruction of civilian infrastructures, destruction of residential buildings, demolition of cultural monuments, well, even driving a tank over a cemetery. Some Russian tank crew wanted to drive over cemeteries, and it damaged several dozen graves, went somewhere into the field then into the forest. Then we found a burnt tank there, I don’t know if it was the right one or not, but I hope it was the exact one.

— The fact that you have documented all kinds of crimes, serious, very serious, monstrous crimes, does this have any kind of a procedural status, can you pass this on to investigative groups, or is this the amount of information that will now be accumulated, and then someone else will decide what to do with it?

— Investigative teams are already working with this material. There is a database of war crimes, which is inaccessible to almost everyone except for the Ukrainian and international law enforcement agencies. From it, cases are selected based on urgency, examined quickly, including the investigators of the International Criminal Court. Some refer to it as “The Hague Tribunal”, yes, there are tribunals there, but a large group of inspectors work there, they come to Ukraine, and this base is open to them as well. The accumulation of evidence continues, you are right, and the accumulation is very important, because such a record of war crimes allows, first of all, to try to bring to justice everyone who is guilty, from an individual or a sergeant who committed it, to those who are the leaders of the Russian regime, who created the conditions for the execution of such crimes.

But another important thing is that in the war, people just vanish very often. When we document crimes, we are sometimes able to find traces of these individuals. I’ll return to that incident along the Zhytomyr highway. The next convoy of Russian vehicles just scattered the remains of these cars. And if we had not taken the photos, these people would have simply vanished into oblivion, everything, as if they never existed. Because there were only partial remains of the human bodies, parts that would then just inevitably disappear. So that’s an important task, too. These people are being looked for, they have relatives, they have loved ones who would rather know where and how the person died than not know anything, as in many cases.

And one more point, I will just mention it: this is such an important, long, separate topic. A large file on war crimes allows us to analyze them, because when we know what was committed, it is much easier for us to conduct an examination of who and how created the conditions for these crimes. And here I recall the trial of former Yugoslav President Milosevic, who did not give orders to kill civilians or rape women, but he was convicted. He was judged precisely because there was a huge amount of confirmed evidence of war crimes, and then there was the expert work, which proved that it was he and the people around him who created such conditions that soldiers of the Yugoslav army were committing crimes en masse. That is exactly what is being established right now. That being said, the International Criminal Court has a very high standard of proof. From what I know, it’s the highest standard of proof. They don’t have that many criminal cases that come to a verdict. So, you need a very skilled expert to work there, and I’m very glad that I’m one of the elements of this complex expertise in proving their guilt.

— Tell me, about the documenting: how would you rate Ms. Denisova’s work? How much damage has she done to the work that you’re doing?

— No, I don’t think she did any great damage from a legal perspective. She was talking about sexual assaults of children, with the evidence base not yet assembled by that time. I would not be surprised at all if, after a while, it turned out that her estimates were about right, that it really was a mass phenomenon. It was just when confirmation and evidence was needed that she was unable to provide it. But you have to understand that establishing such proof is a complicated task, it takes time. When it comes to sexual offenses, it’s incredibly difficult. People don’t want to talk about it. People don’t even want to talk about things that have nothing to do with sexual assaults, they’re just scared.

When I came to Bucha, to Yablunska Street, where the largest number of people were killed by the Russians, there was just their base. The vehicles were just standing there, there was their headquarters. We just went through the backyards, we knocked on every gate, and when people came out to meet us, and some houses were already empty, we asked, “Were you here during the occupation?” — “Yes.” — “And are you willing to talk about what was here on camera and give your last name?” And in many cases we heard, “No, I’m not.” People are terrified… And when all the horror of a sexual assault is added to that, it’s very difficult to get testimonies.

There’s another point, which is absolutely objective, and Ms. Denisova certainly had no influence whatsoever on this. Many victims of sexual crimes from Ukraine have left for Europe. They departed for two reasons. First, they don’t want to stay in that social environment where they know what happened. And second, they needed very serious, very deep psychological rehabilitation. I know one such case: literally a few blocks from where I live, one of the volunteers, an acquaintance of mine, I can already say my friend, who used to come here when this area was under the occupation (he would bring food here, we would load him up, they would drive two electric cars, we would load him up with food, and then he would take people back and then drive on), and once he transported a woman, well, a girl of 15, who was actually raped for several days, who miraculously got out. She was sent to a Baltic country, and the girl is still being rehabilitated there. To expect any kind of testimony in such a state is simply impossible. It would worsen the psychological state of the victim.

— A clarifying question about Denisova’s situation: it’s just that she herself admitted that she exaggerated some things, if not invented them; do you as an expert question everything around you in general? Or are you, after all, biased?

— As an expert, I question absolutely everything, so in the course of the documentation I listen to and record one person, but when the investigative team starts working, they work with that comprehensively. My task as an expert is, firstly, to record, and secondly, to gather as much clarifying information as possible through interviews. I must be psychologically and emotionally neutral, I must not send any signals during the interview (I remind you that video recording is in progress, that is, I talk and at the same time it is recorded on camera), I must not give any clues, I must not emotionally exacerbate  person’s condition, I must get information from that individual. The kind of information that can be checked later.

— Mikhail Valentinovich, you have been in Ukraine since 2015, and all this time you have dealt with the situation in Donbas in one way or another. So, when asked “Where have you been for eight years,” you can tell everyone exactly where you have been, and you have seen exactly what is happening on the line of demarcation in parts of these self-proclaimed entities and everything that was nearby. Who needed help there in the first place. And over these eight years, what mistakes would you highlight both on the part of the Ukrainian administration, because it was there all the time, and maybe the European Union, which, in general, took a calm attitude toward the annexation of Crimea and toward what was happening in the eastern Ukraine?

— Yes, I have traveled to Donbas every year since the fall of 2015, sometimes for long periods, sometimes for months. I have the feeling that I have been there in every “hromada” (that is, every settlement). Yes, at times I was asked to wear a bulletproof vest on the line of demarcation because it was literally the border. I worked as an expert, as a consultant for international programs, and in the course of this work I got a lot of information about the attitudes of the people, about what was going on, and I can draw conclusions about mistakes very confidently.

In one of the focus groups I moderated, we were talking about sources of information for local government, —what is needed, what is missing, and one of the participants, a local deputy, as I recall, suddenly said: “And you know, I watch Russian TV channels in general. I don’t watch Ukrainian channels because life is complicated enough! When I turn on a Russian channel, I wonder how beautiful it is! Successes, achievements, flights into space, solving problems, everything is so great… But when you turn on the Ukrainian channel, well, here’s some life, why do I need it?”

That was one of the main problems of the Ukrainian government, a problem that persisted until the beginning of the large-scale war in 2022: the information flow. In some bordering regions of Ukraine, there is very little or no Ukrainian television broadcasting. People watch Ukrainian proigraming, if we talk about the west of Ukraine, Poland, Hungary. If we talk about the east, they, unfortunately, watch Russian broadcasts. This is also a problem of coverage, just a problem of television towers, these transponders of the Strugatskys, of which there are fewer on the Ukrainian side. And it’s a problem of the content of this information flow. Democracy is always harder. In a democracy, the journalist works with information, they deliver facts, and these facts are far from always being pleasant.

When we talk about a non-democratic society, an authoritarian society, and now Russia is moving very steadily towards a totalitarian regime, toward neo-totalitarianism, there are far fewer journalists, and these people are mostly engaged in propaganda. They maipulate consciousness in order to change one’s point of view. And this requires a positive picture, something that one wants to portray in a good light, and hatred and denial of enemies. This is exactly the kind of information flow supported by the Russian propaganda stream, in which the inhabitants of Donbas have lived for several years. I can honestly say: you need a very powerful patriotic inner strength to withstand this struggle with Russian propaganda.

And now, by the way, I noticed that literally in the second echelon of the Russian occupation troops, along with the Rosgvardia, there are engineers who are working on the reconfiguration of television towers. That is, the Russian regime sees what it has been able to do to the Russians with the help of propaganda, and it plans to do the same to the Ukrainians in the occupied territories.

— About contacts that are now possible or impossible: in the field of human rights, legal assistance, do you see any possibility for Ukrainian human rights activists and lawyers to work together? There are prisoners on both sides.

— I don’t just see it, but we’re working on it. We do this literally on a daily basis and in a variety of formats. Just recently, after one of the meetings with the Russian and Ukrainian human rights activists, we created a joint monitoring working group on prisoners of war. There are Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine and Ukrainian prisoners of war in Russia. We need to understand the conditions under which these people are held, whether their rights are violated, whether they are tortured, whether politically motivated criminal charges are brought against these people, and whether they are allowed to communicate with their relatives or at least to tell them where they are (we have no information about many people).

This is a huge field of work, and we have to cooperate here, there’s just no other way. Because I can’t imagine how a Ukrainian lawyer would go to Russia to defend Ukrainian prisoners of war and a Russian lawyer would come to Ukraine. It is simply impossible. At the same time, there are Russian lawyers who are willing to work in good faith to protect Ukrainians in Russia, not as “nodders” and not as servants of the investigation.

— Is there any way to find out what happens to Ukrainian prisoners of war who are now in the hands of people from the so-called DNR and LNR? We recently talked to Vladimir Osechkin from Gulagu.net, and he told us that it is the worst in such areas, not in Russia, but in areas where there is complete lawlessness. And he was talking specifically about torture.

— And he is absolutely right. These unrecognized states are a legal no man’s zones, where formally there are some local laws, but in fact no one has ever observed them. There is indeed torture there, there is indeed an information vacuum.  We simply do not know where these people end up. In very rare cases when someone manages to escape through an exchange, we study information about the conditions of detention. And the conditions of Ukrainian prisoners of war in these DNR and LNR do not meet any standards. Even worse, these legal black holes officially have the death penalty. And now they, or rather not they, but the Russian Federation is blackmailing the world with the death penalty against POWs for alleged crimes “against the people of Donbass.”

Such sentences are handed down to foreigners who are members of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. There are already two death sentences for Brits and one for a Moroccan with Ukrainian roots. And this is done with one objective: to force other countries to talk to these non-recognized quasi-states,  and to somehow legitimize them, somehow bring them into the political field. This is a crude political blackmail, which is terrorism in essence. But even in these areas it is possible to at least try to establish control over rights. I am not only referring to the Red Cross, but also to the people who have the authority in the local administration to monitor the observance of the rights of prisoners of war. They are citizens of Ukraine, and they know very well that if they constantly and grossly violate international law, they will be punished. Accordingly, they are motivated to cooperate. The countries will not cooperate with them, but for public organizations it is quite possible. And we are now trying to establish this process.

— One question on today’s most current agenda: Vladimir Putin has ordered that all Ukrainians should be granted Russian citizenship under a simplified procedure. Is he doing this out of desperation? What kind of strange thing is this?

— No, this is an absolutely normal political move. He wants to demonstrate that Russia is attractive to Ukrainians. He wants to show that despite everything that is going on, Ukrainians are attracted to Russia, they find protection there, it is such an attempt to distort the image. This is also a calculation, such, you know, a statistical calculation. There are just a lot of Ukrainians stuck in Russia. According to the most conservative estimates, on the eve of the war, about 2 million citizens of Ukraine who permanently resided in Russia. Some got married, some worked there. When the war began, the opportunities to return decreased dramatically. And now these people are in a very difficult situation — they are under pressure, and they have to make a choice: either they return [to Ukraine] (which is through third countries, through Europe, for example), or they accept a Russian citizenship. Thus, Putin has an opportunity to show that Ukrainians are massively ready to accept the citizenship of the Russian Federation. The fact that this is done out of desperation does not deter  him.

— As someone who was a political prisoner and had to flee the country, how closely do you follow what’s going on in Russia in terms of politics and repressions?

— I keep track not only because of my biography, but also because I am regularly approached by the Russian attorneys for expertise. Now there is a myriad of cases under Article 207.3 for fakes about the actions of the Russian army and state authorities. It was introduced literally in March, and there have already been more than 60 criminal cases under this article. There is a similar article in the Administrative Code, but it counts in the thousands. There is already a real sentence for a municipal deputy, several people are in pre-trial detention, and they are charged with the part that involves being locked up in a detention center. A person is essentially held under the torturous conditions.

— This is a political, blatantly political article. In the past, the Putin regime came up with some options to fight the opposition. For example, Alexei Navalny was always jailed under some economic articles, and I’m not even talking about Khodorkovsky. Somehow, all the time they are coming up with ways to pretend that this is not politics. But here it’s just political articles.

— Yes, in their pure form. These articles have no right to exist at all! They do not only contradict Article 207 and the like — the Constitution of the Russian Federation, they contradict the International Pact on Political and Civil Rights. It simply should not be the case when a person is put in jail for disseminating information. It is a recognized as a constitutional right to collect, store, and disseminate information by any legal means. And when such an article is introduced, one must understand that it is being done out of despair. Because information about what is happening in Ukraine, if it were open and accessible, would simply overwhelm Russians.

It is impossible for a normal person to withstand this and remain a Putinist patriot. There are a lot of abnormals there already, I understand that, but still, for a large part of  people, it would be such a sobering drug. So the information is being shut down, shut down in an absolutely illegal way. And the very article is so insidious, because it says that the punishment is allegedly for disseminating false information. False information is not a reason to prosecute a person, but even this restriction is not observed by Russian prosecutors. Because knowingly false information is something that contradicts reality. And people are put in jail because their information contradicts the data from the Russian Ministry of Defense. I’ve read the indictments, I’ve read the so-called “expertise” of Russian so-called “scientists” who support these charges. They directly say that “this information is knowingly false, because this is not what was said in the Defense Ministry briefing.” It’s just a legal nightmare that Russia is now plunged into.

— Could this become another point of accusation at the international court?

— It will. It certainly will!

Russia is not Putin. We are Russia.

We aim at sharing this message with our friends around the world — therefore, in cooperation with Boris Nemtsov Foundation we are launching “Russians for Change” fundraising campaign.

We are going to be telling the stories of active pro-democracy anti-war Russians who have not lost their hope. US nationals also participate in this campaign: Francis Fukuyama, investigative journalist Casey Michel, and alumni of Boris Nemtsov Foundation media school.

Thank you for your donation:

The Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom honors the political legacy of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian liberal opposition politician assassinated in Moscow in 2015. It promotes freedom of speech and education along with the vision that Russia is a part of Europe.

In the temporarily occupied territories of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, in addition to the killing of civilians and horrific destructions carried out by the Russian army: a severe violation of the norms of international law in the form of abduction of Ukrainians into the territory of Russia has been taking place.

Prior to being interned, Ukrainians are placed in so-called “filtration camps” where they are subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment.

All these actions violate the Hague Conventions and constitute an international crime.

We plan to collect information about such abduction cases, put it in written pleadings, and submit them to the International Criminal Court.

If you have been subject to abduction (internment), please, fill in the form via the link.

By FRF Team

On February 24, 2022, over 100 deputies from different regions of Russia signed an open letter to the fellow citizens and condemned the military conflict with Ukraine. By March 5, the letter had been reportedly signed by 276 deputies of representative bodies of state power and local self-government. But due to the introduction of criminal and administrative liability for “discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation,” the names of the signatories have been since redacted.

The most noticeable dissent against the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine has been shown by the members of the Communist party:

  • On February 26, CPRF members, State Duma deputies from the Samara Region and the Omsk Region, Mikhail Matveyev and Oleg Smolin, respectively, publicly raised concerns about the war. They were joined by Vyacheslav Markhaev, CRPF member from Buryatia, who condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on his Facebook page.
  • On February 27, CPRF activists launched an anti-war initiative; anti-war groups appeared on VKontakte and Telegram. This work is reportedly done by members of regional and city branches of the party and the Komsomol throughout Russia. At the very core of the initiative are members of the Marxist Tendency movement.
  • A Meduza source close to the party leadership in one of the Russian regions, called the war in Ukraine “imperialist” and noted that its conduct and support is contrary to the ideology of the Communist Party.
    • Anti-war statements on social media were made by the Komsomol branches in Penza, Novosibirsk, Moscow and Saratov, but they were all removed within hours.
    • The anti-war groups were later made non-public; regional party leaders also demanded that members left these groups. Some members reported the internal party order not to speak publicly about the war at all.
  • Consequently, members who spoke against the war were expelled from the party, others were pressured, e.g.:
    • In late February, in Komi, head of the Communist Party faction Viktor Vorobyov said in a statement on his Telegram channel that “what is happening in Ukraine has no justification in international law.” Vorobyov was stripped of his speech rights in the State Council for two meetings.
    • Also in February, in Vladivostok, City Duma deputy Viktor Kamenshchikov resigned from the party and announced his readiness to lay down his deputy mandate due to disagreement with the invasion of Ukraine. “I am against war in principle,” he was quoted to have said.
    • In March, Voronezh deputy Nina Belyaeva condemned the special operation, which resulted in her expulsion from the party and a criminal case against her.
    • Also in March, in the Arkhangelsk region, the Communist Party expelled five members of the party for their anti-war appeals, including Alexander Afanasyev.
    • Two more Communist party members were stripped of their membership in the Tambov Region.
    • In late May, deputy of the legislative assembly of Primorsky Krai, Leonid Vasyukevich, publicly demanded that Putin withdraw troops from Ukraine (he was supported by four other party members): in response, the CPRF promised to apply “the toughest measures.” In June, Vasukevich and a fellow party member Gennady Shulga were expelled from the party.

Some members of other parliamentary parties also voiced their opposition to the war:

  • In March, the deputy of the Ivanovo Regional Duma (the Just Russia–Patriots–For Truth), Sergei Shestukhin, refused his mandate, because “the political struggle in the country is over.” Earlier, the Ivanovo authorities wanted to remove his powers due to errors in old tax filings, and the party expelled him because of a post criticizing the special operation in Ukraine.
  • Also in March, the head of the Penza branch of the Just Russia–Patriots–For Truth, Anna Ochkina, resigned on the grounds of “the abolition of democracy.”
  • In April, at the Moscow City Duma’s meeting, Sergei Mitrokhin, former head of the Yabloko party, spoke publicly against the war.
  • In April, St. Petersburg deputy Vladimir Volokhonsky during a meeting of the municipal council condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and called on the deputies of United Russia to “leave this party as quietly as possible,” since they are responsible not only for the government’s actions committed earlier, but also for the war crimes that are taking place on Ukrainian soil now.

In addition, the Yabloko party, which doesn’t have Duma representation, but holds a handful mandates in the Russian regions, has articulated its anti-war position since day one in its official statement. However, this position comes at a cost: one of its representatives, chairman of the Nizhny Novgorod branch Oleg Rodin, had to leave Russia after he discovered he had been under surveillance. This was preceded by Yabloko’s campaign against the war in Ukraine and the attack on the party’s regional office.

By FRF Team

The new bill on local self-governance in Russia, which is currently under review at the second
reading in the State Duma, was introduced on December 16, 2021–almost two months before
Russia started a full-fledged war against Ukraine. The sponsors of the bill are pro-Kremlin United
Russia party deputies Pavel Krasheninnikov and Andrei Klishas, authors of several other
antidemocratic laws.

The bill was first introduced in 2020, around the same time as Putin’s government was pushing
through the illegal Constitutional amendments and aims to replace the existing federal law on
local self-governance adopted in 2003. The new law envisions two major changes:

  1. governors are empowered to single-handedly appoint mayors and unilaterally remove
    them from office;
  2. rural and urban settlements are abolished, and local government is transitioned to a
    single-level system. By 2028, these administrative units are to be merged with the city or
    municipal districts within the borders of the current municipal localities.

Putin’s regime justifies these changes as a way to increase self-governance efficiency by
consolidating financial, organizational, personnel and other resources.

The bill has been met with resistance in the State Duma, especially by the members of the
Communist and Just Russia parties. Following the first reading, 700 amendments were
submitted. The review is still ongoing, and the second reading was moved to the Duma’s fall
2022 session.

According to some Russian political experts, the new law will essentially deprive the Russians
living in small urban areas of political power. Others point out that the law will simply reflect
the existing political realities on the ground—that is, the fact that residents of small
municipalities and rural areas do not possess real political power anyway.

This is the story of a St. Petersburg-based artist Aleksandra “Sasha” Skochilenko, who tried to help Russians cope with depression and is now arrested for “war fakes.”

Who is Aleksandra Skochilenko?

Sasha Skochilenko was born on September 13, 1990. She is a resident of St. Petersburg, a journalist, feminist, artist, and musician. When Sasha was diagnosed with cyclothymia, a form of bipolar affective disorder, she created The Book of Depression to support people with similar health problems. The book has been translated into English and Ukrainian.She was active socially and politically and has repeatedly participated in protests against the war in Ukraine.

She was charged under paragraph “e” of Part 2 of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code:”Public dissemination under the guise of reliable reports of knowingly false information containing data about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, committed on grounds of political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred or enmity or on grounds of hatred or enmity toward a social group,” up to 10 years in prison.” She was charged for replacing price tags in a grocery store with anti-war placards. She has been in custody since April 11, 2022.

Case Background

On the evening of March 31, 2022, anti-war flyers appeared in a Perekrestok supermarket on the first floor of Shkiperskii Mall on Vasilyevsky Island of St. Petersburg. Attention was drawn to these flyers by a customer — a 75-year-old retiree. The woman filed a police report.

As the Bumaga newspaper discovered, supposedly for more than 10 days the law enforcement officers questioned the employees of Perekrestok, and reviewed video surveillance cameras. Eventually, they established who had put the flyer in the price tag and where this person went.

The Arrest and the Criminal Case

On the morning of Monday, April 11, law enforcement officers conducted a special operation. They went to the apartment of the alleged suspect — his house was 900 meters away from Perekrestok. What exactly occurred in the apartment is unknown. The man living there turned out to be a friend of 31-year-old Sasha Skochilenko.

That morning, the Skochilenko received a message from the friend saying they were “looking for a body” in his apartment, asking her to come over. When she was on her way, the young man texted her that “everything was fine.” Skochilenko’s friends believe that the law enforcers could have texted Sasha from her friend’s phone.

When Skochilenko arrived at the apartment, she was detained. It was around 11 am. There was no news from Skochilenko for more than four hours, and law enforcement agencies did not comment on the situation.

During the search, the computer and the clothes on which Skochilenko allegedly replaced price tags with flyers were seized.

After the search, Skochilenko was taken for questioning to the Vasileostrovsky District Investigative Department of the Main Investigative Directorate of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation for St. Petersburg, where her detention as a suspect was formalized.

According to the media outlet Setevye Svobodi, the interrogation continued until 3 a.m. During this time the charges against Skochilenko became more serious, with an added motive of political hatred or enmity: “d” part 2, article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, providing for 5 to 10 years in prison. How the information on the anti-war leaflets could be “knowingly false” and where the “motive of political hatred” came from is not mentioned in the documents provided by the investigation.

On April 12, 2022, Mr. Proskuryakov, an investigator from the investigative department of the Vasileostrovsky district of St. Petersburg petitioned for the court to apply a measure of restraint in the form of detention to Skochilenko.

The following day, April 13, 2022, the judge of the Vasileostrovsky District Court of St. Petersburg E.V. Leonovagranted the petition for restraint, issuing an order for the detention of Aleksandra Skochilenko until May 31.

According to Dmitry Gerasimov, Skochilenko’s lawyer confirms that she posted anti-war leaflets with information about the Russian Federation’s use of military force in Ukraine and its consequences. However, she does not believe that the information in them was false, as follows from the article of the Criminal Code imputed to her.

The Judge Sent Skochilenko to the Detention Center. She Has a Critical Health Condition: Gluten Intolerance and Celiac Disease 

Sasha Skochilenko spent the night of April 12, 2022 in jail. As she said later in court, she slept there, but was not given any of the water or food that her friends had brought to her. The first hearing on Skochilenko’s case was postponed to the next day — and shespent another day in the temporary detention center.

The hearing on Skochilenko’s restraint began at 9 a.m. on 13 April in the Vasileostrovsky District Court. More than 40 people gathered in the hall — friends, journalists, as well as human rights activists. Skochilenko was taken to the court hall in handcuffs and put in a caged cell. She looked exhausted and begged for water — but there was no water in court and visitors were screened for food or drink. Despite her depressed state, she thanked the crowd.

Judge Elena Leonova did not consider the fact that Skochilenkowas diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder and celiac disease — a genetic intolerance to gluten, which requires a strict diet — to be a legitimate reason to refuse to send her to the detention center.

The judge specifically noted that Skochilenko “has no serious illnesses diagnosed” and that “there is no data that [the girl] needs emergency medical care.” In response to the fact that Skochilenko’s lawyer gave her a medical report, the judge said that the document “is not taken into account, because the source of information is not mentioned.”

Later it became known that Skochilenko faced psychological pressure and bullying in the detention center by her cellmates. The inmates forced Sasha to wash all her clothes every day, including bulky sweaters and a robe. It took her half of the day, wastingtime she could have spent writing letters to friends and statements about her case.

On April 20, after her meeting with Skochilenko in jail, herlawyer Yana Nepovinnova said that she felt “very sick” and vomited because of the poor diet. By April 25 (by that time the artist was still transferred to the pre-trial detention center), according to Nepovinnova, Skochilenko’s health had further deteriorated.

Public Reaction

Affidavit of guarantee for Skochilenko were signed by deputies of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg, Boris Vishnevsky and Mikhail Amosov; politician Lev Shlosberg; and municipal deputy Sergei Troshin. The court also received a positive reference from Kirill Artemenko, the general director of Bumaga media outlet. Hundreds of posts appeared in social networks about her case, calling it absurd. The case has been covered by the independent media. An action in support of Skochilenko was held in London.

Amnesty International and the American PEN Center issued statements in Skochilenko’s defense. Costume designer Ksenia Sorokina, who won this year’s Golden Mask Award for her work on the play Finist the Clear Falcon, decided to give Skochilenkoher award “in gratitude for all that she does.”

What’s more infuriating in its injustice is not only the prosecution for anti-war stance (that too), but rather the possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison, and the fact that she was sent to adetention center despite her illness.

“I remind you that none of the men who threatened to ‘cut off their heads’ ever got anything,” wrote Legislative Assembly deputy Boris Vishnevsky. “And nothing for the two attempts to kill my friend Vladimir Kara-Murza. But for the anti-war speeches — jail and then prison for 10 years. Notice the difference.”

At the same time, many of those in favor of Skochilenko’sfreedom are pessimistic. For example, Vishnevsky himself tells the Bumaga media outlet that he “would be glad to be wrong” if the outcome of the case is still positive. Journalist Arseniy Vesninrecalled how he knew they would send Skochilenko to jail, even though he didn’t believe it.

A petition demanding the artist’s release also appeared on Change.org. At the time of writing, it has already been signed by over 130 thousand people.

A separate petition in support of Skochilenko was created by mental health activists and journalists. “Aleksandra is a person who has made a tremendous contribution to the fight against prejudice about mental disorders. In her Book of Depression, she explained and showed in simple language where the disease, which affects millions of Russians, comes from and how it is treated. It was one of the first Russian-language works to draw attention to an illness that affects more than 300 million people worldwide,” they stated.

Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Aleksandra Skochilenko as a Political Prisoner?

Having reviewed documents of the case, the Human Rights Center Memorial has concluded that Aleksandra Skochilenko is a victim of political persecution.

The center asserts that the article about spreading knowingly false information about the actions of the Russian army (Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code) contradicts the Constitution of Russia, Russia’s international obligations, and the basic principles of law.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression,” and restrictions on the exercise of these rights “shall be provided by law and shall be necessary: for respect of the rights and reputations of others; for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.” The restrictions on freedom of expression established by Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code do not serve any of the above purposes and are a manifestation of censorship.

This article criminalizes any statements about the use of the Russian Armed Forces and the activities of its government agencies abroad. During an armed conflict, it is impossible to establish the truthfulness of information disseminated by various sources. It is also impossible to establish whether or not the information is known to be false. These defects determine the unlawful nature of Art. 207.3 of the RF Criminal Code.

The timing and context of the appearance of Art. 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code — after the beginning of large-scale Russian military aggression against Ukraine — allow Memorial to argue that this article was specifically created as a tool for persecuting critics of the Russian authorities, of which Aleksandra Skochilenko is an example.

Finally, it is important to note the particularly cynical nature of the court’s decision to place Skochilenko in pretrial detention despite her vulnerable state of health. As a result, her friends and relatives are now trying to secure a special diet for her in the pretrial detention center. The denial of a gluten-free options directly threatens Skochilenko’s health, which could lead to serious complications for her, including cancer.

The independent human rights project Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial, which continues the work of the thematic Program of the liquidated by the state HRC Memorial, finds that the criminal case against Aleksandra Skochilenko is politically motivated, aimed at involuntary termination or change of character and intimidation of society as a whole. The government’s punitive efforts were carried out solely because of her non-violent exercise of freedom of expression and information, by which she intended to protect human rights and her beliefs.

Based on the above, Memorial considers Aleksandra Skochilenkoto be a political prisoner and calls for her release and for a review of her sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.

June 29, 2022. Washington, DC. The coalition of pro-democracy anti-war Russians launched the Secretariat of European Russia in Brussels. Free Russia Foundation is one of founding members of this coalition.

The group will facilitate an efficient flow of communication and coordination between the EU and pro-democracy Russians. It will be assisting the EU structures to develop the Russia policy initiatives that would help stop the war in Ukraine, support the Russian civil society and activists, and catalyze political change inside Russia.

With the permanent representation in Brussels, this initiative will strive to achieve a much stronger position of the Russian civil society and pro-democracy activists as legitimate, capable, responsible, and responsive actors that inform European policymakers on the latest developments in Russia and critical foreign policy issues, help the EU to formulate and implement a smart Russia policy and contribute to a significant political change inside Russia. The Secretariat will make an important contribution to addressing the war consequences and help Russian civil society, both in-country and in exile.

Attendees of the inaugural event included Natalia ARNO, Free Russia Foundation (FRF); Grigory FROLOV, FRF VP; Vladimir MILOV, FRF Senior Fellow; Dmitry GUDKOV, Anti-War Committee (online); Anastasia BURAKOVA, “The Arc” project (online); Evgenia CHIRIKOVA, Activatica; Alexander SOLOVYEV, Foundation for Democratic Development. The event was hosted by MEP Andrius Kubilius, standing rapporteur on Russia in the European Parliament. The launch was attended by MEP Miriam Lexxman, MEP Sergey Lagodinsky, MEP Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz, representatives of the EEAS, NATO HQ, Globsec, EPP HQ and others.

Natalia Arno, Free Russia Foundation President: “Policy of the European Union is a key factor when it comes to demanding an end to the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, a release of the regime’s political prisoners, or catalyzing political change inside Russia. Therefore, Free Russia Foundation and other members of the Secretariat of European Russians that have extensive understanding of the Russian internal processes, unite to advise the EU on specific steps that can influence decision making inside Russia”.


Vladyslava Smolinska

[email protected]

WASHINGTON, DC, June 22, 2022.  Free Russia Foundation—a 501(c) 3 headquartered in Washington, DC whose mission is to support Russian pro-democracy activists and organizations by improving their access to expertise, information, funding and decision-makers required to bring about positive change in their country— announces the addition of two new members to its Board of Directors.

Ambassador Sarah E. Mendelson is a revered development and human rights policy practitioner whose Russia-focused experience includes a National Democratic Institute post in Moscow and work on the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From October 2015 until January 2017, she served as the US Representative to the Economic and Social Council at the United Nations. Between 2010-2014, Ambassador Mendelson worked as Deputy Assistant Administrator at USAID directing programs on democracy, human rights, and governance. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of over 70 scholarly and public policy publications, Ambassador Mendelson received her BA in History from Yale University and her PhD in political science from Columbia University.

Tom Firestone is a legal expert specializing in transnational financial crimes and corruption investigations.  He is the co-chair of the White Collar & Internal Investigations unit at the Stroock law firm and a member of the firm’s National Security/CFIUS/Compliance Practice Group where he serves as the liaison with the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Department of Treasury and other U.S. agencies.  Mr. Firestone’s areas of competence include the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and other sanctions laws, the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and other anti-money laundering laws, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), and other federal criminal statutes related to business crime and national security. He advises clients on the issues related to the Russian war in Ukraine, including sanctions compliance, OFAC licensing, and assessing the risks of doing business in Russia. Mr. Firestone has represented clients in proceedings before Interpol and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Tom previously worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York, where he investigated and prosecuted transnational organized crime.  While with the Department of Justice, he also served as the Resident Legal Advisor and Acting Chief of the Law Enforcement Section at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and twice won the U.S. State Department Superior Honor Award.  He has testified as an expert before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and the UK House of Lords and is recognized by Best Lawyers in America in the area of white-collar criminal defense.  He is fluent in Russian and reads Polish and Bulgarian.

“We are immensely grateful to Ambassador Mendelson and Mr. Firestone for lending their unparalleled expertise to the work of Free Russia Foundation at this truly historic moment,” said FRF President and Founder Natalia Arno in her statement.  “Today, Russian civil society is fighting for its survival. The two decades of Russia’s gradual slide toward authoritarianism have given way to an all-out repression, stripping Russian citizens of their innate rights, instilling terror and apathy. The brutal, senseless war unleashed against Ukraine by the illegitimate regime of Vladimir Putin and the international sanctions levied in response to this military aggression against Russia have dramatically reshaped the operating environment for Russian pro-democracy activists and movements. We are confident, that with Amb. Mendelson’s and Mr. Firestone’s insight and ingenuity, our foundation can devise innovative and effective ways to support Russian civil society and help it reclaim its role as the main driver of the country’s political development.”

The addition of Amb. Mendelson and Mr. Firestone to FRF Board brings its total size to a lucky number 13. Other Board Members include David J. Kramer (Chair), Paige Alexander, Ellen Bork, Ralf Fücks, Toomas Ilves, Ian Kelly, Sergey Aleksashenko, Alina Polyakova, Daniel Treisman, Andrew Wood, and Natalia Arno (President and Founder, ex officio). Learn more about FRF Board here.

Jun 16, 2022. Washington, DC. Free Russia Foundation (FRF) launches a global #NOTOWAR / #HETBOЙHE campaign to unite Russian voices all around the world and call for an end to the  Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. Following the Russian government’s crackdown on domestic dissent, this campaign encourages Russian diasporas and exiles to speak out against the war also in the name of Russians inside the country who are unable to voice their opposition to the war.

Through protest, communication and advocacy actions, organizers of the campaign will press Russian authorities to withdraw its troops from the territory of Ukraine in its internationally recognized borders by demonstrating that there is a global community of Russian people who are actively opposed to this war.

This campaign launches today, on Thursday 16th June, and will be supported by content from both experts and everyday Russians who have been affected by the war.

On June 12, 2022, our movement helped to coordinate anti-war rallies that took place in 80 cities, 37 countries. FRF wants to make Russians’ anti-war voices heard in the streets where they cannot be beaten and on those online platforms that cannot be silenced.

Natalia Arno (President of Free Russia Foundation): “This campaign gives a voice to many Russian people who oppose the war. Free Russia Foundation will always stand up for the best interests of pro-democracy anti-war Russians both inside and outside of the country. Through our global network of campaigners, organizers and activists, we will give the voice for the voiceless.”

Evgenia Kara-Murza (Advocacy Coordinator at Free Russia Foundation): “You shouldn’t be afraid because fear makes us silent. When you are silent in the face of something monstrous, you are complicit.”

Contact details

Who: Vladyslava Smolinska
Email: [email protected]
Phone: +1(929) 533-40-26


Free Russia Foundation is a nonprofit nongovernment nonpartisan 501c3 organization supporting civil society and democratic development in Russia. The organization is headquartered in Washington, DC, and has offices in Kyiv and Lviv (Ukraine), Warsaw (Poland), Tbilisi (Georgia), Berlin (Germany), Prague (Czech Republic), Tallinn (Estonia) and Vilnius (Lithuania).

Photos from the rallies on June, 12, 2022

Tbilisi, Georgia

Washington, DC

London, UK

Free Russia Foundation online

Vladimir Kara-Murza has been illegally removed from political office, poisoned twice, and declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian state.  Despite all of these dire threats, he’s remained in Russia and continued to fight for democracy. On April 22, Kara-Murza was charged under Criminal Code Article 207.3 for spreading discrediting information about the Russian military and sent to prison. This is his story.

Who is Vladimir Kara-Murza?

Vladimir Kara-Murza, 40, is a prominent Russian activist, political opposition leader, senior advisor for human rights accountability, journalist, and historian. He served as a member of the Federal Council of the Political Party Union of Right Forces, a member of the Political Council of the All-Russian Democratic Movement “Solidarnost,” a member of the Bureau of the Political Party People’s Freedom Party, and Chairman of the Board of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom. Kara-Murza is a longtime vocal critic of the Kremlin who held leadership roles in Open Russia and Free Russia Foundation, organizations that the Russian government has deemed “undesirable.” Kara-Murza also hosted a weekly program on the since-shuttered Echo of Moscow radio station and writes columns for The Washington Post.

Kara-Murza has directed three documentary films: They Chose Freedom, Nemtsov, and My Duty to Not Stay Silent. He is also the author of Reform or Revolution: The Quest for Responsible Government in the First Russian State Duma. He has received several awards, including the Sakharov Prize for Journalism as an Act of Conscience, the Magnitsky Human Rights Award, and the Geneva Summit Courage Award. He holds an M.A. (Cantab.) in History from Cambridge.

The effectiveness of Kara-Murza’s work can be clearly seen in his advocacy for the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability 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 of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had uncovered a scheme to steal 5.4 billion rubles.

Kara-Murza was poisoned twice. In 2015, Kara-Murza suddenly felt unwell during a meeting with colleagues. Doctors diagnosed him with acute kidney failure due to poisoning. During an extended period of hospitalization, he was in an induced coma and on life support. Two years later, in February 2017, Kara-Murza was again hospitalized in a critical condition to a Moscow hospital with the same symptoms. Kara-Murza survived. As he later recounted, doctors estimated his chance of survival at about 5 percent.

After Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, Kara-Murza said in an interview that the symptoms described by Navalny were “exactly the same as the symptoms” that he himself experienced in both poisonings. An investigative effort published on February 11, 2021 by Bellingcat and The Insider teams discovered that FSB officers shadowed Kara-Murza on his travel. Their report found that a group of FSB officers implicated in the poisoning of politician Alexei Navalny and other prominent opposition leaders, made two attempts to poison Kara-Murza in 2015 and 2017.

He has pushed for a criminal investigation of his poisoning, but proceedings have not yet progressed.

It is believed that the two poisonings of Kara-Murza were revenge for the fact that he and Boris Nemtsov advocated in the U.S. (and later Canada and the European Union) to pass the Magnitsky Act.As a result of their work, sanctions were imposed throughout the Russian bureaucracy: on employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Investigative Committee of Russia (IC), and judges. Later, the sanctions 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.

Case Background

On April 11, 2022, Vladimir Kara-Murza was detained in the courtyard of his home in Moscow. According to the police report, he “disobeyed the lawful demand” of police officers. After his arrest, Kara-Murza was held overnight at the Khamovniki police station, where a report was drawn up under Article 19.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences of the Russian Federation (“disobedience to legal demands of police officers”). The police officers stated that they had put him under a “Fortress” plan while he was in the police station, and that his lawyer was not allowed to see him on that basis.

The police claim that they were on patrol and noticed that Vladimir Kara-Murza “at the sight of police officers behaved inadequately, changed the trajectory of movement, accelerated his step and on their demand to stop tried to escape.” They claim that ”when arrested he showed active resistance, refused to provide identity documents and to follow into the police vehicle.”

Kara-Murza claims that he arrived at his house by car, where an unmarked white minibus was already waiting for him. The officers of the 2nd Special Police Regiment ran up to the car and detained Vladimir Kara-Murza as he parked near his house. His phone was taken away from him immediately, in violation of the law, and he was not allowed to call his wife and inform her about his arrest until several hours later. He was then taken to the police station in a white van.

According to Kara-Murza, his arrest was filmed by two persons in civilian clothes.  

The Arrest and the Criminal Proceedings

On April 12, 2022, the Khamovniki District Court of Moscow found Kara-Murza guilty of disobedience to the lawful demands of the police and sentenced him to administrative arrest for 15 days.

On April 22, 2022, Vadim Prokhorov, Kara-Murza’s lawyer, announced that his client was facing charges under Art. 207.3 of the Criminal Code (“public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”) and had already been taken from the special reception center to the main investigation department of the Russian Investigative Committee. Later, the Basmanny District Court of Moscow specified that the investigation petitioned for a measure of restraint in the form of detention, and that Kara-Murza was charged with paragraph “e” of Part 2, 207.3 of the Criminal Code (“public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation for reasons of political hatred”).

According to Prokhorov, the basis for the criminal case against Kara-Murza was his March 15, 2022 address before the House of Representatives of the State of Arizona. Neither Kara-Murza’slawyers nor the defendant himself can explain why, out of a series of his public speeches in the United States, the IC has chosen to prosecute 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 March 15 speech is not much different from the Anti-War Committee’s first declarations`. It is, in fact, a brief critical analysis of the 23-year development of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The Basmanny Court emphasized 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 Danila Mikheev, who had done research as an expert on behalf of the IC in a number of other cases against opposition figures.

On the same day, April 22, the Basmanny District Court of Moscow remanded Kara-Murza in custody until June 12, 2022.The arrest has been now extended through August 2022. 

The investigators justified the request for Kara-Murza’s placement in custody by the fact that he has “informal ties” with the leaders of “unfriendly” countries, cooperates with “undesirable” organizations such as Free Russia Foundation, and has accounts in foreign banks. The investigators argued that if a more lenient preventive measure were chosen, Kara-Murza might obstruct the investigation. They also claim that Kara-Murza is a British citizen,is the owner of real estate in Washington, DC, and has a residence permit in the US, so he may abscond.

The defense argued that there was no evidence pointing to the elements of a crime and that there were no other legitimate grounds for imposing detention on Kara-Murza. The lawyers drew the court’s attention to the fact that the politician had children, including minors, and was permanently registered in Moscow. They explained that there was no evidence that Kara-Murza had real estate in Washington, accounts in foreign banks, or had worked for an undesirable organization. They also argued that the report substantiating the criminal nature of Kara-Murza’s speech had been prepared by a biased specialist.

The defense drew the court’s attention to the un-investigated poisonings of Kara-Murza in 2015 and 2017, the consequences of which would pose health risks for the politician in the detention center.

The defense counsel insisted on the political nature of the case and asked the court to refuse to put the politician in custody. The court was also presented with guarantees from deputies of the Moscow City Duma: Mikhail Timonov, Maxim Kruglov and Vladimir Ryzhkov.

Despite all arguments of the defense, the court agreed with the arguments of the investigation and put Vladimir Kara-Murza in custody until June 12, 2022.

The International Reaction

The arrest of Vladimir Kara-Murza provoked a flood of statements from politicians and human rights organizations around the world, as well as a barrage of comments on social media. The hashtag #FreeKaraMurza was used to tweet messages of support and demand a fair trial and the immediate release of the politician.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted the U.S. is “troubled” by Kara-Murza’s detention. He called for his immediate release.

In a statement, 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.”

Twenty-five international human rights organizations called on UN Secretary General António Guterres and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to condemn the arrest and detention of Russian opposition politician and demand his immediate release along with all others detained and arrested for protesting against the war in Ukraine. A statement from human rights activists, including representatives from major organizations such as the United Nations Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Foundation, declared that “[t]he accusations against Kara-Murza are false and aimed only at silencing dissent within Russia. They reflect the Putin regime’s fear of the truth.”

A number of leading advocates have condemned Kara-Murza’simprisonment. Among them is Michael Breen, President and CEO of Human Rights First: “We are deeply concerned for our friend Vladimir Kara-Murza’s personal safety, and we call on Russian authorities to release him immediately […]. 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.”

A joint statement by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin and co-chairman Rep. Steve Cohen, as well as ranking members Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Joe Wilson reads, ”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.”

In a separate statement, Steve Cohen wrote that “Vladimir Kara-Murza is a political prisoner of Putin. He must be released immediately. Putin is afraid of Vladimir because he has a voice and speaks the truth to the Russian people about the kleptocrats who commit financial crime and their leader who is a murderer.”

“Vladimir has been taken hostage by the Putin regime for criticising the war. He’s a British citizen and the U.K. government should use all means to get him released,” writes Bill Browder, CEO Hermitage Capital, Head of Global Magnitsky Justice campaign.

On May 26, 2022, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and colleagues applauded the Senate’s passage of their bipartisan resolution honoring Vladimir Kara-Murza and condemning his unjust detention. The resolution pays tribute to Kara-Murza’sadvocacy for human rights in Russia and support for the anti-war movement. It urges the U.S. and allied states to secure his immediate release and calls for the U.S. government to support the cause of democracy and human rights in Russia.

After Kara-Murza’s arrest, his wife Yvgenia Kara-Murza led a campaign for his release. She regularly gives interviews to the press and meets with politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to encourage the speedy release of her husband, describing her husband’s long history of resistance to Putin’s regime. On May 232022, she gave a speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum. She quoted her husband: “The other day a fellow prisoner asked if I wish I’d stayed silent [on the war]. ‘No’ was the easiest answer I’ve ever given. To stay silent means to be complicit.”

A large number of international media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Guardian, and National Review have published materials about and interviews with Kara-Murza. In addition, dozens of international politicians, U.S. senators, and even hundreds of ordinary people published posts on social networks with words of support and demands for the immediate release of Kara-Murza.

Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Vladimir Kara-Murza as a Political Prisoner?

After studying the documents of the case, the Memorial Human Rights Center (Memorial) came to the conclusion that Vladimir Kara-Murza is a victim of political persecution as a result of his political activism.

A week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, on March 4, 2022, the Russian State Duma adopted emergency legislation to amend both the Code of Administrative Offences and the Criminal Code.

The corpus delicti of the crime under the new Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code is formulated as follows: “Public dissemination under the guise of reliable reports of knowingly false information containing data on the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation to protect the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens, to maintain international peace and security, as well as containing data on the performance by state bodies of the Russian Federation of their powers outside the territory of the Russian Federation for the above purposes.”

Memorial believes that this article contradicts both the Russian Constitution, the international obligations of the Russian Federation, and the basic principles of law.

According to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference [… and] shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Restrictions on the exercise of these rights “shall be established by law and be necessary: for respect of the rights and reputations of others; for the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals.”

Similar guarantees are contained in Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which protects freedom of thought and speech. Restrictions on these freedoms are related to the prohibition of propaganda or agitation that incites social, racial, national or religious hatred and enmity; propaganda of social, racial, national, religious or linguistic superiority; and state secrets.

The restrictions on freedom of expression set forth in Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code clearly do not serve the purpose for which such restrictions might be imposed.

In fact, the norms of Article 207.3 allow prosecution for expressing any opinions about the use of the Russian Armed Forces and the activities of its state bodies abroad. Judgments as to whether or not the actions mentioned in the article have the goals of “protecting the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens and maintaining international peace and security” are, by their very nature, evaluative expressions of opinion.

But even with regard to information itself, for example, statements of fact under conditions of military operations or contradictory information from various sources, it is extremely difficult to judge veracity. Moreover, it is impossible to establish the knowingness, i.e. the intent to disseminate false information.

The aforementioned organic defects of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code determine its non-legal nature, which does not allow its application in good faith.

Based on available evidence, the Independent Human Rights Project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” believes that Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code is anti-legal, was created to carry out political repression against critics of the authorities, and must be abolished. Any prosecutions under this article are unlawful and must be stopped. 

The facts cited by Kara-Murza and his defense and the videofootage of his detention indicate falsification of evidence of an administrative offense under Article 19.3 of the CAO. Kara-Murza arrived at the house in a car, where police officers were already waiting for him. The story about the police patrol noticing Kara-Murza changing his trajectory was fabricated by law enforcement. These fabrications once again confirm his pre-planned political persecution, which began with imprisonment on an administrative charge. 

The speed with which this criminal case has developed is an indirect indication of the political motivations involved in Kara-Murza’s persecution.

Following Russia’s attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Kara-Murza, along with other politicians and public figures, created the Russian Anti-War Committee. One of the committee’s primary objects is to hold Russia’s political leadership accountable for unleashing the war.

The political motive for the prosecution is additionally confirmed by the inclusion of Kara-Murza on the list of “foreign agents.”The Russian Ministry of Justice did so on the same day that hewas arrested. 

The independent human rights project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” continues the work of the Thematic Program of the RC, which had been liquidated by the state.Memorial, according to the international guidance on the definition of a political prisoner, finds that the criminal case against Vladimir Kara-Murza is politically motivated, aimed at involuntary termination or change of character of his public activities and intimidation of society as a whole. The consolidation and retention of power by subjects of authority wascarried out exclusively because of Kara-Murza’s non-violent activities aimed at protecting human rights and his convictions in connection with the non-violent exercise of freedom of expression and information.

Based on the above, Memorial considers Vladimir Kara-Murza to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.

This analysis builds on the 2016 study of the Russian State Duma composition which uncovered a significant increase in the number of members representing the public sector and former heads of municipalities— as the direct result of the shift in the electoral system from fully proportional to mixed or majoritarian-proportional. This follow-on report examines the demographic trends of the current State Duma elected on September 19, 2021. The study’s author Alexander Kynev finds that the composition of the 2021 State Duma is more similar to that of 2011 under the fully proportional system. The party in power is less focused on engaging truly electable candidates and more on advancing those who fit certain projects or concepts, in addition to those who self-nominate.

Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine has now gone on for over three months. The Kremlin continues hiding the extent of injustice it is committing against the Ukrainian people, and it’s hiding the true cost of the war to the Russian people— including the number of those killed in action.

The official numbers that are released, however, indicate that ethnic minorities from economically disadvantaged regions of Russia are disproportionately represented among casualties. It was Christo Grozev of Bellingcat who was among first suggesting that losses among “non-Slavic” troops from remote regions were disproportionately high.

The Russian media outlet Mediazona, together with a team of volunteers, has examined more than 1,700 reports on the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, and it turned out, that, in absolute numbers, natives of Muslim Dagestan and Buddhist Buryatia are in the lead among the casualties. And if we compare these data with the population size of the Russian regions, the national republics are again the leaders: the top three in the number of killed soldiers per 100 thousand people are Buryatia, Tyva and North Ossetia. Residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg, which together account for more than 12% of the country’s population, are virtually absent from the casualty reports.

The Kremlin takes advantage of the fact that the national republics are some of the poorest and most socially and economically depressed parts of the country. In 2020, Buryatia ranked 81st out of 85 regions of Russia in terms of quality of life. The neighboring Irkutsk region was in 55th place. According to the republican statistics department, 20% of residents in 2020 had incomes below the subsistence minimum. In 2013, it was slightly better at 17.5%. In 2019, Ulan-Ude ranked last in quality of life among 78 cities with a population of 250,000 or more. In a region with a salary of 20 thousand rubles, young people have two choices: either go look for jobs in the harsh Arctic region or the bustling Moscow, or join the military as a contract mercenary. But even there, men from republics like Buryatia, Tuva, Dagestan, and Chechnya are at the bottom of the pay scale. Military insiders say that their salaries in warzones are set at about 250 thousand a month.

In the first days of the war, videos showing Russian prisoners of war with non-Slavic appearance began to circulate on social networks. Later — and even before the Russian Defense Ministry officially confirmed the first combat casualties — several regional governors announced the deaths of their fellow countrymen. In early March, when the first coffins arrived in Buryatia, the head of the republic, Alexei Tsydenov, attended several funerals. He was accompanied by TV cameras and journalists. The obituaries were published on the main pages of the regional media. Then the burials began to take place almost every day, and Tsydenov stopped going. Since mid-March, the names of those killed in Buryatia have been published only in provincial newspapers or on the social media communities.

Buryats make up only 0.3 percent of the Russian population, but among those officially killed they constitute 2.8 percent. Dagestan surpasses Buryatia in the number of war deaths, but Dagestan’s population is three times larger.

At the end of March, the head of Buryatia, Alexei Tsydenov, gathered artists at the Buryat Opera and Ballet Theater and delivered an address about the “special military operation.” After the speech, the Buryat Drama Theater spokesman Batodalay Bagdaev asked the official: “There is a guard of honor No. 1 on Red Square. Have you ever seen a ‘narrow-eyed’ person there? There’s a clear selection there — blue-eyed, tall, Slavic-looking guys. Our fellow countrymen with bowed legs and large cheekbones are barred from the guard of honor. And if they’re going to die, they’re going to die.”

As voices from the audience shouted, “Bastard!” he asked Bagdaev to turn off the microphone, and shortly thereafter Vladimir Rylov, the director of the Buryat Opera and Ballet Theater, took the floor. “I would like to respond to this scoundrel who humiliates the Buryat people in front of me at my theater. We are all Putin’s Buryats! We will not allow the country to fall apart. If we now reproach the country’s leadership with the fact that, yes, there are killed, there are wounded, there are casualties — we will betray those killed and wounded. Then they have died for nothing. Only victory will be their redemption!”

After February 24, many people of non-titular ethnicities in Russia began searching for their souls, connecting to their ethical roots and examining their identity— and felt compelled to disassociate themselves from Moscow, its war, and unite with their fellow countrymen in this stance. Several formal ethnic anti-war movements have emerged, such as the Free Buryatia Foundation, which aims at ending the war, combating Kremlin propaganda, and ridding the Buryats of the involuntary burden of being “the main mascots of the Russian world.”

According to Alexandra Garmazhapova, the president of the Free Buryatia Foundation and seasoned journalist, the Buryats have a bad reputation in Ukraine. When Putin unleashed the war in Donbass, soldiers from Buryatia were often sent there to fight under the guise of so-called local militiamen and miners. There was a notorious interview that Novaya Gazeta conducted with 20-year-old tank crewman Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, a young man who was badly burned in the battle near Debaltsevo and talked about how the Russian authorities had sent Buryat contract soldiers there to fight in secrecy. And in 2015, the “Network” movement (a branch of the pro-Kremlin “Nashi” movement) recorded a crass video entitled “The Appeal of Putin’s Buryat fighters to the panicking people of Ukraine.” In the video, which went viral, Irkutsk Buryats promised Ukrainians that their economy would “plunge into the crotch of Conchita Wurst.”

“Then the Ukrainian media started actively writing about the Buryats. They used the phrase “the Putin’s military Buryats.” This narrative was very much amplified, memes on the subject going viral. Already with the start of the current invasion, some Ukrainians began to say that they are prepared to fight Russia to the last Buryat. This is very upsetting. We have a small nation and it’s no good that it has such an image,” says Garmazhapova.

Soon after the massacre in Bucha, fakes began to circulate on the Internet that it was Buryats who committed the atrocities there, and these posts were accompanied by photos of Yakut soldiers with the flag of the Sakha Republic, taken in 2018 in the military unit in the Far East where they had served. Why would anyone want to shift the blame for the mass murders onto the Buryats? The answer may sound utterly cynical: it is convenient for the Russian propaganda to blame everything on the national minorities of the Russian Federation who went out of their way to obey orders. After all, it is so advantageous to convince Ukrainians that their enemies are not Russians, but Buryats (as well as Yakuts, Chechens, Dagestanis, and other peoples of the Russian Federation), and that they should fight not against Russia, not against the Russians, but against the peoples colonized by Russia.

The Free Buryatia Foundation came about quite naturally. Maria Vyushkova, a Buryat woman living in the United States, went to a rally in San Francisco on February 28 with a “Stop Putin” banner. She decided to come out in protest when she realized that there were many of her countrymen waging war in Ukraine — she had been receiving such news since the first days of the invasion of the neighboring country by Russian troops.

Her action was followed by several other events in other countries — held by representatives of the Buryat diaspora, who began to coordinate their actions. People came out with “Buryats against Putin’s war” posters and flags of Buryatia. “At the rallies we were constantly being asked what organization we represented. So we decided to make the Free Buryatia Foundation. War, like a vampire, sucks the young blood out of my people — and of course I have reconnected with my identity much deeper now. It has become very important to me to assert that I am a Buryat and I am against the war,” Vyushkova told “The Cold” media outlet.

Ten people are now on the team of the foundation, all outside of Russia. People from inside Russia constantly apply to the organization, but the foundation does not want to endanger their fellow countrymen and reminds them of the law on fakes about the Russian army, which can lead to up to 15 years in prison.

In addition to the publicity campaigns, the foundation provides legal advice, drafts instructions for military personnel who want to avoid being sent to war, and advocates for sanctions against regional officials, such as Buryatia’s head Alexei Tsydenov and deputies of the People’s Khural, who have expressed support for the war. Activists have released several anti-war videos: “We are triggered by the goal of ‘denazification of Ukraine. We ourselves constantly face discrimination in our country — where is the denazification of Russia?”

The organization asserts that the leaders of Buryatia are fully responsible for what is happening, because the function of the regional government is to protect its people. Alexei Tzydenov has clearly failed this function, and moreover, he contributes to the deaths. Free Buryatia Foundation is preparing sanctions lists, which it plans to submit to international institutions.

“We have an activist from New York, Tuyanna Lubsanova. She has mobilized, I think, her whole family and all her Buryat friends from there. We ended up with 19 people in the first video. We thought that would be the end of it, we had no far-reaching plans. But suddenly other Buryats, living in different countries — from Germany, from Poland, and from America as well, started writing to us. And we realized that we needed to make more videos. We’ve recorded four videos, and now we’re preparing a fifth,” says Alexandra Garmazhapova.

How are Buryats supposed to promote the ideas of the “Russian world” if they themselves, living in Russia, constantly are victimized by xenophobia and racism? According to Garmazhapova, a psychological factor is probably involved. “Buryats feel that participating in the war gives them an opportunity to ‘elevate themselves’ up to Russians. They are willing to forget this discrimination so that in the fight against the “bad Ukrainians” the Russians will recognize them as equals. I can’t explain it any other way,” she says.

In Russia, discrimination in one way or another affects everyone who does not meet the “standard of Russianness” on ethnic, religious, racial grounds. It is well known that the national question in Russia is a painful and unresolved problem. On the one hand, the Constitution was written in the name of “a multinational people, united by a common destiny in their land.” The authorities regularly cite this multinationality. Vladimir Putin at the beginning of the war, speaking about Nurmagamed Gajimagomedov, a Lak man from Dagestan who died in Ukraine, stated: “I am a Russian, <…> but when I see examples of such heroism, <…> I want to say: I am a Lak, I am a Dagestani, I am a Chechen, an Ingush, a Russian, a Tatar, a Jew, a Mordvin, an Ossetian.”

On the other hand, at a press conference in 2018, when asked by a journalist of the GTRK “Dagestan” Elena Yeskina, whether the president notices that in a large multinational country only “pretty babies with blond hair and big blue eyes” are shown on television and that in the Kremlin regiment the “unspoken criterion” is Slavic appearance, Putin replied, “It is just your perception.” More recently, on April 20, the president publicly mocked the Bashkir language by distorting the name of a cafe in Ufa as “iPad, halyava.”

Ruslan Gabbasov, head of the Bashkir National Political Center, says that the Russian Federation has long been essentially a unitary country. His assessment is even harsher: “The Russian Federation is not a federation at all, but a colonial-type empire.” The national republics have been stripped of their sovereignty, their constitutions rewritten under the Kremlin pressure and brought into line with the Russian Constitution. In 2017, speaking in Yoshkar-Ola, the president declared that the Russian language is “the natural spiritual framework of the country,” “everyone should know it,” and it is unacceptable to reduce the level and time of the Russian language teaching. A year later corresponding amendments were inserted to the Law on Education, which linguists and language activists opposed.

“The state languages of the national republics are relegated to the level of second-rate languages on their territory. Now, for a Bashkir child who wants to study his native Bashkir language at school, the parents have to write an application for choosing the language, and if there are not more than seven such applications in the class, the language is not taught. In urban schools, where Bashkir children are not so strongly represented in numbers, they are deprived of the opportunity to study their native language. The Russian language, however, which is not native to the Bashkirs, is studied on a mandatory basis. Where Bashkir state language is studied, it is taught only one hour a week, which is catastrophically insufficient. Russian literature is compulsory, but Bashkir literature has long ceased to be taught as a separate discipline,” said Ruslan Gabbasov.

The strengthening of national identity against the backdrop of war is a natural way to distance oneself from Kremlin politics and rhetoric, says journalist and regionalism researcher Todar Baktemir. “Moscow sends people to fight in Ukraine. Would an independent Kazan (capital of Tatarstan) do that? I don’t think so, because the Tatars as a political nation have no claims against the Ukrainians,” he explains.

On April 21, Alexandra Kibatova, a student of the Higher School of Economics, went out on the Moscow Arbat with a poster in Mari language: “Mylanna sogysh ogesh kӱl” — “We don’t need war.” The police detained her and filed a report on discrediting the Russian Armed Forces.

Kibatova came from the village of Krasny Bor in the Agryz district of Tatarstan, where Tatars, Russians and Maris live. With her action, she wanted to express her disagreement with the policies of the Russian authorities. “The rhetoric of propaganda is built on defending the idea of the Russian world, but what does it mean to be Russian? Can all people in Russia be equated with Russians? I was born in a Mari family, for my parents, especially for my father, national identity is very important, this mindset was absorbed in me as well. Russian culture is also an important part of me, it’s what we all breathe in Russia. But it was important for me to say that I don’t support Russianness,” the student told “Idel.Realii” media outlet.

Since the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army, numerous campaigns emerged containing anti-war statements in the national languages of the peoples of Russia. Alisa Gorshenina, an artist from Nizhny Tagil, came out on a picket in April with a white rose in her hands. Ribbons with the inscriptions “Epir vӑrҫa hirӗҫ!” and “Kirәkmi begә suhysh!” were attached to the flower. Translated from Chuvash and Tatar, it means “We’re against the war!”

Gorshenina made another artistic piece where on a huge coat she wrote anti-war inscriptions in 14 languages — Tatar, Komi, Bashkir, Karelian, Chuvash, Udmurt, Altaian, Khakass, Buryat, Kumyk, Avar, Mokshan, Nanai and Sakha. She captioned the photos of this work “Hearing Russia’s Voices.”

In early March, Ruslan Gabbasov asked the head of Bashkortostan, Radiy Khabirov, to issue a decree “to ensure that our Bashkir boys do not go to war in Ukraine. “If this war is at Putin’s will, our Bashkortostani guys should not participate in it. Issue an order that our guys should not be sent to war. Show your wisdom and willpower. Show your will, the way President of Tatarstan Shaimiyev did when he issued an edict for Tatar boys not to be sent to Chechnya. How many Bashkir boys’ lives do you have to lay down before you understand that this war is not ours? Have the courage to refuse to let Putin send our guys — regardless of nationality — to Ukraine. This is not our war, and our guys should not die there,” Gabbasov said.

On May 8, the international conference “Forum of Free Peoples of Russia” took place in Warsaw. The event was attended by representatives of the Tatar and Bashkir communities, as well as other peoples of Russia, who were described by the organizers of the event as “enslaved by Russian imperialism.” Tatar activist Nafis Kashapov, who represented the “Free Idel-Ural” public platform at the forum, described the work he and his associates have carried out in Tatarstan over the past 30 years. He mentioned projects that included the production of educational literature in the Tatar and Russian languages. The Tatar representative expressed dismay with the situation in Russia. He believes that what is happening in Ukraine should encourage the Tatars to rethink many important issues.

In 2013, the Kalmyk Aldar Erendzhenov and his wife created the clothing brand 4 Oirad, which popularizes the culture of indigenous peoples. After the start of the war, a billboard appeared in the capital of Kalmykia supporting Russian troops with the inscription “I am Kalmyk, but today we are all Russians.” When Erendjenov saw it, he got the idea to produce items with the “Nerussky” (“Non-Russian”) print, referring to nationalist T-shirts with the inscription “I am Russian” in stylized Cyrillic script. “It’s a response to the Russian world, because we actually have our own non-Russian world. We wanted to make the word ‘non-Russian,’ which is used as an insult, positive. I’m not Russian, and I’m proud of it,” says the designer.

At the end of April, Aldar Erendzhenov decided to emigrate to Mongolia. This decision was due to the numerous threats that the designer began to receive after the start of Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. The authors of the denunciations believe that the word “non-Russian” insults the state-forming people. “We are receiving threats. The propaganda media accuse us of inciting ethnic hatred and threaten us with a criminal case. We see activists in Kalmykia getting their tires slashed and their cars set on fire, and the police do nothing,” Erendzhenov says.

The year 2021 is remembered for the unprecedented activity of civil society in Kalmykia. After a three-year break, a congress of the Oirat-Kalmyk people was held here and a public court was established for the first time. At the same time, the hopes for change after the election of Batu Khasikov were replaced by complete disappointment in him. The head of Kalmykia turned out to be one of the most isolated governors, unwilling to make contact not only with members of the public, but also with deputies.

On March 10, 2022, the Oirat-Kalmyk people opposed the war by signing an appeal to the Russians and residents of Kalmykia. The appeal, signed by the leader and his three deputies, says that over the last 400 years Oirat-Kalmyks have participated in all military conflicts on the side of Russia, but they don’t need a war with Ukraine. On March 30 the Elista city court of Kalmykia fined the deputy chairman of the congress of Oirat-Kalmyk people Aducha Erdneyev 30 thousand rubles for signing an anti-war letter. A protocol was drawn up against him for “discrediting” the Russian military (Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Code).

Despite unprecedented repression, national minority activists in Russia continue their work, because their task is to stop the hostilities and human sacrifices.

According to Alexandra Garmazhapova of the Free Buryatia Foundation, all the words of the Russian authorities about the need for so-called “denazification” of Ukraine are lies. “Almost immediately I had a cognitive dissonance: okay, we will get rid of the Nazis in Ukraine, but who will get rid of them in Russia?”

The Free Buryatia Foundation invited subscribers to share their stories about racism in Russia. There are now more than a thousand and a half such stories. As these stories show, the experience of the peoples of Russia is more a story of disunity than unity. “The standard slurs — ‘churka,’ ‘chinese,’ ‘hach,’ ‘narrow-eyed’ — were heard by almost everyone who wrote to me. As someone who has a strong oriental appearance, I thought that only “narrow-eyed” people got it. This is why I was surprised by the reports from Udmurts, Chuvashs, Mordvians, Marians, and Karelians who wrote that they’ve been taught their entire lives that it’s shameful to be an Udmurt. The peoples living in Russia have much more in common with Ukrainians than they may realize. In Soviet times, all languages except Russian were declared peasant languages. And if the Ukrainians get their language back, the Karelians or Buryats have it very bad… People think that racist outbursts are forgotten, like remarks about a bad haircut, but they are not. It hurts for years to come. Because they insult your whole species, your history, your essence. And thanks to the Kremlin, who talked about denazification, for reminding us who we are. And we are non-Russians. And this is normal,” says Alexandra Garmazhapova.

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

The shifts in Russian public opinion over the two months of Putin’s war against Ukraine offer a clear proof: those who have argued that popular support for the war was related to the lack of access to information, and that counter-propaganda efforts would quickly pay off, are overwhelmingly right.

There are two important Russian opinion surveys worth examining. First, at the end of April, the Levada Center published the results of a public opinion survey regarding Putin’s war in Ukraine. This was a follow-on analysis to the poll released in late March. Comparison of the two polls gives an idea on the dynamics within the Russian public opinion on the war, and captures the collapse of “support” for Putin’s “special military operation.”  It is nothing short of spectacular. Here are the main takeaways:

  • Between late March and late April, the portion of polled who expressed solid and unconditional support for the war (“definitely support”) plunged by 8 percentage points, from 53% to 45%. If that trend persists, support will completely evaporate by the end of the year.
  • The number of people openly stating that they are against the war rose from 14% in late March to 19% at the end of April. In reality, this number is probably significantly higher, given reports that   10-15% of respondents refuse to answer polling questions about the war, and most of them have an anti-war mindset.
  • Only 18% of Russians (more or less the same percentage in every age group) believe that Putin’s “special operation” is “very successful”. While the majority still say that it’s “somewhat successful”, nonetheless, Putin’s propaganda has failed to convince the majority of Russians that, after two months of the war, Russia has achieved anything meaningful.
  • Among those questioning the success of the “operation”, the  reasons for concern cited most often are the prolonged character of the war and failure to achieve quick success (48%), and human suffering and deaths (31%).

These trends confirm what we, the Russian opposition, have predicted at the beginning of the war. Firstly, Russian society will not like nor accept a lengthy and bloody war. Putin’s only chance at sustaining public support was to have his  “operation” end quickly and successfully. Now, that such success is no longer a possibility— and the Russian dictator faces criticism which will continue to grow. Secondly, despite the unprecedented onslaught of propaganda and disinformation targeting Russians, the truth still reaches the Russian society. Despite heavy-handed attempts to persuade the public that “Russia only hits military targets” and enormous level of censorship against the truth, a sizable number of respondents acknowledge the profound human suffering caused by the war, and this sentiment becomes an important factor shaping the public opinion.

The new poll also shows that Russians, distressed by the truth about the war, mostly choose not to take active anti-war positions, but instead disengage and limit their exposure to the coverage of the war. The number of Russians who follow the events in Ukraine fell from 64% in late March to 59% in late April; with those who pay “close attention” dropping from 29% to 26%. It’s important to find ways to counter this disengagement to sustain domestic pressure to end the war.

Another poll by an international advertising outfit Group M gaged trust in Russian TV. The poll surveyed 1,700 Russians aged 18 to 60 living in cities with population over 100,000. The results captured an even deeper plunge. Whereas on March 17, television led as “the most trusted information source” with 33%,  on April 27, this number stood at 23%, levelling off with reliance on social media (also 23%), trust in which has increased.

These figures show that Putin’s propaganda has its limits, and counter-propaganda efforts do bear fruit. In March 2022, Navalny Live YouTube channel hit a record in terms of unique viewers — over 20 million  and a great majority of them from Russia. This number represents one-sixth of the total Russian adult population and about half of politically-active Russians (i.e. population which consistently follows political news and events). Between March-April 2022, personal YouTube channel of Vladimir Milov, the author of this article, for the first time exceeded 1 million unique monthly viewers, attesting to its emergence as a significant media outlet in its own right. The combined in-country audience of independent YouTube channels run by Russian opposition figures, independent journalists, investigative outlets easily exceeds 30 million unique viewers per month.

YouTube continues to operate in Russia—Putin is clearly afraid to shut it down. YouTube is an extremely popular platform among Russians, it is watched by about 80% of the Russian population. So far, the platform has not complied with the demands from the Russian government to take down individual videos. Full blocking of the platform is risky— as it will likely create a disgruntled constituency of dozens of millions of angry citizens stripped off their favorite daily content like children’s cartoons, music videos, comedy and other entertainment. The”YouTube phenomena” shows that Putin’s actions are still constrained by public opinion. No matter what happens next, YouTube’s continued operation two and a half months into the war has rendered a powerful blow to Putin’s disinformation war— the truth  broke in, propaganda’s monopoly has been cracked.

The poll figures allow to draw some important conclusions. Russians are not “imperialists by nature”, they have been simply brainwashed by propaganda. It is possible to change their mind, and to do so relatively quickly. Counter-propaganda efforts work. The demand for alternative truthful channels of information is growing. In the next few months, these trends are likely to accelerate.

Just as Ukraine is beating Putin on the battlefield, so can we win the war against him in information space. From the learning that has taken place since February, a few useful suggestions: 1. it is unhelpful to berate  Russians as a “hopeless” society which will “always be imperialistic” and more can be achieved from dropping this deterministic tone; 2. Amplifying  the messages and expanding the reach of  existing channels created by talented Russians taps into their massive audiences and leverages their credibility when we simply don’t have the luxury of time to develop those from scratch. Information campaigns are much cheaper than heavy weaponry, but the effect is similar— it opens the “third front” against Putin, complimentary to Ukrainian military resistance and Western sanctions, turning the Russian public opinion against the mad bloodthirsty dictator. With all the challenges, it’s possible, as we see in the most recent public opinion figures. Let’s double down on the hard work.

A journalist was sentenced to 6 years in prison and fined for “collecting information for the benefit of the Ukrainian intelligence services”, and during his arrest an explosive device was allegedly found in his car. The journalist himself does not admit guilt and asserts that law enforcement officers slipped a grenade into his car, and then tortured him with electricity and beat him. Here’s his story.

Who is Vladislav Esipenko?

Vladislav Esipenko was born on March 13, 1969, in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine. He is married and has a young child. Before his detention, he worked as a freelance journalist for Radio Svoboda (the “Crimea.Realities” project). While he is a citizen of Ukraine, he also has a Russian passport as result of forced passportization of residents of annexed Crimea where Esipenko and his family lived from 2013 to 2015.

Case Background

According to the prosecution, Esipenko, who was planning a business trip to Crimea, agreed with an unknown person to purchase a hand grenade RGD-5. The grenade was placed in a hideout in the village of Pravda of Pervomaisky district of Crimea. On February 26, Esipenko supposedly took a grenade from the stash, and put it in his car. In Simferopol, he replaced the ring of the fuse and tied a nylon thread to it. The investigation claims that the explosive device was acquired by the journalist to ensure his personal safety while collecting information for “Crimea.Realities” media outlet.

On March 10, 2021, FSB officers stopped Esipenko’s car in Crimea and during search with a service dog “found” a grenade in his car. According to the FSB, Esipenko was questioned and then released under the obligation to come to the UFSB in the morning, which he did. Esipenko later said that on the night of 10-11 March he was forcefully held in a basement in Bakhchisarai and tortured.

The Arrest and the Criminal Case

On March 11, 2021, a criminal case was opened regarding the discovery of an explosive device. At the same time, Esipenko was officially detained. On that day, an interrigation was conducted in which the journalist supposedly told FSB officers about the location of the hideout. Witnesses from the FSB told the court that they brought the suspect to Pravda village from Simferopol; he himself says that he was brought directly from the basement in Bakhchisarai, and before the investigative action, they coached him on what place he should point to.

On March 12, 2021, the Kyiv District Court of Simferopol chaired by V.V. Krapko took Esipenko into custody.

On March 16, 2021, the decision to bring him as a defendant was made by the senior investigator of the investigative department of the FSS of Russia in the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Major of Justice V.O. Vlasov.

Initially, Esipenko pleaded guilty. The first testimony states that the journalist collected information in Crimea not only for his editorial office, but also for Viktor Kravchuk, “who introduced himself as an employee of the Ukrainian intelligence services (SBU).” It was Kravchuk, according to the testimony, who suggested that he acquires a grenade.

Esipenko was represented by an appointed lawyer, Violetta Sineglazova, who recommended that he plead guilty and, according to Esipenko, did not respond to claims of torture. As the Ukrainian newspaper “Grati” found out, on March 11, she was not a duty lawyer of the Crimean Bar Association and should not have been involved in the case.

On March 15 and 17, independent lawyers Emil Kurbedinov and Alexei Ladin were not allowed to meet with Esipenko. The staff of the pre-trial detention facility claimed that the journalist declined their services in writing.

On March 19, the TV channel “Krym.24” in its news program published an interview with the arrested journalist, entitled “Revelations of a spy: an exclusive interview of the TV channel “Krym 24” with the detained Ukrainian saboteur.” In the interview, Esipenko answers the interviewer’s questions in a monotonous voice, answering affirmatively to every question. According to his answers, he took the grenade from the stash, which was planted by the SBU. In addition, Esipenko said that as a freelancer for Radio Svoboda in Ukraine, he cooperated with the SBU, communicating with a certain Viktor Kravchuk there since 2017. His cooperation with the SBU included making copies to the SBU “via Google disk” of all the materials he filmed for Radio Svoboda. However, Yesipenko was never officially charged with espionage or sabotage. Esipenko was able to meet lawyer Mr. Ladin for the first time on April 6, 2021 in court as he appealed his arrest. At that time, he submitted a statement in which he said that FSB officers had planted a grenade in his car and then tortured and beaten him.

On March 23, outlet “Grati” published a report, citing a source in the pre-detention center of Simferopol, saying that Esipenko was tortured with electric shocks with connecting wires to his head. According to Esipenko, on April 12 and 13, an FSB officer approached him and threatened him with torture and death if he refused to confess. Esipenko claims that the officer was detective Denis Korovin, who was assigned to the criminal case. Subsequently, the Military Investigative Committee refused to initiate a criminal case in connection with Yesipenko’s statement about torture.

In July 2021, Judge Dilyaver Berberov of the Simferopol District Court commenced hearings on the case. On February 15, 2022, the representative of the state prosecution Elena Podolnaya asked to sentence Esipenko to 11 years in prison with a fine of 200 thousand rubles.

On February 16, the Simferopol district court sentenced the journalist to six years in a general regime penal colony and a fine of 110 thousand rubles. Judge Dilyaver Berberov found Esipenko guilty of possession (Article 222 of the Criminal Code) and manufacture of explosives (Part 1 Article 223.1 of the Criminal Code).

Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Vladislav Esipenko as a Political Prisoner?

After studying the documents of the case, the Human Rights Center “Memorial” came to the conclusion that Vladislav Esipenko is a victim of political persecution, which is due to his professional activities.

The Center experts assert that possession of a grenade as a means of self-defense makes practically no sense: it can explode along with those from whom you are defending yourself. The likelihood that a journalist, who is aware of the specifics of repressions in annexed Crimea and drives a car with Ukrainian license plates, would risk carrying a prohibited item that cannot be used in almost any way, is extremely low.

Secondly, the testimonies of key witnesses during the trial contradict each other, and the grenade simply does not physically fit into the glove compartment of the car in which, according to the accusation, it was found. The trial gave serious grounds to believe that the testimony of the FSB operatives who searched Esipenko’s car and the witnesses who were present were false. Operative Grishchenko claimed that he himself found the grenade during the inspection of the car by opening the glove compartment, while dog handler Brodsky said that the smell of explosives was detected by the dog, after which he called the explosives expert.

Some witnesses claimed that the grenade was in the glove compartment, while others said that it was in a compartment under the steering wheel. The defense performed a forensic experiment, during which they showed that the grenade did not fit into the glove compartment of the model car Esipenko drove.

When the officers stopped Esipenko’s car, Elizaveta Pavlenko, in whose apartment Esipenko and his wife were staying in Crimea, was riding in the car with him. According to Pavlenko, FSB officers immediately put her in another car and took her home for a search, even before the grenade was discovered. This indirectly indicates that the operation to detain Esipenko was orchestrated. Had the operatives not known in advance what they would “find” in the car and how it would be presented in the case, they would have waited for the results of the car inspection and would have checked Pavlenko’s involvement in the storage, transportation and refinement of the grenade.

Thirdly, the officials’ claim that after the inspection of his car on March 10, 2022, Yesipenko was released on a pledge to appear, which he fulfilled, and that he was not detained until March 11, is considered by “Memorial” a cynical lie intended to cover up the evidence of torture: Yesipenko says he was tortured on the night of March 10-11. In Memorial’s view, the investigators barred the arrested journalist from meeting with independent lawyers for almost a month for the same purpose.

The political motivation of the persecution of Vladislav Esipenko is obvious. He is a journalist working for an independent media outlet that does not recognize the legitimacy of the annexation of Crimea. His arrest fits into the campaign against non-state journalism. Esipenko’s case is used to intimidate all those who disagree with the occupation and annexation of Crimea and discourage Ukrainian journalists from working on the peninsula.

The report on the “Krym.24” TV channel clearly shows the use of the case against Esipenko by propaganda. The viewers are told that the journalist is not really a professional reporter, but an accomplice of the Ukrainian intelligence services. Apparently, the official charge of carrying a grenade seemed petty to the propagandists, so initially Esipenko was forced to talk about himself as a spy. Later, the authorities simply “forgot” about “collecting information for the SBU,” because they had already achieved the desired effect by creating the image of a “spy and saboteur” in the pro-government media.

Based on the above, Memorial considers Vladislav Esipenko to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.

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.

“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.


Honourable Irwin Cotler, PC, OC, OQ, Ad.E Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights +1 514.735.8778 [email protected]

Natalia Arno Free Russia Foundation +1 202.549.2417 [email protected]


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; 

Putin’s attack on Ukraine and a noticeable increase in aggressive imperialist sentiments in Russian society have prompted another round of deliberations on the perpetual topic that “nothing will ever change in Russia.” People argue that it is “useless” to expect Russia to transform into a normal democratic country which will renounce its imperial past. While categorically disagreeing with the authors of these theses, I would like to briefly explain why they are wrong, and why their gloomy determinism in relation to Russia is inappropriate.

In a few weeks I will turn 50 years old. During this time, I had to go through a series of dramatic, constantly changing eras, political realities, and social structures. And in each of these relatively short periods, there were wise and deeply knowledgeable people who, armed with arguments and a deep understanding of Russian society, confidently asserted that in the future everything would be about the same as it is now. There is no point in twitching around, for all that awaits is many years of the status quo. Against this background, the situation in the country changed in a kaleidoscopic way, resembling a rollercoaster. Brezhnev’s stagnation and “détente” were followed by the repressive renaissance of the Andropov-Chernenko era, with the aggravation of relations with the West until it reached the very real threat of a nuclear war. Then there was Gorbachev’s thaw and perestroika, followed by the freedoms of the Yeltsin’s era. Even Putin’s rule consisted of several completely different historical periods – absolutely everything around was constantly changing, but what remained unchanged all these years was that same tune of the ever wise ‘status quo party’ that “nothing will ever change.”

The funniest thing about this was the events which took place 22 years ago, in the spring of 2000. At that time, Putin was just being elected president for the first time, and some of his traits raised huge concerns about a possible authoritarian imperial revenge. At that moment I was a middle-level federal official, heading the department in the Federal Energy Commission, the energy monopoly regulator. I openly criticized Putin and even voted for Yavlinsky in the elections that year, a fact I did not hide; just imagine that something like this could be declared in the open – what times were these! And you know what you heard in response? That “nothing will happen! Nothing can happen! We are a democracy! We have free television, parliament, and private property! We came out against the Soviet regime and demolished it only less than 10 years ago! Nothing like this can be! Everything will always be as it is now!”

The arguments about how the status quo will stay have been unhelpful both then and now. In the days of early Putinism, the public let their vigilance down, allowing the authoritarian revanche to take place quickly and without hindrance. Today, such language demoralizes a significant part of society which, instead of doing something to achieve change, sits and wastes its energy lamenting about how bad things are and always will be.

Usually, three main arguments are used in support of the thesis about Russia’s “eternal doom to authoritarianism”, which we will analyze below. Two of them are completely insolvent, and the third is really strong – but we can discuss how to handle it. On the other hand, there are many more arguments in favor of the fact that the situation in the country will change dramatically in the future, and these arguments hold much more weight, even if the ever-wise singers of the ‘status quo’ camp prefer to remain silent about them. Let’s talk about all this in more detail.

The first argument is about the ‘deep people’, and it relates to the everyday presence and evidence of an aggressive, imperialist-minded, conformist sector of the population, that is in love with the authorities and the command system. These people are viewed as the majority that has a command on the rest of the society, while the active pro-reformist stratum of the population is traditionally portrayed as a marginal minority.

I am not going to go into quantitative analysis, but I will only note that, based on my experience traveling to more than 60 regions and speaking with thousands of people who do not support the government, I’ve uncovered that it is not the retrograde, pro-government views that are the majority. However, the pro-government views are the noisiest, because they resonate with the government propagandist narrative, which amplifies them.

However, for sake of the argument, let’s assume that the ‘deep people’, who are satisfied with the dictatorship and who do not want changes, are indeed the majority. Do you know what matters? No matter how many of them support the government, they never did and never will represent any viable political force that can prevent change when it happens. Even now, we are not seeing any increase in queues at the military registration and enlistment offices to fight in Ukraine. On the contrary, we hear news about an en-masse refusal of the military personnel to go and fight. There are also no voluntary Za-Putin rallies, which follows the general trend that there has never been any voluntary movement from below “for dictatorship” during the entire period of Putin’s rule (and even during the Soviet era). One thing is agreeing with the authorities and grumbling at your relatives about “evil America” ​​and “Putin, who raised Russia from its knees.” But political action is another thing entirely.

In fact, those who are called the ‘deep people’ are, in principle, incapable of political action. Their conformism extends far beyond the limits of loyalty to the authorities – their “hut is on the edge” in every situation. This is to say that, when turbulent political events happen, they will sit quietly. This has happened before in our history, and there are no examples where they convert their pro-government grumbling into political activity. Putin’s current vertical of power was built artificially, by administrative methods, from top to bottom. The ‘deep people’ performed the functions of an accomodating crowd here. They are incapable of organizing and impeding change when the administrative vertical collapses. Moreover, they will run to salute the new bosses for the very same reasons they saluted the old one.

Therefore, it’s irrelevant what this ‘aggressively obedient majority’ thinks. What is important is how the active part of society will behave when leading change, and, using the terminology of physicists, giving acceleration to this inert mass. It should be mentioned that, at the first Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR in 1989, where the term ‘aggressively obedient majority’ was coined, the reformers from the Interregional Deputy Group (MDG) numbered only 300-something people, against more than two thousand loyal deputies appointed by the CPSU . Formally, these deputies were able to achieve little in the session hall of the congress. But they gave such an impetus to the rest of the country that the country changed beyond recognition in less than two years, while these two thousand loyal deputies disappeared.

The second argument is that Russia lacks some sort of “worthy” of opposition, which is unable to find a common language with the people or is doing something else that’s wrong. There is a traditionally used cliche on this subject, sounding like: “the opposition has no constructive program.” In short, it’s nonsense.

In the last decade, the opposition in Russia has managed to muster up what can only be described as miracles. In one of the most repressive dictatorships of the world it created its own television with tens of millions of regular viewers. It managed to organize protests and be present in up to two hundred cities. In my estimation, at least 5 million people participated in protests and demonstrations organized by the opposition between 2017 and 2021 on a rotation basis. Interest in the opposition and enthusiastic support for it are enormous – in a bit more vegetarian times, just a street walk alongside Alexey Navalny would have easily proven that. The example of participation of Alexey Navalny and Sergei Furgal in the gubernatorial elections shows that the opposition is able to achieve very significant results even in this repressive system, and people have a big desire for political competition and presence of fundamentally different management styles. There is someone to fight, and for a good cause.

 Generally, this is the point where the supporters of the “nothing will change” camp fall back to their argument of last resort, which is that the authorities will always be able to use brute force and will never give up the levers of control, only tightening the repressive machine. Now this really is a hard argument to counter. Moreover, this is not a unique situation for Russia: the dictatorships of the first half of the 21st century is much more ready for en masse public discontent and won’t be caught off guard, unlike many of their predecessors of the second half of the 20th century. Modern dictators know in advance that at some point society will want to get rid of them, and for this case they prepare a wide and ruthless arsenal of suppression. For evidence, look no further than Belarus, Venezuela, Syria, and Myanmar.

Should this be a reason to give up? No, because for the administrative system, existence in a regime of constant repression and confrontation with society is huge stress, from which it will crack sooner or later. When and how this will happen – we do not know. However, a dictatorship cannot permanently exist in a mobilization mode – eventually, fatigue mechanisms will activate and stimulate some kind of perestroika. Eternal dictatorships simply do not exist. Take a look around – in the last four years, Putin’s entire Eurasian Union, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, have consistently rebelled. Dictatorships require enormous efforts to contain popular discontent.

We must prepare for this moment, work hard with public opinion, accelerate the erosion of support for the dictatorship, and educate the population. When the window of opportunity opens, we should act quickly and decisively.

In principle, the argument that “things will always be the same in Russia because the authorities will just use force against you to prevent change” contradicts the previously mentioned narratives about “bad deep people” and “unworthy opposition”. When proven wrong on the latter two arguments, the adherents of the ‘status quo’ party retreat to their last prepared defense frontier: “but the authorities have monopoly on violence and superiority in strength!” Yes, we know this without you, and experienced this on ourselves. But time works against brutal dictatorships – to paraphrase Lincoln: you can repress a small circle of people for a long time, a wide circle of people for a short time, but you cannot repress all people all the time.

A few extra words should be spoken on why democratic changes in Russia are, after all, a historical inevitability. For starters, there is a strong grassroots demand in Russia for democracy and real participation in running the country. For twenty years, opinion polls have always shown that about two-thirds of Russians want to directly elect the governors of regions and mayors of cities and have never been happy that Putin took away this opportunity from them. When there is real competition in elections of any level and the possibility of choosing with an uncertain result, the turnout of voters rises sharply. This trend is clearly visible in the last few years of the second round of the gubernatorial elections, unlike in the first round where intrigue is usually low and so is the turnout. Whatever people say to their relatives in the kitchen, most of them are much more interested in open competition than to continue serving the administrative vertical with a pre-programmed scenario for the development of events.

There are no significant political forces in Russia advocating an open transition to dictatorship. Aggressive anti-democratic and imperial structures such as the National Liberation Movement (NOD) or the party of Nikolai Starikov enjoy the support of an insignificant fraction of the population. Even the systemic opposition parties are putting forward demands to switch to a more open, multiparty democracy. Even United Russia is trying to hold “primaries” in order to raise interest in itself. Tens of millions of Russians who dream of dictatorship and an iron fist exist only in the imagination of skeptics and whiners, when in fact, even people who walk around with a portrait of Stalin are often very active campaigners for fair elections and against the one-party system in place. In general, widespread modern-day Russian mass views on Stalin and the USSR are very distant from historical reality and do not indicate a demand for dictatorial rule, but this is a separate conversation.

If you look at the dynamics, then the situation here is particularly impressive. Fifteen years ago, opposition rallies gathered hundreds of people and only in major cities. Now, they muster up hundreds of thousands to gather in hundreds of cities. And all this against the backdrop of increased repression. And imagine what would even have happened if the authorities would threaten and persecute those protesting. I’ll add that, for this reason, comparisons with protests in Kyiv and other capitals of democratic countries are irrelevant, because these other countries never faced such a scale of repression of protesters like Russia. If there would be no repressions, a million and many more would take to the streets of Moscow and other cities. I want to again emphasize that there is no voluntary grassroots activity in support of Putin, dictatorship, or the imperialist policy. Voluntarily mobilized demonstrations by some members of the NOD collect a few hundred people at the most, while those who gather for the massive pro-Putin demonstrations are forced to do so under duress.

The lack of public enthusiasm in terms of supporting the authorities is absolutely not surprising, because for more than 20 years Putin has not been able to build any attractive system that would work and deliver results, ensure the growth of people’s well-being, and serve as an alluring example for other societies. Yes, propaganda constructs are able to, for some time, impair people’s thinking. However, there will eventually be a collision with reality. Even now, at the moment of a temporary surge in support for Putin’s imperial policy, many of Putin’s most hardcore supporters are in despair, because for all the years of “getting up from our knees” they realize the country hasn’t learned to produce anything domestically, and absolutely for all commodity items one way or another we are dependent on imported raw materials, components, and technologies. The absence of a working socio-political and economic system is an inevitable reason for the countdown of its existence. The competition of systems is a cruel thing, only the strongest survive, as we know from the experience of the Cold War.

Another important nuance— if we examine the trends in political repression and propaganda as well as censorship vectors (administrative and criminal cases, arrests and other limitations of freedom, various forms of administrative and law enforcement pressure, acts of censorship, targeting of “enemies” by state propaganda, etc)— the picture is very clear— the Russian dictatorship views the supporters of liberal democratic form of governance as its main political competitors, with a real potential to command significant support of the society. The sheer scale of resources allocated by the Russian government for the suppression of liberal and democratic ideas and political forces that represent them within Russian politics is indeed massive. Considering how important financial and enforcement levers are to the current regime, one can easily gage the priority accorded to specific objectives based on what financial, law enforcement and propaganda resources are mobilized for their achievement. In fact, it’s safe to assert that the Kremlin, unlike the many vocal skeptical wisemen, views the potential democratic system as an extremely serious competitor— from the demand side (for the society, the idea of democracy and power by the people is a very attractive alternative to the current system), as well as from the supply side (Russian political figures espousing ideals of democratization are perceived as strong and formidable competitors).  

No other political movement in Russia meets pushback of similar scale from the Kremlin. This means that the regime evaluates the prospect of Russia evolving into a democratic society as a real and not a hypothetical one, and dedicates not just substantial, but huge resources to countering its advance. 

The Russian people have one problem feature described in our folk tales from Pushkin’s The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish to the tale of the tale of the Frog Princess- many of us want everything at once.  “Give me a plan to overthrow the dictatorship here and now, and if there is no such plan, then I don’t play your game, and “everything will be the same as always.”

This is a very harmful attitude in this situation. What is useful now is to work hard in educating the population and eroding Putin’s propaganda structure. It works. The dynamics are in our favor. You think this happens in a day? Recall what happened in the countries of the former Eastern European bloc. We like to replay the triumphant images of victorious Velvet Revolutions of 1989, but they were preceded by decades of hard and focused struggle, starting with the bloody suppression of protests in the GDR in 1953 and Hungary in 1956. Same goes for Poland, which, before giving the world pictures of a triumphant Lech Walesa after Solidarność (Solidarity) came to power in 1989, went through decades of protests that had not led to success. Simply Google ‘protests in Poland in 1970s and 1980s’ and see for yourself. Major change can’t be done all at once.

Therefore, both the public sentiment and the dynamics of the situation in Russia suggest that dictatorship cannot last forever, and grassroots demand for democracy is sizable and growing. We need to make use of this demand. Arguments that “Russia will never make it” are extremely harmful. They demoralize people who are already under enormous stress. Moreover, they demoralize the people and exacerbate the situation for nothing, because, as shown above, all objective data and trends indicate the opposite – those things are moving towards change, albeit a difficult and slow change. However, there is no need to increase the difficulties by inciting pessimism in people, simply because it’s your aim to show off your wit with abstruse phraseology; don’t obstruct the important work aimed at bringing about change.

It has become common to criticize Russia’s leadership for falling for their own propaganda and expecting that their planned invasion of Ukraine would receive support from the local population and demoralize Russia’s elites. Most likely, what has happened is the following:  Vladimir Putin had clearly overestimated Ukrainian citizens’ negative sentiment toward their own Ukrainian government and Ukrainian citizens’ positive attitude toward Putin and Russia in general. However, multiple reiterations of such statements across the Ukrainian, international, and Russian opposition media do not prevent those who resist Russian propaganda from repeating the same mistake.

Reading the analysis of the current situation in Russia and public messages to the citizens of Russia conveyed by those who criticize Putin’s regime, one might feel that the authors of such messages about Russia are as far from reality as Putin and his propagandists are far from understanding pre-war Ukraine.

Most importantly, we need to understand who should be the target audience for counterpropaganda. First, the target audience should be those who have access to counterpropaganda sources and are willing to use them. Second, it should be those who are critical thinkers and belong to the educated part of society. People living below the poverty line, outcasts, and Putin’s ideological followers are not ready to accept anything from alternative sources of information. Targeting Putin’s nuclear electorate by leveraging social media, which is banned in Russia, and YouTube is doomed to failure. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that people, who are already against Putin and not necessarily against soldiers, have to listen to the endless messages addressed to the soldiers and Putin’s supporters. The situation might get even worse in case of the effective ban of YouTube and VPN services in Russia. An exceptionally motivated part of society will continue to consume information from alternative sources. In contrast, the rest of society will have no opportunity to accidentally stumble upon a point of view that differs from the official one.

In this case, it is particularly important to understand counterpropaganda priorities. Unfortunately, the authors of counterpropaganda messages often stew in their own juices and try to convey what has long seemed obvious to them. However, a potential listener or reader of such messages in Russia might not find such messages obvious at all. First, very few people are ready to admit that they fell victim to propaganda. Russian propaganda is smarter and trickier than one might think. It is based not so much on demand to recognize whatever the Kremlin says is true but on the tempting offer to believe nothing and doubt everything. In light of this approach, the victim of propaganda is someone who, overly confident in their rightness and consumed by pretentious monologues, exposes “Kremlin propaganda.” “Our people are lying, and yours are lying too, why should I believe anyone’s lies?” – this is the logic on which Russia’s propaganda for the “smart” ones is built, and it actually works. More pressure on such individuals to change their minds regarding Ukraine and the West results in them more actively forming their opinion that they are being brainwashed and forced to become uncritical thinkers. Second, both the authors of counterpropaganda messages who left Russia and those who have never been there (particularly the latter) tend to depict life in the country in much darker colors than Russians themselves perceive it. What is the point of poking Moscow, St. Petersburg, or any other prominent city resident’s nose in pictures of villages with bathrooms outside the houses or ruins on the outskirts of distant cities? They live in a completely different environment. A firmly held belief of a foreign critic of Putin that the entire Russia lives in poverty, starvation, and without comfortable bathrooms only casts doubt on the rest of this critic’s messages: if you are lying that we live so badly here, then why should we believe the rest of your words?

The economic situation in Russia is indeed deteriorating. Still, it is happening slowly and not as apparent to Russia’s citizens as many critics of the Putin regime would like it to be. There is an increase in prices, but prices are rising everywhere in the world. Russians are aware of that. It is too early to talk about empty store shelves in Russia. However, those outside Russia have already convinced themselves that the store shelves are indeed empty. There are problems associated with getting some medications and other goods, but this is a serious problem only for those who need specific medications and goods. Everyone else may have not even noticed the extent of the problem. On this basis, they might believe that it is not Putin’s propagandists, insisting that everything is not so bad, who are lying to them. It is the critics of Putin’s propagandists who broadcast empty shelves and the coming famine.

Third, the course of the war in Ukraine allows Kremlin propaganda to talk about an inevitable victory and insist that the campaign is dragging on solely because Russia is striving for peace with all its might. If it was not for the notorious “Nazis” and the West, everything would have ended a long time ago. Also, Russians have been told that Russia has already lost since the first day of the war. This only undermines Russia’s belief in all other messages. It is enough for one to take a look at the map to make sure that the military actions are taking place on the territory of Ukraine, and everything looks like a defeat for Ukraine, not Russia. Especially, this applies to those consumers of information who live in Russia and think, by default, that Russians and their allied forces of the notorious DPR/LRP are “their own.” Accordingly, any messages based on the notion that Russia has already lost the war are perceived as fake by the Russian audience.

Fourth, Russian propaganda has been preparing to deal with the reports about the victims of aggression for many years. One of the most essential components of Putin’s propaganda relies on conspiracy theories and their notion that conspiracy theories can explain any phenomenon in the world. An individual living in such paradigm is ready to believe that the almighty and insidious West can produce high-quality fakes to deceive the Russians. They might also believe that the Ukrainian authorities (Nazis and puppets of the West) are so cynical and insidious that they are pretty capable of killing their own citizens to create the desired image. And here comes the statement, as mentioned earlier, that everyone around is lying.

A Russian also fully admits that the Russian authorities are capable of arranging something like that with their citizens and that, in general, all methods are acceptable during the war. So why can’t they suspect that the Ukrainian authorities can do the same? Propaganda hints at this, constantly winking at their listeners and readers: well, yes, we both lie and kill, but they are no better either – but this is us, and that’s them, they are strangers. Therefore, photo and video evidence that seems super-convincing to Western audiences can convince only those in Russia who were initially ready to accept a different point of view.

What is our conclusion, and what can we do with all this?

First, do not believe in your own propaganda and think that the living conditions in Russia are unbearable. When describing what is happening in Russia, it is important not to contradict with what people see with their own eyes. Otherwise, it undermines faith in everything else. It is necessary to speak about the impending deterioration of the situation reasonably and regularly remind people that pessimistic forecasts tend to come true. But the positive expectations of their authorities do not.

Second, there is no point in addressing an audience that does not use social networks and media. Neither the soldiers of the Russian army, nor their parents, nor Putin’s nuclear electorate is likely to watch opposition, Ukrainian and foreign news, and journalistic channels on YouTube – even though these channels are being constantly called out. Those who doubt even a little are watching. Thus, we should build trust with these people and start a conversation with them at their level. We should not call them to immediate street protests and an overthrow of Putin using arguments involving their (Russia’s citizens) genetic inferiority, cowardice, and the inferiority of everything associated with Russia.

Third, reporting on the course of hostilities should not be one-sided and reduced to a retelling of the Ukrainian version of events. It should be objective or at least strive for objectivity. Unfortunately, at the current moment, people who are in different information bubbles seem to observe two different wars that do not overlap. It is understandable that Ukraine, being involved in this war, is interested in spreading the version of events that is beneficial to them. But this position of Ukraine is obviously unacceptable to those who observe the situation through the lens of Russian propaganda. Here, the situation described above repeats again: the listener or reader concludes that of the two propagandas, they must choose the one they like best. The Russian viewer would choose the Russian version of events because it is morally difficult to view one’s own country as an aggressor, their army as criminal, and their soldiers as marauders. And this will continue until something that would destroy their faith in the truthfulness of Russian propaganda happens – for example, an evident and unconditional military defeat.

Fourth, we should systematically and consistently deal with the conspiracy foundation of Putin’s propaganda, both by turning conspiracy theories against Putin and his regime and proving their untruthfulness. Naturally, such work would require a careful and talented approach. Unsubstantiated accusations of unsubstantiation do not work and will not work.

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.

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.

Maxim Reznik is a well-known St. Petersburg opposition politician. After he launched his 2021 election campaign, he was placed under house arrest on charges of marijuana possession. Prosecutors charge Mr. Reznik with possession of 18.2 grams of marijuana “for personal consumption.” They claim that Maxim, present during the search of an apartment owned by his distant relative Ivan Dorofeev, put two packs of gum on the table from his bag, in which the drug substance was later allegedly found.

Here’s his story.

Who is Maxim Reznik?

Mr. Reznik was born on September 13, 1974, in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). He is a well-known non-partisan opposition deputy, a supporter of Alexei Navalny, and one of the harshest public critics of St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, Vladimir Putin’s protégé. In his public addresses at sessions of the city’s parliament, he frequently criticized the Kremlin’s decisions.

Reznik has been a member of the opposition “Yabloko” party since the mid-1990s, and from 2003 was head of its St. Petersburg branch. In 2012 Reznik left “Yabloko.” He himself linked his departure to a conflict with the party’s federal leadership. According to the party’s official version, he was expelled along with dozens of other St. Petersburg “Yabloko” supporters for “actual consent with fraud” in the December 2011 elections to the St. Petersburg legislature — that is, for helping the city authorities to get their deputies into the parliament.

For some time Reznik was a supporter of Mikhail Prokhorov’s Civic Platform, but left the association after its founder announced that he was leaving the party.

In 2016, Reznik was re-elected as a member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly from the “Party of Growth.”

In September 2021, Reznik was going to run again for the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly. In early June, he opened his campaign headquarters. The politician was planning to run in the 21st electoral district of the city.

Case Background

On March 9, 2021, a criminal case was initiated against the relative of Maxim Reznik, artist Ivan Dorofeev, under part 3 of article 30, paragraph “b” and part 3 of article 228.1 of the Criminal Code (attempt to illegal production, sale or sending of drugs).

The search in Dorofeev’s workshop was in progress when Reznik arrived there. During the search operatives found a grow box with plants similar to raw materials for drugs and two cans of chewing candy with banned substances.

On the basis of this search, on March 11, 2021, Nevskiy district court arrested Dorofeyev for two months. The investigation accused him of purchasing a plant-based drug (cannabis) “weighing more than 6 grams but less than 100 grams.” The prosecutors allege that Dorofeev stored it not for personal use, but with the purpose of subsequent sale.

Reznik himself believes that this pressure was applied against  Dorofeev to force a testimony. The deputy also claimed that law enforcement officers met with him and demanded that he publicly condemn the rallies in support of Alexei Navalny. Otherwise, they “promised to give the case a go.”

On April 2, 2021, Reznik was summoned for questioning in the drug case as a witness. The deputy said that the investigator “verbally explained” to him that the interrogation was connected with the fact that narcotic substances were found in the apartment where the deputy had been on March 9.

After that, the case began to develop rapidly.

The police detained Maxim Reznik on May 1, 2021, during a May Day march along the Nevsky Prospect, where he was leading a column carrying a banner reading “Petersburg vs. the “United Russia” Party.” The deputy was, however, almost immediately released.

On the same day, media outlets controlled by the St. Petersburg administration (including businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin’s media conglomerate, which is usually linked to the Kremlin’s many “dirty assignments”) reported on the May Day parade and concluded that the protesters themselves forced the police into detention. Similar posts appeared on several federal TV-channels. Every channel repeated the same thesis, almost verbatim: Maxim Reznik, “under cover of his deputy status,” framed his comrades-in-arms for the arrests.

An hour after the May Day procession ended, accusations of provocation were added to those of drug use. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s holding media outlets published a news story titled “Reznik was stoned at May Day parade in St. Petersburg” and spoke about the deputy’s “highly inadequate” behavior at the demonstration, again without specifying what it consisted of.

Overall, media outlets (both those belonging to Prigozhin’s holding and those not affiliated with him) published several hundred news items about the deputy. News items were taken out of thin air. The day after the May Day parade, the campaign to discredit the deputy went offline. On May 2, a picket was held in front of the St. Petersburg parliament with two people holding banners reading “Reznik, go smoke”. The editorial board of the Nevskie Novosti newspaper even devoted a round table to Reznik’s behavior under the title “Youth Drugs in Adult Politics.”

In the evening of May 11, 2021, Reznik’s wife, Ksenia Kazarina, said that her husband had had a heart attack and explained that it was “intense emotional pressure.” The deputy’s wife would not comment on the situation in more detail, citing the inviolability of private life. According to their publications, employees of the media outlets controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin were on nightly duty at the house of Maxim Reznik’s mother, following his wife everywhere — even to the dentist.

The Arrest and the Criminal Case

On June 17, 2021, the police searched the apartment of Maxim Reznik as well as that of his mother and his summer house. After the search, the politician was detained, and the next day the Oktyabrsky District Court sentenced him to house arrest. On August 13, the same court extended his house arrest for another three months, and on October 27, another five months, until April 20, 2022.

The searches were conducted in the case of the purchase of marijuana without intent to sell — the deputy of the City Council allegedly bought 18.2 grams of marijuana “for personal consumption.” According to the investigation, Reznik in front of witnesses (but before the formal start of the search) put the drug substance from his bag on the table, and then, referring to the fact that he is a member of the Legislative Assembly, left the premises.

Maxim Reznik was charged under part 1 of article 228 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Illegal acquisition, storage without intent to sell drugs in a significant amount”). He is under house arrest from June 18, 2021, and faces up to 3 years in prison. The deputy pleads not guilty.

“We associate the criminal case against Maxim Reznik with his harsh criticism of the “United Russia” party and personally Governor Alexander Beglov, as well as a statement about his participation in the elections to the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg,” said the deputy’s team.

The authorities viewed Reznik as a popular politician with a high chance of winning in a single-mandate district — this is what ultimately led to his detention, Grigory Golosov, a professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, said in a conversation with the BBC. “Apparently, at some point it was decided that he should not be represented in the city parliament,” the professor suggested. In his opinion, Reznik’s detention isn’t so much due to his direct support for Navalny, but rather to the general trend of cleansing the political field of those politicians “whose presence in the government seems undesirable.”

Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Maxim Reznik as a Political Prisoner?

The Human Rights Center “Memorial” considers the St. Petersburg politician Maxim Reznik to be a political prisoner according to the international criteria. The Center suggests that prosecution of Reznik is aimed at involuntary cessation of his social and political opposition activities, while house arrest is conditioned by the aspiration of the authorities to eliminate the politician from the public space.

Persecution of Maxim Reznik is a part of the repressive campaign which the Russian authorities are launching against the independent politicians who are able to compete with the pro-governmental candidates in the 2021 Russian elections.

Having studied the materials of the case, the Human Rights Center has come to the conclusion that Maxim Reznik is a victim of political persecution, which is caused by his social and political activities.

“First of all, we have doubts about the objectivity of the witnesses for the prosecution. One of the main witnesses in the case is a former employee of the Interior Ministry, the second is his fellow. The rest are security officers, who searched Dorofeev’s apartment.

Secondly, there are signs of fabrication of evidence in the case. Thus, it is known that the cans, allegedly left by Reznik, were not opened during the search, but the investigator pointed out in his testimonies that one of them contained a vegetable substance with a specific odor. How the investigator was able to establish that before the examination, he could not explain. It should be noted that there is no unequivocal evidence that the narcotic substance belonged to Reznik. When and from whom the deputy allegedly purchased it, the investigation has not established.

Third, Reznik remained as a witness in Dorofeev’s case for more than three months and was arrested only when the election campaign started. Being in pre-trial detention all that time Dorofeev was under pressure to testify against Reznik and on the eve of the meeting on April 21, 2021, unknown people stopped the deputy in the street and demanded to “denounce” the action and threatened that in case of refusal he will be charged on “case on drugs” and get real imprisonment term.

Fourthly, Reznik was put under house arrest as soon as he was arrested, which effectively made it impossible for him to take part in the new election campaign. It is noteworthy that the very next day after the election, the court ruled that it was illegal not to let Reznik see a notary, which previously prevented the deputy from filing documents to the election commission on time, and also allowed him a two-hour walk, which he had been denied many times before.

Considering the mass persecution of opposition politicians prior to the Russian elections of various levels in 2021, we believe that the initiation of the criminal case against Reznik was not accidental.

Finally, we believe that possession of marijuana for personal consumption poses very little public danger. Putting a popular opposition politician under house arrest on such a charge seems not only completely disproportionate, but also seems clearly aimed at preventing him from participating in the election race,” reads the resolution of the Human Rights Center. Based on the above, Memorial considers Maxim Reznik to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.

Since Putin launched the Russian invasion of Ukraine early on the morning of 24 February 2022, the Russian military operation has proceeded in several tactical phases. The initial Russian plan of blitzing to Kyiv along the shortest routes out of southeast Belarus and Russia’s Bryansk Oblast failed. Ukrainian resistance, Russian logistics difficulties, and terrain difficulties have turned the larger fight around Kyiv into a slow-motion slog in which Russian tactical victories are difficult to exploit and easy to counterattack.

Along much of the rest of Ukraine’s northern border, the Russian invasion had better success advancing into Ukrainian territory by bypassing cities, focusing on rail lines, and seeking to surround Kyiv itself and the Ukrainian defenders of Chernihiv by approaching west to Brovary and to threaten the mass of the Ukrainian Army in the Donbass by approaching south to Izyum and Severodonetsk. These advances have yet to pay dividends as Ukrainian territorial defense forces continuously harass Russian logistical access to forward positions. Furthermore, Russia responded to Ukrainian refusal to surrender the cities of Sumy, Akhtyrka, and Kharkiv with continuous rear-area bombardment to enable a switch to an occupation force accomplishable by less capable Russian units. In the Donbass itself, Ukrainian defenses prepared for eight years, effectively managed to stall a Russian offensive for weeks, though the line has begun to crumble under continuous pressure combined with pincers coming from the north and south.

This southern approach out of Crimea has given Russia the biggest territorial gains of the war with Moscow claiming to be in control all of Kherson Oblast with other advances northeast to the Donbass, north to about 50km short of Zaporoizhzhia, and northwest toward Mykolaiv. This last direction has been the most active area of movement in the past two weeks with the Russians and Ukrainians exchanging control of much of the 60km highway between them several times.

In short, the Russian invasion has divided into five separate campaigns: (1) a floundering offensive northwest of Kyiv; (2) brutal sieges of Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol; (3) tactical advances hounded by logistical harassment moving west through Sumy Oblast and south from Belgorod Oblast; (4) a World War I-style breakthrough operation in the Donbass; and (5) low-density and relatively high-speed exchanges of territory in the south.

The Russian Armed Forces seem to be pivoting from an early bet of a war of destruction to the war of attrition. These two variants of war as described by Soviet military theorist Aleksandr Svechin refer less to operational style than to the political oversight of conflict. Whereas a war of destruction seeks a rapid outcome through force of arms, a war of attrition requires greater patience but drives at exhausting and capturing the enemy’s means of resistance.

After the initial days of the conflict in which the Russians attempted to capture strategic points to deny external lines of communication to Kyiv, the effort shifted toward capturing power plants and water plumbing facilities. After some initial successes in this regard, Russian offensive strength to capture these points ebbed and so the emphasis was shifted again to destroying Ukrainian infrastructure not acquired in those days. This pattern suggests a conscious shift toward attacking the Ukrainian ability to resist rather than directly defeating them militarily on all sections of the different fronts.

Some portions of the front line, especially the Donbass, remain conventional offensives in which the Russians are tactically advancing and aiming to destroy their opposition. These offensives are frequently bypassing cities such as Mariupol and Chernihiv, leaving behind sufficient forces to surround and besiege but not storm them. In most other sections of the front, however, it increasingly seems that the Russians are at least temporarily pivoting to entrenching positions and forcing the tactical burden of the offensive to the Ukrainians seeking to evict the invaders.

The Ukrainians have had marked success in conducting counterattacks against Russian advances, especially in the battles west of Kyiv, but they have yet to score any significant rollback of Russian positions held for two weeks or more. This may change over time but with much of the Ukrainian Armed Forces located in the Donbass facing the heaviest assault and being pushed back, the resources for a major Ukrainian offensive will not be available anytime soon.

The Russian shift in tactics suggests several possibilities for the near-term conduct of the war. Firstly, the Russian conventional push in the Donbass is likely to continue. The Russian political investment in the Donbass in domestic media makes this the highest priority and that the Kremlin would attempt to realize within a couple weeks.

Secondly, by switching to a war of attrition in which civilians’ condition will be the chief measure of success, Russian political pressure falls less on the central government in Kyiv and more on local mayors and city councils. Local Ukrainian politicians have proved resilient in resisting Russian intimidation in the first month of the war, but this may be severely tested if the war does not end within coming weeks.

Thirdly, with a war of attrition Russia would attempt to grind down Ukrainian resistance and insurgency. The first month of the war saw Ukrainians successfully defend their territory against widely predicted odds, boosting morale among soldiers and civilians alike. Behind the current front lines, Ukrainian protests against the occupation have been frequent. A slow war may test the activated Ukrainian patriotism as the tangible results of resistance shine ever more bleakly against the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe and depopulation of the country. Russian political victory at this point would require extremely brutal suppression campaigns and forced population transfers of a scale that would almost certainly undermine the political stability of the Russian Federation as a whole. The economic damage to Russia from sanctions will be extreme even if China and India remain favorable to Moscow as the Russian economy of 2021 remains established as a giant commodities distributor for Western markets far more than Asian ones. Reconfiguring the flow of goods from west to east and south will be a large-scale undertaking that will almost require mortgaging more control of Russian infrastructure to Chinese and possibly Indian interests. Amidst these maelstroms, the Ukrainians will have more than a fighting chance to convince Russians that Putin’s imperial gamble is not worth the reward.

Since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, the issue of responsibility for this atrocity remains prominently in the public spotlight:

Was it just the will of Putin alone? Or is his elite also complicit?

Are the Russian people to blame for their inaction and maybe even enthusiasm for the war? A ballerina at the Mariinsky theater who is dating a Kremlin official, a pensioner dreaming of reinstatement of the Soviet Union, and a soldier’s mother in Buryatia?

What about the Western elites who personally and handsomely benefited from shady deals with the Kremlin in the face of its crimes and repressions— lifting sanctions off the Nord Stream 2, flattering Putin by engaging his government as a legitimate stakeholder on nonproliferation deals, buying his oil and gas— financing Putin’s war machine?

What about all the states that refuse to impose full economic blockade on Russia now and deliver fighter jets and air defenses to Ukraine? Are they responsible for the continued bloodshed and loss of life?

What about international companies, who decided to not stop their operations inside Russia? Are they the reason why the blitzkrieg has stretched out to now over a month?

These are not mere philosophical ruminations but have very profound practical ramifications. How we frame and answer these questions would shape and drive our policies, our efforts at stopping the war, righting the wrong and preventing this atrocity from repeating.

These are also extremely painful questions. They evoke anger, mourning, shame, helplessness, utter loss.

They move some of us to feel violence and aggression— find the responsible ones and make them pay!

Someone who could get close to Putin and somehow “neutralize” him— would undoubtedly become a global hero and proclaimed a saint by a few churches. But this is not lost on the “bunker grandpa” who spent the first two weeks of the war in a nuclear underground shelter beyond the Urals, has fired and replaced over 1,000 of his closest personnel and is ridiculed by the exceptionally long tables that separate him from his closest advisors at meetings. So, we can’t get to Putin.

A situation of extreme frustration like this, oftentimes gives rise to instances of displaced aggression: when you can’t punish the source of your anger, find someone else in your proximity and punish them.

Free Russia Foundation is extremely concerned with one particular area of such displaced aggression— the Russian civil society.

We hear numerous calls to kick out all Russian citizens from international universities, to cancel their visas, to ban them from traveling, to not offer them scholarships or jobs based on the origin of their passports and their national identity. These come even from prominent statesmen which we see as friends. These calls ARE displaced aggression because they hit the most progressive, pro-Western, pro-Ukrainian Russians; they are the thousands of courageous Russians who have for two decades opposed and fought Putin’s regime. Who have sacrificed their economic and social status, their family ties, their freedom to actively advance the vision of democracy for their country. Who have even been ridiculed by some of their foreign acquaintances for being too intense or paranoid and advised to find common ground with Putin’s regime.

Today, their life is in extreme danger— they are hunted down methodically by the State, increasingly with the reporting by pro-war neighbors and colleagues, they are fined, imprisoned, physically and sexually assaulted. Since the start of the war, half a million of Russians have been pushed out of the country into exile, threatened by repressions.

In exile, these Russians are looking for ways to help stop the war— by breaking through to Russian audiences, by helping counter the disinformation and propaganda, by helping the West to better understand weak spots and vulnerabilities of the Kremlin and its global influence networks which have entangled Western elites.

In exile, these Russians are also cut off from access to their bank accounts— due to various western and Russian sanctions and private sector initiatives designed to stop the war. They are facing humiliating circumstances where they can’t pay for their food or motels. They also face grim uncertainty with their immigration status— once their visa-free stay expires in a few weeks.

For them going back to Russia means prison or worse. But they are not welcome where they are either.

Rightfully, ending the war, ensuring that Ukraine is victorious, that it is rebuilt and the ones responsible are punished— are the main and immediate priorities.

However, it is also abundantly clear that Russian political development cannot once again be neglected and left on an auto-pilot— or we risk seeing new cataclysms rising from the depths of the nuclear-armed dictatorship. The prospect that even after the defeat in Ukraine, Putin can hold on to power and continue as a menacing force globally, remains far too real.

Free Russia Foundation asserts that pro-democracy Russians — now predominantly in exile— hold the keys to this political development and are the main agents of change for Russia. As such, they must be supported and empowered. Supporting these Russians is not an act of charity or irrational largesse. Supporting and empowering them is a matter of shrewd strategic self-interest for the West.

In the immediate term, these Russians are the source of invaluable expertise and insight into how to defeat Putin in Ukraine and bring about the fall of his regime in Russia.

In the longer term, these are precisely the people we want to be at the helm of reforming and restructuring Russia, conducting lustrations and de-Putinification, putting it on solid ground to becoming a democratic, peaceful and prosperous state.

In practical terms, what do we mean by support for pro-democracy anti-Putin Russians?

First of all, lets acknowledge their importance and abstain from attacking them. Each of them now, I assure you, are soul-searching and wondering what more they could have done to prevent the tragedy in Ukraine.

Let’s stop the displaced aggression initiatives aimed to strip them of visas, scholarships, fire them from western institutions and kick them out from international universities.

VISA AND PROTECTED STATUS FOR PRO-DEMOCRACY RUSSIANS. Let’s help them stay in the fight— which, hopefully, everyone now understands is also our fight— to end Putin’s chock-hold on Russia. Let’s think about providing temporary visas or protected statuses and reinstating access to their own hard-earned resources.

EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES. Let’s connect them to western agencies and institutions fighting the Kremlin where their input can make a real difference while also allowing them to feed themselves in ways other than driving Uber. Let’s provide specialized training to help them adjust to new circumstances and fill critical gaps in capacity.

FACILITATE NEW ECOSYSTEM. Let’s help connect the global community of pro-democracy Russians into an innovative and robust ecosystem working to take down Putin in Russia and curb its influence in the West. Let’s help them rise as a force powerful to bring about real change for Russia and the world.

Buryat activists have launched a campaign calling for the end of the Russian war on Ukraine. The campaign aims to break through the Kremlin propaganda. 


Since the Donbas war, ethnic Buryats from Siberia have been dubbed as the “Putin’s Buryat warriors.” It all began with the Donbas war, where the Kremlin, advancing its Novorossiya project sent Russian armed forces posing as local Donetsk separatists. And while a soldier from Pskov was visually difficult to discern from a Donetsk miner, Buryats with their clearly Asian appearance, really stood out from the local population. This is when these Buryats were humorously called the Donbass Indians. 

In Spring 2015, a 20-year-old Buryat tank crew member Dorzhi Batomunkuev, who had been severely burnt in combat in Logvinovo, gave an interview to the Russian Novaya Gazeta newspaper, in which he characterized Russian President Vladimir Putin as an insidious man who asserts to the entire world that “our military is not there,” and in reality, is pulling a fast one on the sly. Dorzhi confirmed that there are, in fact, Russian soldiers in the Donbas.

In Summer 2015, a Kremlin-backed project “The Net” released a video on behalf of “Putin’s Buryat warriors,” featuring several young men and women who attempted to contest reports in the media that Buryat soldiers participate in the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The crude video address is perhaps most memorable with its assertion that “the Ukrainian economy is free falling into the European pubic area of Concita Wurst,”—amplifying the Kremlin’s narratives tying European values to its supposed moral decay as manifested in acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities. 

Members of the Kyiv Buryat community published a civilized counter, but lacking the hype, it did not go viral.

And just like that, we got to the point, where in February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, and once again, numerous videos featuring Buryat POWs started to pop up on social media. Initially, supporters of the “special operation” dismissed as fake the video with an unidentified young man saying that he is a Buryat. However, the soldier’s mother has confirmed that the video is of her son— Sergey Ochirov. And then she staged a solitary protest on the main square of the Buryat capital, holding a sign “No War.”

In an ironic historic twist, an ethnic Buryat Yuriy Ekhanurov served as Ukraine’s Prime Minister in 2005-2006 and headed Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense from 2007-2009. 

Breaking Through the Kremlin’s Propaganda

Buryats who are not thrilled with being appropriated as “the Russian World” mascots, launched a campaign, releasing a new video each week, featuring Buryats who demand for the war to stop.

Due to the absurd new Russian laws, according to which even uttering “No to War” is interpreted as “discrediting the activities of the Russian military”— a transgression that comes with a real and lengthy prison sentence, the videos mainly feature Buryats who live outside of Russia. 

Dozens of Buryats have already recorded videos, including Buryats born or living in Ukraine. The campaign’s authors have collected enough materials for a series of videos. 

At this point, Buryats are the only ethnic minority of Russia who has initiated this type of campaign. 

An activist Victoria Maladaeva who resides in San Francisco could not remain silent having “interacted with many of her friends living in Buryatia and realizing how brutally effective was the Kremlin’s propaganda.”

“I wanted to break through to the Russian citizens, to my compatriots, and to tell them that the war is not about the joy of victory. War is always grief, death, injuries, traumas and fear,”— she explains. 

“I hope that from the mouth of fellow Buryats at least some hear the voice of truth, the voice of freedom. I also wanted to support those who in horror had already realized what’s going on and tried to tackle propaganda and its toll among family members. I am now being asked to forward these videos so that others can show them to their mothers, to other family members,”- says Maladaeva who continues to collect videos from others who oppose the war via her Instagram account. 

Maladaeva has left Russia a few years ago fleeing racism. 

Russia is not Qualified to Lecture Ukraine on Anti-Fascism

Vladimir Budaev who was involved in producing the anti-war videos had himself experienced racism in Russia. He is genuinely incensed that the Kremlin broadcasts as the main purpose of invading Ukraine its de-Nazification. Budaev feels that Putin should start out by “de-Nazifying Russia.”

Aleksei Kim, another participant in the video campaign, also raises the problems of racism and xenophobia suffered by minorities in Russia. 

According to Kim, in 2017, in Moscow, “out of the blue, a group of 7 assaulted him, kicking, proclaiming that Russia is for Russians and Moscow is for Muscovites.” None of the bystanders interfered to defend the young man, and when he came to a police department, they recommended that he does “not meander in unfamiliar neighborhoods.”

The participants of the anti-war video campaign are befuddled by the fact that non-Russians are sent to Ukraine to defend “the Russian World.”

“To save “the Russian World” the government is sending people from remote regions, people who are not of Russian ethnicity. This war cannot be justified in any way. It is cruel and senseless, as is the totalitarian regime of Russia, which has persisted for over 20 years. But right now, this regime is harming not only the Russian citizens, but also the citizens of Ukraine,” — points out Dari Mansheeva. 

“In Ukraine, the Russian state right now is conducting a senseless war, not needed by anyone, and is sending Buryat soldiers there. And I just don’t understand— why are they supposed to die there! I don’t want the families of my compatriots to receive death notices in the mail. I don’t want my people to pay in blood for someone’s military adventurism! I believe that this war is a crime,”— states Maria Vyushkova. 

“I am against my compatriots being shipped over there like cannon fodder to satisfy the ambitions and perverted fantasies of the mentally ill Putin,”— adds Budaev. 

Notably, in 2015, in St. Petersburgh, the Russian government hosted an International Russian Conservative Forum, where they hobnobbed with European neo-Nazis who use swastika as their symbol, praise the Third Reich and peddle theories on Jewish conspiracy.

The Kremlin’s efforts to befriend the Western ultra-Rights is a well-known fact, which makes its current demands to de-Nazify Ukraine even more absurd. 

Putin Should be Tried at an International Tribunal

Journalist Evgenia Baltatarova who was forced into exile to Kazakhstan underscores: “I am against the war in Ukraine. It is my conviction that Russia is the aggressor in this war. The war must end as soon as possible. And Putin must be subjected to a trial at an international tribunal.”

One of the anti-war campaign’s videos features the daughter of a famous Buryat writer African Balburov—Arina Stivrinya; as well as Kyiv-based Yulia Tsyrendorzhieva, Tatyana Vynnyk and a Buryat-Ukrainian family – the Tikhonovs. Nikita Tikhonov, points out that in Ukraine “there are no fascists, there are no Banderites, and this war is to the benefit of just one person.”

Buryats insist that the war for “the Russian World”— is not their war. And they know all too well what it is like to be “liberated”— within the framework of the “Russian World.”

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.

Free Russia Foundation has compiled a list of Russians who had participated in Vladimir Putin’s pro-war rally that took place on March 18, 2022 at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow.

The event was held in support of the brutal war that Russia has been waging against Ukraine for over three weeks now killing thousands of civilians in Ukraine, including children, bombing residential buildings and hospitals.

The list consists of Russian opinion leaders and celebrities – propaganda bullhorns – who with their activities promote the war crimes of the Russian Federation in Ukraine.

Concert hosts

  1. Maria Eduardovna Sittel – Russian television presenter and an anchor on the Vesti program at Russia 1
  2. Dmitry Viкtorovich Guberniev – Russian TV presenter, sports commentator of TV channel Match TV, Confidant of Vladimir Putin

Concert speakers and orators

  1. Dmitry Anatolyevich Pevtsov – Russian theater and film actor, singer, musician, teacher, Member of the State Duma, member of the «New People» (political pro-Putin party) faction
  2. Vladimir Lvovich Mashkov – Russian theater and film actor and director, screenwriter, film producer, public figure. Artistic director of the Moscow Theater Oleg Tabakov, Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  3. Artem Vladimirovich Zhoga – the commander of the Sparta Battalion, a pro-Russian separatist force that is involved in the Russo-Ukrainian War. The father of ex-commander of the Sparta Battalion Vladimir Artemovich Zhoga, who was killed in in Ukraine 05 March 2022
  4. Maria Vladimirovna Zakharova – Russian civil servant, diplomat. Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (MFA of Russia), spokesman and official representative of the MFA of Russia
  5. Margarita Simonovna Simonyan – Propagandist, Russian journalist and media manager. Editor-in-Chief of the RT TV channel, of the Rossiya Segodnya international news agency and of the Sputnik news agency, Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  6. Tinatin (Tina) Givievna Kandelaki – Russian journalist, TV presenter, producer, public figure, founder of the cosmetic brand ANSALIGY, Deputy General Director of Gazprom-Media and Managing Director of Gazprom-Media Entertainment Television, Acting Director of the TNT TV channel
  7. Victor Anatolyevich Polyakov – Russian aircraft engineer, Deputy General Director – Managing Director of PJSC UEC-Saturn of the United Engine Corporation Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  8. Vladimir Abdualievich Vasilyev – Deputy of the State Duma
  9. Sergey Mikhailovich Mironov – Deputy of the State Duma
  10. Alexey Gennadievich Nechayev – Deputy of the State Duma
  11. Alexey Yakovlevich Shloknik – The Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Director
  12. Yaroslav Yevgenyevich Nilov – Deputy of the State Duma

Singers and celebrities

  1. Polina Sergeyevna Gagarina – Russian singer, songwriter, actress, model, Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  2. Oleg Mikhaylovich Gazmanov – Russian singer, actor, composer, poet, producer, specializing in patriotic songs, Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  3. Nikolay Vyacheslavovich Rastorguyev – Vocalist, soloist, the lead singer of the Russian group Lyube, Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  4. Vitaly Feoktistovich Loktev – Keyboardist, bayanist, Lyube group
  5. Alexander Erokhin – Drummer, Lyube group
  6. Sergey Pereguda – Guitarist, Lyube group
  7. Dmitry Streltsov – Bass player, Lyube group
  8. Alexey Tarasov – backing vocalist, Lyube group
  9. Pavel Suchkov – backing vocalist, Lyube group
  10. Alexey Vladimirovich Kantur – backing vocalist, Lyube group
  11. Vasily Georgievich Gerello – Russian opera singer, soloist of the Mariinsky Theater
  12. Natalia Yuryevna Podolskaya (Natalla Padolskaja) – Belarusian and Russian pop singer
  13. Timur Ildarovich Yunusov (Timati) – Russian rapper, singer, record producer, actor, and entrepreneur. Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  14. Anastasiya Vasilevna Makeyeva (Malkova-Makeyeva) – Russian theater, film and dubbing actress, singer, fashion model, TV presenter
  15. Moscow Cossack Choir
  16. Marina Firsova – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  17. Ksenia Babikova – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  18. Antonina Kochergina – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  19. Maria Korneva – Artist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  20. Andrey Kargopolov – Artist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  21. Svetlana Chebanko – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  22. Anton Kornev – Soloist and director of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  23. Anna Valyavina (Goncharova) – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  24. Artem Limin-Kosachev – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  25. Sergei Zhuravlev – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  26. Natalia Alexandrovna Kachura – concert performer, artist-vocalist of the Music and Drama Theater. M. M. Brovun (Donetsk, DPR)
  27. Victoria Petrovna Dayneko – Russian singer and actress
  28. Ballet by Alla Dukhovaya “Ballet Todes” – Russian dance group and a network of schools-studios for teaching dance art
  29. Nikolay Viktorovich Baskov – Singer
  30. Sergey Evgenievich Zhukov – Singer
  31. Alexander Vladimirovich Oleshko – Actor
  32. Alexander Felixovich Sklyar – Singer
  33. Dmitry Vadimovich Kharatyan – Singer
  34. Yaroslav Dronov (SHAMAN) – Singer
  35. Oksana Vladimirovna Nechitaylo (Sogdiana) – Singer
  36. Anna Sergeyevna Tsoy – Singer
  37. Evgeniy Nikolayevich Prilepin (Zakhar Prilepin) – Writer
  38. Evgeni Viktorovich Plushenko – Figure skater
  39. Adelina Dmitriyevna Sotnikova – Figure skater
  40. Svetlana Sergeyevna Zhurova – Speed skater
  41. Svetlana Vasilyevna Khorkina – Artistic gymnast
  42. Alexander Gennadiyevich Legkov – Cross-country skier
  43. Dina Alekseyevna Averina – Rhythmic gymnast
  44. Arina Alekseyevna Averina – Rhythmic gymnast
  45. Alexander Alexandrovich Bolshunov – Cross-country skier
  46. Evgeny Mikhailovich Rylov – Swimmer
  47. Viktoria Viktorovna Listunova – Artistic gymnast
  48. Vladimir Evgenyevich Morozov – Figure skater
  49. Victoria Alexandrovna Sinitsina – Figure skater
  50. Nikita Gennadyevich Katsalapov – Figure skater

Download the list as a PDF file

On February 24, 2022, the Russian military invaded Ukraine by order of Vladimir Putin. Since then, protests against the war have not stopped inside Russia. Russians demand an end to the military invasion of Ukraine and peace between two countries. In response, the government has brutally suppressed protests, and attempted to intimidate people with new draconian laws. 

Arrests at Protests. The human rights media outlet OVD-Info estimates that by March 7, 2022 over 13,500 people had been detained at anti-war rallies in Russia. Human rights activists say that this is more than at the rally in support of Alexei Navalny that took place in January 2021. 

Detentions at the March 6 rallies were among the largest and most brutal since the anti-war campaign began. Over 5000 people were detained in 56 Russian cities; some of the detainees were physically assaulted, dragged by the hair, doused with water and antiseptic and tasered. The “Protest Apology” project recorded more than 30 complaints about the unjustified use of force and special means by officers of the MVD and Rosgvardiya.

In many cities, plain-clothed law enforcement officers detained protesters and took them to police vans. They often used excessive force. The anonymity created conditions for abuse of power and helped avoid criminal responsibility.

In Novosibirsk, a woman detained at the rally said that she was beaten by the police (she was taken out of the Tsentralny department by paramedics and her leg was injured). At the metro stop “Ploshchad Revolutsii” in Moscow, riot police pinned a man on the floor, pressed him with knees and hit him several times in the head with fists. At Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, police officers demanded to check passersby’s cell phone contents — they threatened arrest in case of refusal.

Detainees at anti-war rallies in various cities say that in police stations they have their cell phones taken away and not allowed to contact lawyers. At Moscow’s Brateevo police station at least three detained girls were beaten by police. They were doused with water and hit on their faces and bodies. “We were beaten on the legs, on the head. They poured water over us. They ripped off the mask, ripped the phone out of hands and threw it against the wall twice. At the end, they picked up the phone, wiped off the fingerprints. They grabbed me by the hair and pulled me around. They yelled at me. There were two girls in the office and they just watched the torture,” said 26-year-old Muscovite Alexandra Kaluzhskikh. In the recording she made, one of the officers can be heard threatening to torture the girl with electric shocks. “Putin is on our side. You are the enemies of Russia, you are the enemies of the people ***** [f**k you]. You’ll ******** [be beaten] here and that’s it. We’ll get a bonus for this,” says the policeman.

Protest participants are charged with violation of the rules of participation in the action (Part 5 of Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code), repeat violation of the rules of participation in the action (Part 8 of Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code), organization or conduct of an action (Part 2 of Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code), disobedience to a legal requirement of the police (Article 19.3 of the Administrative Code), public actions, aimed at “discrediting the use of the armed forces” (Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Code).

All detainees face fines from 2 thousand to 300 thousand rubles and arrest up to 30 days.

New Draconian Laws. On March 4, 2022, the Russian State Duma convened for an emergency plenary session. Among other things, the deputies adopted in the second and third readings a bill on amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses and the Criminal Code. The initiatives introduced punishment for disseminating “knowingly false information about the activities of the Russian Armed Forces” and “for discrediting the use of the Russian forces”. In order for these changes to enter into force as quickly as possible, they were carried out under an accelerated procedure.

According to the text of the law, the crime without aggravating circumstances involves a fine of up to 1.5 million rubles and imprisonment of up to three years. If “official position” was used in spreading “fakes,” there was a “mercenary motive” or a motive of “political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred,” the person faces a fine of up to five million rubles or five to 10 years in prison. If the distribution of “fakes” led to serious consequences, the case could lead to imprisonment for 10 to 15 years.

What does “discrediting the use of the armed forces” mean? It is “public actions aimed at discrediting the use” of the Russian army, including public calls to prevent its use. Whether this will mean, for example, participation in an anti-war rally, it is not yet clear, but it is very likely.

The Kremlin is hiding the true cost of war from its people.  Ukrainian presidential office reported more than 12,000 dead Russian soldiers, while the Russian Defense Ministry does not confirm these figures. During the first week since the start of the war, it never published data on casualties, and on March 2, it named the losses of the Russian army in Ukraine for the first time. According to the ministry, 498 soldiers were killed and 1,597 wounded during the hostilities. This data has not been updated since then. At the same time, in all publications of government agencies and pro-Kremlin media, it is forbidden to call this conflict the word “war”: only the term “special military operation” is used.

It is also still unclear which soldiers are involved in the operation. Russian authorities claim that only contract soldiers have been sent to the war. The Ukrainian side regularly reports about dozens and even hundreds of captured Russian soldiers, many of whom are not contract soldiers, but regular conscripts.

This is indirectly confirmed by evidence that in mid-February, the parents of soldiers serving in military units in various parts of Russia began to contact the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. They all reported the same thing: their sons were either forced to urgently sign a contract or sent to military units located near the border with Ukraine. According to the law, if an enlisted man is ready to go to war under contract, he can sign it one month after the start of military service, but in practice the contracts were signed under pressure, the soldiers’ relatives claim.

The Russian Defense Ministry also does not tell mothers where and how to find their sons. Behind the impersonal figure of 498 people are the tragedies of specific families who, as if they had been instructed in advance, are told “this is a fake,” even when relatives bring in pictures and videos of their loved ones in captivity. There are cases when mothers of killed Russian soldiers receive a death notification, but the military unit keeps claiming that the soldier is in training. “We have no such information,” this phrase has become the universal answer of any officials and military the mothers. 

News about the victims can only be learned from reports by regional authorities or from posts of condolence published by their friends and relatives. It was the same during the war in Donbass in 2014-2015, and it was the same during the Syrian campaign. 

By March 7, 2022, according to data of human rights project “Network Freedoms”, 60 people had been detained under the new law in 16 Russian cities: St. Petersburg, Kostroma, Samara, Krasnoyarsk, Novorossiysk, Orel, Taganrog, Kaliningrad, Krasnodar, Voronezh, Elista, Vladivostok, Yaroslavl, Kemerovo, Anapa, Simferopol.

Some of the detainees are also facing charges for participating in an unauthorized rally (Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code) and violating the law on “fakes” (Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Code). Seven of them have already been fined between 30 and 60 thousand rubles, reports “Network Freedoms.”

NGS42 reported that on March 6, 2022,  a resident of Kemerovo was fined 60 thousand rubles for calling for an anti-war rally. On the same day, a fine of 30 thousand rubles was imposed on Irina Shumilova, a resident of Kostroma, who staged a solitary picket with a poster “This war is a special operation on your taxes, and we fundraise for the medical treatment of children by SMS-messages”. According to “Network Freedoms”, no linguistic expertise was conducted in Shumilova’s case, and the police officer making the arrest said that he detected an appeal to protest in the fact that the words “war” and “special operation” were highlighted on the poster.

Another resident of Kostroma region, priest Ioann Burdin, head of the Church of the Resurrection in the village of Karabanovo, was also detained. He was charged with anti-war preaching and publishing a link to the “No to War” petition on Change.org on the parish website. “Burdin V.V., being in a public place, in the premises of the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, during his religious service in the presence of about 10 worshipers committed public actions aimed at discrediting the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, which conduct a special operation on the basis of the decision of the President and the resolution of the Federation Council of the RF Federal Assembly”, — said the protocol according to «Mediazone» media outlet.

Vera Kotova, a resident of Krasnoyarsk, was fined 30 thousand rubles. She was tried for writing “No to War” on the snow. The police report states that she “wrote on the snow by removing the snow cover from the granite base of the monument to Lenin: “No to War.”

The Russian State Goes After Children. On March 3, 2022, the Russian Ministry of Education held an all-Russian open lesson, “Defenders of Peace,” at which schoolchildren were lectured on “why the liberation mission in Ukraine is a necessity.” Shortly before that, principals of educational institutions across Russia directed teachers to hold daily class hours dedicated to the war in Ukraine and relations between the two countries — and sent them teaching guides that referred to the war as a “special operation.”

On March 7, 2022, it was reported that in Moscow, police came to the home of sixth-grader Kirill (surname withheld at the request of his mother) after a history lesson where the war with Ukraine was discussed, and the boy was asking questions. Kirill and his mother Natalia told “Novaya Gazeta” about it.

The lesson, where the teacher decided to discuss the Russian “special operation”, took place on March 4. According to Kirill, not only he, but a few of his classmates asked questions about the war. The consequences for them are not reported.

Among other things, Kirill asked why Putin started a war in Ukraine. To which the teacher said that it was a “special operation.” When asked how to get the government to agree to a rally against the actions of the government itself, she, according to the schoolboy, “did not give a clear answer”.

After class Kirill shouted “Glory to Ukraine!” in the hallway and was supported by other kids, the boy told reporters.

According to the mother of the schoolboy, after the class, she received a call from an unknown number and was invited to the police department for a conversation about her son. Kirill’s class master invited her to school for a meeting with the juvenile affairs inspectorate. Natalya did not show up for the conversation and took her son out of school.

On March 7, when Kirill was alone in the apartment, two police officers came to the schoolboy’s home. The boy did not open the door, so the police turned off the electricity in the apartment and left, leaving a “summons for questioning” under the door.

There is also another scandalous story involving children. On March 2, 2022 in Moscow police detained two women and five of their children, aged seven to 11, who had come to lay flowers at the Ukrainian Embassy. The detainees were first held in a police truck, then brought to the Presnenskoe police station.The authorities first wanted to keep the parents and their children overnight at the police station, but later they let them go.  A trial and fines are ahead, and the parents are afraid — the police officers shouted at them, threatening to deprive them of their parental rights.

Internet and Social Media Blockade. On March 2, Roskomnadzor blocked the websites of the Ukrainian Ministry of Health and Border Guard Service and several dozen Ukrainian media outlets in Russia, including TCN channel, Segodnya, Zaxid, Ukrinform, Censor.net, Vesti.ua, Depo.ua and Delo.ua, among others.

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 Moskvy, 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, Ekho Moskvy in Chelyabinsk, and Ekho Kavkaza.

Before that, Roskomnadzor issued a statement in which it demanded that the media should write about the war in Ukraine, relying only on official Russian sources, otherwise the agency threatened to block them and impose fines of up to five million rubles. The Krasnoyarsk-based media outlet Prospekt Mira, and Echo Moskvy, InoSMI, Mediazona, The New Times, Dozhd, Svobodnaya Pressa, Krym.Realii, Novaya Gazeta, Zhurnalist, and Lenizdat immediately received cautions from the agency.

After Russia passed a law on criminal liability for “fakes” about the actions of the Russian army, a number of media outlets announced that they had stopped working (in particular, Znak.com) or refused to write about the war (in particular, Novaya Gazeta and Snob).

Roskomnadzor also restricted Russians’ access to Facebook and Twitter.

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.

All that happened to Russia and in Russia in the first ten days of its war against Ukraine can be understood and analyzed in detail only after many years, when all the data becomes available and when history puts everything in its place — who was right and who was wrong, whose hopes and prophecies came true and whose hopes was not in vain.

Among the many things that have happened, one cannot ignore the massive and rapid departure of tens of thousands of people from Russia. During the time when it was still possible to fly from Russia anywhere, huge airliners departed from each of the country’s metropolises many times a day to Istanbul, Yerevan, Baku, Tashkent, and Bishkek. Obviously, the main request was the absence of an entry visa requirements for Russian passport holders. Further plans in many cases remained vague — to sit out the war in Turkey or Georgia, to try to get visas somewhere else. Social networks were flooded with brief messages about leaving Russia and heartbreaking stories about planes crammed with IT-specialists,  psychologists, producers, journalists, businessmen, their families, and pets.

The large number of people in airports with pet carriers signaled that people were not leaving for a short vacation. Another alarming indicator was the fantastic prices for destinations that are not at all popular at this time of year — and yet people bought tickets and left.

Also notable is the frequency of threatening remarks by border guards to those leaving, in particular the phrase “You understand that we will not let you back?” Most likely, these are private opinions, but modern Russian law is such that normal everyday life abroad inevitably leads to crimes: contacts with undesirable and banned organizations, statements on topics forbidden in Russia in prohibited terms, and so on.

There has probably only been one period in Russian history when so many people left the country in a matter of days, bound together by one thing only: an unwillingness to accept the new reality that prevailed in the country. I am talking about the evacuation of the White Army from the Crimea in November 1920, when some 165,000 people left Russia in three days. In 2022, there was no defeated army evacuated, and there was no civil war in Russia, but in a moral sense these events have much in common. These days, those who no longer see any possibility of staying in Russia left, because the authorities had defiantly and unequivocally stripped them of everything that was important, familiar and dear to them — prospects, jobs, ways of life, the ability to move freely around the world and generally an ability to feel like free people in a free world. According to observers’ calculations, 150 journalists of the federal media alone left during the days of war — and this after the continuous departure of opposition journalists from Russia for many years.

How many people in total left Russia in the first ten days of the war? Given the multitude of flights from different cities, we are obviously talking about several thousand leaving daily. According to local reports, 20-25 flights from Russia arrived to Yerevan alone every day. We should add to this those who crossed land borders from Finland to Kazakhstan. According to Georgian authorities, about 30,000 Russian citizens entered the country in just a few days by multiple ways.

Obviously, for many of those who left Russia in recent months and years with the hope of returning at the first opportunity, the war and the accompanying rapid changes in life in Russia have become the last straw forcing them to admit that they had left their country for a long time or even forever. Finally, since the intensification of rhetoric related to Ukraine in 2021 and the increasingly realistic threats of sanctions, many companies, especially in IT, seriously considered the practicalities of the relocation of their employees — so that in the last weeks before the war, those who otherwise might not have gone or would not have gone so fast have already started to leave Russia. And so, according to the most conservative estimate, we may be talking about 50-60 thousand citizens of Russia who urgently left during the war, but maybe the real number of those who left the country is close to 100 thousand or even more, taking into account all the categories mentioned above.

Despite the looming airline crisis, the only way to stop those who suddenly feel uncomfortable in Russia from leaving is to close the border from the inside. If the war continues for a long time, this measure is practically inevitable. As long as the borders remain open in some form, the flow of people leaving will not dry up: many have been unable to pack up and leave literally for nowhere in a few days for objective and subjective reasons, so they will do so a little later. The sanctions imposed against Russia and the reaction of the Russian leadership to them have also become a serious restriction: it has become a problem to leave Russia with money, and we are not talking about taking out millions, but modest amounts of family savings. In fact, these measures have made life in Russia, where cards and payments still work, more difficult for those who have left it.

Of course, against the background of the tragedy in Ukraine, where millions of people are becoming refugees because of the Putin regime’s attack, the flow of refugees from Russia remains in the shadows, and these people not only do not expect or receive any special assistance, but even suffer from the sanctions imposed against the Putin regime, as mentioned above. Nevertheless, this wave of emigration means a great deal for the future of Russia, near and far.

In a sense, these people are victims of the cold civil war waged by Putin’s regime in recent years, which they lost. However, in a real civil war, people fight with weapons in their hands for their vision of the future; in a cold war, only one side — the citizens — is unarmed. Putin’s dictatorship is armed and does not hesitate to use all the instruments at its disposal. After the 2012 protests, Putin stopped even pretending to be tolerant of different opinions: he preferred to simply label all those who disagreed with him as enemies and not waste energy trying to please them, to change their minds, to reach a compromise with them. Since the spring of 2012, he began to pit “ordinary working people” against “office hamsters” and all kinds of “creative class.” After the occupation of Crimea in 2014, the level of hatred rose even higher, and those who disagreed with the regime were methodically turned into traitors to the homeland and enemies of the people.

One cannot say that there has not been any response. All these years the opponents of the dictatorship in Russia, especially young people and the notorious middle class, tried to do something —social activism, volunteer movement, political activity grew. Now it already seems fantastic that in 2017-2020 in Russia there was a peak of legal political activism associated with the work of Alexei Navalny and his team. As a result, it was possible not only to influence election results, but even to win regional election campaigns.

In 2020, however, Putin went on a decisive offensive. Viewing from 2022, it begins to look like the Kremlin has been preparing for war for a long time and thoroughly. In this sense, it is quite logical that a year before the elections of the State Duma (which should have demonstrated its ultra-loyalty to Putin during the war, and did so) and a year and a half before the war started, the leader of the most influential anti-Putin movement in Russia tried to be killed. They failed to kill Navalny, but the disgrace to the eyes of the world did not stop Putin, but perhaps encouraged him to abandon all disguise of his intentions and the essence of the regime created in Russia. From that time on, a new era began in Russia, the logical continuation of which was the war with Ukraine and the separation from the entire civilized world.

The brutal crackdown on rallies in support of Navalny in January 2021 was only a prelude to what happened next. Within a few months Navalny’s team was actually outlawed, and those of its members who did not manage to leave Russia in time and urgently, ended up in prison. Repressive legislation was constantly tightened, and all human rights and civil society organizations that were deemed undesirable by the authorities were crushed and banned.

As a result, by the beginning of the war with Ukraine, Russia had everything ready to finish off what was still alive and resisting. Despite all of this and the already mentioned mass exodus, Russian citizens are still coming out to protest, and there are already more people detained at anti-war rallies than at rallies in support of Navalny.

Nevertheless, the prospects for any protest movement in Russia are unclear. Now, to the fear of repression and the attrition of protesters who are already on trial or in custody, another factor is added: the physical departure from the country of a substantial part of those who either went to the protests or who would have joined them sooner or later.  100,000 people represent large rallies in 10 cities, to put it bluntly. In many Russian cities, a situation can arise when the very same few hundred or thousands of people who went to all the protests, just left. Thus, either those who have never done this before will go out, or almost no one at all. As the socio-economic indicators deteriorate, the protest may become different and come close to the Kazakh version, when desperate people take to the streets with no influential leaders, no program, and no experience of participation in actions and easily become victims of provocateurs first, and then of punitive actions of the authorities.

No one is saying that all of those who left were participants in the protest movement, but it is obvious that they are part of the environment from which the protest came, donations, ideas, and support. But the most painful thing to think about is what and with whom Russia will be left after Putin’s regime collapses. If this happens many years from now, most of the people who have left Russia are unlikely to return to the country they left — new roots and a new life have already been put down in the new place. The country destroyed by Putin’s policies will come to a standstill: the pro-Putin administrative, power and economic elite will be completely discredited, and there will be no place to hire anyone else. This will create conditions for permanent political instability in Russia and the prospect of a return of the Putinists in the first election – simply for the lack of a force that could oppose them. The Western world cannot and should not wash its hands of and stigmatize Russia and especially those who have left it in recent years. Russian emigration needs to be dealt with constantly and purposefully, so that after the fall of Putin’s regime, the country has a chance to change and return to the normal path of development, to become an ally of the West forever.

By Free Russia Foundation Team

More than a week has passed since Putin declared his “special military operation.” The rest of the world refers to it as “war on Ukraine.” Along with Ukraine, Putin is rapidly destroying Russia. The West may be unable to appreciate the extent of the tragedy unfolding inside Russia right now, as its economy collapses, and the society feels the hatred of the entire world.

It’s not a war — it’s a “special operation

This week, Putin has completed his task of eliminating Russia’s independent media. In the late nineties, a fresh TV channel NTV used to broadcast a satirical program “Puppets,” which poked fun at prominent government figures. In the first decade and the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, on the same channel, viewers could watch the protests taking place on Bolotnaya Square and at the polls during the 2012 presidential elections.

Putin has skillfully seized control of the Russian television, depriving citizens of the opportunity to soberly assess the situation both inside the country and the implications of Putin’s foreign policy. Today, only “Putin’s” journalists are allowed on the airwaves. There, they create an alternative reality and suppress the truth. Notably, the name of the opposition leader Navalny is never mentioned on TV. Television is the only source of information for many Russians. This is true for most retirees, for example, who find it hard to “learn the Internet.”

Elections in Russia have also been hijacked. No independent, liberal or democratic candidates are allowed to participate in elections. And if they somehow make it onto the ballot, numerous schemes have been developed by authorities to prevent them from attaining the minimum threshold, leaving him or her with a measly 1 to 4% of the vote. As a result, political forces cannot unite to coordinate a mass protest similar to the Ukrainian “Maidan.” Those who do join protests end up in jail and are even assassinated.  

Right now, the Russian authorities are dealing a lethal blow to independent media. The TV Rain channel has decided to halt its broadcasting. This decision was made in response to the amendments adopted by the State Duma on imprisonment for “public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”

The punishment includes both a fine of 1.5 million rubles and 15 years in prison.

Even the word “war” is considered to be “knowingly false information”. This is why Roskomnadzor issued a warning to “Novaya Gazeta.”

On March 2, “Ekho Moskvy” was forced to stop broadcasting.

The Silver Rain radio station also stopped broadcasting.

As of March 4, 2022, all of the following media outlets have been blocked: “Dozhd”, Taiga.info, DOXA, “Echo Moskvy”, “Present Time”, The New Times, “Crimea. Realii”, “Ukrainian Pravda”, “Gordon”, “Interfax-Ukraine”, The Village, TSN, “Segodnya”, UNIAN, “Zerkalo Nedeli”, Vesti.ua and Zaxid.

Novaya Gazeta, Lenizdat.ru, Mediazone, Svobodnaya pressa, Journalist, and Wikipedia have received warnings.

This is not a laughing matter.  The authorities are imposing censorship, banning the words “war,” “attack,” and “invasion.” Information about the shelling of Ukrainian cities and the deaths of Ukrainian civilians caused by the Russian army has been declared untrue and is prohibited from dissemination. It is now forbidden to call the ongoing operation an attack, an invasion, or a declaration of war.

Kremlin’s media oversight agency Roskomnadzor mandates the media to cite only Russian government sources in their coverage of these events. Journalists breaking with this practice  face real prison sentences.

Along with the blocking of media platforms, Russian authorities are also slowing down Meta social networks, and in particular, Facebook. They are also restricting Twitter. On March 2, RoskomSvoboda reported on the supposed blocking Youtube in Russia. The same “slowdown” is taking place on Youtube. Users from Russia were unable to load static elements of YouTube, such as avatars and artwork. Roskomnadzor denies any slowdown of service.

All Google advertising banners that, in the judgement of the Russian authorities, spread inaccurate information, have stopped working.

These developments do not only cut off the Russian civil society from truthful information, but also deny Russians the opportunity to show the world that they are, in fact, against the war.

On the ill-fated date of February 24, 2022 Russians began to protest Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Some protests got off to an early start amid news of the alleged invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. However, when the reports were confirmed, civil society exploded.

Online petitions and open letters began to appear, appealing to Putin and the world to stop the fighting in Ukraine.

People take to the streets

At the time of writing on March 3rd, a total of 7,634 people have been detained at protests in 115 cities since February 24th. Of the total, 3,608 protesters were detained in Moscow, and  2,599 were detained in St. Petersburg.

Statistics of the human rights projectOVD-Info (updated in real time).

Number of detainees at protests against the war with Ukraine

Due to the intensification of the protests, the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation began to issue warnings. Under Article 275 of the Criminal Code “Treason,” Russians now face up to 20 years in prison for providing virtually any assistance to Ukrainians. I would like to provide some specifics, however, as often happens in the Russian Federation, the department’s wording is rather vague. “State treason” can now apply to people who provide advisory assistance (whatever that means), as well as financial, material, technical and “other” assistance. Using the phrase “other assistance,” the Prosecutor’s Office can include anything that it wants.

On march 3, 2022,  the Prosecutor General’s Office made an official announcement promising to initiate criminal charges against those who take part in protests— under Part 2 Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (participation in the activities of an extremist organization).

“Amid an unprecedented information attack on the Russian Federation, appeals to citizens to hold supposedly peaceful “anti-war” actions are spreading on the Internet.

It must be noted that the source of many such appeals are associations that, due to their extremist activities, have been banned in the territory of the Russian Federation by a court decision,” the agency writes.

Russians face from 2 to 6 years in prison under this article of the Criminal Code.

Over the course of the past week, the police visited the homes of activists and participants in anti-war actions on a daily basis. All have been charged with participation in an unauthorized mass event (Part 5 Article 202.2 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation, carrying fines of 10-30 thousand rubles, or arrest for up to 15 days). Some people are charged under part 8 of the article, with “repeated violation of the rules for holding mass events,” for which the punishment is a fine of up to 300 thousand rubles or imprisonment of up to 30 days.

During the rallies, the police are also detaining journalists. This happens despite the fact that the journalists observe the law (by wearing a special vest, and carrying a statement of their assignment, a press card and a media badge). On March 2nd, the police detained two Sota correspondents for more than 7 hours, attempting to charge them with organizing an unauthorized event (part 1 of Article 20.2 of the Code of Administrative Violations).

The police also detained journalists from Novaya Gazeta, Radio Liberty, 93.ru, TASS, Pskov Gubernia and many others.

The police regularly use violence during arrests. Children, the elderly, and mothers with infants are detained.

Initially, the anti-war rallies were spontaneous, but on March 2nd, the politician Alexei Navalny, who is in prison, called upon all Russians to attend daily rallies against the war with Ukraine.

“Don’t wait another day, no matter where you are – in Russia, in Belarus or on the other side of the planet. Come out to the main square of your city every weekday at 7 p.m. and at 2 p.m. on weekends and holidays.”

Even before the military conflict began, a number of Russian oppositionists, including Alexei Minyaylo and Dmitry Tsorionov (Enteo), had applied to the Moscow City Hall to hold an anti-war rally of 150,000 people on March 5th in Moscow.

The “Vesna” movement from St. Petersburg had also announced that they would hold an all-Russian anti-war rally on March 6th across the country.

“The all-Russian protest rally will take place on March 6th. We will meet at 15.00 in the central squares of all Russian cities to express our protest. We have every right to do so according to the Constitution.”

Green ribbons began to appear on the streets of Russian cities, as a symbol of the protest promoted by Vesna.

From Olympian to deputy

Among those who disagree with the need to send troops to kill are members of a variety of professions.

The organization We are not alone has compiled a list of open letters against the war from members of various professions. The site is updated every day as new letters appear.

Here are a number of examples of open letters:

— IT workers: 32,050 signatures;

Correspondents of Russian media. This letter was penned by “Kommersant” journalist Elena Chernenko, for which she was removed from the Ministry of Foreign Afffairs press pool.

— Doctors: 11,650 signatures;

— Students and university staff: 14, 850 signatures.

In total, “We Are Not Alone” has recorded 62 open letters and more than 160,700 signatures from members of professional communities.

In addition to letters from professional associations and unions, political activists have created several petitions, both for Russians and for the international community. The largest of these is the petition Stop the War on Ukraine! created by Russia’s oldest human rights activist, Lev Ponomarev. As of this writing, 1,166,617 people have signed the petition.

On February 24th, Ponomarev was detained, allegedly for organizing an anti-war protest. He received a fine of 30,000 rubles.

On March 3rd, he went to the prosecutor’s office to have a report drawn up for having failed to note “foreign agent” at the bottom of the petition. He was attacked by journalists of the pro-governmental NTV channel.

The international civil society organization “Avaaz” launched the international petition Stop This War.” At the time of writing, 2,272,973 people have signed the petition.

Civil society activist Dmitry Ratner launched the petition Impeach Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin“. At the time of writing, 273,560 people have signed the petition.

Prior to the start of hostilities, the “Yabloko” party launched the petition NO WAR“. It is also possible to leave a signature in the offices of the party. On March 2nd, the Nizhny Novgorod office was attacked and the premises were vandalized.


Hundreds of thousands of Russians are speaking out against the war. Thousands of Russians are detained every day at anti-war rallies. Government agencies are threatening the media and ordinary citizens with decades in prison.

Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of other Russians have been misinformed through years of brainwashing by pro-government propaganda. The independent media outlets that could fight the propaganda are either blocked, or forced to stop broadcasting, or to leave Russia altogether. The journalists of independent media outlets that have not yet been blocked are being detained.  

Despite the censorship and the threat of criminal charges, Russian citizens are taking to the streets, reporting about the reality of the war on social media and are trying to convince the public that this is no “special operation of liberation,” but the very real war that it is.

By Yury Krylov, Contributing Author, FRF

The situation around Russian threat against Ukraine keeps tensions high globally. The atmosphere in Donbass escalated dramatically on February 18, when the Kremlin-controlled leaders of the self-proclaimed and internationally unrecognized DNR and LNR republics publicly asserted that Kyiv was preparing an assault (the Ukrainian authorities categorically deny such intentions) and announced the evacuation of some residents of these regions to Russia. Shooting resumed on the front line. U.S. President Joe Biden forecasted that “Russia may launch an invasion in the next few days,” and the Kremlin reiterated its demands for security guarantees.

The State Duma’s Appeal to the Russian President

On February 15, 2022, the Russian State Duma appealed to President Putin to officially recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. The resolution was introduced by deputies from the Communist party, but representatives of other parties also voted for it.

United Russia party prepared an alternative draft of the resolution. It was more cautious and stipulated that parliament should first consult with the Foreign Ministry and then apply to the President. In the end, United Russia’s proposal received only 310 votes, while the Communists’ resolution received 351.

“The deputies of the State Duma appeal to you, Mr. Vladimir Vladimirovich, to consider the issue of recognition by the Russian Federation of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as autonomous, sovereign and independent states, as well as the issue of holding negotiations with the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as soon as possible to create a legal basis for interstate relations, ensuring regulation of all aspects of cooperation, including security issues,” — it says, among other things, in this document.

After summarizing the results of the vote, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said that the parliament’s appeal to the president to recognize the DNR and LNR would be signed immediately, after which it would be sent to Vladimir Putin.

The Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics declared independence from Ukraine in May 2014 after a majority of participants in referendums held in the regions supported the adoption of acts of self-determination for the DNR and LNR. Diplomatically, the two Donbass republics are recognized only by South Ossetia, a partially recognized state in the Caucasus.

Vladimir Putin himself commented on the Duma address during a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who visited Moscow for talks on the escalating situation around Ukraine. According to Putin, when voting on the issue of recognition of the DNR and LNR, deputies were guided by “the opinion of their voters,” which they “subtly feel.”

The Evacuation of DNR and LNR Citizens to Russia

On the evening of February 16 and morning of February 17, OSCE observers reported about 500 explosions near the line of contact in the east of Ukraine, which is several times higher than on previous days.

On the morning of February 18, 2022, the leaders of the LNR and DNR republics announced the evacuation of their residents to Russia. Denis Pushilin, head of the DNR, said that women, children and the elderly would be evacuated first. According to him, the evacuees will be accommodated and provided with everything they need in the Rostov region. After Pushilin’s appeal, sirens went off in Donetsk, and city residents lined up at ATMs. Soon the evacuation was announced in the Luhansk People’s Republic. Its head Leonid Pasechnik urged residents who had not been mobilized and were not involved in the provision of social and civil infrastructure to leave for Russia as soon as possible.

A few hours after the announcement of the evacuation, Pushilin said in a new speech that “it is going to full-scale war” and expressed the opinion that the number of refugees to Russia could reach hundreds of thousands. The DNR Emergencies Ministry said that it was planning to evacuate about 700,000 people. First buses with refugees left the republic around 8 p.m.

Both leaders of the self-proclaimed republics of Donbass explained the need for evacuation by rising tensions in the region. Pasechnik, citing “intelligence data,” said that the “Ukrainian aggressor” was planning provocations on the line of contact and a “deep breakthrough” into LNR territory.

Putin ordered to provide each person arriving from the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR in Rostov Region with 10,000 rubles. And in the Rostov Region, which borders on Ukraine, an operational headquarters was set up to coordinate the evacuation from the DNR and LNR.

Remarkably, the heads of the DNR and LNR recorded their video messages announcing the evacuation as early as February 16. The timestamp contained in the metadata of the videos was publicized by Bellingcat investigator Arik Toller. The head of DNR Denis Pushilin, in particular, draws attention in his speech that he said it “today, on February 18”. The folder, in which Passechnik’s address was filed, was entitled “Mongoose throw”.

By Monday evening, February 21, 2022, more than 60 thousand people had already crossed the border with Russia. A state of emergency was introduced in the Voronezh region and a state of heightened readiness in the Ryazan region.

Ukraine’s Response

Ukraine rejected accusations of preparing sabotage and invasion operations in Donbass. “We categorically refute Russian propaganda reports about allegedly offensive operations by Ukraine <…> Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in Donbass. We are fully committed exclusively to a diplomatic settlement,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted. The commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valery Zaluzhny, said that the statements of the “occupation administrations” of Donbass about the attack of the Ukrainian military are not true.

On February 19, 2022, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky spoke at the Munich Security Conference, emotionally expressing his grievances against both Russia and the West. Western countries, according to Zelensky, are not doing enough to restrain Vladimir Putin.

Zelensky said he was initiating consultations within the framework of the Budapest Memorandum, which provides guarantees of Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity in exchange for its renunciation of nuclear weapons. The Budapest memorandum was signed on December 5, 1994 by Great Britain, Russia, the United States and Ukraine. The document came into force in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Other states pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and refrain from using force against it in connection with the removal of nuclear weapons from its territory.

The Ukrainian president also offered Russian leader Vladimir Putin a meeting. “I don’t know what the president of the Russian Federation wants, so I suggest a meeting,” he said.

International Reaction

On February 18, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden delivered an address on the situation around Ukraine in which he said that, according to his sources, Vladimir Putin had already made a decision about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. The speech was broadcast live by the White House.

The American leader believes that Kyiv is being tried to be provoked in the Donbass. He is confident that Russian troops remain close to the borders with Ukraine: according to him, they are planning an invasion within days. Biden noted that the U.S. is not going to send its military to Ukraine but assured that Washington will continue to support Kyiv.

“There is no point in Ukraine attacking. Russia continues to fabricate claims that Ukraine is preparing to attack Russia. This is a classic that Russia has already used,” Biden said.

Before his speech, Biden had time to discuss the situation with the leaders of NATO countries —Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Canada, the alliance itself and the EU.

The White House also reminded that in case of Russia’s military aggression, the US would impose sanctions on the biggest Russian financial institutions and state-owned companies, as well as on a number of industrial sectors.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called an invasion inevitable and warned of “the biggest war in Europe since 1945.”

On February 20, French and Russian presidents Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin held telephone talks to discuss the situation in Ukraine. Macron and Putin agreed to intensify diplomatic work— the ultimate goal should be a summit to define a new peace and security architecture in Europe. The presidents also agreed to resume work in the “Normandy format.”

Against this backdrop, the airline Lufthansa announced that it would suspend flights to Kyiv from February 21 to 28, 2022. The carrier will also suspend flights to Odessa. At the same time, Austrian Airlines said it would stop flights to Kyiv and Odessa from February 20 until the end of the month. Suspension of commercial flights gravely harm the Ukrainian economy.

On February 19, the German and Austrian authorities urged their citizens to leave Ukraine due to a possible Russian invasion.

What’s Happening Right Now

Early Monday morning, February 21, 2022, the heads of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to recognize their independence.

“On behalf of the entire people of the Donetsk People’s Republic, we ask you to recognize the DNR as an independent, democratic, legal and social state,” said DNR head Denis Pushilin.

The heads of the DNR and LNR also asked Putin to conclude treaties of friendship and partnership with the republics after the recognition of independence.

Shortly thereafter, Putin commenced an emergency meeting of the Russian Security Council. The Russian leader said that he convened the meeting to discuss the situation in Donbass. All of its participants supported the recognition of the independence of the DNR and LNR.

Head of the Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov spoke about “two sabotage groups” on the border between Russia and Ukraine and “a captured Ukrainian military man,” as well as about the 68,500 refugees arriving in Russia from Donbass.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke about more than 40 bombings in Donbass “overnight alone,” damaged infrastructure, and Donetsk residents left without water.

At the end of the meeting, Putin said that he had heard his colleagues’ opinions and promised that “a decision will be made today.”

On the same day, Vladimir Putin addressed the Russians. He explained why Russia recognized the DNR and LNR. The president spoke for about an hour, during which he shared his own very bizarre history of Ukraine, denying grounds for its statehood. In the first part of the address, Putin spoke in detail about the collapse of the USSR, which resulted in an independent Ukraine; lamented the corruption and high utility bills in modern Ukraine; said that aggressive actions in Ukraine are supported by foreign special services; and added that Ukrainian authorities can build nuclear weapons and that NATO bases are “actually deployed on Ukrainian territory.”

Ukraine’s accession to NATO, Putin said, poses a direct threat to Russia’s security. “That is why I have decided to recognize the independence and sovereignty of the DNR and LNR. I am sure the citizens of Russia and all patriotic forces of the country will support me,” Putin concluded. Immediately afterward, television broadcasted the footage of the signing of treaties with the LNR and DNR in the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin also issued an order for the Russian Armed Forces to “perform peacekeeping functions” in the self-proclaimed republics of Donbass.

On February 22, the United States threatened new sanctions against Russia over its recognition of the LNR and DNR. “Putin wants the world to go back in time, when there was no United Nations and the world was ruled by empires. But the rest of the world has moved on. It’s not 1919, it’s 2022,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. permanent representative to the organization, told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. According to her, with his latest actions, Vladimir Putin “ripped the Minsk agreements to shreds.”

The United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union also announced their intention to impose new sanctions against Russia. The United Kingdom said that it might increase military aid to Ukraine. According to DPA and Der Spiegel, the sanctions could include 350 Duma deputies who voted for the recognition of the DNR and LNR, as well as Russian banks with ties to Donbass. The EU sanctions provide for the freezing of assets on the territory of the association and a ban on entry into the EU.

President Joe Biden signed a resolution prohibiting investments in the DNR and LNR, as well as the import of goods, services or technologies from there. The document implies blocking the US property of people associated with the DNR and LNR, and also allows imposing sanctions against those who decide to operate in the self-proclaimed republics. The document said that Russia’s decision threatens the national security and foreign policy of the US.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address to the nation that Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders would remain the same. He stressed that the country was pursuing a peaceful path but was ready to defend itself. Ukraine demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, the OSCE and the “Normandy quartet.” The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry condemned Russia’s decision, saying that it violated the basics of international law and the UN Charter, as well as Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry also asked Volodymyr Zelenskyy to consider severing diplomatic relations with Russia.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel said that “the recognition of two separatist regions in Ukraine is a blatant violation of international law, Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and the Minsk agreements. Polish President Andrzej Duda called on NATO and the EU to act tough on Russia to “stop the aggressor.” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Shimonite said that Putin’s actions “put Kafka and Orwell to shame.”

On Tuesday, February 22, Great Britain imposed sanctions against Gennady Timchenko, Boris Rotenberg and Igor Rotenberg — Russian oligarchs and close personal associates of Vladimir Putin. Five Russian banks also fall under British sanctions.  The assets of these individuals and companies in Britain will be frozen, Boris Johnson said.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that the certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would be halted indefinitely due to the recognition of the DNR and LNR.

And the final news: the Federation Council allowed Putin to deploy Russian troops to the DNR and LNR. At the same time, the documents signed by Putin and the heads of the LNR and DNR do not specify the boundaries within which the republics are recognized. Representatives of the LNR and DNR stated that it could be the borders of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, some of which are controlled by Ukraine.

Free Russia Foundation, on behalf of the global movement of pro-democracy Russians, stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine in their pursuit of freedom, peace and self-determination.

We condemn the hostile actions of the illegitimate regime of Vladimir Putin and his accomplices threatening Ukraine with military and hybrid operations and upending the European security.

We call on the international community to act decisively to end the Kremlin’s military provocations internationally and its domestic repression against the Russian civil society.

By Leah Silinsky, FRF Fellow

The violence unleashed by the government against Russians who came out to protest Navalny’s arrest in early 2021 demonstrates that Putin’s regime has no tolerance for any form of dissent or criticism of the political status quo. 24-year-old Pavel Grin-Romanov is yet another victim of the Kremlin’s assault on civil liberties in Russia.

Pavel was born on July 7, 1997, in Krasny Luch. Krasny Luch is a city in Luhansk Oblast, which is a region of Ukraine that has been occupied by Russia since 2014. Pavel is a citizen of both Ukraine and Russia. After graduating high school, he moved to Moscow where he lived with his wife Polina and worked as an MC, promoter, and as an administrator of an internet cafe. He is known by others for his love of computers and technology.

Pavel Grin-Romanov was arrested on January 31, 2021 for allegedly pepper-spraying a riot police officer during a street protest he attended with his wife on the Komsomolskaya Square by the Leningradsky railway station. Pavel has remained in police custody since February 2, 2021.  On April 9, 2021, the Meshchansky District Court of Moscow sentenced him to a 3 year and 6 month prison sentence to be served in a penal colony.

Pavel was charged under Article 318, Part 2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, for “violently threatening the life of an official on duty”. Though Pavel did plead “partially guilty”, this sentence is disproportionate and is the symptom of a corrupt legal system designed to punish those who openly criticize the Russian government. 

Despite his extremely difficult circumstances, Pavel has maintained an optimistic, positive attitude. His lawyer, Artem Nemov, confirmed that Pavel has remained in relatively high spirits given the situation. Unfortunately, it has been very difficult for Pavel’s wife, Polina, to visit him in detention.

Upon examination of the evidence in his case, it becomes clear that Pavel Grin-Romanov not only lacked the intent of carrying out a supposed “violent attack,” but that he also inflicted no physical or psychological harm on said OMON officer, Lieutenant Colonel-D.N. Terletsky.

OMON officers and riot police were attempting to disperse the protest on Komsomolskaya Square— attended by Pavel and his wife Polina. Videos provided as evidence by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation showed a chaotic crowd, with many confused individuals pushing against each other. Witnessing riot police officers acting violently, Pavel doused pepper spray in the air, to protect his wife and himself from riot police near him. Pavel stated that he sprayed pepper after seeing an officer beat a protester on the head with a truncheon.

On February 4, 2021, Pavel was taken to the Presnensky District Court of Moscow. Seven days later, he was officially charged under Article 318, Part 2, although his initial charges were under Article 318, Part 1. Part 2 of Article 318 provide for far harsher punishment and can result in a 5-to-10-year sentence. Analysts from MediaZona hypothesize that his sentence was increased because the OMON officer went to Botkin Hospital and received papers for sick leave from his departmental polyclinic despite suffering no injuries. Originally, the prosecution sought to sentence Pavel to 8 years, though this was reduced to 3 years and 6 months.  On July 30, 2021, Pavel’s sentence of three years and six months was shortened to three years. Despite being reduced, Pavel’s sentence is still highly unjust.

Pavel’s lawyer Artem Nemov asserted that his client’s sentence is entirely unjust given that it is based on false evidence, and that the prosecution could not prove that Pavel had any intent to harm, despite the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation posting the video where Pavel uses his pepper-spray canister. Moreover, the OMON officer in question has accepted Pavel’s apology and was wearing a helmet and face shield when he was allegedly pepper-sprayed, meaning that he could not have suffered any harm. 

Pavel’s lawyer has also pointed out that it was highly suspicious that officer Terletsky could not get a sick pass from a regular hospital and had to obtain one from his departmental polyclinic. The officer received his sick pass on February 2, but was registered as being on sick leave on February 1, 2021. Had the officer truly been injured, he would have received a sick pass from a regular hospital, the day that he came in. The judge reviewing Pavel’s case disregarded these arguments. He also chose not to wait for papers to come in from Ukraine, which attest to Pavel’s non-aggressive nature, to substantiate the assertion that Pavel showed no intent to aggressively assault officer Terletsky.

Pavel’s arrest is a politically-motivated punishment for his participation in the pro-Navalny protests which took place last year. There is undeniable evidence which points toward his innocence, and that he rendered no serious harm to the allegedly injured OMON officer. The unsubstantiated biased reporting in official Russian sources referring to Pavel as an aggressive individual, who was engaging in “unsanctioned activity” by simply attending the protest are highly suspicious.

Pavel’s arrest has received attention in both the U.S. and Russian media. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty published an article about him on April 9, 2021—the day that Pavel received his sentence from the Moscow court. Several Russian news sources wrote about Pavel’s arrest including Memorial, OVD-Info, Delo212, MediaZona, and the Official Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation. Additionally, several twitter users have also posted about Pavel’s arrest, including users “nesteliza_”, “DaniilKonon,” and “leonidragozin.” Memorial recognizes Pavel Sergeevich Grin-Romanov as a political prisoner because it is clear that he was arrested simply for taking part in a pro-Navalny protest; and that his arrest, trial and sentence have been politically motivated. Memorial asserts that Pavel acted in self-defense and inflicted no injuries on the OMON officer.

Roskomnadzor’s ultimatum: a new round of censorship in Russia

On February 1, 2022, dozens of independent media outlets received a 24-hour order from Roskomnadzor (Russian Federal Service for Supervision in Information and Communications) to remove news and materials related to investigations by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.

TV channel Dozhd was ordered to remove six specific articles.  Radio station Echo of Moscow— thirty-four posts. Meduza media outlet received a list of seventeen items, Znak.com—thirteen, The Village—eight, the Saratov newspaper Svobodnye Novosti —nine, and Bumaga from Saint Petersburg— three. Radio Liberty may have set a record with a notice enumerating 40 posts ordered for removal by Roskomnadzor; letters have also been received by the Ukrainian, Tajik, Kazakh, and Tatar-Bashkir services of the radio station.

The information that the Russian government finds so offensive mainly deals with real estate owned by officials and their families, including the head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin, presidential aide Vladimir Medinsky, State Duma deputy Leonid Slutsky, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, and Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev. Among the materials that Roskomnadzor demanded to be urgently removed were also FBK’s investigation into a luxury palace near Gelendzhik allegedly custom-built for Putin.

On January 28, 2022, Roskomnadzor also alerted the Office of the Prosecutor General that the outlets “disseminate materials from an organization whose activities are banned under the law against extremism.” In 2021, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation was designated as foreign agent, extremist organization and banned in Russia.

Many of the outlets complied with Roskomnadzor orders to avoid having their online resources blocked. Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of Dozhd, wrote in a Telegram post that he views such developments as an undeniable act of censorship, but “the blocked site would prevent the media from reporting on the following investigations,” he added. In addition, the Navalny investigations targeted by Roskomnadzor have been distributed on many platforms “and in general everywhere on the Internet,” he noted. Meduza, Echo of Moscow, Znak.com and other editorials have also removed publications under the threat of being blocked in Russia.

However, Radio Liberty and Current Time TV channel refused to remove articles about Navalny’s investigations. Jamie Fly, director of the media corporation, said that Radio Liberty would not comply with Roskomnadzor’s demands. “We will not allow the Kremlin to dictate our editorial decisions,” he said. The corporation called the Roskomnadzor’s demands “a blatant act of political censorship.”

Alexey Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh called Roskomnadzor’s demands an act of censorship. “Absolutely pure naked evil that everyone resents by reading about it in history textbooks. And now it’s all in reality before our eyes,” the Navalny associate tweeted.

Roskomnadzor is the Russian federal executive agency responsible for monitoring, controlling and censoring Russian mass media. The service has repeatedly been accused of attempting to censor the Internet and violate freedom of speech by blocking websites and services under the pretext of not transferring data to Russia from foreign web servers or “protecting children from harmful information” or directly criticizing the activities of the Russian Government or Parliament.

Censorship and violations of the right to freedom of speech are expressly prohibited by Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, but Clause 4 contains an exception to the rule that the legislature has the right to restrict the right to disseminate information by a federal law, which is regularly used by Roskomnadzor.

Why the Navalny Team’s Investigations Are Important Not Only to Russians

Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation investigated corruption in the highest echelons of the Russian government, big business, and regional elites.

The Foundation was created by Navalny in 2011. According to its website, its only source of funding over the years has been donations from supporters. The organization employed approximately 40 people who searched for and uncovered corrupt schemes and cases of illicit enrichment, and drafted complaints to the Investigative Committee of Russia, the Prosecutor’s Office, and the municipal services.

Since 2013, the FBK has released over 80 investigations, making serious waves in the public opinion. FBK’s documentary “Putin’s Palace.The Story of the Biggest Bribe” received over 120 million views and became the most viewed non-interactive content on Russian-language YouTube, as well as the record-breaker in the number of positive user ratings in the Russian YouTube segment.

Alexey Navalny has consistently emphasized that corruption is not only one of Russia’s main problems, but also one of the most important issues for the entire world. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the global ideological confrontation, it was corruption— in its classic definition of ‘the use of one’s official status for personal gain’— has become the universal basis for the new authoritarian international to blossom, from Russia and Eritrea to Myanmar and Venezuela. And corruption has long ceased to be only an internal problem of these countries. It is almost always one of the main causes of the world’s problems that the West faces,” Navalny wrote in his 2021 column published in major Western media outlets.

An important aspect of corruption in authoritarian countries— and Russia is a prime example here— is its use of the financial infrastructure of the West— 90% of the money stolen by an autocrat is stored there. According to Navalny himself, the FBK investigations should not only open Russians’ eyes to corruption in Russia, but also encourage Western leaders to show determination and political will towards Russian corrupt officials who take their assets to the West and legalize them there.

Alexey Navalny has expressed dismay that the FBK investigations do not seem to trigger action by Western tax authorities and prosecutors. “The US, the UK and Germany have excellent tools and laws for fighting foreign corruption. Guess how many cases were opened after the investigations of our Anti-Corruption Foundation, which is now qualified by Putin’s government as an extremist organization? That’s right, not a single one. Even Western law enforcement agencies behave cautiously with corrupt foreign officials,” Navalny reports.

Navalny’s team’s meticulously documented investigations churn up materials that could serve basis for the introduction of more precise sanctions —not only against law enforcement officials, but also against oligarchs and corrupt businessmen from Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and beyond. This is how Navalny describes it: “Until personal sanctions are imposed on the oligarchs – first and foremost from Putin’s entourage, who is a role model for corrupt officials and businessmen around the world – any anti-corruption rhetoric from the West will be perceived as a game and a hollow talking point. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing the names of colonels and generals of special services no one has ever heard of on another sanctions list, but not seeing the names of those in whose interests these colonels are acting. Putin’s oligarchs who run “state-owned” or formally private companies are not businessmen, but leaders of organized criminal groups. Right now the Western establishment is acting like Pavlov’s dog. You show them a secret service colonel, they shout, “Punish him!” You show them an oligarch who pays the colonel, and they shout, “Invite him to Davos!”

Perhaps this issue will move forward thanks to the Navalny List, a 2021 listing of 35 individuals from the upper echelon of Russia’s elite implicated in corruption and human rights abuses, as well as those directly linked to the poisoning and imprisonment of the Russian opposition leader. The list was compiled thanks to years of hard work by the FBK team. On September 24, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment to tighten anti-Russian sanctions in the new fiscal year’s defense budget. The House of Representatives bill calls the list’s members “Russian kleptocrats and human rights violators.”

Five Strikes Against The Kremlin.

Strike One: “Chaika”

Case in focus: an investigation into the business activities of the family of Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika. The investigation mainly focuses on the official’s sons Artem and Igor.

Release date: 12/01/2015

Number of views on YouTube: 25 million

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXYQbgvzxdM   


Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) published a huge investigation about the family of Prosecutor General Yury Chaika. It is mainly about his eldest son, Artem Chaika.

Artem Chaika owns the posh Pomegranate hotel in Greece on the Halkidiki peninsula. Olga Lopatina, the former wife of Deputy Prosecutor General Gennadi Lopatin, also owns a stake in the hotel. The FBK staff believes that their divorce is a formal one, as she still wears a wedding ring.

Olga Lopatina is a co-owner of the Kuban Sakhar company, shares in which belong to the wives of Sergei Tsapok and Vyacheslav Tsepovyaz – leaders of the Kushchevskaya organized crime group, who committed the brutal murder of 12 people, including four children, which shocked Russia.

Artem Chaika has a villa in Greece where construction is continuing. Nearby, Olga Lopatina is building a villa for herself. FBK examined her tax returns from her time as the wife of Deputy Prosecutor General (up until 2011) and found that Lopatin earned 18 million rubles – not enough to buy part of a hotel and a villa.

Artem Chaika owns a house in Switzerland worth about three million dollars. At the same time, he lists the Swiss address of his more humble home in all the documents. Artem Chaika keeps money in Swiss accounts.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Artem Chaika seized the Verkhne-Lenskoe River Shipping Company in the Irkutsk region and appropriated 12 ships. That’s how Yury Chaika’s son allegedly earned his first capital, which he exported to Switzerland. The FBK investigation details the entire embezzlement scheme.

Artem Chaika has a holding company with a turnover of hundreds of millions of dollars. He buys assets randomly: he has salt and sand mining, construction, brick-making, and law offices.

The business structures of the youngest son of the Prosecutor General, Igor Chaika, were able to get government contracts worth 300 billion rubles.

Domestic and international reaction:

According to a mid-December 2015 study by the Levada Center, 38 percent of Russians knew about the film “Chaika” in one way or another. At the same time, 82% of Russians who have heard of the film consider the corruption schemes and connections with criminal groups described in the film to be typical for the modern Russian authorities.

In his official statement on December 3, Prosecutor General Yury Chaika called the film a fraud, and the facts presented in it untrue.

On December 7, Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the information from the film did not arouse the Kremlin’s interest.

On December 8, 2015, the Anti-Corruption Foundation filed a complaint against Artyom Chaika with the Swiss Prosecutor’s Office based on suspicions of money laundering. The complaint mentioned Artyom and Igor Chaika, the sons of the Russian Prosecutor General, as well as other individuals, firms, bank accounts, and real estate allegedly connected to them. In order to exclude any bias in the verification, the prosecutor’s office assigned the investigation to a special police unit in Lugano, which investigates “white collar” crime. The investigation confirmed that the individuals named in the complaint were in Switzerland and were connected to the company mentioned in the complaint. However, no money laundering facts were identified. Later, Artyom Chaika received a notification from the Swiss prosecutor’s office that there were no claims against him. Also, based on his own petition, Artyom Chaika received a notice from Greek officials stating that the transaction he had conducted in Greece to purchase a hotel on the island of Halkidiki was legal.

Strike Two: “He Is Not Dimon To You”

Case in focus: An investigation into the multibillion-dollar property and corruption schemes used to enrich Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, formerly President of Russia.

Release Date: 03/02/2017

Number of views on YouTube: 44 million

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrwlk7_GF9g&t=2090s 


The investigation “He Is Not Dimon To You. Palaces, Yachts, Vineyards – Dmitry Medvedev’s Secret Empire” deals with the real estate and expensive hobbies of then-Prime Minister Medvedev in Russia and abroad. The film is divided into 10 parts – “chapters”, each lasting about five minutes. The majority of episodes deal with the assets of the “Dar” charitable foundation and its related companies. The chairman of the foundation’s supervisory board is Ilya Eliseev, an old acquaintance and classmate of Medvedev’s, who is referred to in the film as Medvedev’s key confidant. The film shows that, on the one hand, Medvedev is acquainted with the foundation’s management and uses the foundation’s property for recreation, while, on the other hand, the foundation is filled with contributions from Russian oligarchs.

According to the authors of the investigation, the image of an official who no one takes seriously has been created artificially. In reality, Medvedev is “the creator and head of a huge, multi-level corruption scheme. According to the FBK, the house on Rublevka District of Moscow, worth about 5 billion rubles, was a gift from oligarch Alisher Usmanov to structures associated with Medvedev. The FBK called this “gift” a “bribe.”

According to the anti-corruption activists, Medvedev is also connected to another estate on Rublevo-Uspensky Drive, as well as a residence in Kursk region, a mansion in St. Petersburg, two estates by the sea in Krasnodar Krai, a mansion near Sochi, vineyards near Anapa (Krasnodar Krai, Russia) and in Italy, and an estate in Ivanovo region of Russia (already announced by Navalny’s supporters last year).

The FBK investigation also disclosed two yachts registered in the names of people close to Medvedev. Navalny’s supporters claim that the funds of the foundations and companies that the head of the government controls total at least 70 billion rubles. In addition to Usmanov, the sources of this money include shareholders of the gas company Novatek Leonid Mikhelson and Leonid Simanovsky, as well as Gazprombank and Bashneft. Most of the funds, according to FBK, are withdrawn to offshore accounts.

Based on this information, Navalny accused Medvedev of creating a “multi-level corruption scheme” and “taking bribes from the oligarchs.” He said that thousands of people are involved in “servicing the schemes” and that his real estate is “guarded by state security services.”


Following the release of the film, FBK sent a statement to the Russian Investigative Committee demanding that criminal charges be filed against Dmitry Medvedev and billionaire Alisher Usmanov for bribery. Navalny accused the Russian authorities of failing to respond appropriately to the investigation and called for rallies across Russia to “ask the authorities to answer our questions about corruption.” On March 26, 2017, tens of thousands of people marched in several dozen Russian cities for mass anti-corruption protests, which were then repeated on June 12, 2017. The protesters’ main demand was the resignation of Dmitry Medvedev from his post.

On April 5, at a plenary session, the State Duma refused to support the CPRF party’s proposal to contact law enforcement agencies and verify the information presented in the FBK investigation.

On April 4, 2017, Dmitry Medvedev called the FBK investigation “rubbish, nonsense,” collected “according to the principle of compote,” and on April 19, he said that he would not “comment on the absolutely false products of political crooks.” For his part, Alisher Usmanov filed a libel suit against Navalny and FBK. On May 31, 2017, the Lublinsky District Court in Moscow ordered Navalny to retract the information in the investigation and remove the publications about Usmanov.

Navalny refused to comply with the court’s decision and appealed.

At the moment, materials about this investigation have been removed from the websites of most Russian media outlets at the request of Roskomnadzor and under the threat of blocking.

Strike Three: “Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov transports dogs on a private plane”

Case in focus: in two investigations, the FBK found that Deputy Prime Minister Shuvalov has a private jet for transporting dogs, as well as a large amount of luxury real estate

Release dates: 07/14/2016 and 03/06/2018

Number of views on YouTube: 2.5 million (1st investigation), 7.5 million (2nd investigation)

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tx8ZqZtjyT4 

Second Investigation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbRoZyuOijk 


The Anti-Corruption Foundation published an investigation showing that Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov spends 130 million rubles a year on flights on a private jet and another 40 million on transporting his wife’s dogs to participate in foreign shows.

The FBK staff found that a member of the Russian government may own a $50 million Bombardier Global Express plane, which Shuvalov uses as a private jet. In the summer of 2018, it was also reported that Shuvalov’s family actually also owns a Gulfstream G650 aircraft with an estimated value of about $70 million.

Most often (18 times a year) the plane flew to Salzburg, Austria, where Shuvalov’s wife owns real estate. It was found that sometimes a private plane flew this route several times a week. The FBK investigation noted that the service of a one-way flight to Salzburg on a private plane costs from $40,000.

Olga Shuvalova, the wife of the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, confirmed to FBK the fact of flights with dogs on a private plane: “We take our dogs to exhibitions on our declared plane. By the way, of international level, to defend the honor of Russia”.

The investigation also revealed that Shuvalov’s money manager is buying up an entire floor of apartments in a high-rise on Moscow’s Kotelnicheskaya Embankment – 10 apartments worth about 600 million rubles. The fund previously wrote about Deputy Prime Minister’s London apartment of about 500 square meters and costing about 700 million rubles, as well as a luxurious Rolls-Royce for 40 million rubles.

Shuvalov’s family also occupied the former state summer residence of CPSU Politburo member Mikhail Suslov in the Odintsovsky district near Moscow on the area of about 7.5 hectares. The Italian architect Giuliano Moretti was in charge of designing the buildings, and the official’s neighbors include billionaires Roman Abramovich and Suleiman Kerimov.


Some economic observers believed that Shuvalov caused great irritation to the public by his indifferent attitude to the problems of ordinary citizens and the obvious “inter-class gaps.” Negative assessments of Shuvalov were given by opposition politician Vladimir Milov, who once worked with Shuvalov, drawing attention to the fact that he “does not hesitate to show money,” unlike his former boss Alexander Voloshin.

Shuvalov resigned as first deputy prime minister of the Russian government on May 24, 2018, and was appointed by the Russian president as chairman of Vneshekonombank. It was reported that “the investigations did not affect the official’s career and are not related to his possible departure from the government.”

Strike Four: “I Know All Those Who Tried To Kill Me”

Case in focus: A two-part video narrative about the secret group of assassins who tried to poison Alexey Navalny with a deadly chemical agent

Release Date: 12/14/2020 and 12/21/2020

Number of views on YouTube: 26 million (1st investigation), 29 million (2nd investigation)

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smhi6jts97I  

Second investigation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibqiet6Bg38 


On December 14, 2020, The Insider, Bellingcat and CNN, with the participation of Der Spiegel and FBK, released a joint journalistic investigation. According to its conclusions, eight employees of the FSB special group followed Alexey Navalny for several years and poisoned him with Novichok warfare agent.

The investigators established the identities of the employees involved in the poisoning by comparing cell phone billing data with offline databases.

By analyzing airline flight records, investigators found that members of the group had flown to dozens of Russian cities where Navalny had flown to since 2017 – usually two or three operatives went on each trip, their lineup constantly alternating. They bought tickets under real and fictitious names, and tried to fly not on the same flights as Navalny, but on parallel ones, often from other Moscow airports. The main activity came in 2017 (when Navalny announced his intention to run for presidency) and then in 2020.

Navalny himself, commenting on the investigation, called what happened “state terrorism.”

At the end of December 2020, the second part of the investigation came out: Navalny called an FSB officer and recorded a conversation with him, saying that this conversation was an actual confession by a Russian special services officer of his participation in an assassination attempt.

Domestic and international reaction:

The poisoning of Navalny caused an international outcry and became a turning point in modern Russian history.

Even before the release of the investigation, on September 3, 2020, the European Union Foreign Affairs Office issued a declaration in which on behalf of all 27 EU member states, as well as Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, Georgia and Ukraine condemned in the strongest terms the attack on Alexey Navalny. German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a statement calling the attempt on Navalny’s life an attempt to silence him, “a crime against the basic values for which we stand.” Boris Johnson, for his part, said that the poisoning of Navalny “shocked the world” and called Russia’s use of chemical weapons “outrageous.” On October 15, “for the use of chemical weapons for the attempted murder of Alexey Navalny,” the European Union imposed sanctions against FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov and five other high-ranking Russian officials and security officers, as well as against the state-owned plant that was involved in the development of Novichok. On the same day, the United Kingdom announced similar sanctions.

According to the EU, the poisoning of Navalny was possible “only with the consent of the presidential administration” and with the participation of the FSB. Navalny himself believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally behind the attempt on his life. Putin himself characterized the investigation as “legalization of materials from the American secret services,” and said that if the Russian secret services had wanted to poison Navalny, they would have completed the case.

On December 23rd, a U.S. State Department spokesman accused the FSB of poisoning Navalny and the Russian leadership of creating conspiracy theories around him.

In mid-January 2021, Navalny returned to Russia. He was detained at the airport on suspicion of violating his probation in the Yves Rocher case. According to the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service, Navalny failed to report to his place of residence several times, as required by law for those sentenced to probation. Navalny himself indicated that he had been unable to do so because he had been undergoing rehabilitation in Berlin after being poisoned. On February 2 the politician was sentenced to two and a half years in a penal colony, after which several more criminal cases were initiated against him.

On August 20, 2021, on the anniversary of the poisoning of Navalny, Britain imposed sanctions on seven FSB officers it believes were involved in the poisoning. The U.S. imposed sanctions against nine FSB officers. In addition, the U.S. announced a second round of sanctions against Russia for the use of chemical weapons in the poisoning of Navalny, under which the U.S. imposed additional restrictions on exports of nuclear and missile-related products and technologies, as well as restrictions on imports of certain Russian firearms and ammunition.

Strike Five: “Putin’s Palace”

Case in focus: An investigative documentary about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal, incredibly expensive “mini-state” on the shores of the Black Sea.

Release Date: 01/19/2021

Number of views on YouTube: 121 million

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipAnwilMncI


The documentary “A Palace for Putin” tells the story of a 17,700 square meter palace for the Russian president built on the Black Sea near Gelendzhik. According to the FBK, its construction was financed by state and private companies connected to Putin’s friends through corrupt schemes. The FBK estimated the total amount of money spent on the palace and the vineyards around it to be at least 100 billion rubles.

The authors of the investigation managed to unravel the complex web of property relationships around the palace. The data they collected showed that the palace belongs to Putin’s nephew, and its maintenance is entrusted to old cronies of the Russian president: former KGB employees.

The area of the palace complex is 68 hectares, and 7,000 hectares of land around the palace (including the airspace) is a closed area under the jurisdiction of the FSB.  The film claims that the Russian president’s residence near Gelendzhik was built in 2010 and has an underground ice palace, an “aquadiscotheque,” a concert hall, a church, an 80-meter bridge “for the approach to the tea house” and a tunnel to descend from the palace to the sea.

Domestic and international reaction:

Vladimir Putin, commenting on the investigation, stated that the palace had never been registered in his name and did not belong to his close relatives. In response, Navalny’s team pointed out that neither Putin’s brother-in-law Nikolai Shamalov, in whose name the palace was registered, nor Putin’s great-nephew Mikhail Shelomov, who was managing the construction site, were indeed close relatives under the Russian Family Code. Later, the owner of the facility called himself a businessman longtime acquaintance of Putin’s Arkady Rotenberg. He claimed that he was building an apartment hotel.

According to the Levada Center, of those who have seen the film, are aware of its contents, or have heard about it, the attitude toward Putin has worsened; 3% of those who have improved; 80% of those who have not changed. At the same time, 17% are certain that the content of the film is true; 38% believe that it is similar to the truth, but it is difficult to verify; and 33% are certain that it is not true.

The film caused widespread resonance and outrage in almost all of the world’s major media outlets.  Many Western journalists were shocked by the size of Vladimir Putin’s alleged palace, which is 39 times the size of the Principality of Monaco.

According to experts, the investigation was a serious blow to the position of the authorities and the image of the Russian president. It has also seriously broadened Navalny’s audience, allowing him to collect additional donations from sympathizers.

The investigation about Putin’s palace was a serious hit to the Kremlin, after which any actions by the authorities against Navalny were perceived as retaliation for the investigation. And so it happened: Alexey Navalny was detained at Sheremetyevo airport on January 17, 2021, immediately after returning from Germany, where he had undergone treatment and rehabilitation after severe poisoning. He was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison.

In the winter and spring of 2021, there were mass street protests in Russia – protests related to the detention of Navalny and rallies in his support. Police and Rosgvardia officers detained a record number of people at these events. The law enforcement agencies acted harshly; criminal proceedings were instituted against dozens of protesters.

Many of Navalny’s supporters were also put under investigation, or forced to leave Russia in a hurry. The politician’s structures are now considered extremist and banned in Russia. Any individual who has in any way helped or expressed sympathy for the opposition leader is now barred from running for a seat in the State Duma for several years.

On June 9, 2021, the FBK in Russia was recognized as an extremist organization and liquidated by court order.

2019 was an unprecedentedly good year for Russian-Chinese military cooperation featuring six joint exercises – nearly as many as Russia held with its longstanding ally Kazakhstan in that same year. However, the coming of COVID-19 in 2020 paralyzed Chinese military diplomacy and greatly reduced the quantity of interaction. Though cooperation recovered somewhat in 2021, pre-pandemic levels have not been regained, though some interesting developments did occur.

In the heady early days of the pandemic, the Russian Armed Forces’ medical specialists interfaced multiple times with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Military Medical University for notes on controlling the spread of the disease. The respective militaries cooperated on sealing the Russia-China border as ordered by Moscow to stop transmission of the disease. When Vladimir Putin belatedly held the 75th Victory Day parade in June, the Chinese National Defense Minister Wei Fenghe travelled to Moscow and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Y-20 transport aircraft participated in the celebration.

Yet despite this interaction and ceremonial interfacing, mil-to-mil contacts declined overall. Russia’s annual Army International Games – one of Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu’s obsessions – had featured PLA participation in 12 different events in 2019 but only 6 in 2020. China had hosted 4 events of the Army International Games in 2019 but none in 2020, sending only a small number of troops to compete in Russia.

From 6 joint exercises in 2019, only 1 was held in 2020 but it was an important one: the strategic exercise Kavkaz-2020. Kavkaz is one of the four rotating annual exercises the Russian Armed Forces conduct as a capstone of annual training. Kavkaz, which literally means “Caucasus,” features the Southern Military District, which includes the territory between Ukraine and Kazakhstan down to Georgia and Azerbaijan. As with Vostok-2018 and Tsentr-2019, the PLA was invited to participate in the main maneuver event of the exercise, this time at Kapustin Yar alongside Armenia, Belarus, Myanmar, and Pakistan. PLA troops from the 76th Group Army of the Western Theater Command participated in the exercise. Before Vostok-2018, only Belarus ever participated in these capstone exercises; after a trial of including China and Mongolia in 2018, Russia has opened participation to countries in favor in Moscow.

As with the previous two strategic exercises to which the PLA had been invited, though the PLA took part in the grandest spectacle of the event with Putin personally looking on, the more interesting components of the exercise testing new tactical concepts occurred elsewhere without PLA onlookers. Whereas each Russian capstone exercise features a day of large and dramatic maneuvers, many ancillary events also take place generally across many different training areas. Though the capability to do large maneuvers is a source of political pride for Moscow, the key capability Russia practices in these dispersed activities is the ability to exercise command-and-control (C2) across an enormous amount of territory and ably respond to disparate combat conditions.

Despite this stilted interaction in 2020, the year still ended happily with Shoygu and Wei extending an agreement on mutual notification of launches of ballistic missiles and space vehicles in December. This agreement gives Russia and China considerable insight into the early warning detection capabilities of the other as the two countries exchange information about rocket launches around the world from satellite launches from French Guiana to North Korean rocket tests. However, whereas Wei – uniquely among Chinese officials in 2020 – visited Moscow twice first for the 75th Victory Day parade and later for a SCO ministerial, he opted to conduct this ceremony extending the agreement virtually. Indeed, Chinese government officials literally phoned in all their regular diplomatic exchanges with their Russian counterparts in late November, demonstrating that their rapprochement with Moscow was insufficient to merit risking spread of COVID-19 through an in-person meeting.

2020 nevertheless ended dramatically with only the second ever joint strategic bomber patrol over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea on 22 December 2020. 4 Chinese H-6K and 2 Russian Tu-95MS strategic bombers took part in the event surrounding the Korean peninsula. Such a joint patrol is important as it signals the ability to potentially conduct joint nuclear targeting, i.e. the most drastic act of warfare. Though this patrol is on a very small scale relative to Russian and Chinese nuclear capabilities, it would potentially be sufficient either to nullify North Korean capabilities or else disable U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea. The first such patrol took place in 2019.

Though 2020 had seen a contraction in Russian-Chinese military interaction, 2021 saw some revival albeit at a still-reduced rate from 2020. The PLA participated in Russia’s Sayanskiy Marsh competition, another Russian military prestige event focused on sports, in Shoygu’s native Tyva Republic in April. PLA participation in Army International Games events surged to 15 and Russian troops were even welcomed back to Korla to participate in 3 of these.

Instability in and the ultimate Taliban takeover of Afghanistan also prompted military conversations on Central Asian security. In August, the Russian 29th Army of the Eastern Military District travelled to Qingtongxia, China, to conduct the Sibu/Vzaymodeystvie-2021 exercise, a nominally anti-terrorist event but with strong offensive desantand reconnaissance-strike components. For the first time, Russian troops used Chinese military equipment. though the Russian Armed Forces uses the Army International Games to let other countries’ militaries practice using Russian equipment, the PLA was always allowed to bring its own equipment; this deviation from the standard Russian practice of using mil-to-mil interaction as a sales pitch may hearken future Russian military equipment purchases from China. After the fact, the Chinese Ministry of Defense claimed Xi himself had not only thought of the exercise but designated where it should be held.

Though the Chinese name for the exercise – Sibu – meaning “west” in Chinese seemingly in anticipation of the Russian strategic exercise Zapad-2021 (“zapad” means “west” in Russian), the PLA did not fully participate in the strategic exercise. Whereas the armed forces of Armenia, Belarus, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia all participated in the exercise, China along with Vietnam and Myanmar merely observed the exercise.

Russia also hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) exercise Mirnaya Missiya-2021 at Donguz in September after the 2020 iteration (also planned to be held in Russia) was cancelled. This exercise also heavily featured developments in Afghanistan as a pretext, though notably did not take place in SCO member Tajikistan, which hosted a number of Russian-led exercises at other points in 2021 to signal anti-Taliban resolve.

Russia and China did resume joint naval exercises in 2021 with the renewal of the Morskoe Vzaymodestvie/Joint Sea exercise in the Sea of Japan in October. Afterward, a collective 10 ships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy ad Russian Pacific Fleet went on a joint cruise over 17-23 October into the west Pacific Ocean via the Sangar Strait, encircling Japan. This joint activity in East Asia was repeated in the air domain on 19 November 2021 with a third joint patrol of Russian Tu-95MS and Chinese H-6K strategic bombers accompanied by a Russian A-50U AEW aircraft over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea for more than 10 hours. Once again, the Korean peninsula was surrounded by this patrol.

Within a week of this joint patrol, Shoygu and Wei had a videoconference where they again renewed the agreement on mutual notification of ballistic missile and space vehicle launches and approved a cooperation plan extending to 2025. They also took the occasion to denounce U.S. strategic bomber patrols as “increasing geopolitical turbulence” as part of a general diplomatic campaign the two capitals have launched to claim that the United States is threatening the “United Nations Charter-centered international system” rather than Russia and China threatening the “rules-based international order.” Thus, Russia and China returned to three joint exercises in 2020 not counting two joint patrols. Already in early 2022, the Pacific Fleet sent its cruiser and a destroyer to the Indian Ocean for a trilateral anti-piracy exercise with China and Iran. Though COVID-19 seems to have dampened the pace of Russian-Chinese military cooperation, it has by no means broken it. In the short term, we can probably expect a gradual return toward 2019 levels of military cooperation and further such growth unless a more serious point of contention emerges between Moscow and Beijing. China does not yet rank with the pro-Russian former Soviet republics for Russian military cooperation: in 2019, Russia conducted 6 joint exercises with the PLA but 9 each with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, 11 with Armenia, and fully 17 with Belarus. China may not yet rank with these states, but the gap is closing and the spectrum of Russian cooperation with China far exceeds the range with any of Moscow’s treaty allies.

NATO, U.S., Russia, Ukraine: What’s Happening Right Now?

In late December 2021, the U.S. and NATO responded to Russia’s threats by asserting that Russian demands are unacceptable for the alliance —in particular, the demand to definitively preclude the incorporation of Ukraine into NATO. At the same time, NATO countries expressed their willingness to cooperate with Russia on such issues as arms control and disarmament.

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the alliance is “prepared for the worst,” so NATO would strengthen its posture in the Baltic and the Black Sea region. The US forces of 8,500 people stand ready for mobilization to Europe. Stoltenberg also called on Russia to “withdraw its troops” from Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted that Ukraine’s sovereignty, its territorial integrity, and the right to choose its allies are values that the United States and NATO are committed to defend.

In early January 2022, Russia, the U.S. and NATO held negotiations at which Moscow’s demands were discussed. Russia assessed these talks as unsuccessful and asked the U.S. and NATO to provide a written response. It was handed over to the Russian Foreign Ministry on January 26. Afterward, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held press conferences stating that NATO would not abandon the open-door principle.

While Russia waited for the U.S. to respond to its offers of security guarantees, the situation around Ukraine continued to escalate. Following the statements about the evacuation of Western diplomats from Kyiv, NATO leaders resolved to strengthen their eastern flank and sent additional forces to Bulgaria, Romania and Lithuania, while the US hinted that up to 50,000 American soldiers could be sent to Eastern Europe. Officials of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk and Luhansk expressed fears of an attack from Kiev, and the ruling United Russia party asked Putin to start supplying Russian weapons to the rebellious republics.

How Russia and Ukraine Found Themselves on the Brink of a Big War

The conflict between Moscow and Kiev has its roots far back in history, but its nature is simple: the Kremlin refuses to recognize Ukraine’s independence. Some of the key Kremlin’s positions are reflected in a document titled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, an oped by Putin published on July 12, 2021. In his oped, Putin advances the concept of the triune Russian people, which for centuries has formed a single cultural and spiritual space of historical Russia. According to the author, today’s Ukraine is “entirely the brainchild of the Soviet era,” largely created at the expense of what he calls “historical Russia.” Putin fails to mention that Russians and Ukrainians were not always on the same path and that two languages and two cultures had been formed—similar, but different. When Russia and Ukraine became separate states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, another difference became very clear— that of a political orientation. Kyiv has aspired to join Western democracies, with a rotating system of government, while Moscow turned away from it. The annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbass and the current conflict are the natural result of the Kremlin’s policy of the last 20 years.

Ukraine Coverage in the Russian Media

The downward spiral in the Russian-Ukrainian relations is widely covered in the Russian media, both state-owned and independent. Depending on the political stance and proximity to the Kremlin, the portrayal of current events in various media outlets differs significantly. Just as in a hypothetical armed clash between Russia and Ukraine, the balance of power in the information battle is not equal— the state-owned media with anti-Ukrainian positions far outnumber the opposition media in terms of coverage and influence.

And it is no longer just about funding: during 2021, the Kremlin unleashed an onslaught against independent journalism. While, at the end of 2020 there were only 17 individuals and organizations on the black list of Foreign Media Agent, by the end of 2021 their number increased to 111, with the most influential and popular editorial teams and journalists added. In addition, many journalists independent of the Kremlin were forced to flee the country as exiles.

“Journalism in Russia is going through dark times right now. In the last few months, more than a hundred journalists, media outlets, human rights activists, and NGOs have already been given the status of “foreign agents.” In Russia, these are “enemies of the people.” These are the words of Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, in his Nobel speech. This is how he described what happened to the journalistic profession in 2021.

The main narratives of the Russian media affiliated or controlled by the Kremlin include:

  • Relations between Russia and the United States have come to a dangerous critical edge due to the latter’s fault. The NATO bloc is carrying out hostile activities in the immediate vicinity of Russia’s borders, from military maneuvers to arms sales to Ukraine.
  • Russia has attempted to become friends and reliable partners of NATO, but the steps we took toward it were misinterpreted as weakness, and all we got in return was disregard for our priorities and a threat to our borders.
  • In Ukrainian society, a culture of fear is being cultivated, neo-Nazis are being indulged, militarization is on the rise, and Russophobe sentiments and the fight against the Russian language and culture are intensifying. At the same time, the Ukrainian media is actively spreading rumors of an impending Russian invasion of Ukraine, but this is only a distraction for building NATO infrastructure and preparing its own military provocations, such as a combat operation in the rebellious republics in the east of the country.
  • Ukraine’s military is ineffective, unprepared and unable to deal not only with Russia, but even with the DNR and LNR militias.

Key purveyors and amplifiers of these narratives include:

TV channels: Pervyi TV-channel, Rossiya-24, REN-TV, NTV, RT (Russia Today)

News agencies: RIA Novosti, Interfax, RT

Media outlets: Lenta.ru, Izvestiya, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Moskovsky Komsomolets, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Argumenty i Fakty

Pro-Kremlin media taking a neutral stance: Kommersant, RBC

Most stories on the escalation of the situation between Russia and Ukraine in the official Russian media violate basic principles of quality journalism, first and foremost the principle of neutrality and non-judgmentalism. Subjective evaluations are prominent event at the level of headlines, and are especially amplified in the texts of news and op-eds. When presenting information, journalists of pro-Kremlin media regularly use expressive language and evaluative epithets, such as “Ukrainian militants,” “neo-Nazi Ukrainian groups,” “terrorist authorities,” and “militarist psychosis.”

The state television and Kremlin-funded sources suggest to audiences that active military action in Ukraine is necessary to ensure Russia’s own security. Numerous political talk shows on state-run television stations make direct threats and statements about the need to use the force.

An important place in pro-Kremlin media is reserved for sessions in which readers’ and viewers questions are answered by experts. Oftentimes, the experts chosen by the editorial staff make evaluative and negatively expressive judgments in their answers, which are not supported by precise facts (or are counterfactual). When making even the loudest accusations, authors of such publications often do not cite a source of information that could serve as proof of their accuracy.

The language of publications in the state media can be characterized as extremely negative, and the tonality is dismissive and disparaging of Ukraine and its citizens.

In the article “Ukraine is always shooting itself in the foot,” Lenta.ru forecasts how the next escalation of the conflict between Moscow and Kiev will turn out for Ukrainians: “The problem is that the entire political life in Ukraine is a constant regrouping of resources in order not to touch its cronies, semi-criminal politics and manipulation of Western partners. The political class in Ukraine has only chimerical ideas and has proven to be bankrupt <…> Ukraine’s current economic situation is not the res