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Vladimir Putin has yet again raised eyebrows by seriously reshuffling the government military and security leadership. A longtime Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu was moved to another  powerful position of Secretary of the National Security Council; former NSC Secretary Nikolay Patrushev, who was believed to be Putin’s “right hand man”, was sacked, and his further fate is not yet known; economist Andrey Belousov was surprisingly appointed the new Minister of Defense. Some notable changes have also been made in the civil part of the government. What do all these changes mean, and what are their potential consequences?

Before we jump into discussion on the fate of heavyweights like Shoygu, Patrushev and Belousov, let’s focus for a while on the changes that took place within the civilian part of the government – there were not too many, but these changes are significant, and may at least partially help explain the overall logic of Putin’s cabinet reshuffle. The most significant change was the replacement of Mr. Belousov who served as First Deputy PM with a longtime Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov.

The position of First Deputy PM is quite significant, as its turf includes the oversight of all other Deputy PMs and Ministers. It is a de-facto “shadow PM”, who supervises everyone, but reports only to the Prime Minister.

The outgoing Andrey Belousov is widely regarded as macroeconomic strategist and visionary, and as a champion of state interventionist economic policies, government investment in strategic “national projects”, promotion of “import substitution”, etc.

Denis Manturov, who replaces Belousov, is no visionary— he is widely perceived to merely lobby the interests of Sergey Chemezov, CEO of Rostec, a nationwide conglomerate of machinery and military production factories, and a major producer of weapons and ammunition.

Mr. Chemezov is one of Putin’s closest and most trusted cronies, who was Putin’s colleague in 1980s in East Germany.

Mr. Manturov used to work in the system of Rostec before 2007, when he was promoted to the position of Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade, effectively becoming the main lobbyist of Chemezov’s interests in the Government. Under Manturov’s watch, Rostec evolved from a network of loosely connected factories to a major monopolist contractor for the government, primarily in military industries.

Notably, on May 11, right after the inaugural meeting with the reappointed PM Mikhail Mishustin, Putin has met with Manturov and Chemezov in the Kremlin, emphasizing the shadow role of Chemezov, and establishing the strategic tasks for the new Government in Mishustin’s absence. This is a very clear signal to the insiders within the Government system: Putin has singled out Manturov as a key figure in the new cabinet, with powers nearly equal to those of PM Mishustin, and demonstrated that Manturov has the backing of Chemezov, the most powerful oligarch directly benefiting from the war.

It is important to highlight the role of Chemezov’s Rostec as a driving force behind Putin’s war against Ukraine. Rostec is unquestionably the main beneficiary of the surge in military spending. Procurement of weapons and ammunition is the largest part, about two thirds of the total Russian military budget. Naturally, Rostec’s revenues have skyrocketed because of the war. In 2023, company’s total revenue surged to nearly RUR 3 trillion, up 50% from the pre-war level of 2021. Rostec was Russia’s sixth largest company by revenue in 2023, behind only Rosneft, Gazprom, Lukoil, Sberbank and X5 Retail Group.

Only about a third of Rostec’s revenue comes from sales of civilian products. This means that military-related revenue (RUR 1,9 trillion) makes up about 30% of the total Russian military spending in 2023 (RUR 6,4 trillion). This share is likely set to increase in 2024-2025. That’s how big a beneficiary of the war Chemezov is.

Most likely, Chemezov advised Putin to promote his protégée Manturov to a higher position with broader lobbyist powers and less oversight to consolidate Rostec’s monopoly in securing lucrative long-term military contracts from the government. In his previous position, Manturov was under a greater oversight from First Deputy PM Belousov, who has been appointed the  new war Minister. Moving forward, there will be no oversight except from the PM Mishustin, who has been given a clear signal not to interfere through recent meeting between Putin, Chemezov and Manturov in Mishustin’s absence.

To understand the full scale of Chemezov’s lobbyist powers, one should only recall that another Chemezov’s protégée and former advisor to the CEO of Rostec Vladimir Gutenyov is now chairing the State Duma Committee on Industry and Trade. In that position, he is responsible for  approving all appropriations for military industries. The new Minister of Industry and Trade, former Kaliningrad governor Anton Alikhanov, is also a former subordinate of Manturov in the same Ministry and is also widely considered to be part of Chemezov’s entourage.

Another important change in the cabinet is the promotion of Dmitry Patrushev, son of powerful ex-Secretary of the National Security Council Nikolay Patrushev and now ex-Minister of Agriculture, to the position of Deputy PM. The former Deputy PM who supervised agriculture, Mishustin’s protégée Victoria Abramchenko, has been sacked; and the new agricultural Minister is Oksana Lut, Dmitry Patrushev’s longtime deputy at the Ministry of Agriculture and, earlier, Rosselkhozbank, Russia’s main state agricultural bank. Dmitry Patrushev’s scheme looks exactly like Manturov’s: he got rid of the oversight, and consolidated control over agricultural policies.

Generally, the newly-appointed cabinet looks much more controlled by oligarchic powers of Putin’s cronies than the previous version of Mishustin’s Government.

Why is the story line about Chemezov’s and Manturov’s influence in the new Cabinet so important? Because about two-thirds of the Russian military budget, between 65-70%,  is spent not on the army itself, but on procurement of weapons and ammunition. The Ministry of Defense is merely an intermediary between the state budget and military industries. Of course, it has certain influence, but a lot is defined by lobbying powers of top military producers, primarily Chemezov, who arguably has significantly bigger influence on Putin than the Ministry of Defense. It may be no coincidence that Defense Minister Shoygu’s downfall comes after he began publicly scolding Rostec-controlled military enterprises for failing to deliver the required weapons on time, such as in the case of Uraltransmash factory. Conflict with powerful military producers also defined the downfall of Shoygu’s predecessor, Anatoly Serdyukov, back in 2012.

The incoming Defense Minister Andrey Belousov has limited room for maneuver in his new post. He hardly controls over 90% of his budget, out of which up to 70% goes directly to the military industry, and another 20% or so are military salaries, which are effectively non-negotiable. There are large sums shuffled through corruption and lost to inefficiency on the side of supplies for the military. Arguably, these issues was the reason why Shoygu’s powerful deputy Timur Ivanov was arrested in April. Nevertheless, this part of the Ministry’s budget is within single-digit percentage points of the overall military budget.

Therefore, the assumptions that Andrey Belousov was appointed to the Defense Minister position to “put everything in order” and “fight corruption” confront the reality of severe and visible strengthening of Chemezov, who will be the major recipient of budgets administered by Belousov.

Belousov may certainly try to focus on fixing the Russian military’s broken and corrupt supply system, and maybe that will be his key task. However, in terms of scale, Chemezov now clearly has the position of a more important player.

It is reasonable to expect a growing conflict between Belousov and Chemezov, similar to those that characterized all previous military Ministers. This is due to the reality that non-transparent, monopolized and corrupt Russian military industries have enormous problems with timely delivery of high quality products in necessary numbers under reasonable prices. As the Russian military production reaches its peak capacity utilization, and serious expansion is required even to maintain the current pace of military operations,  not to mention intensified combat operations , tensions between Belousov and Chemezov will inevitably mount.

Another challenge facing Belousov is the fact that he is a complete outsider for the military. He is a laboratory academic who has likely never even held a gun (definitely never served in the military even as a conscript). It will be very hard for him to establish the proper authority with the top military commanders. That most likely means further sidelining of the Ministry as opposed to strengthened role of the General Staff chaired by Valery Gerasimov, whom Putin kept in his position, unlike Shoygu.

It is important to note that there are signs that Putin enjoys significant personal rapport and shared geopolitical views with Gerasimov. In 1981, Gerasimov commanded the Borne Sulinowo military base in Northwestern Poland, where the Soviet government deployed hundreds of tanks for an invasion of Poland to calm down popular protests. The invasion never happened because the Polish puppet Communist government introduced martial law. Nevertheless, Gerasimov was clearly involved in preparing the invasion. In 1994, he presided over the Russian troop withdrawal from the Baltic States. Gerasimov most likely nurses the same  post-Cold War geopolitical trauma and hate for the West and for Europe as Putin himself.

It is difficult to see a viable mission for the new Defense Minister Andrey Belousov. His room for maneuver is significantly restrained by lobbying powers of Sergey Chemezov and Chemezov’s protégée Denis Manturov, the new de-facto “collective shadow PM”. He will have to engage in intense confrontations on many fronts, including with corrupt, inefficient, but highly influential military industries; with the cleanup of Shoygu’s loyalists; with inefficient military generals, who are nonetheless shielded by powerful and Putin-loyal Valery Gerasimov.

At the same time, the clear lack of military experience and authority vis-à-vis the top military commanders are the factors that severely weaken Belousov. If he tries to impose his will onto career military servicemen, he will face backlash and criticism of his lack of military background, just like Anatoly Serdyukov faced in 2000s.

His appointment looks more like a desperate move by Putin, who probably sees the things within the Ministry to be so bad that he decides to gamble by appointing a complete outsider to try to solve the issues. But the “issues” seem to be so fundamental that they simply can’t be solved by one man, especially inexperienced as Belousov . Moreover, the strengthened position of Sergey Chemezov effectively tye Belousov’s hands.

A few words about Sergey Shoygu. Putin considers him a valuable ally, so Shoygu’s dismissal was to be done softly. Shoygu has been exceptionally loyal to Putin throughout all these years, despite having a rare privilege of enjoying a separate high popular approval rating of his own (although gradually vanishing from the public view during the past two years of the war), a rare occurrence for Putin’s bureaucrats. 25 years ago, Shoygu did Putin an important favor, leading the electoral list of the pro-Putin Yedinstvo party and significantly helping install Putin as President. Putin values that; by no means he would treat Shoygu disrespectfully. But then again, Putin must deem the situation in the war Ministry to be so bad, that he had opted to appoint a completely different person to lead it . And indeed, Belousov is everything Shoygu isn’t.

Shoygu’s new appointment is not disgraceful by any means. Moreover, it looks like a promotion, because the position of Secretary of the National Security Council (Sovbez) had evolved into an effective Chief of Putin’s wartime cabinet under Nikolay Patrushev. All key decisions on the war, domestic and foreign policy are being made at the regular gatherings of permanent members of Sovbez, which usually take place on Fridays. Secretary Patrushev was the man who prepared all these decisions all the way to Putin’s desk. Now this role is transferred to Shoygu. Such a move is highly unusual for Putin. Patrushev had chaired the Sovbez secretariat for 16 years, since 2008, and erected a system of bottom-up nationwide governance, relying on the FSB (Federal Security Service) as its main executive arm. All the important Sovbez staff are Patrushev’s protégées.

Shoygu is as distant from FSB and from Patrushev’s clan as he can possibly be. The conflict between these two clans was quite visible during the arrest of Shoygu’s deputy Timur Ivanov by the FSB (Shoygu may even be motivated for revenge in his new powerful position). Moreover, throughout Shoygu’s service as Minister for Emergencies, Governor of Moscow oblast and Defense Minister, he has always created an environment of corruption, cronyism and inefficiency. This stands in stark opposition to Patrushev’s high discipline within the Sovbez-FSB vertical. This is not to say that Patrushev is not corrupt, but his team was clearly much more focused and less disorderly than Shoygu’s.

Putin has thereby moved toward ruining his effective wartime cabinet by appointing his old and loyal but less-than-competent friend to chair it.

Things will become much clearer when we find out the next appointment of Nikolay Patrushev. That is the main mystery of the day wrapped in an enigma. He’s certainly not retiring.  However,  all the really powerful posts around Putin have already been distributed. If Patrushev is to retain his influence, Putin has to create some new body of power comparable to Sovbez. But if this happens, it will inevitably lead to more duplication of functions and more rivalries. It all looks a bit weird.

Even if Putin has some sort of a genial strategic plan with all of this reshuffling, it is easy to see that this plan faces strong headwinds. The strengthening of defense industry lobbyists in the new Cabinet will not at all help to fight corruption and deliver more competitive weapons systems. Having Belousov in the MoD, Shoygu at Sovbez, Patrushev trying to regain old powers in some new chair will inevitably be messy, and divert resources from strategic priorities toward personal rivalries.

Few of these characters can be called effective managers – Shoygu in the first place, but Belousov’s “successes” in development of a new state-run import-substituting economy, after all these long years, are mediocre at best. In his recent speech, Belousov admitted that the notorious import substitution will provide only 1% of GDP growth by 2030 the earliest (if ever). At the same time, Putin lacks financial resources for significant further expansion of state interventionist policies and military spending (the issue of scarcity of resources is discussed in more detail here). What is Putin up to, after all? A sober look at all these realities suggests one possible explanation: he’s becoming desperate about the strategic limbo in which he finds himself. There is no clear way forward; there are serious problems in the army and military industries; dwindling resources. So Putin opts for desperate moves to create a shakeup in hopes that maybe, just maybe, this will create some new momentum. Given the headwinds and the lack of fresh energetic figures among new appointees, that is highly unlikely. We will continue to monitor the situation – but, after all, the more mess in Putin’s government – the better for Ukraine and the whole free world.

Under what circumstances could the collapse of Putin’s regime occur, what will replace it, and under what conditions is a turn to democracy possible?

The first scenario is a popular uprising: people take to the streets, clashes with the police begin, the police fail, power is seized and the current elites are displaced. As of spring 2024, the probability of such a scenario is very low. Most of the near-liberal opposition organizations are currently banned in the Russian Federation, and their leaders have been pushed into the opposition. If there is an uprising in Russia, it is more likely to take place under radical left-wing or far-right slogans, similar to the rebellion of Yevgeniy Prigozhin in June 2023. It is very likely that the weakening of the central government as a result of such an uprising will lead to the strengthening and coming to the fore of regional elites and leaders, who, similar to the 1990s, will seek autarchy. If there is no convincing leader and force in the capital capable of uniting the country on new grounds, the strengthening of separatism is inevitable, at least in a significant part of the Russian regions.

The second scenario is a coup d’état or the sudden death of a dictator as a result of poorly verifiable causes. The impetus for such a coup could be the growing yearning in the elites for “Putinism without Putin”. Today’s Russia is undergoing forced demodernization, which is manifested in the systematic and cynical violation of law, the constant fomentation of the darkest ideas in the public space, and the decline of the urban educated class. This demoralizes a significant part of the elites, not to mention frustrating the relatively small educated stratum of society. The feeling of discomfort and threats to the established order create preconditions for a “reverse rebound” — a desire to develop in a different way. This scenario assumes gradual liberalization by analogy with the transition to “collective leadership” in the 1950s, the condemnation of the “cult of personality” and the release of political prisoners.

The third scenario can be described as a “baobab effect” — Putin’s outwardly stable system collapses under its own weight, as it is corroded inside by corruption and the moral decay of civil servants.

Can the scenarios be combined with each other, and what is needed so that a turn towards democratization can be realized in each of them? We continue to publish chapters of The Transition Project, a step-by-step expert guide to democratic transformations in Russia after the change of power.

Washington, D.C. – Vladimir Kara-Murza, a distinguished Russian journalist and prominent opposition leader currently imprisoned in Russia, has been honored with the 2024 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his columns in The Washington Post. For decades, Vladimir Kara-Murza has been a steadfast advocate for Russia’s people, championing democratic reforms and transparency through measures like the Magnitsky Act.

Commenting on her husband’s Pulitzer Prize, Evgenia Kara-Murza, Advocacy Director for Free Russia Foundation, stated, “I will venture to say that Vladimir would dedicate this Prize to all the awe-inspiringly courageous journalists who continue their work spreading truthful information in Putin’s totalitarian Russia despite the risks to their freedom and often their lives.”

Kara-Murza’s is serving a 25-year sentence reminiscent of the Stalin era on absurd charges of “high treason,” among other politically motivated charges. His health is in jeopardy; he suffers from polyneuropathy, a severe nerve disorder affecting his limbs, which developed after surviving two poisoning attacks in 2015 and 2017. These attacks have left him with lasting health issues that require continuous medication and exercise to manage, none of which he is allowed in prison.

Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation, where Vladimir Kara-Murza served as Vice President from 2019-2021, said: “We are immensely proud of Vladimir Kara-Murza for being awarded the Pulitzer Prize, a testament to his courage and unwavering commitment to truth. This honor not only highlights his contributions but also reinforces the urgency for the U.S. administration to designate him as ‘wrongfully detained.’ His unwavering commitment, even in the face of severe personal risk, envisions a future where Russia acknowledges its past wrongs and embarks on a transformative path towards genuine democracy​.” David J. Kramer, chair of the Free Russia Foundation board, added, “This important recognition of Vladimir’s courage and commitment to a democratic Russia should reinforce the urgency on the part of the international community to secure his release from the appalling conditions under which he is wrongfully imprisoned. That goal should apply to all those unjustly detained in Russia.”

Western countries will treat future changes much more pragmatically than they did during Perestroika, and the terms of reconciliation will be tougher and more specific. What might be the role of international organizations after the change of power in Russia?

The most odious component of Putin’s regime is its treatment of political opponents. External diplomatic pressure on the transitional government should concern the release of political prisoners and their rehabilitation and the removal of illegal restrictions on political participation on the grounds of “foreign agency,” dual citizenship, etc., which are the basis of the regime’s political system.

UN agencies, including peacekeeping forces, can and should play an important role in the post-war settlement and reconstruction of Ukraine. Perhaps it is the UN that can offer a non-humiliating option for Russia to financially compensate the affected neighbor through UN agency funds.

If progress is made in reconciliation between Russia and Ukraine, there will be a window of opportunity to discuss the territorial conflicts in Georgia and Moldova. This prospect is very important for European diplomacy, but it should be seriously prepared for, including by establishing ties with the leaders of the separatist regimes and discussing options for a possible diplomatic solution under the auspices of the OSCE and/or the UN.

The task of foreign policy agencies and various institutions of the United States, the EU and other allies in the post-Putin period is to help Russia overcome or at least balance China’s attraction and move beyond the “bad marriage.” A transitional Russia could prove to be a convenient partner for the preparation and implementation of UN reform, which is long overdue. Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, holds the keys to solutions that could be acceptable to both China and Western partners.

Allergy to the activities of foreign human rights organizations, democracy support foundations and foreign media will remain for some time. But this does not mean that their participation in the life of postwar Russia is not required.

We continue to publish chapters of The Transition Project, a step-by-step expert guide to democratic transformations in Russia after the change of power.

The centralized rule of the siloviki and the revival of an aggressive imperialist state under Putin would have been impossible without the prior consolidation of economic forces. Economic reforms will be an important component of the decentralization of power in Russia.

Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 the old model of business as usual (where Russia became increasingly authoritarian but continued to trade with the West and gain access to Western technology, services, commodity and capital markets) is no longer possible. Putin’s pivot to Asia works only to a limited extent: China and India are interested in Russia mainly as a supplier of cheap material resources and a buyer of consumer goods, but not as a potential global competitor in manufacturing. Asian countries are unable and/or unwilling to act as a donor of capital, skills and technology to Russia, as the West has been since the 1990s. Trade with Asia is also less profitable because of rising logistics costs: most of Russia’s economic activity is concentrated in the European part of the country, so that there is lower economic gravity and rationale for trade.

Normalization of relations with the West remains the only option for returning Russia to normal economic development. In the event of Putin’s departure, Russian society and the Russian elite are likely to demand normalization of relations with the democratic world, which could be used to influence fundamental shifts in Russian politics and the very foundations of the Russian state that require democratization, institutional checks and balances, payment of war reparations to Ukraine, and prosecution of war criminals.

It is quite possible that Putin’s immediate successors will have no interest in either democratization or negotiations with Ukraine and the West. Unlike Germany in 1945, Russia, being a nuclear power, is unlikely to be occupied. But any post-Putin government will have to reckon with very strong economic leverage in the hands of the West and will be interested in the support of its citizens. The easiest way to get that support is to shift the blame for all previous problems onto Putin and offer Russians a program of economic development. In turn, the most obvious first step of any economic development plan is the lifting of sanctions.

We continue to publish chapters of The Transition Project, a step-by-step expert guide to democratic transformations in Russia after the change of power.

To avoid a return to another version of Putin’s model of the state, the post-Putin model must create and maintain a state that is both strong and limited, not only by institutions, but also by active public participation.

Historical experience shows that key elements of society — the elite, the population, business and the regions — were unable to effectively coordinate their actions to prevent the degradation of the political system and strengthen Putin’s personalistic regime, and then his open external aggression. Therefore, with new reforms, it is necessary to introduce institutions, or rules of the game, allowing different political and social actors to coordinate their actions against new attempts to concentrate power.

The Constitution and laws, despite their importance, do not serve as automatic constraints. A complex and expensive system of numerous guarantees and restrictions is needed. Yes, it includes the institutions of federalism and decentralization, the expansion of the powers of parliament and representative bodies in the regions. But these are also competitive elections at all levels, political parties, the independence of the judicial system, as well as incentives that make politicians dependent on the regions and the business community, and not on the oligarchs, and motivate them to work in the regions and with business.

Putin’s model of the state is a simple hierarchical model, a model of the vertical of power. A strong but institution-limited state that needs to be built is a complex model. Such a state must not only be built, but also configured. Moreover, we are not talking about a one-time, but about a permanent adjustment that elites and society should be engaged in.

We continue to publish chapters of The Transition Project, a step-by-step expert guide to democratic transformations in Russia after the change of power.

Policy papers by Neil Barnett and Vladimir Milov

While Russia’s full scale invasion has failed to produce anything like a Russian victory over Ukraine, Ukraine itself is struggling to liberate the occupied territories and may face serious setbacks in the near future. Meanwhile, Putin has managed to change Russia’s economy and society to a remarkable extent. But what does this really mean for Russia’s political and military strength? How far can Putin go in militarizing Russia? What are the weaknesses of his approach?

When, sooner or later, events occur that could restart the process of democratic transit in Russia, potential future reformers will inevitably be faced with the question “where to start?” and one can only hope that it will be accompanied by the question “how to avoid making new mistakes?”.

Putin’s death or any other “exclusion” does not mean that the new Kremlin authorities will decide the morning after to repeal all his laws, release political prisoners, welcome back those in exile, and call free elections. On the contrary, it is much more likely that immediately after Putin’s “expulsion,” the regime will need a forceful reinforcement and tightening of domestic politics, since Putin’s successor needs — even with the best future intentions — to first consolidate his own power and ensure its retention and stability. We proceed from the assumption that Putin’s “sudden” successor will not be interested in continuing the war in Ukraine — but we do not rule out the possibility that the continuation of the war is the only tool to achieve consensus in the ruling elite. Also, the current economic situation in Russia is not acutely crisis-ridden, but the possibility of a sharp escalation of socio-economic tensions cannot be ruled out, which will certainly affect the available policy options.

The long “fall of the patriarch”, continuing as another presidential term of Vladimir Putin (who will turn 78 at the end of this period, exactly as Stalin did in 1953), will no doubt complicate any attempt to return the Russian Federation as a whole to the path of democratic transit.

Therefore, while in the rapid (within a year) change of power option it makes sense to talk about the sequence of actions within the framework of a unified Russian state, in which, among other things, it is necessary to restore normal federal relations, in the second case the central issue becomes the problem of moderating the disintegrating imperial state.

What will be the sequence of steps in both cases, and what are the universal stages of any transit? We continue to publish chapters of The Transition Project, a step-by-step expert guide to democratic transformations in Russia after the change of power.

Russia’s position on the world map is such that it cannot but play a key role in international politics. It is all the worse for it that this role in recent years has been exclusively negative and harmful to the existing world order. 

The liberal or idealistic thesis of this chapter is as follows: despite the current crisis, Russia has a chance to survive as a significant subject of international relations in the 21st century only if it builds a stable democracy at home, because this will make the foreign policy course of our country predictable, peaceful and relevant to the norms, rules and institutions of the liberal international order. Otherwise, Russia will face long decades of isolation from the developed world and almost inevitable disintegration into states of different levels of insolvency and backwardness at war against all.

Foreign policy issues in Russia have traditionally remained the business of a narrow circle of high-ranking diplomats and military officers. Professionals know better how to rearrange the pieces on the great chessboard. Before the First World War, this was also the case in democratic countries: political parties did not debate international relations, leaving it to their notional MGIMO graduates to decide. However, when these “professionals” brought about a monstrous war that took millions of lives across Europe, politicians and public figures in Britain and the United States of necessity became concerned about international relations and made them the subject of their active involvement. People with war-scarred faces discovered a new field of knowledge. International relations became the subject of independent academic research and public political debate.

In Russia, this practice has not yet taken root; graduates of MGIMO and intelligence schools still retain a monopoly on “professionalism” in international relations. One of the tasks of genuine democratization of our country is to make foreign policy a subject of public debate and put it at the service of citizens, not a privileged group of bureaucrats and powerbrokers. This text represents the first attempt to talk about Russian foreign policy from the perspective of civil society and humanitarian knowledge rather than state interest.

We continue to publish chapters of The Transition Project, a step-by-step expert guide to democratic transformations in Russia after the change of power.

Washington, D.C. April 12, 2024 — In a joint effort, Free Russia Foundation (FRF), Human Rights Foundation (HRF), McCain Institute, and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights (RWCHR) are intensifying calls for the designation of an esteemed Russian pro-democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza.

The four prominent human rights organizations submitted a comprehensive 26-page petition to the U.S. Department of State, invoking the 2020 Robert Levinson Act. This request urges the designation of Mr. Kara-Murza as wrongfully detained and advocates for the transfer of his case to the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

In a joint statement, representatives from FRF, HRF, McCain Institute, and RWCHR emphasized Kara-Murza’s status as a U.S. Permanent Resident, which falls under the protection of the 2020 Robert Levinson Act.

“His detention meets all 11 factors enumerated in the Act: Kara-Murza is innocent, is detained for exercising his freedom of assembly, is detained in a country without an independent and impartial judicial system, and is being detained in inhumane conditions, to mention a few. And most importantly, U.S. diplomatic engagement is necessary to secure his release,”  Irwin Cotler, Venla Stang, Natalia Arno, Pedro Pizano, Brandon Silver, Mutasim Ali, and Polina Sidelnikova of the petitioner organizations asserted in a joint statement summarizing their legal analysis.

Amidst escalating repression and in the wake of Alexei Navalny’s tragic murder, Vladimir Kara-Murza stands as the Kremlin’s foremost target in its relentless assault on dissent. Vladimir’s plight epitomizes the chilling reality faced by hundreds of political prisoners and thousands of those facing direct repressions in Russia today.

As the Russian regime intensifies its crackdown on dissent, and with Vladimir Kara-Murza’s health in a perilous state, FRF, HRF, McCain Institute, and RWCHR implore the U.S. State Department to swiftly invoke the Levinson Act in his case and pursue all available avenues to secure his release and safe return.

For the full petition submitted to the U.S. Department of State under the 2020 Robert Levinson Act, please follow this link: https://www.mccaininstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/04/VKM-Statement-of-Facts-and-Levinson-Analysis.pdf

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian pro-democracy activist, historian, journalist, and television host, remains a prominent figure under Putin’s oppressive regime, recognized globally as both a political prisoner and a prisoner of conscience. As a close associate of the late Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Mr. Kara-Murza played an essential role in the advocacy leading to the enactment of the Magnitsky legislation. This landmark legislation imposed targeted sanctions on Russian human rights violators across various countries. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) hailed Mr. Kara-Murza as “one of the most passionate and effective advocates for the passage of the Magnitsky Act,” while Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) lauded him as “a courageous advocate for the democratic process and fundamental universal human rights.”

Mr. Kara-Murza has faced life-threatening situations on two occasions. He survived assassination attempts in 2015 and 2017, both through poisoning with state-controlled chemical warfare agents, which left him in critical condition. Despite these perilous circumstances, Mr. Kara-Murza persisted in his pursuit of liberty. His exceptional contributions to the cause of human rights and democracy have been recognized through numerous prestigious awards, including the Sakharov Prize for Journalism as an Act of Conscience, the Magnitsky Human Rights Award, and the Geneva Summit Courage Award.

Mr. Kara-Murza has been unjustly incarcerated in Russia since April 2022, facing a barrage of trumped-up charges. Initially accused of disseminating false information about the Russian military, he was subsequently charged with participating in activities deemed “undesirable” by the state and ultimately accused of high treason for daring to criticize the Russian authorities on the international stage, 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.

Following a sham trial, on April 17, 2023, Mr. Kara-Murza was sentenced to an egregious 25 years in prison by the Moscow City Court. This is the maximum possible sentence for the charges and the longest sentence imposed on an opposition figure in recent years.

On June 13, 2023, the Senate of Canada bestowed honorary Canadian citizenship upon Vladimir Kara-Murza, placing him in esteemed company alongside human rights icons like Raoul Wallenberg and Nelson Mandela. Presently confined to solitary confinement in Siberia’s IK-7 penal colony, Mr. Kara-Murza’s health is deteriorating rapidly. Denied access to necessary medical care for his polyneuropathy, a condition stemming from the earlier poisoning attempts by the Kremlin, experts fear for his survival under the current conditions.

We see that Russia has slid towards authoritarianism. Does this mean that the democratic experiment of the 1990s was an absolute failure?

Despite very difficult conditions (centralized Soviet economy, consistently low oil prices), Russia managed to complete the decade of reforms with economic growth. The transition to a market economy happened: according to the EBRD, the private sector’s share of Russian GDP reached 70% by the end of the 1990s.

In the 1990s, Russia succeeded in creating a space of freedom and a prototype of democratic institutions that would have a huge impact on its future development. Parliamentary elections in December 1999 were recognized by the international community as free and fair and resulted in a highly competitive parliament of 9 factions, which was able to pass key reform packages that ensured economic growth in the 2000s. Until 2005, Russia was ranked “partly free” in Freedom House’s index of democracies. The experience of more than a decade of political pluralism, freedom of the press, assembly, religion, and political competition will have a profound impact on the thinking of generations to come. The political resistance of the last decade, the mass protests of 2012-2021, the emergence of popular political leaders and intellectuals (Alexei Navalny, Yevgeny Roizman, Ilya Yashin, etc.) are the result of the 1990s.

Russians were never happy about corruption or weakness of the law, they were against the war in Chechnya – Boris Nemtsov, then governor of Nizhny Novgorod, collected a million signatures against the war in 10 days and brought the folders to the Kremlin. Unfortunately, no real mechanisms of public influence on the situation in the country were formed. This allowed Vladimir Putin to gradually seize power, imitating democratic institutions along the way. The “Great Awakening” began only in 2011 with the protests on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue, but it was too late, the nascent democratic institutions had been dismantled.

What went wrong, could it have been worse, and what lessons can we learn from the reforms of the 1990s? We continue to publish chapters of The Transition Project, a step-by-step expert guide to democratic transformations in Russia after the change of power.

In Russia, the government does whatever it wants. No restrictions, even the law is used to legitimize lawlessness and became a tool in the hands of the criminal authorities, directed against citizens.

Vladimir Putin’s love of laws drawn up according to his preferences should not be confused with true love of law: the president and his obedient lawmakers constantly ignore and violate fundamental legal principles.

How to ensure the rule of law in Russia?

We need to create conditions under which courts and judges can be truly independent. This independence is proclaimed even in the Stalin’s Constitution, it is also in the current Basic Law, but in conditions of totalitarianism it is impossible to implement it.

We also need to correct the shortcomings of the current Constitution of Russian Federation (both the initial ones — for example, the granting of excessive powers to the president, — and those that appeared later in the form of constitutional amendments).

We need to repeal dozens of legislative provisions adopted under Putin as completely incompatible with the goal of establishing the rule of law in Russia. And that’s not all.

How can we ensure the sustainable rule of law and limit arbitrary power? We continue to publish chapters of The Transition Project, a step-by-step expert guide to democratic transformations in Russia after the change of power.

Article 29 of Russian Constitution says: “Everyone is guaranteed freedom of thought and speech.” Article 31 states: “Russian citizens have the right to assemble peacefully without weapons.” We see what happens for the realization of these rights in today’s Russia. It should not be like this, and it will not be like this.

Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has emerged as one of the world’s foremost violators of human rights. Russia’s war in Ukraine has introduced a fresh wave of human rights abuses, such as mass repression of dissenters, violations of citizens’ rights during military conscription, enrollment of convicts in private military companies, extrajudicial executions, and detention in illegal prisons of those who refuse to participate in the war.

Political rights and civil liberties were bestowed upon society “from above.” However, paradoxically, the more these rights are violated, the greater their value becomes. For instance, over the past five years, the number of supporters of fair trial and freedom of speech has doubled. Russian civil society harbors significant potential for activism, particularly in addressing social issues.

What can be done to restore rights and freedoms? We continue to publish chapters of The Transition Project, a step-by-step expert guide to democratic transformation in Russia after the change of power, commissioned by Free Russia Foundation. The preceding chapters are available here and here.

We may not have direct insight into the thoughts and intentions of Russian elites. However, we can speculate on the areas they need to consider for embracing change.

Prior to the war, only about half of the Russian ruling class seemed morally prepared to endorse it. While some elites may be benefiting from the war, its prolonged continuation could prove costly for them. They are confronted with a pivotal decision: persist in the downward trajectory of simplification and archaization at the expense of their status and possibly their lives — or take action to eradicate the root of this threat. 

The dilemma lies in the elites’ inability to envision a clear exit strategy or an alternative vision for the future. Consequently, they continue to prioritize loyalty to the regime.

Breaking this impasse requires forging a consensus between the intellectually inclined segments of society and the reasonable factions within the elites. The future vision must be straightforward and comprehensible to all stakeholders. However, it shouldn’t entail the dismantling of existing norms, rules, and institutions. Otherwise, rather than sustainable democratization, it risks plunging into chaos and perpetuating cycles of tyranny. 

Free Russia Foundation presents the Transition Project, a comprehensive expert guide to democratic transformation in Russia following a change of power.

This initiative exemplifies a pioneering example of cooperation among scientists, politicians, lawyers, civil society members, and residents of Reforum Spaces resource centers, all working together to devise a unified reform strategy. We are pleased to have engaged specialists from diverse fields and countries, partnering with some of the world’s leading scientific institutions.

Throughout a year of joint effort, we’ve attained a detailed, practical response to the question of what must be done for Russia to evolve into a modern democratic state. This encompasses the establishment of relations between governmental branches, coordination between the central authority and regional entities, and fostering unity among the various peoples inhabiting the nation. The work of our authors is already becoming integral to the agenda of Russian civil society and Western policymakers.

The publication comprises 12 chapters addressing all facets of reforms, ranging from the unsuccessful transition of the 1990s and a sociological survey of Russian society to changes in the economy, freedom of speech, and local self-government. Additionally, a team of lawyers has drafted legislative acts that complement the experts’ analyses.

The complete version of the Transition Project will be available on Free Russia Foundation website by the end of May 2024.

The organizers of the impending transformations will face a significantly easier task compared to their predecessors in the 90s. 

First of all, public consciousness has already been influenced by the “democratic virus”: Russians have embraced the ideals of democracy and the rule of law, eliminating the need to enforce unfamiliar and alien values. Secondly, the magnitude of the upcoming transformations is incomparable. In the 1990s, the transition wasn’t just from authoritarianism to democracy; it also involved a shift from socialism to capitalism. We don’t anticipate unpopular measures like mass privatization this time around.

The primary challenge that transit will face is the redistribution of power between the central government and the regions, compounded by issues of ethnic and national relations. This is precisely where reformers in the Soviet era once slipped on.

We proceed with presenting the chapters of the Transition Project, an expert guide to the step-by-step democratic transformation in Russia following a change of power, commissioned by Free Russia Foundation. The preceding chapter, focusing on methods to involve elites and society for change, is available here.

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In 2023, the EU was the largest buyer of Russia’s pipeline gas, purchasing 36% of its exports, followed by Turkey (31%) and China (28%). No sanctions have been imposed on Russian pipeline gas flowing into the EU.

In 2021, Russian gas supplied to Europe via pipeline amounted to 155 bcm (5.5 Tcf), according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA). In 2022, it fell to 62 bcm (2.2 Tcf) and in 2023— to 28 bcm (0.99 Tcf). Further decline is expected for 2024-2025.

In the spring of 2022, the EU announced a program aimed at termination of pipeline gas imports from Russia by 2027 (the REPowerEU plan). Some EU members have stopped Russian gas imports (with the help of Putin who ordered Gazprom to phase out the supply flows), but a few European countries remain very dependent on Russian gas supply despite the looming 2027 deadline.

Status of Gazprom’s long-term contracts in Europe, bcma

Source: OIES

The countries that evidently require further encouragement to switch from Russian piped gas to alternative supplies are Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia.

The European imports of LNG of Russian origin has been neither banned nor restricted. The EU is considering such a measure, but it is divided on how to do it. The largest Russian LNG importers —Belgium, France, and Spain—argue that their long-term contracts with suppliers of Russia-sources LNG cannot be severed painlessly. The current plan would give each EU member state the option to keep importing Russian LNG or block it, depending on individual circumstances.

An important aspect is the ownership of this LNG: most of the deliveries belong to producers and traders who do not pay any royalties and taxes to the Russian budget because of a “special tax regime”, which makes major Arctic LNG projects in Russia exempt from taxes for twelve years. Apart from Russia’s Novatek and Gazprom, “Russian” LNG suppliers are France’s TotalEnergies or China’s CNPC and Silk Way Fund. The militarized state budget of Russia gets next to nothing from such sales.

Until the Arctic LNG 2 project begins deliveries, the EU receives LNG from the following projects (mln t, Kpler data for 2023):

  • Yamal LNG (international consortium)     22.17
  • Portovaya (Gazprom-controlled)       1.17
  • Vysotsk (Novatek-controlled)       0.99

The European terminals that received this LNG volume are as follows (mln t):

  • Zeebrugge, Belgium   7.77
  • Montoir-de-Bretagne, France 4.97
  • Bilbao, Spain                          2.78
  • Mugardos, Spain                     1.96
  • Dunkerque, France                  1.19
  • Gate, The Netherlands 1.00
  • Aliaga, Turkey                        0.59
  • Revithoussa, Greece   0.58
  • Cartagena, Spain                     0.19
  • Tornio Manga, Finland            0.14
  • Dortyol, Turkey                      0.10

About 20% of the total volume of Russian LNG does not end in the EU but is transshipped at the European terminals for deliveries elsewhere. In 2015, Belgian natural gas transmission system operator Fluxys signed a 20-year contract with Yamal LNG for the transshipment of as much as 8 mtpa (about 11 bcma) of Yamal LNG, with the first loading taking place in 2019. In December 2019, Zeebrugge LNG commissioned its fifth storage tank to support year-round LNG deliveries from Yamal, mainly for shipment to Asian markets. Besides Zeebrugge, the Montoir-de-Bretagne terminal is also transshipping Yamal LNG via the ship-to-ship process. In June 2015, French energy company Engie and Yamal LNG’s majority owner, Novatek, announced they had concluded a sales and purchase agreement for Engie to receive 1 million tons of LNG from Yamal at Montoir annually for 23 years as of 2018. The contract was inherited by TotalEnergies in 2018.

Objectively speaking, the evolving US sanctions regime has had a significant impact on the Russian oil and gas industry.

Russia’s energy sector has been targeted by several types of sanctions. They have restricted access to advanced technologies and equipment; restricted access to capital borrowing; and introduced bans on participation in Russian upstream oil projects on the continental shelf.

The most conspicuous examples of the impact of those sanctions include the cancelation of a joint project between ExxonMobil and Rosneft, worth over $4.5 billion, to explore offshore reserves in the Kara Sea and Black Sea[1]; and the development of the South Kirinskoye oil and gas project off Sakhalin Island which was stymied due to lack of access to subsea technologies, which cannot be provided because the field contains huge reserves of oil in addition to natural gas, and offshore oil is subject to sanctions[2]. The Kara Sea venture was stopped due to the 2014 sanctions. A single wildcat well was drilled but had to be plugged and abandoned without testing[3].

The February 2024 sanctions, however, according to author’s insider sources in Russian oil and gas companies, are not going to make a big difference. They appear to be a moderate amendment rather than a dramatic enhancement of the international sanctions’ regime.

Fighting the oil smugglers. Beginning with December 2022 and throughout 2023, the price cap on Russian crude oil and refined products delivered by sea had clear effects, despite the frantic circumvention efforts by Russian operators. As a direct result of the cap, total oil and gas revenues in Russia’s federal budget fell from $166 billion in 2022 to $103 billion in 2023[4]. The Kremlin has failed to offset this loss despite having forced Gazprom and major oil companies to pay an ‘extra’ levy over the regular mineral extraction tax (the Russian name for royalty).

The basic idea of the price cap is to keep Russian oil flowing to the global market in order to prevent a shortage of supply, and simultaneously decrease the influx of oil revenues to the Russian budget, thusly reducing resources to fund the aggression in Ukraine. Therefore, there is a natural limit to the effectiveness of such sanctions against Russia’s oil industry.

Faced with the price cap, the Russians adopted a multi-faceted strategy. To begin with, the exporters enhanced their habitual method of tax evasion by selling oil through intermediaries—often the companies’ wholly-owned subsidiaries registered abroad[5]. Lukoil was selling crude to its trading arm Litasco, for example. The taxes on exported oil were charged on the first selling price, and the exporters collected a premium from reselling it with a premium through a chain of proxies[6]. When a consignment of crude reached, say, India, an Indian refinery paid about $70 per barrel even though the first buyer had paid just $57.

The enforcers of the sanctions were powerless to fight such schemes. They could check the loading documents and the documents held by the tanker’s captain, only to find that the papers showed that the price was under the cap, and the insurance documents were also in perfect order.

Moreover, enforcing the sanctions on intermediaries made no sense as the idea of the price cap was to trim down the taxes the exporters paid to the Russian federal budget rather than the additional profit reaped by the intermediaries. Punishing intermediary traders and targeting such proxies as “shadow tankers” and their owners have no impact on the size of the revenues to the budget. The bulk of that unsanctioned profit does not return to Russia but remains in the intermediaries’ bank accounts someplace in Hong Kong, Singapore, or the UAE.

Russian analysts associated either with the government or with major companies occasionally claim in their media interviews that the hoarded sums are either repatriated or used to finance smuggled war materials. The author’s contacts in foreign offices of Russian exporters insist that only a very small portion of the hoards is used in the interests of the government. The hoarded money is usually appropriated by Russian companies and high-level corrupt officials in the presidential administration and the government.

It is true, however, that the Russian government has taken some steps to increase the size of the tax it collects from the exported crude oil and refined products. Instead of taxing the first selling price, it has introduced a virtual price marker: the price of Dated Brent is used as a base and then a discount is counted in to make the officially accepted export price. The size of this discount is adjusted monthly. In 2023, this trick helped the government to increase the oil revenues to the federal budget by about $10 billion.

The February 2024 series of OFAC sanctions target a relatively small number, fewer than 50, of specific tankers and shipowners that had been caught red-handed with a cargo of Russian oil they were transporting without the documented proof of complying with the price cap.

The scope of this measure, even though the media may depict it as a real fight against the smugglers of overpriced Russian oil, makes these “exemplary” punishments just a drop in the sea. The number of vessels and proxy companies engaged in the intermediary chains is too great to identify, catch, or punish[7]. Estimates of this fleet vary between 400 and over a thousand.

Likewise, the February 2024 sanctions against Sovcomflot, a government-controlled shipping company, are unlikely to effect change. Today, that company is little more than an empty shell: it has transferred most of its tanker fleet to obscure shipping companies in the UAE and elsewhere and had them certified and insured by somewhat dubious firms from India and other countries. From time to time the new owners of Sovcomflot ships are identified by independent researchers and journalists, and included in the sanctioned lists, but the majority of the “shadow” vessels and their formal owners remain unnoticed and unpunished.

Therefore, the sanctions against intermediaries that defy the price cap cannot be recognized as efficient. They do not target the flow of revenues to Russia’s federal budget, and they cannot identify and punish the hundreds of entities involved in these schemes. In the current form, the sanctions can only be an overhyped example of what may happen to the culprits, but they really do not threaten anyone, and are not a real deterrent.

Geologists and shipbuilders. Just as toothless is the February 2024 inclusion of Russian geological and geophysical organizations in the SDN lists: the umbrella firm, Rosgeologia, and some of its subsidiaries.

Rosgeologia, established in July 2011 as a state holding for over 40 small and medium-sized geological and geophysical entities, does not contribute significantly to Russia’s budget revenues. Most of the units do not make any profit, and Rosgeologia itself is in the red. The parent company is, in fact, just an instrument of redistributing state subsidies and contracts to corrupt administrators. It is not clear at all how the sanctions against these entities can help erode Russia’s military potential.

In contrast, the sanctions that prevent Russian and international shipbuilders from supplying ice-resistant and ordinary tankers and other ships to Russia are perfectly effective. They are certain to decrease the number of such vessels at the disposal of Russian operators and undermine the prospects of several major projects[8]. There is, however, a snag. The projects that need those vessels are not expected to yield any revenues to the Russian budget for many years.

One such project is Vostok Oil of Rosneft. The state-run company’s CEO Igor Sechin promised President Vladimir Putin to export 30 million tons of crude oil annually via Arctic waters starting with 2024, but this goal requires offloading at least one average Arctic class tanker daily. In reality, Rosneft does not possess the required tankers and cannot hire them on the global shipping market (there is simply not enough of such vessels anywhere).

Vostok Oil does not need those tankers because Sechin’s public promises of huge production and export flows were not intended to be realized. The whole project is just a tool of misappropriation of hugely exaggerated state-sponsored budgets.

Another potential user of Arctic-class vessels is Novatek, which needs ice-resistant LNG carriers for its ongoing big project, Arctic LNG 2. Without these vessels, the project cannot meet its targets. The first of its three LNG trains was commissioned in December 2023, but cannot start exporting LNG because the company cannot procure the carriers.

Neither project contributes anything to Russia’s federal budget. Rosneft’s fake Vostok Oil is a parasite on the government’s funds with bleak prospects of becoming commercially viable;  and Arctic LNG 2 operates under a special fiscal regime[9] being excused from all taxes for the first twelve years from the start of operations in December 2023.

Attacking such projects with sanctions does not in any way impact the Kremlin’s financial resources to continue its war in Ukraine.

LNG competitors. Russia’s LNG industry is clearly a prominent target of the recent OFAC sanctions. Novatek, which has completed two of the planned three gas liquefaction trains for Arctic LNG 2, faces problems with assembling the third train with assistance of Chinese manufacturers because of the departure of international companies that were supposed to supply sophisticated technologies and equipment. The foreign partners of Novatek in this project—France’s TotalEnergies, China’s CNPC and CNOOC, and Japan’s consortium of Mitsui and JOGMEC— have been forced to stop financing the work and canceled their long-term offtaker contracts.

The sanctions target the planned operations of two LNG reloading hubs of Novatek near Murmansk in the Barents Sea and on the Kamchatka Peninsula. The sanctions will increase transportation costs and seriously complicate the logistics for Arctic LNG 2 and for Novatek’s previous project, Yamal LNG.

Another target is Gazprom’s large-scale LNG project at Ust-Luga on the Baltic coast, even though its prospects have been hazy enough without any sanctioning—the project had not been able to access to LNG technologies.

Therefore, OFAC’s new sanctions against Russian LNG projects fall short of their purpose. The Russian budget does not receive anything from them in the form of taxes (apart from the taxes on Novatek’s profit as a commercial company but not as a partner in the specific LNG projects).

Perhaps they were driven by domestic political motivations—as a nod by the Biden Administration to the US LNG business. Under the pretext of fighting against Russia’s militarized budget, it is in fact creating problems for exports of LNG from Russia to the same markets where American companies are boosting their share of business. This may help ameliorate the fallout from the delay of new LNG projects in the US, benefitting competitors such as Qatar and Australia.  

Possible enhancements of sanctions. Imposing sanctions on the Russian gas is of very limited utility. Putin himself has killed Gazprom’s westward exports without securing an adequate alternative in the east[10]. Putin’s threats to “freeze” Europe have been, in fact, followed by his dramatic cuts of natural gas supply to the EU[11].

Russian oil trade, however, offers powerful levers to the sanction’s authorities:

  1. It is possible to erode Russia’s oil production and export potential which is already beginning to suffer from depletion of commercially feasible reserves and soaring production costs. To achieve this, a constructive cooperation may be necessary between main suppliers of oil to the global market, the United States and Saudi Arabia with its OPEC partners. Both the U.S. and OPEC should use their spare and future production capacities in a concerted manner to stabilize the oil market against the threat of shortages created by Russia’s withdrawal—probably after a period of artificially depressed oil prices.

Not painful for global oil, nevertheless, this scenario requires much better relations with the Arab states than the US maintains today. Building up these relations may be an uphill task, depending on the attitude of the U.S. administration vis-à-vis American upstream developers and the nation’s foreign policy.

  • Russia’s militarized economy is financially vulnerable due to problems with international banking. Banks all over the world would not sacrifice their relations with the US credit organizations for the sake of remaining on the safe side of Putin. Quite a few banks in China, UAE, Turkey, and other countries that maintain petroleum-related ties to Russia are canceling their obligations to traders and account holders. There are, however, plenty of second-tier banks in many countries who will continue to risk and continue servicing the trade deals of Russian clients.

To make such “secondary” sanctions fully efficient, a comprehensive approach is needed, which is hardly possible because of resistance from such players as China. The risks are obvious. Nobody wants a full-scale war in the world’s banking system[12]. Nevertheless, the US has plenty of room to cautiously expand the sanctions on methodically selected foreign banks engaged in Russia’s trade operations.  

  • The ultimate scenario of dealing with the financing of Russia’s war machine would be to recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism and target everyone who maintains economic and political relations with Putin’s regime. The heinous assassination of popular opposition leader Navalny, the emerging signals that Russia is getting ready to expand its military aggression into Moldova, and the unconstitutional plans of Putin to usurp the power for another term as part of sham elections this March give the West every possible reason to do so.

[1] Rosneft and ExxonMobil Advance Strategic Cooperation :: Exxon Mobil Corporation (XOM)

[2] US and EU sanctions take toll on Russian oil and gas exploration (ft.com)

[3] ExxonMobil to terminate Kara Sea well following US intervention | Offshore (offshore-mag.com)

[4] Data of the Russian Ministry pf Finance: Сведения о формировании и использовании дополнительных нефтегазовых доходов федерального бюджета в 2018-2024 годах (minfin.gov.ru)

[5] How Russia dodges oil sanctions on an industrial scale (economist.com)

[6] Russian Oil: New Traders Flourish as Western Firms Exit | Energy Intelligence

[7] All About the Shadow Tanker Fleet That Can Help Russia Sidestep Sanctions – Bloomberg

[8] Lack of Arctic tankers puts Russia’s LNG development dreams on ice | Reuters

[9] https://rg.ru/2020/03/18/prezident-rasshiril-lgoty-dlia-neftegazovyh-proektov-v-arktike-i-na-shelfe.html

[10] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349211182_Russia’s_
Gazprom_A_Case_Study_in_Misused_Interdependence

[11] Putin’s threatens to let Europe ‘freeze’ raising energy rationing risk (cnbc.com)

[12] Secondary Sanctions: A Weapon out of Control? The International Legality of, and European Responses to, US Secondary Sanctions | British Yearbook of International Law | Oxford Academic (oup.com)

President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Biden:

We the undersigned write to express a two-fold request of your administration. As we all mourn the loss of Russian democratic opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who died in Russian custody while unjustly incarcerated on February 16, 2024, we request that you accelerate your efforts to release imprisoned Russian prodemocracy advocate Vladimir Kara-Murza. Kara-Murza is an extremely vulnerable prisoner, and we fear that he may be the Kremlin’s next victim if the United States does not act swiftly.

Kara-Murza is a US lawful permanent resident (which the Levinson Act defines as a US national), a historian and Washington Post opinion writer, a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin, a deeply principled man, and a passionate advocate for political and civil rights in his native Russia. He is also currently being held as a political prisoner by Russian authorities. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kara-Murza chose to return to his country of origin in April 2022, saying that he must go back to stand with Russian antiwar protesters and against Putin. He was arrested just days after his return to Moscow, and has remained in prison since. In April 2023, Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison, the maximum possible sentence, on bogus charges for his criticism of Putin’s corrupt and repressive government and the Kremlin’s ongoing, devastating war against Ukraine.

Kara-Murza’s health has rapidly deteriorated while in custody. His wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza, has reported that he has lost more than 50 pounds in the last year and is facing paralysis in both of his feet due to untreated polyneuropathy—a condition brought on as a result of the poisonings carried out by Putin’s government in the 2015 and 2017 attempts on his life. He was kept in solitary confinement for several months and is being held in a maximum-security facility.

Many of our organizations have been assured that his release is a “high priority” by several members of your administration; as a concrete demonstration of this claim, we request that Kara-Murza:

1.     Be immediately designated “wrongfully detained” under the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act.

2.     Be included in any ongoing negotiations with Russia.

First, as a lawful permanent resident (LPR) with significant ties to the United States, Kara-Murza meets the legal criteria to be designated “wrongfully detained” under the Levinson Act, and the US State Department should do so expeditiously. On August 14, 2023, the State Department confirmed that LPRs have been designated “wrongfully detained” under the act; Kara-Murza should be also. One notable example of a US LPR being designated “wrongfully detained” under the Levinson Act is Paul Rusesabagina of Rwanda, the famed “Hotel Rwanda” activist. Rusesabagina was designated “wrongfully detained” by the US government after his August 2020 flight to Burundi was redirected to Rwanda, where he was subsequently arrested, tortured, and sentenced to 25 years in prison in a sham trial.

Kara-Murza meets 10 of the 11 criteria in the law, which makes him readily eligible for the “wrongfully detained” designation. The law clearly states that designations can be made on criteria “which may include” the 11 enumerated provisions, but nowhere does it state that all 11 criteria must be met.

The Kremlin clearly considers Kara-Murza to be a high-value political prisoner, shown by virtue of the fact that he received the maximum possible sentence for the fabricated crimes pinned on him simply for his opposition to Putin and the Kremlin’s illegal war in Ukraine. For this, we want to stress that “wrongfully detained” designations may be private (as opposed to public). If the State Department considers a public designation to be too incendiary, a private designation is a suitable option.

Second, it is critical that Kara-Murza be included in any discussions with Russian officials regarding prisoner releases. As a US national, as defined under the Levinson Act, and a person who is seen by Putin as a significant prisoner, it is crucial for both Kara-Murza’s well-being and American foreign policy that he be released. We feel strongly that the United States has a clear obligation to prioritize the release of all unjustly detained American nationals, which includes citizens like Paul Whelan, Evan Gershkovich, Alsu Kurmasheva, and Marc Fogel, as well as Kara-Murza.

Kara-Murza is a hero who has courageously dedicated his life to advancing freedom and democracy. For his vision of a democratic and peaceful Russia, which is deeply in line with US strategic interests, he has suffered greatly at the hands of Putin and his cronies. Kara-Murza continues to sacrifice to defend the principles we hold so dear in the United States, and he is extremely vulnerable in prison.

The tragic death of Navalny underscores the risks political prisoners, especially high-profile ones, face in prison. We urge the Biden administration to act swiftly to bring Kara-Murza home and to increase efforts to seek the release of all Russian political prisoners.

Regards,

Individual Signatories:

  • Michael J. Abramowitz, President, Freedom House
  • Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
  • Paige Alexander, Chief Executive Officer, the Carter Center; Vice Chair, Free Russia Foundation
  • Natalia Arno, President, Free Russia Foundation
  • John R. Beyrle, former US Ambassador to Russia and Bulgaria
  • George C. Biddle, Trustee and Chairman, Civil Courage Prize
  • Stephen E. Biegun, former US Deputy Secretary of State
  • Michael Breen, President and Chief Executive Officer, Human Rights First
  • Ellen Bork, Fellow, the George W. Bush Institute
  • William Browder, President, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign
  • Agnès Callamard, PhD, Secretary General, Amnesty International
  • Christian Caryl, Independent Journalist
  • Michael Chertoff, former US Secretary of Homeland Security; member, Freedom House Board of Trustees
  • Honourable Professor Irwin Cotler, PC, OC, OQ, AdE.; former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada
  • Uriel Epshtein, Chief Executive Officer, Renew Democracy Initiative
  • Evelyn N. Farkas, PhD, Executive Director, the McCain Institute at Arizona State University
  • Jennifer Finney Boylan, Author
  • Jane Harman, Cochair, Freedom House Board of Trustees; former Congresswoman from California
  • Tirana Hassan, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch
  • John E. Herbst, former US Ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan; Senior Director, the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council
  • Patrick Gaspard, President, Center for American Progress; former US Ambassador to South Africa
  • Carl Gershman, Former and Founding President, National Endowment for Democracy
  • Jon Huntsman Jr., former US Ambassador to Russia, China, and Singapore; former Governor of Utah
  • Garry Kasparov, former World Chess Champion; Russian opposition leader; Chairman, Renew Democracy Initiative
  • Jonathan Katz, former Deputy Assistant Administrator, Europe and Eurasia Bureau, US Agency for International Development
  • Ian Kelly, former US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and to Georgia; Ambassador in Residence, Northwestern University
  • Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder, the Russian Anti-War Committee
  • Peter Kovler, member, National Democratic Institute Board of Trustees
  • David J. Kramer, Executive Director, the George W. Bush Institute
  • Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Author
  • Leopoldo López, Freedom Activist; Cofounder and General Secretary, World Liberty Congress
  • Tom Malinowski, former Congressman from New Jersey; former US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
  • Félix Maradiaga, Nicaraguan opposition leader; President, Foundation for the Freedom of Nicaragua; member, Freedom House Board of Trustees
  • Michael A. McFaul, former US Ambassador to Russia
  • Sarah E. Mendelson, former US Representative to the UN Economic and Social Council
  • Alfred H. Moses, former US Ambassador to Romania
  • Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer, PEN America
  • Steven Pifer, former US Ambassador to Ukraine
  • Pedro Pizano, Assistant Director for Democracy Programs, the McCain Institute at Arizona State University
  • Alina Polyakova, PhD, President and Chief Executive Officer, Center for European Policy Analysis
  • Maria A. Ressa, Chief Executive Officer, Rappler; 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
  • Randy Scheunemann, Strategic Counselor, Halifax International Security Forum
  • Natan Sharansky, former political prisoner in the Soviet Union; recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • John Shattuck, Professor of Practice in Diplomacy, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University; former US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; former US Ambassador to the Czech Republic
  • Brandon Silver, International Human Rights Lawyer; Director of Policy and Projects, Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights
  • Gary Shteyngart, Author
  • Timothy Snyder, Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University
  • John J. Sullivan, former US Ambassador to Russia; former US Deputy Secretary of State
  • William B. Taylor Jr., former US Ambassador to Ukraine
  • Daniel Treisman, Professor, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Daniel Twining, PhD, President, International Republican Institute
  • Peter Van Praagh, President, Halifax International Security Forum
  • Alexander Vershbow, former US Ambassador to Russia; former Deputy Secretary General, North Atlantic Treaty Organization
  • Melanne Verveer, former US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues; Executive Director, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security
  • Wendell L. Willkie II, former Associate Counsel to the President of the United States; former General Counsel, US Department of Commerce; Cochair, Freedom House Board of Trustees
  • Damon Wilson, President and Chief Executive Officer, National Endowment for Democracy
  • Marie Yovanovitch, former US Ambassador to Ukraine

Organizational Endorsements:

  • Civil Courage Prize
  • Free Russia Foundation
  • Freedom House
  • The George W. Bush Institute
  • Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign
  • Human Rights First
  • Human Rights Foundation
  • Human Rights Watch
  • The McCain Institute
  • National Democratic Institute
  • National Endowment for Democracy
  • PEN America
  • Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights
  • Renew Democracy Initiative
  • Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
  • World Liberty Congress

cc:

The Honorable Antony J. Blinken
Secretary of State

US Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

Mr. Jake Sullivan
National Security Advisor

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Of course, it is hard to expect that many average Americans would want to listen in detail to boring and bizarre historic rants by an aged dictator—which is why many dismissed the interview as unimpressive. It really is, but don’t forget: we live in a post-truth world, where an average voter won’t even have to actually listen to it: many right-wing commentators would offer a shortened interpretation, which will be much more readily consumed by ordinary Americans. “You don’t need to watch the 2-hour interview, I’ve done it for you—and let me tell you something, Putin’s arguments against Western support for Ukraine are fairly convincing” —this is what many right-wing commentators will have to say. And many among their audiences would buy it.

To this end, Putin’s lengthy and bizarre interventions on history may even be to his advantage, paradoxically. There’s a classic rhetorical tactic, which is quite often used by Kremlin propaganda outlets: to overwhelm listeners with excessive—and often irrelevant or distorted—details, creating an impression that the speaker has thorough knowledge of many underlying facts. Average viewer often has no idea who Rurik or Bogdan Khmelnitskiy were, so when Putin names so many specific references to historic dates and events, he must know better, mustn’t he? Many have mocked the trick with bringing copies of Bogdan Khmelnitskiy letters into the room—but this was done exactly for that purpose, to create an impression for an unsophisticated viewer that Putin’s position is “based on some real historical documents”. For many of those in the U.S., who want the Western support to Ukraine to be discontinued, this will be enough excuse: see, Putin has some “facts” to back his position, who knows what really happened during all these ages between Russia and Ukraine, let’s leave it to themselves and not interfere, an average American might think. Encouraging this type of thinking was exactly Putin’s goal. 

It works quite well for the Russian domestic propaganda: many Russian people don’t want to be bothered by too many details, they tend to believe the officials who claim to know the nuances better; it may also work for the Americans, particularly when Putin’s talking points will be amplified by the hard right.

Putin’s interview to Carlson in this regard is most likely not a standalone event, but a launch of a full-scale propaganda campaign aimed at average American voters, with one clear message: forget about Ukraine, you in the U.S. don’t know all the nuances, leave it to Russia’s mercy. This message may resonate with many of those who share selfish, isolationist views on the U.S. foreign policy.

What is required in this situation is not mockery of Putin’s bizarre statements and behavior, but a serious counter-propaganda effort aimed at explaining to broad audiences why Putin is wrong, and his statements don’t stand to minimum scrutiny. There are many points to address, but two appear to be the most important.

First, whatever Putin says about history is primitive cherry-picking. He focuses on the facts and interpretations which he likes, but completely ignores those which don’t fit into his propaganda construct. True, Bogdan Khmelnitskiy was seeking a Union with Russia in the XVII century. But this Union was agreed upon a condition of Ukraine’s significant political and cultural autonomy—the Hetmanate,—which was abruptly abolished by Ekatherine the Second in 1764, with subsequent brutal actions aimed at destruction of Ukraine’s national identity, culture, language, and forced russification of Ukrainians. This example clearly shows that imperial Russia is not to be trusted: when certain nations want to establish an alliance with it basing on mutual respect and retaining its sovereignty, Russian imperialists would use it to establish control, and later subjugate and destroy them. But you won’t hear that from Putin.

Second, the modern-day rules-based international order rejects the idea of forced takeover of lands because they were historically controlled by someone else ages ago. Most of our territories were controlled by someone else in the past. In times of Rurik, with whom Putin began his lengthy rant in a Tucker Carlson interview, North America was controlled by Native Americans, and Americans of European descent were simply non-existent. In the times of Bogdan Khmelnitskiy, the United States was a British colony. Do we really want to go back that far? Redrawing international borders using history as a justification is a dangerous road that may exacerbate major global conflicts. According to Pew Research poll of 2020, many residents of Western countries say that parts of neighboring countries belong to them: the number went from 19-25% in the U.S. and Canada to as high as 67% in Hungary and 60% in Greece.

This is why the current international rules-based order protects the internationally recognized borders of countries, and forbids their forced redrawing, disregarding who owned which lands historically. Military land grabs are clearly defined as aggression by the U.N. Charter, and the Russian aggression against Ukraine was clearly defined by the international community as just that (United Nations General Assembly Resolution ES‑11/1): about three quarters of the U.N. General Assembly member states voted to qualify Russia’s actions as an act of unprovoked aggression, with only 5 countries, including Russia itself, its puppet states Belarus and Syria, plus North Korean and Eritrean dictatorships, voting against. It’s as clear as it can be: Russian war against Ukraine is an unprovoked aggression and a standard attempt for a military land grab, regardless of Putin’s attempts to justify it with distorted historical facts.

Aggressions are dangerous for global stability. If Putin’s logic becomes normalized—as attempted by Tucker Carlson,—then it means it would be OK for countries to attack others basing on some historical claims. The world would then plunge into the chaos of multiple revisionist wars, which will have a direct impact on the U.S. security. Russian aggression is more than just an attack on Ukraine: it is a brazen attempt to restore medieval reality, where might made right. Russia’s attack against Ukraine has already awaken many dictators around the world, which took it as a sign that it is a new normal to attack their neighbors: Hamas attacked Israel, Venezuela’s Maduro threatens to attack Guyana claiming “historic” territorial ambitions, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un claims that peaceful unification with South Korea no longer possible, effectively threatening South Korea with a war. Lest one forgot, there’s a never-ending military threat to Taiwan by mainland Communist China.

If Putin’s way of thinking (“we have a right for an aggression, because something happened centuries ago”) prevails, the world will be dragged into a multitude of dangerous conflicts, and to think that the U.S. will be able to avoid it and concentrate on the issues at the border with Mexico is beyond naive. Putin’s blatant attempt to reshape international rules-based order should be stopped outright—or it’s going to cost the United States much more. This should be explained to an average American voter in detail.

Interestingly, Putin doesn’t even pretend to hide his real aggressive motives by openly justifying Adolf Hitler’s actions to start World War II—he explicitly defended Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, basically saying that it is Poland which is to blame, because it “provoked” Hitler by not agreeing to concede part of its territory. Such a shocking justification of Hitler’s actions comes at the same page with false accusations of democratic Ukraine as a “Nazi state”.

These are not the only hair-raising discrepancies in Putin’s interview to Tucker Carlson (who hasn’t challenged him on all these absurdities even once). Putin rants about Russia’s “historic” rights to claim Ukrainian lands on the background of the 2004 Russian law ratifying the 2003 border treaty with Ukraine—fully recognizing Ukraine’s 1991 internationally defined borders!—still being a fully valid Russian legislative act. Putin says that Russia put an ultimatum in 2013 to Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich that Russia would withdraw from a free-trade union with Ukraine should it ratify Association Agreement with the European Union—but Russia at the same time had a valid roadmap with the EU for creating a Common Economic Space! Putin says about the democratic authorities of Ukraine: “they launched a war in Donbass in 2014, using aircraft and artillery against civilians”. But the first leaders of the so-called breakaway Donetsk Peoples Republic (self-appointed “prime minister” Alexandr Boroday and “defence minister” Igor Girkin-Strelkov who seized power in Donetsk in Spring 2014) are both Russian citizens born in Moscow, with no relation to Donbass and its civilians whatsoever!

These Putin’s claims don’t stand a minimum scrutiny—this is but a collection of random reality-distorting statements aimed to cover up an unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.

However, many American viewers couldn’t care less, which is why the interview may have some impact—as said above, particularly being amplified by the U.S. right-wing commentators. A different attempt of Russian interference in the U.S. elections this time: not through trolls, but through direct messaging by Putin conveyed by hard-right U.S. personalities. Aim: to increase opposition to further aid to Ukraine by the U.S. public opinion.

This is serious. It should be confronted. Debunking Putin’s lies about his war against Ukraine is essential to win the hearts and minds of the voters in the U.S. and beyond.

Alexei Navalny’s death is a premeditated political assassination.

The personal responsibility for Navalny’s death lies with the man who usurped power and declared himself president of Russia. Navalny was murdered by Putin. This murder went on for years, every day, under the cover of lies and impunity. All these years, on Putin’s orders, he was persecuted, poisoned, imprisoned, and finally sent to a prison on the edge of Russia where he was held in torture-like conditions.

We offer our sincerest condolences to the family of Alexei Navalny — his wife Yulia, his children Daria and Zakhar, his brother Oleg, his mother Lyudmila Ivanovna, his father Anatoly Ivanovich, and all of Alexei’s family and friends. Your loss is immeasurable, and we stand united with each of you during this challenging time.

This isn’t merely a shock to us; it’s a deep and profound sorrow.

We call on world leaders, national governments, and international organizations to respond to this act of political terror.

The murderous regime in Russia represents a security threat to all citizens of the free world. It is in the interest of global security and the welfare of humanity to put an end to it.

Navalny’s murder was part of a tragic scenario against the backdrop of Russia’s dubious presidential “election”. Alexei Navalny, a leading critic of the Kremlin for years and a symbol of hope for change, had every chance of being elected as Russia’s legitimate president. This further emphasizes that Putin is an illegitimate usurper. Refusing to recognize him as the legitimate president now becomes not just a mandatory step, but a moral and political duty.

We demand justice for the memory of Alexei Navalny, for his family, and for all Russians who seek freedom. We will not stop until we achieve this goal. As long as tyranny and lawlessness persist, our work to defend human rights and promote democracy will continue.

Justice will prevail in Russia, and Navalny’s perpetrators will be punished.

Free Russia Foundation team.

The story of Boris Nadezhdin’s bid to become a candidate in the Russian presidential election concluded in failure: as expected, the Central Election Commission (CEC) declined to register him, citing an inadequate number of signatures in his support remaining after a rigorous vetting process. Nonetheless, this narrative yielded significant, valuable, and even inspiring insights into the state of affairs in Russia.

The readiness for democracy

The fervor with which a significant number of people across Russia engaged in the election campaign of Ekaterina Duntsova (who was not even allowed by the CEC to collect signatures) and later Boris Nadezhdin, clearly demonstrates how close and understandable the idea of changing the government through elections is to the Russian people. The elusive opportunity to vote not for Putin, but for a more sympathetic and, importantly, anti-war candidate, galvanized tens of thousands of people across the nation, prompting them to join the campaigns of Duntsova and Nadezhdin. By “engaged,” we mean not only those who signed petitions and gathered signatures but also those who made donations and, most significantly, expressed support for these candidates, reacting to their presence on social media, watching dedicated broadcasts on platforms like YouTube, and consuming other media coverage.

Even the seemingly naive belief, which may irritate many observers, that dictator Putin can be defeated in the elections he controls, carries a positive significance: it unmistakably illustrates that people in Russia desire democracy. They yearn to have the freedom to choose, to be able to replace entrenched politicians through fair and transparent elections.

Readiness for lawful protest

The majority of those who participated in his campaign in any capacity harbored no illusions about Nadezhdin’s persona. Apart from a small circle of very naive individuals, most people understood quite clearly that they weren’t necessarily endorsing a particular individual, Boris Nadezhdin, but rather publicly and openly expressing their opposition to Vladimir Putin’s policies and the perpetuation of his rule. This was the impetus driving Nadezhdin’s campaign.

By joining public rallies in support of the anti-war candidate, people in Russia came to realize that this could potentially be their final chance to openly voice opposition to Putin without facing repercussions — at least not immediately after attending the rally.

Observing the lines of people enduring the freezing cold at the signature collection sites for Nadezhdin, one couldn’t help but ponder: these individuals would likely attend an anti-war protest rally or an opposition demonstration willingly, if they were assured they wouldn’t face beatings, arrests, convictions, or lengthy prison sentences.

To those who question why there are no anti-war protests in Russia, we must reiterate: it’s because everyday citizens, with good intentions and a love for their country, aren’t willing to jeopardize their lives, health, property, and the safety of their loved ones to participate in protests that are banned by the authorities and unlikely to result in a change of regime. However, if they perceive an opportunity to take action without facing excessive or any risk at all, we may witness mass protests again. Perhaps even a readiness for more radical actions — if these same individuals believe they’re taking a risk for the sake of achieving victory, rather than just landing on the list of political prisoners.

Nadezhdin and the hope

Boris Nadezhdin is a figure who has been active in politics for quite a while, since the 1990s, yet he hasn’t achieved any particularly noteworthy successes in this realm. Besides his association and collaboration with Boris Nemtsov, a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin and an opposition leader who was assassinated outside the Kremlin in 2015, Boris Nadezhdin has considerably more questionable connections, notably with the current deputy head of the Russian presidential administration, Sergei Kirienko.

Despite his evident pro-democratic and liberal views, Nadezhdin has never taken any radical stances. He has been associated with the systematically structured A Just Russia Party and has even participated in the primaries of United Russia. However, if there was one aspect for which he was known among a relatively wider audience, it was his appearances on federal channels’ propaganda shows, where he was often portrayed as a “liberal punching bag”. In essence, Boris Nadezhdin himself was hardly perceived by anyone as a potential leader of Russia, or even as a leader of the opposition. However, in the context of a grave war and an increasingly harsh dictatorship, even such a figure was in demand and became the catalyst for a broad movement with a distinct protesting spirit. It wasn’t Boris Nadezhdin personally, but the hope for change that led many people with differing views to see this relatively unknown and not particularly charismatic politician as their candidate. And it must be acknowledged that Nadezhdin exceeded expectations: he didn’t disappoint those who supported him. Despite some reservations and cautiously, he consistently emphasized that he was the sole anti-war candidate in this election. This is the most crucial message of his campaign to both the country and the world: there are numerous individuals in Russia who oppose this war, who oppose Putin. The message underscores that hope for change still exists in Russia, and there’s a chance for it to materialize.

Russian presidential elections scheduled for March 15-17 can be more accurately described as a reappointment procedure. Yet, despite the predictable and certain outcome, they remain a focus of intense debate in the Western media and analytical circles. Do these elections still matter? What’s the best plan of action for the Russian prodemocracy forces for these elections?

In recent years, Putin’s regime has completely overhauled the Russian electoral process, effectively eliminating all mechanisms to influence the election outcome. First, following the last nationwide election (State Duma elections of 2021), the election observation rules have been changed so significantly, that independent election monitoring is no longer possible in Russia, for the first time since 1985.

The institution of members of local electoral commissions with advisory voting rights has been abolished at the precinct level, although it still functions at the federal and regional levels. It used to be the primary avenue for pro-democracy forces to introduce their observers to polling stations. Now, only permanent voting members of local electoral commissions remain, appointed for 5-year terms under strict government supervision. Most of them are loyal to the authorities. This change has severely restricted the recruitment and assignment of independent election observers, which was primarily done through the advisory commission member mechanism. Election candidates can no longer appoint their own members of local precinct election commissions with advisory rights and must rely on permanent commission members who mainly represent the ruling power vertical.

Also gone is the option to send candidates’ proxies to polling stations, as the recent changes to the law have stripped proxies of their powers on voting days. Precise spots at polling stations where observers are allowed have been severely limited, as has the observers’ movement on the voting premises, effectively preventing observers from monitoring potential manipulations with ballots and protocols from close range. Russia has taken cues from the Belarusian dictator Lukashenka who has banned observers from entering the premises to monitor the voting process and vote count. In the case of Belarus, this change has led to absurd situations where people are forced to observe the voting through windows with binoculars.

To be admitted as an observer, an individual has to be a voter in that region. The planned observation precinct now must be reported to the election commission three days before voting, without the possibility of changing the site. This greatly reduces the flexibility of distributing independent observers between polling sites, particularly in the regions. For example, it is no longer possible to send volunteers from large cities to observe elections at provincial sites.

Grigory Melkonyants, a co-chair of the independent electoral monitoring association Golos estimates the maximum input from independent observers into the election proves at under 20% from the level of 2016, when rules were already very stringent, significantly restricting the activity of independent observers.

Secondly, the presidential elections of 2024 will be the first Russian nationwide elections with a widespread use of electronic voting in three dozen regions. This is certain to make the process extremely opaque. It is unclear how electronic voting algorithms work, the process is not verifiable and not subject to outside control.

During the 2021 State Duma elections, most of the Moscow districts were won by opposition candidates after ballots were counted at the polling stations. However, when electronically submitted votes were added overnight, the results flipped in favor of the ruling party candidates. This was an extraordinary development, especially because the more digitally- savvy younger voter segments have stronger anti-incumbent sentiment than seniors visiting the polling stations.

During the September 2023 Moscow Mayoral elections, voters were persistently advised to use electronic voting terminals installed at polling stations instead of using traditional paper ballots. As a result, 82% of the votes in Moscow in September 2023 were cast electronically.

In March, according to the Russian Central Elections Commission, 38 million Russians will be able to vote electronically, including at polling stations.

Electronic voting is impossible to monitor by independent observes, basically allowing the Kremlin to draw any fantasy figure whatsoever as a result.

Furthermore, the Kremlin has also announced that it will not publish the breakdown of electronic voting results by precinct commissions will not be published significantly complicating detection of anomalies through mathematical analysis.

Another important feature of the upcoming elections is a severely restricted civil society space. No large-scale on-the-ground anti-Putin campaign in Russia is possible. Opposition activities have been de-facto criminalized in 2021, with the onset of prosecution of Alexey Navalny’s supporters as extremists. Draconian prison sentences for Lilia Chanysheva, Ksenia Fadeeva and other associates of Navalny contain phrases such as “engagement in criminally punishable extremist activity through criticizing the policies of the government”.

This prosecution deters many would-be campaigners. Although some activists may still campaign against Putin, their number will be limited. Yet, to carry out an impactful anti-Putin campaign, one needs no fewer than tens of thousands of activists mobilizing millions of voters. For context, during the presidential elections of 2018, the officially reported voter turnout was over 73 million, of which Putin claimed to have received over 56 million votes. With a real risk of prison sentence for “extremism,” it will be impossible to find enough campaigners to reach out to comparable number of voters.

Therefore, the March 2024 Presidential elections in Russia remain elections in name only. It is the first time since mid-80s that the election outcome in my country will be fully determined by the authorities, without any possibility to influence the results that will be manipulated by definition. In previous years, elections were tough and fraudulent, too, but there was still some room to maneuver for the opposition. But not anymore.

The Kremlin does not even attempt to hide its intent to control the election outcome. It has opened a criminal case against Golos, the leading independent election monitoring association, and sent its leader Grigory Melkonyants to jail. Independent journalist and local political activist from the Tver region Yekaterina Duntsova, who campaigned on the anti-war platform, was not even allowed to register her initiative group for nominating her as a candidate—which is a requirement for launching a campaign. Russian veteran democratic political party Yabloko refrained from even nominating a candidate, succumbing to pressure from the Kremlin. A left-wing activist Sergey Udaltsov, who criticized the Communist Party for putting forward a weak and toothless candidate instead of an ultra-weight heavyweight, was arrested in January on charges of “justifying terrorism”. A far-right mercenary Igor Strelkov-Girkin, who criticized Putin for his inability to win the war in Ukraine and expressed desire to run for President himself, has been recently sentenced to 4 years in prison. The electoral field has been thoroughly cleaned, neutralizing even those who did not intend to participate themselves, but were merely criticizing the orchestrated nature of the campaign.

So is the “electoral campaign” totally useless? Not really. Accepting  the totally manipulative nature of these elections and detaching from their potential outcome in terms of numbers, gives rise to a new perspective.

Despite having fixed the process, Putin will still have to conduct a nominal campaign and reach out to the Russian society. This will expose his complete detachment from reality and further erode his ratings. Anti-Putin sentiments have been growing lately, and his bizarre statements and behavior may accelerate that trend. Putin’s December “direct line” with the Russians was marred by discrepancies between Putin’s own focus on geopolitics and society’s desire to refocus the country’s leadership on  solving the country’s real problems, best reflected in one of the questions shown on screen during the broadcast—”Why does your reality differ from our daily life?”.

While Putin went on extensive rants about Ukraine and the West, the audience constantly brought him back to much more pressing issues, such as growing prices for basic goods, and the publics’ desire to end the war. One of the hosts literally said that a “flurry” of questions was received about the war, with the key one being “when will the peace finally come?” Putin refused to give a straight answer. The issue of skyrocketing prices had clouded Putin’s appearances during his first campaign trips to Chukotka and Khabarovsk, despite an effort by authorities to censor the conversations.

Russian prodemocracy forces in exile see the upcoming election as an opportunity to reinforce the broadcasting for their multi-million Russian audiences with key message: Putin has no idea about the everyday life of ordinary Russians, he is a deficient leader, he should go, and Russia should withdraw from Ukraine. Internet and social media broadcasting opportunities remain strong – even pro-Kremlin pollsters like WCIOM admit that state television is eventually(?) losing the competition with web information sources. These efforts to engage Russian people should be intensified.

The elections are also an opportunity to gauge the scale of the anti-war sentiment among the Russian public, even in an environment where anti-war views are criminalized. Long queues of Russians lining up to put their signatures in support of Boris Nadezhdin, the only candidate who takes an open position to end the war in Ukraine, are in a stark contrast with empty kiosks asking for signatures in Putin’s support. Lines in support of Nadezhdin have been so far the only visible event in this electoral campaign. That’s reassuring for anti-Putin and anti-war Russians, and confirms the anti-war trends in Russian society reported earlier by pollsters.

One should not put too much focus on Nadezhdin’s candidacy. Despite public criticism of Putin, he is very loyal to the Russian authorities. Nadezhdin is closely associated with the Kremlin’s domestic policy chief Sergey Kirienko, having worked as his aide in the Cabinet of Ministers.

Nevertheless, no matter what happens to his candidacy, Nadezhdin may help consolidate anti-war voters, the process which has already began to some extent. As we saw during the Soviet war in Afghanistan in 1980s, over time, public pressure influences the decisions of policymakers even in totalitarian states. Negative public opinion is one of the key reasons why Putin still hasn’t called a second wave of military mobilization, despite badly needing it to replace exhausted troops. Therefore, creating and strengthening mechanisms of consolidation of Russians with anti-war positions is critical.

Elections bring forth the issue of public perception of Putin’s legitimacy. Although this is arguably the most difficult issue to assess due to public reluctance to answer straightforward questions about Putin, there are some hints in Russian public opinion suggesting that people don’t like that he has occupied the presidential post for so long, and they don’t trust the electoral process as much as authorities would like. For instance, a 2023 poll by Russian Field found that  68% of Russians indicated that they are unhappy to see a person over the age of 70 as the country’s President; about a third of Russians say that it is unacceptable for one person to occupy the presidential chair for more than two terms, while only 37% state that it is fully acceptable. In the September study by Russian Field, 43% of Russians say that they would choose an alternative candidate over Putin should a decent person reflecting their views emerge as candidate for President – with only the same 43% sticking to voting for Putin. Therefore, the international position on Putin’s illegitimacy as a Russian leader may strongly resonate with the Russian society.

There are many reasons why Putin’s new presidential term will not be legitimate. Votes for Putin will include those from the illegally annexed Ukrainian territories. The very opportunity for him to run for a new term was allowed by a sham plebiscite on Constitutional amendments which was condemned internationally. The whole Russian electoral process is a perverse imitation of democratic procedures, having nothing in common with a real competitive election. Putin’s key political opponents are being murdered, poisoned, jailed, forced into exile, and legitimate opposition activity is effectively criminalized.

A clear non-recognition of Putin as a legitimate Russian leader will underscore the futility of hopes for normalization of relations with the outside world while Putin is still in power – adding one more important factor to a slew of reasons why he has to go, apart from age, detachment from reality, and an unwillingness to end the war. This is important to Russians who would like to be reintegrated into the global community. In 2023, Russian propaganda went to great lengths to hide from the Russian public the humiliation caused by Putin’s inability to visit South Africa due to the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court. Further international isolation goes against the aspirations of most Russians.

Some in the West argue that “non-recognition is difficult, because we still have to talk to Putin.” It appears that such views greatly exaggerate the risk. Western leaders already barely talk to Putin. In an emergency, some neutral figure may be picked to facilitate the communication and Putin still may be contacted as a de-facto ruler of Russia, without recognition of his legitimacy.

Non-recognition of Putin’s new term will be a simple, but effective move, which will cost the West nothing, but may have significant impact on the Russian society and elites demonstrating that nothing will improve for Russia in the long term until he goes.

To sum up, Russian presidential elections offer an opportunity to reach out to the Russian society, to increase the anti-Putin and anti-war sentiments, and reduce Putin’s maneuver space. However, the ability to influence the outcome in numbers have shrunk dramatically, which means that the formal issues like personalities of allowed candidates, picking an electoral strategy, and hoping for certain results should be ignored as not to create any fruitless illusions. This is not a call for an actual boycott. As we know from experience, it is difficult to mobilize people for active boycotts, and their effectiveness are hard to measure. Many Russians also really want to use the electoral procedures to show disobedience within the allowed limits and it is best to encourage them to do so.

Despite the certainty that the results of the March vote are in total control of the Kremlin, one should not despair. In 1984-1985, Russia carried out the last totally controlled parliamentary elections, which were characterized by a complete conformism, and 99,5% vote for the ruling Communist party. Just a year or two later, things started to really move, and the results of the fully controlled sham elections of 1984-1985 were forgotten and meant nothing. Let’s focus on the important things that can be achieved – influencing public opinion, demonstrating the massive anti-war sentiment – and put aside discussions on the predetermined outcome that we can’t change.

In 2024, Russia’s opposition civil society, especially the part of it that is in exile, should do everything possible to bring the new times closer and be ready not to miss a precious chance in case of sudden changes for the better.

What can and should be done in the new year by members of Russian civil society opposing the war and Putin’s dictatorship?

Be Steadfast. First of all, Russian exiles should be patient and, just in case, be ready for a long and exhausting struggle. Of course, we should hope for the best, but in 2024 we have to prepare for the worst— for a protracted war and the preservation of Putin’s regime in Russia in the foreseeable future.

Does this mean that the only thing left to do is to give up and get depressed? No, absolutely not. It is important to remember now that even if the road to victory is long and difficult, this is no reason to give up. In 2022, after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it seemed to many that we were in for a sprint, when by going all for a short period of time would bring about  victory.

At the beginning of 2024, it is quite obvious: this is not a sprint, but a marathon, and those who want to come to the finish line as a winner must be prepared for sustained laborious efforts even as the fatigue grows. Therefore, we should cultivate among ourselves patience and willingness to continue the work started even in the face of negative news. And of course, we must keep faith in victory, without which nothing will work. We should turn for inspiration to political prisoners, who, in the unbearable conditions of Putin’s detention centers, find the strength not only to remain cheerful and optimistic, but also to spread this optimism.

Stay relevant to people in Russia. The important task of any projects by political exiles now is to be interesting and stay relevant to people in Russia, to respond to the demands of Russian civil society. There is no point in endlessly preaching to the choire or triggering those who are entrenched in their beliefs and answers. The opposition core of Russian society in Russia and in exile is already optimally consolidated and has developed mechanisms for internal communication. Of course, it is necessary to continue to maintain as close communication among ourselves as possible, but we must not forget how many Russian citizens desperately want to see the world for what it is and want to escape the murky mirror of Kremlin propaganda. We should be clear that meaningful changes can only come from a change in the attitude of Russian citizens.

Breaking the information blockade, reaching to as many as we can and convincing new people outside the opposition community is a difficult task, but it is one that must be solved. Opposition-minded citizens of Russia can and must find a common language with their compatriots and convince them of the viciousness of Putinism.

It is important to remember that the longer Putin’s critics who have left Russia are in exile, the easier it becomes to lose touch with reality in Russia, to move into the bubble of their own imagination on how people in Russia live, and to become uninteresting to those who live in the realities of Putin’s Russia. There is an effective remedy for this: we should regularly “sync our watches” with Russians inside Russia, not with what is written about Russia on social networks or Western newspapers.

An important task for opposition activists, structures and media in exile is to become a useful and reliable source of alternative information and knowledge about the situation in the world and Russia for Russians. Opposition and exile speakers, media and activist projects should discuss important issues that Russians inside Russia cannot freely discuss about among themselves, what is not reported by the media allowed under the dictatorship. Only by creating and supplying the people trapped in Putin’s Russia with relevant, useful, and interesting information (ranging from news and analysis to fiction and entertainment content) can the opposition in exile maintain and expand contact with them. Only by establishing and strengthening the rapport with people in Russia will we be able to influence the situation inside the country at a critical moment of transition post-Putin.

Stay different. Over the past two years, much effort and time has been spent on finding ways to unite the various opposition groups in exile. But would a forced consolidation of coherent groups at the cost of moral, ideological and personal compromises really bring the fall of Putin’s regime in Russia any closer?

Russia is a very large country in which plurality of opinions and attitudes, passions and contradictions still raging under the cover of the visible unity purported by Putin. It makes no sense to juxtapose Putin’s base to an opposition monolith which would be just as imaginary. The opposite of authoritarianism are plurality and diversity.

Critics of Putin’s regime must be interesting, engaging and relevant first and foremost to people in Russia. They can only be interesting if they say and write what different groups of citizens can relate to. Some are interested in an alternative view of war and the international situation to the official one, while others are interested in culture, ecology, local self-government, feminism, and the protection of minority rights. Some are left-leaning, while others hold more right-wing views. As in any society, in Russia there are radicals, moderates, apolitical, apolitical, religious, and any other kind of people. There is not and cannot be a one-size-fits-all program with the same words.  Even if everyone wants peace, prosperity and quiet life, different people operationalize their desires through different approaches. It is more effective and useful to offer everyone a conversation in a language they understand than to wait until everyone agrees to switch to the rhetoric dominating the opposition community.

Therefore, it is much more useful not to seek tactical unity, but to encourage pluralism and diversity of ideas, concepts, leaders, opinions and views on the future of Russia both inside and outside Russia. It is the part of Russian civil society that is in exile, protected from the threat of repression, that can and should be the organizer and moderator of the discussions that modern Russia needs, create platforms for them, unite people around them, and help them formulate different visions of Russia without Putin.

Get Ready for Transition. Although there are no signs that Putin’s regime is about to collapse, this does not mean that it will never collapse, or that it will last for years or even decades. Personalist dictatorships are weak by definition because their entire formidable structure hangs on one nail. That nail is the limited lifespan of the dictator.

Of course, we can demoralize ourselves with scenarios of transfer of power from Putin to another undemocratic successor, but it is not inconceivable that the physical death of the dictator or his incapacity will trigger a rapid collapse of the entire system. This is what the experience of the collapse of dictatorships of the 20th century teaches us. And if after the death of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung it was only a question of liberalizing the regimes they had created in the USSR and China respectively (although the very cessation of mass repression saved millions of lives), then in the case of Salazar in Portugal and Franco in Spain, the regimes they had built were transformed and dismantled within a few years after their departure.

Adherents of the theory of successful transfer of dictatorial power should not forget that the dictatorships of Stalin and Mao were not only personalist but also party-ideological. Both tyrants led mass ideological parties that existed before they came to power and within which power was retained by the next generations of party leaders.

In the cases of Salazar and Franco, the ruling parties were not the cause of the dictators’ rise to power, but a consequence of their rule. We see the same in Putin’s Russia. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that United Russia will play the same role in conserving the post-Putin regime as the CPSU did in conserving the Soviet regime. “United Russia” is an element of the Putin regime’s decorum, representing no separate organizational and ideological force. No Politburo, within which a legal and universally recognized successor to Putin could be elected, simply does not and cannot exist in the system he has created.

Thus, Putin’s death or removal from power will certainly be the beginning of a change for which opponents of his regime must be prepared. It could happen years from now, or it could happen in a few days. What’s then? Should we just passively wait for the dictator’s physical demise and then scramble to respond?

The opposition in the broadest sense of the word and, above all, that part of it which was forced to leave Russia and is therefore beyond the reach of the repressive structures of Putinism, must prepare Russian society, including the elites, on a daily basis for the removal of the autocrat from power precipitated by foreign policy, economic, military or other instruments.

Putinism has already been weakened by a number of internal crises, but each time there was something missing to crush it decisively.  There is no doubt that more economic, military and social crises await Russia. In order for one of these crises to become fatal for the Putin regime, it is necessary to do all the things mentioned above. Whether it happens tomorrow, in a month or in a year—both in Russia and in exile, people, structures, ideas and media must be prepared, ready at any moment to be effectively involved in the events in Russia and contribute to the collapse of the dictatorship through their activities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As 2023 draws to a close, the mood has been dampened by sobering reality and grim predictions of the future for Ukraine. The much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive of 2023 delivered limited gains. Instead, the Russian military is on the offensive across the front. The liberation of the city of Kherson and Kharkiv region, which has set the optimistic tone and predictions of Ukrainian victory, are giving way to unhelpful defeatism. The continuity of Western military and financial support for Ukraine is being put into question. Putin has launched a massive PR offensive to project strength and confidence, boasting about economic successes and dramatically increasing the military spending for the next three years, and declaring an intent and ability to sustain his war against Ukraine long-term.

But is the situation really that hopeless?

Although risks for Ukraine are indeed significant and should be properly dealt with, the reality is far from the gloom and doom we see in the media, and there is a clear way for Ukraine and the democratic world to beat Putin.

We need to get off the unhelpful emotional pendulum— swinging from the gloomy pessimism of “Putin will take Kyiv in 3 days”, to unfounded optimism of “Ukraine will win the war in 2023”, and then back to the grim of today again. What is needed instead is keeping a calm focus on, as colleagues from the Center for a New American Security correctly phrased it, “identifying Russian vulnerabilities and how to leverage them”.

Here’s where the good news begins: Putin’s vulnerabilities are plenty and growing.

The initial shock of realizing that Russian economy withstood the Western sanctions can be tempered with taking a step back and looking into the near future.   Russia’s Central Bank’s extreme rate hikes are killing the economic recovery, and seem incapable of stopping the rampant inflation and curbing ruble depreciation (read more on the effects of sanctions here). Recovery forecasts for the Russian economy are being sharply slowed down. Putin’s plans to boost military spending are not backed by realistic budget revenue projections— for 2024, the Russian budget envisages growth in revenues above 22% year-on-year, which is nowhere to come from. It has even prompted billionaire Oleg Deripaska to criticize this naive lack of budget realism in frivolous language, describing the upcoming landing of the Russian economy as “butt hitting the ice”.

There is a myriad of other indicators that show that Russian wartime economy is a rapidly progressing train wreck, and we will break those down in a follow-on piece. For now, let’s get back to the situation at the front which is also replete with vulnerabilities for Putin.

His main challenge is poor quality of manpower. During the first two years of the war, the most combat-ready and professional troops and units have been decimated. Most manpower at the front lines are new recruits and mobilized soldiers, who are much more poorly trained, and, what is even more important, exhausted after serving long months at the front lines without rotation. The latter issue is becoming more pressing, with the public protests of wives of mobilized soldiers demanding their demobilization are becoming more widespread across the country.

This situation can’t last for too long: there are physical limits on soldier’s ability to hold on without rotation, they can’t do it forever – particularly on the background of Russia’s permanent attempts to conduct intensive offensive operations with heavy casualties and very limited gains. This situation becomes explosive.

However, at his public press conference in mid-December, Putin rejected the need for a second wave of mandatory mobilization – and he has reasons to do so. First, new wave of mobilization will be extremely unpopular, and may serve as a breaking point in public support for Putin – we have explained it in more detail here. Second, it will be extremely challenging, because shortage of skilled workforce becomes one of the most pressing issues constraining the economic recovery – which is widely admitted by most Putin’s officials and oligarchs, from Chairman of the Russian Central Bank Elvira Nabiullina to businesspeople from the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. Corporations are fiercely defending the right to reserve their employees from being drafted; there’s a serious shortage of skilled workforce in the military manufacturing complex itself.

Third, the new wave of mobilization in any case will be much more difficult and less productive than the first one in the fall of 2022 – because the people most skilled in relevant military professions, and those who least resisted the draft, were already mobilized. What is left are those who are (1) far less skilled, and, therefore, will be less effective at the front, and (2) will be more inclined to evade, so drafting them will be a much more effort consuming exercise.

All these circumstances point out that the next wave of mobilization will not be limited to Putin simply picking up the phone and giving the order – it will be an enormously challenging undertaking. This is actually the reason why Putin has been hesitating to call a second wave of mobilization throughout 2023, despite pressing needs to do so – the increasing breadth of clamor from relatives of mobilized soldiers is one of the proofs of that. Even if new mobilization will be called in the next few months, it will take time to equip and train new soldiers, so their arrival at the front will not be quick, and they will be much less combat ready.

Troubles with the quality of military manpower is Putin’s key vulnerability, which gives Ukraine a serious advantage and a way forward. Of course, there’s a similar problem with the Ukrainian military, which is significantly exhausted after two years of the war. But Ukrainian army is still significantly more motivated to fight, regaining its own land from the aggressor – while the moral climate of the Russian soldiers, according to available information, is quite low, and less and less Russian military servicemen understand what they are doing in Ukraine. “What kind of “death of the brave”? We die like earthworms here – that’s all,” in the words of one soldier said talking to his relatives at home as per published audio intercepts of the calls. Ukraine will also receive a boost with arrival of F16s and leveling off the balance of airpower – a key factor undermining the success of Ukrainian counteroffensive of 2023.

An alarming factor from battlefield watchers among he Russian elites – as per our own insider sources reporting from Russia – is that Russia clearly can’t launch successful major offensive operations anymore. Russian military permanently tries human-costly offensive operations in areas like Avdiivka or Kupyansk, but to very limited success and with heavy casualties. In 2023, Russia lost about 1,5 times more military servicemen in the war than in 2022, without making any significant gains. Large-scale offensive operations comparable to the full-scale offensive of February-March 2022 are unthinkable. “If one side can’t have offensives in a war, it’s clear who wins and who loses over time,” says one of our sources in Russia. Of course, it also depends on Ukraine’s ability to launch effective counteroffensives – but at least Ukraine can possibly do that. Russia can’t.

Moreover, as we all know now, Russia continues to rely on the West for critical components for its military production. This means that Putin simply won’t be able to produce military hardware without clandestine imports of Western technologies and component parts – which means that shutting down those supply routes would greatly impair Russia’s abilities for military production. It is the same story with economic sanctions: stricter enforcement and anti-circumvention measures can make sanctions more effective; bleeding Putin’s resources dry.

Overestimating Putin’s ability to withstand challenges, inflating his economic and military strength, and exaggerating public support from Russians, a common trend in Western media outlets and think tanks, may get more clicks and eyeballs, but aids Putin’s psyops and harms democracy.

While acknowledging Putin’s remaining strength is crucial, some publications falsely create an impression that he lacks vulnerabilities, portraying a thriving economy and unwavering public support. This is inaccurate; despite managing various troubles, Putin faces significant and growing problems that should be exposed and exploited. Magnifying his temporary “successes” hinders a realistic assessment of the situation, inadvertently assisting Putin in psychological and propaganda warfare against the free world. Experts and commentators should be mindful of this.

Despite difficulties, there is a clear path forward, and Putin cannot prevail over Ukraine and the West unless they succumb to pessimism and cease the fight. Rather than panicking, it’s time to realistically assess Putin’s vulnerabilities and proceed to defeat him. As Sam Greene of CEPA aptly states, “what the West needs is a sober understanding that this is not a war of choice – and thus not a war they can choose to avoid.” Victory is possible, but it requires more realism. Let’s make 2024 a year when realism and patience prevail over inflated expectations, setting a pattern for the victory we all seek.

What are the trends in Russian public opinion regarding the war and support for the Putin regime? Some commentators have lately suggested that support for both among Russians is “rock solid” and society is “rallying around the flag.” Is it true? How to measure public opinion in a repressive totalitarian state like Russia of today?

The latter issue is indeed tricky – in an environment where an ordinary Russian may get a prison term for publicly expressing their discontent with Putin and his policies, people are wary of straightforward questions and answers. Many pollsters report a record high percentage of refusals to answer polling questions, up to 80-90% of respondents.

However, multiple years of observations of Russian opinion polling trends suggest at least four simple rules which should always be followed when analyzing polling data from Russia:

  1. When various pollsters are showing similar numbers, these figures are probably reflecting the truth;
  2. When different polls show a clear trend emerging over time, that means that the trend truly exists with significant certainty;
  3. Public opinion in Russia is highly nuanced – straightforward questions are often seen by respondents as a loyalty test (“Do you support Putin” or “Do you support the special military operation”), so more detail should be asked – what is behind their opinion, and what do they really think about the situation beyond just general statements;
  4. When even the most loyal Kremlin pollsters admit certain negative trends the Kremlin, it means these trends exist and are quite worrisome for Russian authorities.

Regarding point (4), recently, there has been an important development proving the existence of very serious problems of public support for Putin’s regime. In the end of September, the head of WCIOM polling agency, Valery Fedorov, gave a detailed interview to RBC, basically admitting that the active support for Putin’s war against Ukraine is minimal, and most Russians actually don’t want the war. This admission is nothing short of sensational, since not only WCIOM has traditionally been Russia’s most Kremlin-loyal pollster, but Fedorov himself officially serves as an advisor to the first deputy head of the Kremlin administration. Fedorov’s key points are:

  • The number of active, enthusiastic supporters of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine are no more than 10-15% of Russians;
  • A “Majority of Russians don’t want to take neither Kyiv nor Odesa, and if it was up to their choice whether to start the ‘special operation’, they probably would not have done it” (direct quote).

The very title of Fedorov’s interview is “There’s always a fig sign behind their back,” meaning that Russians in general have a fair share of skepticism toward the authorities, and disregard public expressions of loyalty.

Of course, the interview, if one reads it in detail, contains a lot of references to Putin and his policies, and Fedorov claims that, on the background of the general skepticism about the war, “Russians still think that we can’t afford to lose the war now that we’re in it” (we’ll come to that argument later). But this is likely the first ever large-scale admission of general public skepticism toward the war, and little enthusiasm for it, by a professional pollster representing Putin’s administration – which also coincides with other available polling data on the matter. All this is quite far from perceptions of “predominant support for Putin and the war among Russians” that is widespread in the West.

Fedorov’s conclusions are widely supported by other pollsters as well. At the end of October, researchers from an independent polling group called Russian Field conducted another round of regular questioning of Russians about the so-called “special military operation.” Some of the most important conclusions are:

  • Solid majority (around 60% of respondents in different formulations of the question) firmly rejects the potential second wave of military mobilization;
  • More Russians (48% over 39%) support peace talks to end the war over continuation of combat. Support for continuation of the war shrunk from 54% in the spring of 2022 to 39% now; the declining trend has been quite consistent over time.

The latter trend – that the majority of Russians support ending the war with negotiations over continuation of combat – is also supported by Levada Center data, which had consistently demonstrated the decline of support for continuing the war over the last several months. In November, Levada Center reported that the number of those who wish to continue the fighting in Ukraine stood at 36%, whereas the number of those wishing for peace talks – at 57%.

The former trend (rejection of the second wave of military mobilization) has also been firm over time and acts as a near-prohibitive factor for Putin’s potential decision on a second round of mass mobilization. In the fall of 2022, the first wave of mass mobilization was met with overwhelming negativity by the Russian public, and the rejection of a possible second wave has been almost universal (according to the Russian Field survey, only 8% view a potential second wave of mobilization “positively”).

This is actually a very important factor to assess the quality of Putin’s manpower on the battlefield in Ukraine for months and years to come. Recent protests of wives of mobilized soldiers against the lack of rotation of troops at the front for more than a year illustrate how serious the pressure is on Putin to refresh his exhausted troops. However, the potential second wave of mobilization would present a serious challenge, as it would raise tensions and confrontation with the society – probably to a much bigger extent than in the fall of 2022. Back then, Russian authorities largely used up most of their potential to mobilize people who were more or less ready/willing to go fight, and the next time, the reluctance will be much stronger.

The next indirect indication of Russians’ exhaustion with the war can, for instance, be derived from the recent Levada Center poll on questions that Russians may be interested in asking Vladimir Putin during his “direct line” TV conversation with the Russians scheduled for December 14th. The question was open; respondents indicated their priorities as they have chosen. “Ending the war” is clearly dominating the field above everything else with 21%, with other top questions including concerns over deteriorating social economic situation, low salaries and wages, rising prices, etc. – 6-8% each. Positivity about the current situation is generally absent in respondents’ replies.

On the social and economic situation, Levada Center has been conducting a series of polls on consumer confidence (), which show a sharp drop in economic optimism since 2022. According to the polling, the share of people who say that their economic situation is “bearable” or “totally fine” has shrunk to 25% or below, whereas the share of those who call it “difficult but somehow bearable” or “unbearable” jumped above 70%. Despite many pundits in the West arguing that the Russian economy is “doing OK,” Russians feel strongly negative about it.

Western publications about the overall support for the war often quote the 70-80% figure of support for the “special military operation” from the polls as “proof” that the vast majority of Russians are rallying behind Putin and his war. However, a brief look at these very polls – be it Levada or Russian Field – suggests that a significant portion (from a third to a half) of people who generally express positive opinions on issues related to waging the war are pictured in light blue – “more support than oppose,” expressing significant reservations about their “support” to the extent which effectively nearly diminishes it, with only a surface wrapping of loyalty remaining. The share of those in dark blue – “unconditionally support” – is usually no more than 35-40%, clearly fading over time; Levada puts this at 39% in November, way down from 53% peak in March 2022. When the two groups are added up, it produces the often-quoted figure of 70-80% “support” for the war. But this is methodically incorrect, as the “light blue” group has significant reservations about the situation, and by all means can’t be considered “solid supporters” of the war – these are, mostly, people brainwashed by propaganda about “a NATO threat,” etc.

Another interesting question – as was raised above – is the fact that many Russians, who basically express their discontent and fatigue with the war, at the same time say that “we can’t afford to lose the war.” This is interpreted by some as “rallying around the flag” – just another version of “my country, right or wrong.” While such sentiment truly exists to a strong extent – which is confirmed by various pollsters – a more important question is about what these people are ready to do regarding their desire “not to afford to lose the war.” Are they themselves ready to go to fight? Clearly no – the above cited universal rejection of a potential second wave of mobilization obviously proves that. Another proof is near-total failure of the authorities to recruit volunteers for the front across Russia. The volunteer recruitment campaign has been ongoing since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, and volunteers are being offered very generous pay – up to 10 times the median salary in many regions. However, recruitment efforts have largely failed – the numbers of actual volunteers drafted are not matching the bravado in reports by Russian officials, as proven by many analyses – like the one done by the Conflict Intelligence Team. Drafting kiosks placed for long months in the central squares of most Russian cities stay largely empty, as can be clearly independently observed. Despite stating “support” for Putin’s “special military operation,” Russians in reality are not rushing to participate in it themselves.

So, what’s the “my country, right or wrong” type of “support” really worth, when people are actually not ready to do anything to help “win” the war? Not much, really. The experience of wars in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Chechnya in the 1990s (the second Chechen War of 2000s was a short campaign in terms of large-scale combat operations) shows that such conformist “support” tends to essentially vanish over time. This historic trend is also being confirmed today: both Levada Center and Russian Field polls suggest that there’s been a gradual erosion of support for the war since the peak in the spring of 2022, with that trend being very clear, albeit not as fast as many would wish.

To sum up: there’s growing fatigue and fading enthusiasm about the war among Russians, with these trends clearly progressing over time, creating serious public opinion constraints for Putin in continuing the war. A deteriorating economic situation is also adding up to popular negativity. While people prefer to hide their negative sentiment on the background of “patriotic” upheaval, propaganda and repression, there’s a lot of data which reveal the true perception of the situation, which is fairly gloomy.

Among the worrying trends the two are most important. First, there’s a consistent part of the society – around 35-40% – which consciously supports Putin’s aggression. That is a large portion of the society, and that is bad news. However, the good news is that it’s not a majority, that it’s not an unusually high share for historic examples of countries intoxicated with totalitarian imperialist propaganda, and that an unusually high proportion of true supporters of the war is concentrated among Russians aged 55 or older (which are also the most faithful consumers of TV propaganda). Young generations tend to be far less loyal – which gives a lot of room for longer term optimism.

The second worrying trend, as discussed above, is the notion that Russia “still has to win the war and can’t afford to lose,” despite a fair share of skepticism about the war. This is truly widespread – but, as was also mentioned above, is rather passive and not supported by an inclination to take any action to help the country “win” the war. And, as experiences of past wars show, such sentiment usually fades over time as fatigue mounts.

Why then are some opinion polling experts expressing much more pessimistic views about Russian public opinion than their actual data suggest? It probably has to do a lot with the effect summarized in the famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill – “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Although Churchill may have never actually said it, the formula describes quite well the fatigue (particularly of academics who may have less professional patience than politicians or civil society activists working grass roots) from permanently interviewing masses of frustrated, confused, brainwashed people who lack a systemic worldview and easily shift between various propaganda narratives. But that is not uncommon for authoritarian repressive societies living under the clout of propaganda for decades. The good news here is that the massive, dominating pro-war sentiment, that is often mentioned by Western commentators, is, in reality, nonexistent – the actual picture is different.

Let’s also conclude with addressing a much darker narrative that is often portrayed by Western commentators: that the Russian people are somehow genuine imperialists by nature, that the desire to conquer other lands is “embedded” in their DNA. This narrative is actually quite popular, but, in reality, not supported by actual evidence.

Take aggression against Ukraine. To measure true Russian attitudes toward the idea of conquering Ukrainian lands, it would be helpful to look at polls conducted right before the invasion: was there an actual bottom-up demand for grabbing Ukrainian land from the Russian society? Levada Center’s pre-war poll conducted between February 17-21, 2022, right before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, suggested the following:

  • 51% of Russians were “scared” by the prospect of the war between Russia and Ukraine;
  • Only 5% thought the war to be imminent, while 49% thought it won’t happen;
  • Only 25% supported the integration of Donetsk and Luhansk regions into Russia.

Before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and annexation of Crimea and parts of Donbas, there was also limited demand for such actions from Russian society. A Levada Center poll conducted in November 2013, three months before the actual annexation of Crimea, suggested that a sizable majority of Russians supported Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty. Although there was a visible call for integration of the two countries, in the realities of that period, it is most correctly interpreted through calls for Ukraine to join the Customs Union with Russia – only 16% of Russians wanted to create a “joint state” with Ukraine. That figure is consistent with the 10-15% share of aggressive imperialists today, as suggested by WCIOM’s Valery Fedorov.

These figures clearly prove that Russian public opinion simply went along with the state propaganda, and there was no demand for war from the Russian public, just as Valery Fedorov of WCIOM stated as quoted above. Mind you that Putin kept the invasion plans totally secret from the Russian public until the very hour of attacks, and his officials were explicitly denying the very intention of invasion – while immediately afterwards swiftly introducing a new article 207.3 into the country’s Criminal Code, making criticism of the war punishable with up to 15 years in prison. This is not a behavior of government particularly confident in the backing of their war of aggression by its own society.

This is not to say that the majority of Russians have a firm anti-war stance: unfortunately, subsequent trends in public opinion show that a significant portion of the Russian population is ready to support and justify the aggressive policies of Putin’s government post-factum, which is bad news. However, the good news is that there is no genuine, bottom-up support for aggression from Russian society; Putin was forced to deal with a relatively skeptical public opinion when launching the invasion.

One more interesting poll was conducted by Pew Research in 2020: residents of various European countries were asked a question “Are there parts of neighboring countries that really belong to us?” About half of Russians said “yes” (53%, while 33% opposed) – which is a worrisome result in itself, but it doesn’t prove that “the majority of the population are genuine imperialists.” In this poll, Russia trailed countries such as Hungary (67% of citizens saying that parts of neighboring countries belong to them), Greece (60%), Bulgaria and Turkey (58% each), and was close to countries like Poland (48%), Ukraine (47%) and Slovakia (46%).

The Pew Research poll, compared with little pre-war demand for aggression from Russian public opinion, clearly disproves the notion that Russians possess some form of “perpetual imperialism as part of their DNA” – rather, we see a quite common and widespread babble about “historically incorrect borders,” not truly supported by any desire to take action to retake the lands in question.

While many Russians do share a responsibility with Putin for waging the war of aggression against Ukraine, it is, in reality, much more Putin’s war than Russia’s war, as proven by all objective data.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Georgia

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.

Azerbaijan

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] 

Kazakhstan

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:

https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/France_2008.pdf?lang=en

[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:

http://continentonline.com/Document/?doc_id=30420395&doc_id2=30420395#activate_dc=2&pos=18;-88.33332824707031&pos2=631;-78.33332824707031

[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:

https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-AD(2020)009-e

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

Disinformation

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:
https://gfsis.org.ge/maps/view/georgian-territories-occupied-by-russia

[2] “Why does Georgia not join anti-Russian sanctions?” Jam News. June, 2022. URL:
https://jam-news.net/lack-of-political-will-why-georgia-does-not-join-anti-russian-sanctions/

[3] “The face of Georgia’s turn from the West.” OC-Media. August, 2022. URL:
https://oc-media.org/features/irakli-kobakhidze-the-face-of-georgias-turn-from-the-west/

[4] “South Ossetian troops fight for Russia in Ukraine.” EurasiaNet. March 2022. URL:
https://eurasianet.org/south-ossetian-troops-fighting-for-russia-in-ukraine

[5] “Georgian citizen detained near occupation line.” Civil.ge. December 2022. URL:
https://civil.ge/archives/517215

[6] “Gavrilov’s night in Tbilisi.” OC-Media. June 2020. URL:
https://oc-media.org/protesters-mark-gavrilovs-night-anniversary-in-tbilisi/

[7] “Putin blames the West for war in Ukraine.” BBC. May 2022. URL:
https://www.pubaffairsbruxelles.eu/eu-in-the-media/russias-putin-blames-west-for-war-in-ukraine-in-victory-day-speech/

[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:
https://www.alia.ge/koka-morgoshiam-da-zura-makharadzem-phuli-ver-gaiqhves-erthmaneths-phulis-gaphlangvashi-adanashaulebdnen-media/

[14] “112,000 Russians have relocated to Georgia this year.” CNBC. November 2022. URL:
https://www.cnbc.com/2022/11/25/georgia-armenia-turkey-economies-boom-with-russian-wealth-migration.html

[15] “Ukraine sanctions Ivanishvili’s relatives.” OC-Media. September 2022. URL:
https://oc-media.org/ukraine-sanctions-ivanishvilis-relatives-and-business-partners/

[16] “Georgia recommended for EU candidacy, but with conditions.” EurasiaNet. June 2022. URL:
https://eurasianet.org/georgia-recommended-for-eu-candidacy-but-with-conditions

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”.

Contact:

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

Information

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.

Contacts:

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]


Endorsements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ausra Maldeikiene, Member of the European Parliament

Ivan Stefanec, Member of the European Parliament

Liudas Mazylis, Member of the European Parliament

Vlad Gheorghe, Member of the European Parliament

Jan-Christoph Oetjen, Member of the European Parliament

Sándor Rónai, Member of the European Parliament

Nicolae Ștefănuțăm, Member of the European Parliament

Nils Ušakovs, Member of the European Parliament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ines Voika, Deputy Speaker of the Latvian Seimas

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

Michal Kaminski, Deputy Speaker of the Polish Senate

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

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

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

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

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

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.