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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, that they pose a threat to the countries that host them. There are reasons for these fears, but most of them are pure speculations.

Expecting the people who have fled Russia to start riots and protests in their places of temporary settlement, particularly in Putin’s interests, is quite illogical. First of all, even in Russia, where they seem to have had all their rights, these people were not very active in protests. Why would they be any more active in countries where any local police officer can deport them, or at least initiate the deportation process? Secondly, all of these people are in a exceptionally vulnerable and unfamiliar psychological position.  And that is probably the most important thing about what is going on.

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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The disparities between age categories are significant. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maxim Reznik is a well-known St. Petersburg opposition politician. After he launched his 2021 election campaign, he was placed under house arrest on charges of marijuana possession. Prosecutors charge Mr. Reznik with possession of 18.2 grams of marijuana “for personal consumption.” They claim that Maxim, present during the search of an apartment owned by his distant relative Ivan Dorofeev, put two packs of gum on the table from his bag, in which the drug substance was later allegedly found.

Here’s his story.

Who is Maxim Reznik?

Mr. Reznik was born on September 13, 1974, in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). He is a well-known non-partisan opposition deputy, a supporter of Alexei Navalny, and one of the harshest public critics of St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, Vladimir Putin’s protégé. In his public addresses at sessions of the city’s parliament, he frequently criticized the Kremlin’s decisions.

Reznik has been a member of the opposition “Yabloko” party since the mid-1990s, and from 2003 was head of its St. Petersburg branch. In 2012 Reznik left “Yabloko.” He himself linked his departure to a conflict with the party’s federal leadership. According to the party’s official version, he was expelled along with dozens of other St. Petersburg “Yabloko” supporters for “actual consent with fraud” in the December 2011 elections to the St. Petersburg legislature — that is, for helping the city authorities to get their deputies into the parliament.

For some time Reznik was a supporter of Mikhail Prokhorov’s Civic Platform, but left the association after its founder announced that he was leaving the party.

In 2016, Reznik was re-elected as a member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly from the “Party of Growth.”

In September 2021, Reznik was going to run again for the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly. In early June, he opened his campaign headquarters. The politician was planning to run in the 21st electoral district of the city.

Case Background

On March 9, 2021, a criminal case was initiated against the relative of Maxim Reznik, artist Ivan Dorofeev, under part 3 of article 30, paragraph “b” and part 3 of article 228.1 of the Criminal Code (attempt to illegal production, sale or sending of drugs).

The search in Dorofeev’s workshop was in progress when Reznik arrived there. During the search operatives found a grow box with plants similar to raw materials for drugs and two cans of chewing candy with banned substances.

On the basis of this search, on March 11, 2021, Nevskiy district court arrested Dorofeyev for two months. The investigation accused him of purchasing a plant-based drug (cannabis) “weighing more than 6 grams but less than 100 grams.” The prosecutors allege that Dorofeev stored it not for personal use, but with the purpose of subsequent sale.

Reznik himself believes that this pressure was applied against  Dorofeev to force a testimony. The deputy also claimed that law enforcement officers met with him and demanded that he publicly condemn the rallies in support of Alexei Navalny. Otherwise, they “promised to give the case a go.”

On April 2, 2021, Reznik was summoned for questioning in the drug case as a witness. The deputy said that the investigator “verbally explained” to him that the interrogation was connected with the fact that narcotic substances were found in the apartment where the deputy had been on March 9.

After that, the case began to develop rapidly.

The police detained Maxim Reznik on May 1, 2021, during a May Day march along the Nevsky Prospect, where he was leading a column carrying a banner reading “Petersburg vs. the “United Russia” Party.” The deputy was, however, almost immediately released.

On the same day, media outlets controlled by the St. Petersburg administration (including businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin’s media conglomerate, which is usually linked to the Kremlin’s many “dirty assignments”) reported on the May Day parade and concluded that the protesters themselves forced the police into detention. Similar posts appeared on several federal TV-channels. Every channel repeated the same thesis, almost verbatim: Maxim Reznik, “under cover of his deputy status,” framed his comrades-in-arms for the arrests.

An hour after the May Day procession ended, accusations of provocation were added to those of drug use. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s holding media outlets published a news story titled “Reznik was stoned at May Day parade in St. Petersburg” and spoke about the deputy’s “highly inadequate” behavior at the demonstration, again without specifying what it consisted of.

Overall, media outlets (both those belonging to Prigozhin’s holding and those not affiliated with him) published several hundred news items about the deputy. News items were taken out of thin air. The day after the May Day parade, the campaign to discredit the deputy went offline. On May 2, a picket was held in front of the St. Petersburg parliament with two people holding banners reading “Reznik, go smoke”. The editorial board of the Nevskie Novosti newspaper even devoted a round table to Reznik’s behavior under the title “Youth Drugs in Adult Politics.”

In the evening of May 11, 2021, Reznik’s wife, Ksenia Kazarina, said that her husband had had a heart attack and explained that it was “intense emotional pressure.” The deputy’s wife would not comment on the situation in more detail, citing the inviolability of private life. According to their publications, employees of the media outlets controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin were on nightly duty at the house of Maxim Reznik’s mother, following his wife everywhere — even to the dentist.

The Arrest and the Criminal Case

On June 17, 2021, the police searched the apartment of Maxim Reznik as well as that of his mother and his summer house. After the search, the politician was detained, and the next day the Oktyabrsky District Court sentenced him to house arrest. On August 13, the same court extended his house arrest for another three months, and on October 27, another five months, until April 20, 2022.

The searches were conducted in the case of the purchase of marijuana without intent to sell — the deputy of the City Council allegedly bought 18.2 grams of marijuana “for personal consumption.” According to the investigation, Reznik in front of witnesses (but before the formal start of the search) put the drug substance from his bag on the table, and then, referring to the fact that he is a member of the Legislative Assembly, left the premises.

Maxim Reznik was charged under part 1 of article 228 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Illegal acquisition, storage without intent to sell drugs in a significant amount”). He is under house arrest from June 18, 2021, and faces up to 3 years in prison. The deputy pleads not guilty.

“We associate the criminal case against Maxim Reznik with his harsh criticism of the “United Russia” party and personally Governor Alexander Beglov, as well as a statement about his participation in the elections to the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg,” said the deputy’s team.

The authorities viewed Reznik as a popular politician with a high chance of winning in a single-mandate district — this is what ultimately led to his detention, Grigory Golosov, a professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, said in a conversation with the BBC. “Apparently, at some point it was decided that he should not be represented in the city parliament,” the professor suggested. In his opinion, Reznik’s detention isn’t so much due to his direct support for Navalny, but rather to the general trend of cleansing the political field of those politicians “whose presence in the government seems undesirable.”

Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Maxim Reznik as a Political Prisoner?

The Human Rights Center “Memorial” considers the St. Petersburg politician Maxim Reznik to be a political prisoner according to the international criteria. The Center suggests that prosecution of Reznik is aimed at involuntary cessation of his social and political opposition activities, while house arrest is conditioned by the aspiration of the authorities to eliminate the politician from the public space.

Persecution of Maxim Reznik is a part of the repressive campaign which the Russian authorities are launching against the independent politicians who are able to compete with the pro-governmental candidates in the 2021 Russian elections.

Having studied the materials of the case, the Human Rights Center has come to the conclusion that Maxim Reznik is a victim of political persecution, which is caused by his social and political activities.

“First of all, we have doubts about the objectivity of the witnesses for the prosecution. One of the main witnesses in the case is a former employee of the Interior Ministry, the second is his fellow. The rest are security officers, who searched Dorofeev’s apartment.

Secondly, there are signs of fabrication of evidence in the case. Thus, it is known that the cans, allegedly left by Reznik, were not opened during the search, but the investigator pointed out in his testimonies that one of them contained a vegetable substance with a specific odor. How the investigator was able to establish that before the examination, he could not explain. It should be noted that there is no unequivocal evidence that the narcotic substance belonged to Reznik. When and from whom the deputy allegedly purchased it, the investigation has not established.

Third, Reznik remained as a witness in Dorofeev’s case for more than three months and was arrested only when the election campaign started. Being in pre-trial detention all that time Dorofeev was under pressure to testify against Reznik and on the eve of the meeting on April 21, 2021, unknown people stopped the deputy in the street and demanded to “denounce” the action and threatened that in case of refusal he will be charged on “case on drugs” and get real imprisonment term.

Fourthly, Reznik was put under house arrest as soon as he was arrested, which effectively made it impossible for him to take part in the new election campaign. It is noteworthy that the very next day after the election, the court ruled that it was illegal not to let Reznik see a notary, which previously prevented the deputy from filing documents to the election commission on time, and also allowed him a two-hour walk, which he had been denied many times before.

Considering the mass persecution of opposition politicians prior to the Russian elections of various levels in 2021, we believe that the initiation of the criminal case against Reznik was not accidental.

Finally, we believe that possession of marijuana for personal consumption poses very little public danger. Putting a popular opposition politician under house arrest on such a charge seems not only completely disproportionate, but also seems clearly aimed at preventing him from participating in the election race,” reads the resolution of the Human Rights Center. Based on the above, Memorial considers Maxim Reznik to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.

Since Putin launched the Russian invasion of Ukraine early on the morning of 24 February 2022, the Russian military operation has proceeded in several tactical phases. The initial Russian plan of blitzing to Kyiv along the shortest routes out of southeast Belarus and Russia’s Bryansk Oblast failed. Ukrainian resistance, Russian logistics difficulties, and terrain difficulties have turned the larger fight around Kyiv into a slow-motion slog in which Russian tactical victories are difficult to exploit and easy to counterattack.

Along much of the rest of Ukraine’s northern border, the Russian invasion had better success advancing into Ukrainian territory by bypassing cities, focusing on rail lines, and seeking to surround Kyiv itself and the Ukrainian defenders of Chernihiv by approaching west to Brovary and to threaten the mass of the Ukrainian Army in the Donbass by approaching south to Izyum and Severodonetsk. These advances have yet to pay dividends as Ukrainian territorial defense forces continuously harass Russian logistical access to forward positions. Furthermore, Russia responded to Ukrainian refusal to surrender the cities of Sumy, Akhtyrka, and Kharkiv with continuous rear-area bombardment to enable a switch to an occupation force accomplishable by less capable Russian units. In the Donbass itself, Ukrainian defenses prepared for eight years, effectively managed to stall a Russian offensive for weeks, though the line has begun to crumble under continuous pressure combined with pincers coming from the north and south.

This southern approach out of Crimea has given Russia the biggest territorial gains of the war with Moscow claiming to be in control all of Kherson Oblast with other advances northeast to the Donbass, north to about 50km short of Zaporoizhzhia, and northwest toward Mykolaiv. This last direction has been the most active area of movement in the past two weeks with the Russians and Ukrainians exchanging control of much of the 60km highway between them several times.

In short, the Russian invasion has divided into five separate campaigns: (1) a floundering offensive northwest of Kyiv; (2) brutal sieges of Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol; (3) tactical advances hounded by logistical harassment moving west through Sumy Oblast and south from Belgorod Oblast; (4) a World War I-style breakthrough operation in the Donbass; and (5) low-density and relatively high-speed exchanges of territory in the south.

The Russian Armed Forces seem to be pivoting from an early bet of a war of destruction to the war of attrition. These two variants of war as described by Soviet military theorist Aleksandr Svechin refer less to operational style than to the political oversight of conflict. Whereas a war of destruction seeks a rapid outcome through force of arms, a war of attrition requires greater patience but drives at exhausting and capturing the enemy’s means of resistance.

After the initial days of the conflict in which the Russians attempted to capture strategic points to deny external lines of communication to Kyiv, the effort shifted toward capturing power plants and water plumbing facilities. After some initial successes in this regard, Russian offensive strength to capture these points ebbed and so the emphasis was shifted again to destroying Ukrainian infrastructure not acquired in those days. This pattern suggests a conscious shift toward attacking the Ukrainian ability to resist rather than directly defeating them militarily on all sections of the different fronts.

Some portions of the front line, especially the Donbass, remain conventional offensives in which the Russians are tactically advancing and aiming to destroy their opposition. These offensives are frequently bypassing cities such as Mariupol and Chernihiv, leaving behind sufficient forces to surround and besiege but not storm them. In most other sections of the front, however, it increasingly seems that the Russians are at least temporarily pivoting to entrenching positions and forcing the tactical burden of the offensive to the Ukrainians seeking to evict the invaders.

The Ukrainians have had marked success in conducting counterattacks against Russian advances, especially in the battles west of Kyiv, but they have yet to score any significant rollback of Russian positions held for two weeks or more. This may change over time but with much of the Ukrainian Armed Forces located in the Donbass facing the heaviest assault and being pushed back, the resources for a major Ukrainian offensive will not be available anytime soon.

The Russian shift in tactics suggests several possibilities for the near-term conduct of the war. Firstly, the Russian conventional push in the Donbass is likely to continue. The Russian political investment in the Donbass in domestic media makes this the highest priority and that the Kremlin would attempt to realize within a couple weeks.

Secondly, by switching to a war of attrition in which civilians’ condition will be the chief measure of success, Russian political pressure falls less on the central government in Kyiv and more on local mayors and city councils. Local Ukrainian politicians have proved resilient in resisting Russian intimidation in the first month of the war, but this may be severely tested if the war does not end within coming weeks.

Thirdly, with a war of attrition Russia would attempt to grind down Ukrainian resistance and insurgency. The first month of the war saw Ukrainians successfully defend their territory against widely predicted odds, boosting morale among soldiers and civilians alike. Behind the current front lines, Ukrainian protests against the occupation have been frequent. A slow war may test the activated Ukrainian patriotism as the tangible results of resistance shine ever more bleakly against the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe and depopulation of the country. Russian political victory at this point would require extremely brutal suppression campaigns and forced population transfers of a scale that would almost certainly undermine the political stability of the Russian Federation as a whole. The economic damage to Russia from sanctions will be extreme even if China and India remain favorable to Moscow as the Russian economy of 2021 remains established as a giant commodities distributor for Western markets far more than Asian ones. Reconfiguring the flow of goods from west to east and south will be a large-scale undertaking that will almost require mortgaging more control of Russian infrastructure to Chinese and possibly Indian interests. Amidst these maelstroms, the Ukrainians will have more than a fighting chance to convince Russians that Putin’s imperial gamble is not worth the reward.

Since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, the issue of responsibility for this atrocity remains prominently in the public spotlight:

Was it just the will of Putin alone? Or is his elite also complicit?

Are the Russian people to blame for their inaction and maybe even enthusiasm for the war? A ballerina at the Mariinsky theater who is dating a Kremlin official, a pensioner dreaming of reinstatement of the Soviet Union, and a soldier’s mother in Buryatia?

What about the Western elites who personally and handsomely benefited from shady deals with the Kremlin in the face of its crimes and repressions— lifting sanctions off the Nord Stream 2, flattering Putin by engaging his government as a legitimate stakeholder on nonproliferation deals, buying his oil and gas— financing Putin’s war machine?

What about all the states that refuse to impose full economic blockade on Russia now and deliver fighter jets and air defenses to Ukraine? Are they responsible for the continued bloodshed and loss of life?

What about international companies, who decided to not stop their operations inside Russia? Are they the reason why the blitzkrieg has stretched out to now over a month?

These are not mere philosophical ruminations but have very profound practical ramifications. How we frame and answer these questions would shape and drive our policies, our efforts at stopping the war, righting the wrong and preventing this atrocity from repeating.

These are also extremely painful questions. They evoke anger, mourning, shame, helplessness, utter loss.

They move some of us to feel violence and aggression— find the responsible ones and make them pay!

Someone who could get close to Putin and somehow “neutralize” him— would undoubtedly become a global hero and proclaimed a saint by a few churches. But this is not lost on the “bunker grandpa” who spent the first two weeks of the war in a nuclear underground shelter beyond the Urals, has fired and replaced over 1,000 of his closest personnel and is ridiculed by the exceptionally long tables that separate him from his closest advisors at meetings. So, we can’t get to Putin.

A situation of extreme frustration like this, oftentimes gives rise to instances of displaced aggression: when you can’t punish the source of your anger, find someone else in your proximity and punish them.

Free Russia Foundation is extremely concerned with one particular area of such displaced aggression— the Russian civil society.

We hear numerous calls to kick out all Russian citizens from international universities, to cancel their visas, to ban them from traveling, to not offer them scholarships or jobs based on the origin of their passports and their national identity. These come even from prominent statesmen which we see as friends. These calls ARE displaced aggression because they hit the most progressive, pro-Western, pro-Ukrainian Russians; they are the thousands of courageous Russians who have for two decades opposed and fought Putin’s regime. Who have sacrificed their economic and social status, their family ties, their freedom to actively advance the vision of democracy for their country. Who have even been ridiculed by some of their foreign acquaintances for being too intense or paranoid and advised to find common ground with Putin’s regime.

Today, their life is in extreme danger— they are hunted down methodically by the State, increasingly with the reporting by pro-war neighbors and colleagues, they are fined, imprisoned, physically and sexually assaulted. Since the start of the war, half a million of Russians have been pushed out of the country into exile, threatened by repressions.

In exile, these Russians are looking for ways to help stop the war— by breaking through to Russian audiences, by helping counter the disinformation and propaganda, by helping the West to better understand weak spots and vulnerabilities of the Kremlin and its global influence networks which have entangled Western elites.

In exile, these Russians are also cut off from access to their bank accounts— due to various western and Russian sanctions and private sector initiatives designed to stop the war. They are facing humiliating circumstances where they can’t pay for their food or motels. They also face grim uncertainty with their immigration status— once their visa-free stay expires in a few weeks.

For them going back to Russia means prison or worse. But they are not welcome where they are either.

Rightfully, ending the war, ensuring that Ukraine is victorious, that it is rebuilt and the ones responsible are punished— are the main and immediate priorities.

However, it is also abundantly clear that Russian political development cannot once again be neglected and left on an auto-pilot— or we risk seeing new cataclysms rising from the depths of the nuclear-armed dictatorship. The prospect that even after the defeat in Ukraine, Putin can hold on to power and continue as a menacing force globally, remains far too real.

Free Russia Foundation asserts that pro-democracy Russians — now predominantly in exile— hold the keys to this political development and are the main agents of change for Russia. As such, they must be supported and empowered. Supporting these Russians is not an act of charity or irrational largesse. Supporting and empowering them is a matter of shrewd strategic self-interest for the West.

In the immediate term, these Russians are the source of invaluable expertise and insight into how to defeat Putin in Ukraine and bring about the fall of his regime in Russia.

In the longer term, these are precisely the people we want to be at the helm of reforming and restructuring Russia, conducting lustrations and de-Putinification, putting it on solid ground to becoming a democratic, peaceful and prosperous state.

In practical terms, what do we mean by support for pro-democracy anti-Putin Russians?

First of all, lets acknowledge their importance and abstain from attacking them. Each of them now, I assure you, are soul-searching and wondering what more they could have done to prevent the tragedy in Ukraine.

Let’s stop the displaced aggression initiatives aimed to strip them of visas, scholarships, fire them from western institutions and kick them out from international universities.

VISA AND PROTECTED STATUS FOR PRO-DEMOCRACY RUSSIANS. Let’s help them stay in the fight— which, hopefully, everyone now understands is also our fight— to end Putin’s chock-hold on Russia. Let’s think about providing temporary visas or protected statuses and reinstating access to their own hard-earned resources.

EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES. Let’s connect them to western agencies and institutions fighting the Kremlin where their input can make a real difference while also allowing them to feed themselves in ways other than driving Uber. Let’s provide specialized training to help them adjust to new circumstances and fill critical gaps in capacity.

FACILITATE NEW ECOSYSTEM. Let’s help connect the global community of pro-democracy Russians into an innovative and robust ecosystem working to take down Putin in Russia and curb its influence in the West. Let’s help them rise as a force powerful to bring about real change for Russia and the world.

Buryat activists have launched a campaign calling for the end of the Russian war on Ukraine. The campaign aims to break through the Kremlin propaganda. 

Background

Since the Donbas war, ethnic Buryats from Siberia have been dubbed as the “Putin’s Buryat warriors.” It all began with the Donbas war, where the Kremlin, advancing its Novorossiya project sent Russian armed forces posing as local Donetsk separatists. And while a soldier from Pskov was visually difficult to discern from a Donetsk miner, Buryats with their clearly Asian appearance, really stood out from the local population. This is when these Buryats were humorously called the Donbass Indians. 

In Spring 2015, a 20-year-old Buryat tank crew member Dorzhi Batomunkuev, who had been severely burnt in combat in Logvinovo, gave an interview to the Russian Novaya Gazeta newspaper, in which he characterized Russian President Vladimir Putin as an insidious man who asserts to the entire world that “our military is not there,” and in reality, is pulling a fast one on the sly. Dorzhi confirmed that there are, in fact, Russian soldiers in the Donbas.

In Summer 2015, a Kremlin-backed project “The Net” released a video on behalf of “Putin’s Buryat warriors,” featuring several young men and women who attempted to contest reports in the media that Buryat soldiers participate in the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The crude video address is perhaps most memorable with its assertion that “the Ukrainian economy is free falling into the European pubic area of Concita Wurst,”—amplifying the Kremlin’s narratives tying European values to its supposed moral decay as manifested in acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities. 

Members of the Kyiv Buryat community published a civilized counter, but lacking the hype, it did not go viral.

And just like that, we got to the point, where in February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, and once again, numerous videos featuring Buryat POWs started to pop up on social media. Initially, supporters of the “special operation” dismissed as fake the video with an unidentified young man saying that he is a Buryat. However, the soldier’s mother has confirmed that the video is of her son— Sergey Ochirov. And then she staged a solitary protest on the main square of the Buryat capital, holding a sign “No War.”

In an ironic historic twist, an ethnic Buryat Yuriy Ekhanurov served as Ukraine’s Prime Minister in 2005-2006 and headed Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense from 2007-2009. 

Breaking Through the Kremlin’s Propaganda

Buryats who are not thrilled with being appropriated as “the Russian World” mascots, launched a campaign, releasing a new video each week, featuring Buryats who demand for the war to stop.

Due to the absurd new Russian laws, according to which even uttering “No to War” is interpreted as “discrediting the activities of the Russian military”— a transgression that comes with a real and lengthy prison sentence, the videos mainly feature Buryats who live outside of Russia. 

Dozens of Buryats have already recorded videos, including Buryats born or living in Ukraine. The campaign’s authors have collected enough materials for a series of videos. 

At this point, Buryats are the only ethnic minority of Russia who has initiated this type of campaign. 

An activist Victoria Maladaeva who resides in San Francisco could not remain silent having “interacted with many of her friends living in Buryatia and realizing how brutally effective was the Kremlin’s propaganda.”

“I wanted to break through to the Russian citizens, to my compatriots, and to tell them that the war is not about the joy of victory. War is always grief, death, injuries, traumas and fear,”— she explains. 

“I hope that from the mouth of fellow Buryats at least some hear the voice of truth, the voice of freedom. I also wanted to support those who in horror had already realized what’s going on and tried to tackle propaganda and its toll among family members. I am now being asked to forward these videos so that others can show them to their mothers, to other family members,”- says Maladaeva who continues to collect videos from others who oppose the war via her Instagram account. 

Maladaeva has left Russia a few years ago fleeing racism. 

Russia is not Qualified to Lecture Ukraine on Anti-Fascism

Vladimir Budaev who was involved in producing the anti-war videos had himself experienced racism in Russia. He is genuinely incensed that the Kremlin broadcasts as the main purpose of invading Ukraine its de-Nazification. Budaev feels that Putin should start out by “de-Nazifying Russia.”

Aleksei Kim, another participant in the video campaign, also raises the problems of racism and xenophobia suffered by minorities in Russia. 

According to Kim, in 2017, in Moscow, “out of the blue, a group of 7 assaulted him, kicking, proclaiming that Russia is for Russians and Moscow is for Muscovites.” None of the bystanders interfered to defend the young man, and when he came to a police department, they recommended that he does “not meander in unfamiliar neighborhoods.”

The participants of the anti-war video campaign are befuddled by the fact that non-Russians are sent to Ukraine to defend “the Russian World.”

“To save “the Russian World” the government is sending people from remote regions, people who are not of Russian ethnicity. This war cannot be justified in any way. It is cruel and senseless, as is the totalitarian regime of Russia, which has persisted for over 20 years. But right now, this regime is harming not only the Russian citizens, but also the citizens of Ukraine,” — points out Dari Mansheeva. 

“In Ukraine, the Russian state right now is conducting a senseless war, not needed by anyone, and is sending Buryat soldiers there. And I just don’t understand— why are they supposed to die there! I don’t want the families of my compatriots to receive death notices in the mail. I don’t want my people to pay in blood for someone’s military adventurism! I believe that this war is a crime,”— states Maria Vyushkova. 

“I am against my compatriots being shipped over there like cannon fodder to satisfy the ambitions and perverted fantasies of the mentally ill Putin,”— adds Budaev. 

Notably, in 2015, in St. Petersburgh, the Russian government hosted an International Russian Conservative Forum, where they hobnobbed with European neo-Nazis who use swastika as their symbol, praise the Third Reich and peddle theories on Jewish conspiracy.

The Kremlin’s efforts to befriend the Western ultra-Rights is a well-known fact, which makes its current demands to de-Nazify Ukraine even more absurd. 

Putin Should be Tried at an International Tribunal

Journalist Evgenia Baltatarova who was forced into exile to Kazakhstan underscores: “I am against the war in Ukraine. It is my conviction that Russia is the aggressor in this war. The war must end as soon as possible. And Putin must be subjected to a trial at an international tribunal.”

One of the anti-war campaign’s videos features the daughter of a famous Buryat writer African Balburov—Arina Stivrinya; as well as Kyiv-based Yulia Tsyrendorzhieva, Tatyana Vynnyk and a Buryat-Ukrainian family – the Tikhonovs. Nikita Tikhonov, points out that in Ukraine “there are no fascists, there are no Banderites, and this war is to the benefit of just one person.”

Buryats insist that the war for “the Russian World”— is not their war. And they know all too well what it is like to be “liberated”— within the framework of the “Russian World.”

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

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

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

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

Silencing of the Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attack on the Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harsher Punishment for “Discrediting” the Military

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

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

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

3. calls for sanctions against Russia.

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

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

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

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

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

The Ominous Letter Z: War Propaganda Inside Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squashing Anti-War Initiatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Criminal Prosecution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Russia Foundation has compiled a list of Russians who had participated in Vladimir Putin’s pro-war rally that took place on March 18, 2022 at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow.

The event was held in support of the brutal war that Russia has been waging against Ukraine for over three weeks now killing thousands of civilians in Ukraine, including children, bombing residential buildings and hospitals.

The list consists of Russian opinion leaders and celebrities – propaganda bullhorns – who with their activities promote the war crimes of the Russian Federation in Ukraine.

Concert hosts

  1. Maria Eduardovna Sittel – Russian television presenter and an anchor on the Vesti program at Russia 1
  2. Dmitry Viкtorovich Guberniev – Russian TV presenter, sports commentator of TV channel Match TV, Confidant of Vladimir Putin

Concert speakers and orators

  1. Dmitry Anatolyevich Pevtsov – Russian theater and film actor, singer, musician, teacher, Member of the State Duma, member of the «New People» (political pro-Putin party) faction
  2. Vladimir Lvovich Mashkov – Russian theater and film actor and director, screenwriter, film producer, public figure. Artistic director of the Moscow Theater Oleg Tabakov, Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  3. Artem Vladimirovich Zhoga – the commander of the Sparta Battalion, a pro-Russian separatist force that is involved in the Russo-Ukrainian War. The father of ex-commander of the Sparta Battalion Vladimir Artemovich Zhoga, who was killed in in Ukraine 05 March 2022
  4. Maria Vladimirovna Zakharova – Russian civil servant, diplomat. Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (MFA of Russia), spokesman and official representative of the MFA of Russia
  5. Margarita Simonovna Simonyan – Propagandist, Russian journalist and media manager. Editor-in-Chief of the RT TV channel, of the Rossiya Segodnya international news agency and of the Sputnik news agency, Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  6. Tinatin (Tina) Givievna Kandelaki – Russian journalist, TV presenter, producer, public figure, founder of the cosmetic brand ANSALIGY, Deputy General Director of Gazprom-Media and Managing Director of Gazprom-Media Entertainment Television, Acting Director of the TNT TV channel
  7. Victor Anatolyevich Polyakov – Russian aircraft engineer, Deputy General Director – Managing Director of PJSC UEC-Saturn of the United Engine Corporation Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  8. Vladimir Abdualievich Vasilyev – Deputy of the State Duma
  9. Sergey Mikhailovich Mironov – Deputy of the State Duma
  10. Alexey Gennadievich Nechayev – Deputy of the State Duma
  11. Alexey Yakovlevich Shloknik – The Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Director
  12. Yaroslav Yevgenyevich Nilov – Deputy of the State Duma

Singers and celebrities

  1. Polina Sergeyevna Gagarina – Russian singer, songwriter, actress, model, Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  2. Oleg Mikhaylovich Gazmanov – Russian singer, actor, composer, poet, producer, specializing in patriotic songs, Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  3. Nikolay Vyacheslavovich Rastorguyev – Vocalist, soloist, the lead singer of the Russian group Lyube, Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  4. Vitaly Feoktistovich Loktev – Keyboardist, bayanist, Lyube group
  5. Alexander Erokhin – Drummer, Lyube group
  6. Sergey Pereguda – Guitarist, Lyube group
  7. Dmitry Streltsov – Bass player, Lyube group
  8. Alexey Tarasov – backing vocalist, Lyube group
  9. Pavel Suchkov – backing vocalist, Lyube group
  10. Alexey Vladimirovich Kantur – backing vocalist, Lyube group
  11. Vasily Georgievich Gerello – Russian opera singer, soloist of the Mariinsky Theater
  12. Natalia Yuryevna Podolskaya (Natalla Padolskaja) – Belarusian and Russian pop singer
  13. Timur Ildarovich Yunusov (Timati) – Russian rapper, singer, record producer, actor, and entrepreneur. Confidant of Vladimir Putin
  14. Anastasiya Vasilevna Makeyeva (Malkova-Makeyeva) – Russian theater, film and dubbing actress, singer, fashion model, TV presenter
  15. Moscow Cossack Choir
  16. Marina Firsova – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  17. Ksenia Babikova – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  18. Antonina Kochergina – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  19. Maria Korneva – Artist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  20. Andrey Kargopolov – Artist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  21. Svetlana Chebanko – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  22. Anton Kornev – Soloist and director of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  23. Anna Valyavina (Goncharova) – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  24. Artem Limin-Kosachev – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  25. Sergei Zhuravlev – Soloist of the Moscow Cossack Choir
  26. Natalia Alexandrovna Kachura – concert performer, artist-vocalist of the Music and Drama Theater. M. M. Brovun (Donetsk, DPR)
  27. Victoria Petrovna Dayneko – Russian singer and actress
  28. Ballet by Alla Dukhovaya “Ballet Todes” – Russian dance group and a network of schools-studios for teaching dance art
  29. Nikolay Viktorovich Baskov – Singer
  30. Sergey Evgenievich Zhukov – Singer
  31. Alexander Vladimirovich Oleshko – Actor
  32. Alexander Felixovich Sklyar – Singer
  33. Dmitry Vadimovich Kharatyan – Singer
  34. Yaroslav Dronov (SHAMAN) – Singer
  35. Oksana Vladimirovna Nechitaylo (Sogdiana) – Singer
  36. Anna Sergeyevna Tsoy – Singer
  37. Evgeniy Nikolayevich Prilepin (Zakhar Prilepin) – Writer
  38. Evgeni Viktorovich Plushenko – Figure skater
  39. Adelina Dmitriyevna Sotnikova – Figure skater
  40. Svetlana Sergeyevna Zhurova – Speed skater
  41. Svetlana Vasilyevna Khorkina – Artistic gymnast
  42. Alexander Gennadiyevich Legkov – Cross-country skier
  43. Dina Alekseyevna Averina – Rhythmic gymnast
  44. Arina Alekseyevna Averina – Rhythmic gymnast
  45. Alexander Alexandrovich Bolshunov – Cross-country skier
  46. Evgeny Mikhailovich Rylov – Swimmer
  47. Viktoria Viktorovna Listunova – Artistic gymnast
  48. Vladimir Evgenyevich Morozov – Figure skater
  49. Victoria Alexandrovna Sinitsina – Figure skater
  50. Nikita Gennadyevich Katsalapov – Figure skater

Download the list as a PDF file

On February 24, 2022, the Russian military invaded Ukraine by order of Vladimir Putin. Since then, protests against the war have not stopped inside Russia. Russians demand an end to the military invasion of Ukraine and peace between two countries. In response, the government has brutally suppressed protests, and attempted to intimidate people with new draconian laws. 

Arrests at Protests. The human rights media outlet OVD-Info estimates that by March 7, 2022 over 13,500 people had been detained at anti-war rallies in Russia. Human rights activists say that this is more than at the rally in support of Alexei Navalny that took place in January 2021. 

Detentions at the March 6 rallies were among the largest and most brutal since the anti-war campaign began. Over 5000 people were detained in 56 Russian cities; some of the detainees were physically assaulted, dragged by the hair, doused with water and antiseptic and tasered. The “Protest Apology” project recorded more than 30 complaints about the unjustified use of force and special means by officers of the MVD and Rosgvardiya.

In many cities, plain-clothed law enforcement officers detained protesters and took them to police vans. They often used excessive force. The anonymity created conditions for abuse of power and helped avoid criminal responsibility.

In Novosibirsk, a woman detained at the rally said that she was beaten by the police (she was taken out of the Tsentralny department by paramedics and her leg was injured). At the metro stop “Ploshchad Revolutsii” in Moscow, riot police pinned a man on the floor, pressed him with knees and hit him several times in the head with fists. At Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, police officers demanded to check passersby’s cell phone contents — they threatened arrest in case of refusal.

Detainees at anti-war rallies in various cities say that in police stations they have their cell phones taken away and not allowed to contact lawyers. At Moscow’s Brateevo police station at least three detained girls were beaten by police. They were doused with water and hit on their faces and bodies. “We were beaten on the legs, on the head. They poured water over us. They ripped off the mask, ripped the phone out of hands and threw it against the wall twice. At the end, they picked up the phone, wiped off the fingerprints. They grabbed me by the hair and pulled me around. They yelled at me. There were two girls in the office and they just watched the torture,” said 26-year-old Muscovite Alexandra Kaluzhskikh. In the recording she made, one of the officers can be heard threatening to torture the girl with electric shocks. “Putin is on our side. You are the enemies of Russia, you are the enemies of the people ***** [f**k you]. You’ll ******** [be beaten] here and that’s it. We’ll get a bonus for this,” says the policeman.

Protest participants are charged with violation of the rules of participation in the action (Part 5 of Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code), repeat violation of the rules of participation in the action (Part 8 of Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code), organization or conduct of an action (Part 2 of Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code), disobedience to a legal requirement of the police (Article 19.3 of the Administrative Code), public actions, aimed at “discrediting the use of the armed forces” (Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Code).

All detainees face fines from 2 thousand to 300 thousand rubles and arrest up to 30 days.

New Draconian Laws. On March 4, 2022, the Russian State Duma convened for an emergency plenary session. Among other things, the deputies adopted in the second and third readings a bill on amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses and the Criminal Code. The initiatives introduced punishment for disseminating “knowingly false information about the activities of the Russian Armed Forces” and “for discrediting the use of the Russian forces”. In order for these changes to enter into force as quickly as possible, they were carried out under an accelerated procedure.

According to the text of the law, the crime without aggravating circumstances involves a fine of up to 1.5 million rubles and imprisonment of up to three years. If “official position” was used in spreading “fakes,” there was a “mercenary motive” or a motive of “political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred,” the person faces a fine of up to five million rubles or five to 10 years in prison. If the distribution of “fakes” led to serious consequences, the case could lead to imprisonment for 10 to 15 years.

What does “discrediting the use of the armed forces” mean? It is “public actions aimed at discrediting the use” of the Russian army, including public calls to prevent its use. Whether this will mean, for example, participation in an anti-war rally, it is not yet clear, but it is very likely.

The Kremlin is hiding the true cost of war from its people.  Ukrainian presidential office reported more than 12,000 dead Russian soldiers, while the Russian Defense Ministry does not confirm these figures. During the first week since the start of the war, it never published data on casualties, and on March 2, it named the losses of the Russian army in Ukraine for the first time. According to the ministry, 498 soldiers were killed and 1,597 wounded during the hostilities. This data has not been updated since then. At the same time, in all publications of government agencies and pro-Kremlin media, it is forbidden to call this conflict the word “war”: only the term “special military operation” is used.

It is also still unclear which soldiers are involved in the operation. Russian authorities claim that only contract soldiers have been sent to the war. The Ukrainian side regularly reports about dozens and even hundreds of captured Russian soldiers, many of whom are not contract soldiers, but regular conscripts.

This is indirectly confirmed by evidence that in mid-February, the parents of soldiers serving in military units in various parts of Russia began to contact the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. They all reported the same thing: their sons were either forced to urgently sign a contract or sent to military units located near the border with Ukraine. According to the law, if an enlisted man is ready to go to war under contract, he can sign it one month after the start of military service, but in practice the contracts were signed under pressure, the soldiers’ relatives claim.

The Russian Defense Ministry also does not tell mothers where and how to find their sons. Behind the impersonal figure of 498 people are the tragedies of specific families who, as if they had been instructed in advance, are told “this is a fake,” even when relatives bring in pictures and videos of their loved ones in captivity. There are cases when mothers of killed Russian soldiers receive a death notification, but the military unit keeps claiming that the soldier is in training. “We have no such information,” this phrase has become the universal answer of any officials and military the mothers. 

News about the victims can only be learned from reports by regional authorities or from posts of condolence published by their friends and relatives. It was the same during the war in Donbass in 2014-2015, and it was the same during the Syrian campaign. 

By March 7, 2022, according to data of human rights project “Network Freedoms”, 60 people had been detained under the new law in 16 Russian cities: St. Petersburg, Kostroma, Samara, Krasnoyarsk, Novorossiysk, Orel, Taganrog, Kaliningrad, Krasnodar, Voronezh, Elista, Vladivostok, Yaroslavl, Kemerovo, Anapa, Simferopol.

Some of the detainees are also facing charges for participating in an unauthorized rally (Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code) and violating the law on “fakes” (Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Code). Seven of them have already been fined between 30 and 60 thousand rubles, reports “Network Freedoms.”

NGS42 reported that on March 6, 2022,  a resident of Kemerovo was fined 60 thousand rubles for calling for an anti-war rally. On the same day, a fine of 30 thousand rubles was imposed on Irina Shumilova, a resident of Kostroma, who staged a solitary picket with a poster “This war is a special operation on your taxes, and we fundraise for the medical treatment of children by SMS-messages”. According to “Network Freedoms”, no linguistic expertise was conducted in Shumilova’s case, and the police officer making the arrest said that he detected an appeal to protest in the fact that the words “war” and “special operation” were highlighted on the poster.

Another resident of Kostroma region, priest Ioann Burdin, head of the Church of the Resurrection in the village of Karabanovo, was also detained. He was charged with anti-war preaching and publishing a link to the “No to War” petition on Change.org on the parish website. “Burdin V.V., being in a public place, in the premises of the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, during his religious service in the presence of about 10 worshipers committed public actions aimed at discrediting the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, which conduct a special operation on the basis of the decision of the President and the resolution of the Federation Council of the RF Federal Assembly”, — said the protocol according to «Mediazone» media outlet.

Vera Kotova, a resident of Krasnoyarsk, was fined 30 thousand rubles. She was tried for writing “No to War” on the snow. The police report states that she “wrote on the snow by removing the snow cover from the granite base of the monument to Lenin: “No to War.”

The Russian State Goes After Children. On March 3, 2022, the Russian Ministry of Education held an all-Russian open lesson, “Defenders of Peace,” at which schoolchildren were lectured on “why the liberation mission in Ukraine is a necessity.” Shortly before that, principals of educational institutions across Russia directed teachers to hold daily class hours dedicated to the war in Ukraine and relations between the two countries — and sent them teaching guides that referred to the war as a “special operation.”

On March 7, 2022, it was reported that in Moscow, police came to the home of sixth-grader Kirill (surname withheld at the request of his mother) after a history lesson where the war with Ukraine was discussed, and the boy was asking questions. Kirill and his mother Natalia told “Novaya Gazeta” about it.

The lesson, where the teacher decided to discuss the Russian “special operation”, took place on March 4. According to Kirill, not only he, but a few of his classmates asked questions about the war. The consequences for them are not reported.

Among other things, Kirill asked why Putin started a war in Ukraine. To which the teacher said that it was a “special operation.” When asked how to get the government to agree to a rally against the actions of the government itself, she, according to the schoolboy, “did not give a clear answer”.

After class Kirill shouted “Glory to Ukraine!” in the hallway and was supported by other kids, the boy told reporters.

According to the mother of the schoolboy, after the class, she received a call from an unknown number and was invited to the police department for a conversation about her son. Kirill’s class master invited her to school for a meeting with the juvenile affairs inspectorate. Natalya did not show up for the conversation and took her son out of school.

On March 7, when Kirill was alone in the apartment, two police officers came to the schoolboy’s home. The boy did not open the door, so the police turned off the electricity in the apartment and left, leaving a “summons for questioning” under the door.

There is also another scandalous story involving children. On March 2, 2022 in Moscow police detained two women and five of their children, aged seven to 11, who had come to lay flowers at the Ukrainian Embassy. The detainees were first held in a police truck, then brought to the Presnenskoe police station.The authorities first wanted to keep the parents and their children overnight at the police station, but later they let them go.  A trial and fines are ahead, and the parents are afraid — the police officers shouted at them, threatening to deprive them of their parental rights.

Internet and Social Media Blockade. On March 2, Roskomnadzor blocked the websites of the Ukrainian Ministry of Health and Border Guard Service and several dozen Ukrainian media outlets in Russia, including TCN channel, Segodnya, Zaxid, Ukrinform, Censor.net, Vesti.ua, Depo.ua and Delo.ua, among others.

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

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

Before that, Roskomnadzor issued a statement in which it demanded that the media should write about the war in Ukraine, relying only on official Russian sources, otherwise the agency threatened to block them and impose fines of up to five million rubles. The Krasnoyarsk-based media outlet Prospekt Mira, and Echo Moskvy, InoSMI, Mediazona, The New Times, Dozhd, Svobodnaya Pressa, Krym.Realii, Novaya Gazeta, Zhurnalist, and Lenizdat immediately received cautions from the agency.

After Russia passed a law on criminal liability for “fakes” about the actions of the Russian army, a number of media outlets announced that they had stopped working (in particular, Znak.com) or refused to write about the war (in particular, Novaya Gazeta and Snob).

Roskomnadzor also restricted Russians’ access to Facebook and Twitter.

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

All that happened to Russia and in Russia in the first ten days of its war against Ukraine can be understood and analyzed in detail only after many years, when all the data becomes available and when history puts everything in its place — who was right and who was wrong, whose hopes and prophecies came true and whose hopes was not in vain.

Among the many things that have happened, one cannot ignore the massive and rapid departure of tens of thousands of people from Russia. During the time when it was still possible to fly from Russia anywhere, huge airliners departed from each of the country’s metropolises many times a day to Istanbul, Yerevan, Baku, Tashkent, and Bishkek. Obviously, the main request was the absence of an entry visa requirements for Russian passport holders. Further plans in many cases remained vague — to sit out the war in Turkey or Georgia, to try to get visas somewhere else. Social networks were flooded with brief messages about leaving Russia and heartbreaking stories about planes crammed with IT-specialists,  psychologists, producers, journalists, businessmen, their families, and pets.

The large number of people in airports with pet carriers signaled that people were not leaving for a short vacation. Another alarming indicator was the fantastic prices for destinations that are not at all popular at this time of year — and yet people bought tickets and left.

Also notable is the frequency of threatening remarks by border guards to those leaving, in particular the phrase “You understand that we will not let you back?” Most likely, these are private opinions, but modern Russian law is such that normal everyday life abroad inevitably leads to crimes: contacts with undesirable and banned organizations, statements on topics forbidden in Russia in prohibited terms, and so on.

There has probably only been one period in Russian history when so many people left the country in a matter of days, bound together by one thing only: an unwillingness to accept the new reality that prevailed in the country. I am talking about the evacuation of the White Army from the Crimea in November 1920, when some 165,000 people left Russia in three days. In 2022, there was no defeated army evacuated, and there was no civil war in Russia, but in a moral sense these events have much in common. These days, those who no longer see any possibility of staying in Russia left, because the authorities had defiantly and unequivocally stripped them of everything that was important, familiar and dear to them — prospects, jobs, ways of life, the ability to move freely around the world and generally an ability to feel like free people in a free world. According to observers’ calculations, 150 journalists of the federal media alone left during the days of war — and this after the continuous departure of opposition journalists from Russia for many years.

How many people in total left Russia in the first ten days of the war? Given the multitude of flights from different cities, we are obviously talking about several thousand leaving daily. According to local reports, 20-25 flights from Russia arrived to Yerevan alone every day. We should add to this those who crossed land borders from Finland to Kazakhstan. According to Georgian authorities, about 30,000 Russian citizens entered the country in just a few days by multiple ways.

Obviously, for many of those who left Russia in recent months and years with the hope of returning at the first opportunity, the war and the accompanying rapid changes in life in Russia have become the last straw forcing them to admit that they had left their country for a long time or even forever. Finally, since the intensification of rhetoric related to Ukraine in 2021 and the increasingly realistic threats of sanctions, many companies, especially in IT, seriously considered the practicalities of the relocation of their employees — so that in the last weeks before the war, those who otherwise might not have gone or would not have gone so fast have already started to leave Russia. And so, according to the most conservative estimate, we may be talking about 50-60 thousand citizens of Russia who urgently left during the war, but maybe the real number of those who left the country is close to 100 thousand or even more, taking into account all the categories mentioned above.

Despite the looming airline crisis, the only way to stop those who suddenly feel uncomfortable in Russia from leaving is to close the border from the inside. If the war continues for a long time, this measure is practically inevitable. As long as the borders remain open in some form, the flow of people leaving will not dry up: many have been unable to pack up and leave literally for nowhere in a few days for objective and subjective reasons, so they will do so a little later. The sanctions imposed against Russia and the reaction of the Russian leadership to them have also become a serious restriction: it has become a problem to leave Russia with money, and we are not talking about taking out millions, but modest amounts of family savings. In fact, these measures have made life in Russia, where cards and payments still work, more difficult for those who have left it.

Of course, against the background of the tragedy in Ukraine, where millions of people are becoming refugees because of the Putin regime’s attack, the flow of refugees from Russia remains in the shadows, and these people not only do not expect or receive any special assistance, but even suffer from the sanctions imposed against the Putin regime, as mentioned above. Nevertheless, this wave of emigration means a great deal for the future of Russia, near and far.

In a sense, these people are victims of the cold civil war waged by Putin’s regime in recent years, which they lost. However, in a real civil war, people fight with weapons in their hands for their vision of the future; in a cold war, only one side — the citizens — is unarmed. Putin’s dictatorship is armed and does not hesitate to use all the instruments at its disposal. After the 2012 protests, Putin stopped even pretending to be tolerant of different opinions: he preferred to simply label all those who disagreed with him as enemies and not waste energy trying to please them, to change their minds, to reach a compromise with them. Since the spring of 2012, he began to pit “ordinary working people” against “office hamsters” and all kinds of “creative class.” After the occupation of Crimea in 2014, the level of hatred rose even higher, and those who disagreed with the regime were methodically turned into traitors to the homeland and enemies of the people.

One cannot say that there has not been any response. All these years the opponents of the dictatorship in Russia, especially young people and the notorious middle class, tried to do something —social activism, volunteer movement, political activity grew. Now it already seems fantastic that in 2017-2020 in Russia there was a peak of legal political activism associated with the work of Alexei Navalny and his team. As a result, it was possible not only to influence election results, but even to win regional election campaigns.

In 2020, however, Putin went on a decisive offensive. Viewing from 2022, it begins to look like the Kremlin has been preparing for war for a long time and thoroughly. In this sense, it is quite logical that a year before the elections of the State Duma (which should have demonstrated its ultra-loyalty to Putin during the war, and did so) and a year and a half before the war started, the leader of the most influential anti-Putin movement in Russia tried to be killed. They failed to kill Navalny, but the disgrace to the eyes of the world did not stop Putin, but perhaps encouraged him to abandon all disguise of his intentions and the essence of the regime created in Russia. From that time on, a new era began in Russia, the logical continuation of which was the war with Ukraine and the separation from the entire civilized world.

The brutal crackdown on rallies in support of Navalny in January 2021 was only a prelude to what happened next. Within a few months Navalny’s team was actually outlawed, and those of its members who did not manage to leave Russia in time and urgently, ended up in prison. Repressive legislation was constantly tightened, and all human rights and civil society organizations that were deemed undesirable by the authorities were crushed and banned.

As a result, by the beginning of the war with Ukraine, Russia had everything ready to finish off what was still alive and resisting. Despite all of this and the already mentioned mass exodus, Russian citizens are still coming out to protest, and there are already more people detained at anti-war rallies than at rallies in support of Navalny.

Nevertheless, the prospects for any protest movement in Russia are unclear. Now, to the fear of repression and the attrition of protesters who are already on trial or in custody, another factor is added: the physical departure from the country of a substantial part of those who either went to the protests or who would have joined them sooner or later.  100,000 people represent large rallies in 10 cities, to put it bluntly. In many Russian cities, a situation can arise when the very same few hundred or thousands of people who went to all the protests, just left. Thus, either those who have never done this before will go out, or almost no one at all. As the socio-economic indicators deteriorate, the protest may become different and come close to the Kazakh version, when desperate people take to the streets with no influential leaders, no program, and no experience of participation in actions and easily become victims of provocateurs first, and then of punitive actions of the authorities.

No one is saying that all of those who left were participants in the protest movement, but it is obvious that they are part of the environment from which the protest came, donations, ideas, and support. But the most painful thing to think about is what and with whom Russia will be left after Putin’s regime collapses. If this happens many years from now, most of the people who have left Russia are unlikely to return to the country they left — new roots and a new life have already been put down in the new place. The country destroyed by Putin’s policies will come to a standstill: the pro-Putin administrative, power and economic elite will be completely discredited, and there will be no place to hire anyone else. This will create conditions for permanent political instability in Russia and the prospect of a return of the Putinists in the first election – simply for the lack of a force that could oppose them. The Western world cannot and should not wash its hands of and stigmatize Russia and especially those who have left it in recent years. Russian emigration needs to be dealt with constantly and purposefully, so that after the fall of Putin’s regime, the country has a chance to change and return to the normal path of development, to become an ally of the West forever.

By Free Russia Foundation Team

More than a week has passed since Putin declared his “special military operation.” The rest of the world refers to it as “war on Ukraine.” Along with Ukraine, Putin is rapidly destroying Russia. The West may be unable to appreciate the extent of the tragedy unfolding inside Russia right now, as its economy collapses, and the society feels the hatred of the entire world.

It’s not a war — it’s a “special operation

This week, Putin has completed his task of eliminating Russia’s independent media. In the late nineties, a fresh TV channel NTV used to broadcast a satirical program “Puppets,” which poked fun at prominent government figures. In the first decade and the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, on the same channel, viewers could watch the protests taking place on Bolotnaya Square and at the polls during the 2012 presidential elections.

Putin has skillfully seized control of the Russian television, depriving citizens of the opportunity to soberly assess the situation both inside the country and the implications of Putin’s foreign policy. Today, only “Putin’s” journalists are allowed on the airwaves. There, they create an alternative reality and suppress the truth. Notably, the name of the opposition leader Navalny is never mentioned on TV. Television is the only source of information for many Russians. This is true for most retirees, for example, who find it hard to “learn the Internet.”

Elections in Russia have also been hijacked. No independent, liberal or democratic candidates are allowed to participate in elections. And if they somehow make it onto the ballot, numerous schemes have been developed by authorities to prevent them from attaining the minimum threshold, leaving him or her with a measly 1 to 4% of the vote. As a result, political forces cannot unite to coordinate a mass protest similar to the Ukrainian “Maidan.” Those who do join protests end up in jail and are even assassinated.  

Right now, the Russian authorities are dealing a lethal blow to independent media. The TV Rain channel has decided to halt its broadcasting. This decision was made in response to the amendments adopted by the State Duma on imprisonment for “public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”

The punishment includes both a fine of 1.5 million rubles and 15 years in prison.

Even the word “war” is considered to be “knowingly false information”. This is why Roskomnadzor issued a warning to “Novaya Gazeta.”

On March 2, “Ekho Moskvy” was forced to stop broadcasting.

The Silver Rain radio station also stopped broadcasting.

As of March 4, 2022, all of the following media outlets have been blocked: “Dozhd”, Taiga.info, DOXA, “Echo Moskvy”, “Present Time”, The New Times, “Crimea. Realii”, “Ukrainian Pravda”, “Gordon”, “Interfax-Ukraine”, The Village, TSN, “Segodnya”, UNIAN, “Zerkalo Nedeli”, Vesti.ua and Zaxid.

Novaya Gazeta, Lenizdat.ru, Mediazone, Svobodnaya pressa, Journalist, and Wikipedia have received warnings.

This is not a laughing matter.  The authorities are imposing censorship, banning the words “war,” “attack,” and “invasion.” Information about the shelling of Ukrainian cities and the deaths of Ukrainian civilians caused by the Russian army has been declared untrue and is prohibited from dissemination. It is now forbidden to call the ongoing operation an attack, an invasion, or a declaration of war.

Kremlin’s media oversight agency Roskomnadzor mandates the media to cite only Russian government sources in their coverage of these events. Journalists breaking with this practice  face real prison sentences.

Along with the blocking of media platforms, Russian authorities are also slowing down Meta social networks, and in particular, Facebook. They are also restricting Twitter. On March 2, RoskomSvoboda reported on the supposed blocking Youtube in Russia. The same “slowdown” is taking place on Youtube. Users from Russia were unable to load static elements of YouTube, such as avatars and artwork. Roskomnadzor denies any slowdown of service.

All Google advertising banners that, in the judgement of the Russian authorities, spread inaccurate information, have stopped working.

These developments do not only cut off the Russian civil society from truthful information, but also deny Russians the opportunity to show the world that they are, in fact, against the war.

On the ill-fated date of February 24, 2022 Russians began to protest Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Some protests got off to an early start amid news of the alleged invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. However, when the reports were confirmed, civil society exploded.

Online petitions and open letters began to appear, appealing to Putin and the world to stop the fighting in Ukraine.

People take to the streets

At the time of writing on March 3rd, a total of 7,634 people have been detained at protests in 115 cities since February 24th. Of the total, 3,608 protesters were detained in Moscow, and  2,599 were detained in St. Petersburg.

Statistics of the human rights projectOVD-Info (updated in real time).

Number of detainees at protests against the war with Ukraine

Due to the intensification of the protests, the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation began to issue warnings. Under Article 275 of the Criminal Code “Treason,” Russians now face up to 20 years in prison for providing virtually any assistance to Ukrainians. I would like to provide some specifics, however, as often happens in the Russian Federation, the department’s wording is rather vague. “State treason” can now apply to people who provide advisory assistance (whatever that means), as well as financial, material, technical and “other” assistance. Using the phrase “other assistance,” the Prosecutor’s Office can include anything that it wants.

On march 3, 2022,  the Prosecutor General’s Office made an official announcement promising to initiate criminal charges against those who take part in protests— under Part 2 Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (participation in the activities of an extremist organization).

“Amid an unprecedented information attack on the Russian Federation, appeals to citizens to hold supposedly peaceful “anti-war” actions are spreading on the Internet.

It must be noted that the source of many such appeals are associations that, due to their extremist activities, have been banned in the territory of the Russian Federation by a court decision,” the agency writes.

Russians face from 2 to 6 years in prison under this article of the Criminal Code.

Over the course of the past week, the police visited the homes of activists and participants in anti-war actions on a daily basis. All have been charged with participation in an unauthorized mass event (Part 5 Article 202.2 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation, carrying fines of 10-30 thousand rubles, or arrest for up to 15 days). Some people are charged under part 8 of the article, with “repeated violation of the rules for holding mass events,” for which the punishment is a fine of up to 300 thousand rubles or imprisonment of up to 30 days.

During the rallies, the police are also detaining journalists. This happens despite the fact that the journalists observe the law (by wearing a special vest, and carrying a statement of their assignment, a press card and a media badge). On March 2nd, the police detained two Sota correspondents for more than 7 hours, attempting to charge them with organizing an unauthorized event (part 1 of Article 20.2 of the Code of Administrative Violations).

The police also detained journalists from Novaya Gazeta, Radio Liberty, 93.ru, TASS, Pskov Gubernia and many others.

The police regularly use violence during arrests. Children, the elderly, and mothers with infants are detained.

Initially, the anti-war rallies were spontaneous, but on March 2nd, the politician Alexei Navalny, who is in prison, called upon all Russians to attend daily rallies against the war with Ukraine.

“Don’t wait another day, no matter where you are – in Russia, in Belarus or on the other side of the planet. Come out to the main square of your city every weekday at 7 p.m. and at 2 p.m. on weekends and holidays.”

Even before the military conflict began, a number of Russian oppositionists, including Alexei Minyaylo and Dmitry Tsorionov (Enteo), had applied to the Moscow City Hall to hold an anti-war rally of 150,000 people on March 5th in Moscow.

The “Vesna” movement from St. Petersburg had also announced that they would hold an all-Russian anti-war rally on March 6th across the country.

“The all-Russian protest rally will take place on March 6th. We will meet at 15.00 in the central squares of all Russian cities to express our protest. We have every right to do so according to the Constitution.”

Green ribbons began to appear on the streets of Russian cities, as a symbol of the protest promoted by Vesna.

From Olympian to deputy

Among those who disagree with the need to send troops to kill are members of a variety of professions.

The organization We are not alone has compiled a list of open letters against the war from members of various professions. The site is updated every day as new letters appear.

Here are a number of examples of open letters:

— IT workers: 32,050 signatures;

Correspondents of Russian media. This letter was penned by “Kommersant” journalist Elena Chernenko, for which she was removed from the Ministry of Foreign Afffairs press pool.

— Doctors: 11,650 signatures;

— Students and university staff: 14, 850 signatures.

In total, “We Are Not Alone” has recorded 62 open letters and more than 160,700 signatures from members of professional communities.

In addition to letters from professional associations and unions, political activists have created several petitions, both for Russians and for the international community. The largest of these is the petition Stop the War on Ukraine! created by Russia’s oldest human rights activist, Lev Ponomarev. As of this writing, 1,166,617 people have signed the petition.

On February 24th, Ponomarev was detained, allegedly for organizing an anti-war protest. He received a fine of 30,000 rubles.

On March 3rd, he went to the prosecutor’s office to have a report drawn up for having failed to note “foreign agent” at the bottom of the petition. He was attacked by journalists of the pro-governmental NTV channel.

The international civil society organization “Avaaz” launched the international petition Stop This War.” At the time of writing, 2,272,973 people have signed the petition.

Civil society activist Dmitry Ratner launched the petition Impeach Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin“. At the time of writing, 273,560 people have signed the petition.

Prior to the start of hostilities, the “Yabloko” party launched the petition NO WAR“. It is also possible to leave a signature in the offices of the party. On March 2nd, the Nizhny Novgorod office was attacked and the premises were vandalized.

Conclusion

Hundreds of thousands of Russians are speaking out against the war. Thousands of Russians are detained every day at anti-war rallies. Government agencies are threatening the media and ordinary citizens with decades in prison.

Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of other Russians have been misinformed through years of brainwashing by pro-government propaganda. The independent media outlets that could fight the propaganda are either blocked, or forced to stop broadcasting, or to leave Russia altogether. The journalists of independent media outlets that have not yet been blocked are being detained.  

Despite the censorship and the threat of criminal charges, Russian citizens are taking to the streets, reporting about the reality of the war on social media and are trying to convince the public that this is no “special operation of liberation,” but the very real war that it is.

By Yury Krylov, Contributing Author, FRF

The situation around Russian threat against Ukraine keeps tensions high globally. The atmosphere in Donbass escalated dramatically on February 18, when the Kremlin-controlled leaders of the self-proclaimed and internationally unrecognized DNR and LNR republics publicly asserted that Kyiv was preparing an assault (the Ukrainian authorities categorically deny such intentions) and announced the evacuation of some residents of these regions to Russia. Shooting resumed on the front line. U.S. President Joe Biden forecasted that “Russia may launch an invasion in the next few days,” and the Kremlin reiterated its demands for security guarantees.

The State Duma’s Appeal to the Russian President

On February 15, 2022, the Russian State Duma appealed to President Putin to officially recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. The resolution was introduced by deputies from the Communist party, but representatives of other parties also voted for it.

United Russia party prepared an alternative draft of the resolution. It was more cautious and stipulated that parliament should first consult with the Foreign Ministry and then apply to the President. In the end, United Russia’s proposal received only 310 votes, while the Communists’ resolution received 351.

“The deputies of the State Duma appeal to you, Mr. Vladimir Vladimirovich, to consider the issue of recognition by the Russian Federation of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as autonomous, sovereign and independent states, as well as the issue of holding negotiations with the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as soon as possible to create a legal basis for interstate relations, ensuring regulation of all aspects of cooperation, including security issues,” — it says, among other things, in this document.

After summarizing the results of the vote, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said that the parliament’s appeal to the president to recognize the DNR and LNR would be signed immediately, after which it would be sent to Vladimir Putin.

The Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics declared independence from Ukraine in May 2014 after a majority of participants in referendums held in the regions supported the adoption of acts of self-determination for the DNR and LNR. Diplomatically, the two Donbass republics are recognized only by South Ossetia, a partially recognized state in the Caucasus.

Vladimir Putin himself commented on the Duma address during a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who visited Moscow for talks on the escalating situation around Ukraine. According to Putin, when voting on the issue of recognition of the DNR and LNR, deputies were guided by “the opinion of their voters,” which they “subtly feel.”

The Evacuation of DNR and LNR Citizens to Russia

On the evening of February 16 and morning of February 17, OSCE observers reported about 500 explosions near the line of contact in the east of Ukraine, which is several times higher than on previous days.

On the morning of February 18, 2022, the leaders of the LNR and DNR republics announced the evacuation of their residents to Russia. Denis Pushilin, head of the DNR, said that women, children and the elderly would be evacuated first. According to him, the evacuees will be accommodated and provided with everything they need in the Rostov region. After Pushilin’s appeal, sirens went off in Donetsk, and city residents lined up at ATMs. Soon the evacuation was announced in the Luhansk People’s Republic. Its head Leonid Pasechnik urged residents who had not been mobilized and were not involved in the provision of social and civil infrastructure to leave for Russia as soon as possible.

A few hours after the announcement of the evacuation, Pushilin said in a new speech that “it is going to full-scale war” and expressed the opinion that the number of refugees to Russia could reach hundreds of thousands. The DNR Emergencies Ministry said that it was planning to evacuate about 700,000 people. First buses with refugees left the republic around 8 p.m.

Both leaders of the self-proclaimed republics of Donbass explained the need for evacuation by rising tensions in the region. Pasechnik, citing “intelligence data,” said that the “Ukrainian aggressor” was planning provocations on the line of contact and a “deep breakthrough” into LNR territory.

Putin ordered to provide each person arriving from the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR in Rostov Region with 10,000 rubles. And in the Rostov Region, which borders on Ukraine, an operational headquarters was set up to coordinate the evacuation from the DNR and LNR.

Remarkably, the heads of the DNR and LNR recorded their video messages announcing the evacuation as early as February 16. The timestamp contained in the metadata of the videos was publicized by Bellingcat investigator Arik Toller. The head of DNR Denis Pushilin, in particular, draws attention in his speech that he said it “today, on February 18”. The folder, in which Passechnik’s address was filed, was entitled “Mongoose throw”.

By Monday evening, February 21, 2022, more than 60 thousand people had already crossed the border with Russia. A state of emergency was introduced in the Voronezh region and a state of heightened readiness in the Ryazan region.

Ukraine’s Response

Ukraine rejected accusations of preparing sabotage and invasion operations in Donbass. “We categorically refute Russian propaganda reports about allegedly offensive operations by Ukraine <…> Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in Donbass. We are fully committed exclusively to a diplomatic settlement,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted. The commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valery Zaluzhny, said that the statements of the “occupation administrations” of Donbass about the attack of the Ukrainian military are not true.

On February 19, 2022, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky spoke at the Munich Security Conference, emotionally expressing his grievances against both Russia and the West. Western countries, according to Zelensky, are not doing enough to restrain Vladimir Putin.

Zelensky said he was initiating consultations within the framework of the Budapest Memorandum, which provides guarantees of Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity in exchange for its renunciation of nuclear weapons. The Budapest memorandum was signed on December 5, 1994 by Great Britain, Russia, the United States and Ukraine. The document came into force in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Other states pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and refrain from using force against it in connection with the removal of nuclear weapons from its territory.

The Ukrainian president also offered Russian leader Vladimir Putin a meeting. “I don’t know what the president of the Russian Federation wants, so I suggest a meeting,” he said.

International Reaction

On February 18, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden delivered an address on the situation around Ukraine in which he said that, according to his sources, Vladimir Putin had already made a decision about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. The speech was broadcast live by the White House.

The American leader believes that Kyiv is being tried to be provoked in the Donbass. He is confident that Russian troops remain close to the borders with Ukraine: according to him, they are planning an invasion within days. Biden noted that the U.S. is not going to send its military to Ukraine but assured that Washington will continue to support Kyiv.

“There is no point in Ukraine attacking. Russia continues to fabricate claims that Ukraine is preparing to attack Russia. This is a classic that Russia has already used,” Biden said.

Before his speech, Biden had time to discuss the situation with the leaders of NATO countries —Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Canada, the alliance itself and the EU.

The White House also reminded that in case of Russia’s military aggression, the US would impose sanctions on the biggest Russian financial institutions and state-owned companies, as well as on a number of industrial sectors.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called an invasion inevitable and warned of “the biggest war in Europe since 1945.”

On February 20, French and Russian presidents Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin held telephone talks to discuss the situation in Ukraine. Macron and Putin agreed to intensify diplomatic work— the ultimate goal should be a summit to define a new peace and security architecture in Europe. The presidents also agreed to resume work in the “Normandy format.”

Against this backdrop, the airline Lufthansa announced that it would suspend flights to Kyiv from February 21 to 28, 2022. The carrier will also suspend flights to Odessa. At the same time, Austrian Airlines said it would stop flights to Kyiv and Odessa from February 20 until the end of the month. Suspension of commercial flights gravely harm the Ukrainian economy.

On February 19, the German and Austrian authorities urged their citizens to leave Ukraine due to a possible Russian invasion.

What’s Happening Right Now

Early Monday morning, February 21, 2022, the heads of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to recognize their independence.

“On behalf of the entire people of the Donetsk People’s Republic, we ask you to recognize the DNR as an independent, democratic, legal and social state,” said DNR head Denis Pushilin.

The heads of the DNR and LNR also asked Putin to conclude treaties of friendship and partnership with the republics after the recognition of independence.

Shortly thereafter, Putin commenced an emergency meeting of the Russian Security Council. The Russian leader said that he convened the meeting to discuss the situation in Donbass. All of its participants supported the recognition of the independence of the DNR and LNR.

Head of the Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov spoke about “two sabotage groups” on the border between Russia and Ukraine and “a captured Ukrainian military man,” as well as about the 68,500 refugees arriving in Russia from Donbass.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke about more than 40 bombings in Donbass “overnight alone,” damaged infrastructure, and Donetsk residents left without water.

At the end of the meeting, Putin said that he had heard his colleagues’ opinions and promised that “a decision will be made today.”

On the same day, Vladimir Putin addressed the Russians. He explained why Russia recognized the DNR and LNR. The president spoke for about an hour, during which he shared his own very bizarre history of Ukraine, denying grounds for its statehood. In the first part of the address, Putin spoke in detail about the collapse of the USSR, which resulted in an independent Ukraine; lamented the corruption and high utility bills in modern Ukraine; said that aggressive actions in Ukraine are supported by foreign special services; and added that Ukrainian authorities can build nuclear weapons and that NATO bases are “actually deployed on Ukrainian territory.”

Ukraine’s accession to NATO, Putin said, poses a direct threat to Russia’s security. “That is why I have decided to recognize the independence and sovereignty of the DNR and LNR. I am sure the citizens of Russia and all patriotic forces of the country will support me,” Putin concluded. Immediately afterward, television broadcasted the footage of the signing of treaties with the LNR and DNR in the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin also issued an order for the Russian Armed Forces to “perform peacekeeping functions” in the self-proclaimed republics of Donbass.

On February 22, the United States threatened new sanctions against Russia over its recognition of the LNR and DNR. “Putin wants the world to go back in time, when there was no United Nations and the world was ruled by empires. But the rest of the world has moved on. It’s not 1919, it’s 2022,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. permanent representative to the organization, told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. According to her, with his latest actions, Vladimir Putin “ripped the Minsk agreements to shreds.”

The United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union also announced their intention to impose new sanctions against Russia. The United Kingdom said that it might increase military aid to Ukraine. According to DPA and Der Spiegel, the sanctions could include 350 Duma deputies who voted for the recognition of the DNR and LNR, as well as Russian banks with ties to Donbass. The EU sanctions provide for the freezing of assets on the territory of the association and a ban on entry into the EU.

President Joe Biden signed a resolution prohibiting investments in the DNR and LNR, as well as the import of goods, services or technologies from there. The document implies blocking the US property of people associated with the DNR and LNR, and also allows imposing sanctions against those who decide to operate in the self-proclaimed republics. The document said that Russia’s decision threatens the national security and foreign policy of the US.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address to the nation that Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders would remain the same. He stressed that the country was pursuing a peaceful path but was ready to defend itself. Ukraine demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, the OSCE and the “Normandy quartet.” The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry condemned Russia’s decision, saying that it violated the basics of international law and the UN Charter, as well as Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry also asked Volodymyr Zelenskyy to consider severing diplomatic relations with Russia.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel said that “the recognition of two separatist regions in Ukraine is a blatant violation of international law, Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and the Minsk agreements. Polish President Andrzej Duda called on NATO and the EU to act tough on Russia to “stop the aggressor.” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Shimonite said that Putin’s actions “put Kafka and Orwell to shame.”

On Tuesday, February 22, Great Britain imposed sanctions against Gennady Timchenko, Boris Rotenberg and Igor Rotenberg — Russian oligarchs and close personal associates of Vladimir Putin. Five Russian banks also fall under British sanctions.  The assets of these individuals and companies in Britain will be frozen, Boris Johnson said.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that the certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would be halted indefinitely due to the recognition of the DNR and LNR.

And the final news: the Federation Council allowed Putin to deploy Russian troops to the DNR and LNR. At the same time, the documents signed by Putin and the heads of the LNR and DNR do not specify the boundaries within which the republics are recognized. Representatives of the LNR and DNR stated that it could be the borders of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, some of which are controlled by Ukraine.

Free Russia Foundation, on behalf of the global movement of pro-democracy Russians, stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine in their pursuit of freedom, peace and self-determination.

We condemn the hostile actions of the illegitimate regime of Vladimir Putin and his accomplices threatening Ukraine with military and hybrid operations and upending the European security.

We call on the international community to act decisively to end the Kremlin’s military provocations internationally and its domestic repression against the Russian civil society.

By Leah Silinsky, FRF Fellow

The violence unleashed by the government against Russians who came out to protest Navalny’s arrest in early 2021 demonstrates that Putin’s regime has no tolerance for any form of dissent or criticism of the political status quo. 24-year-old Pavel Grin-Romanov is yet another victim of the Kremlin’s assault on civil liberties in Russia.

Pavel was born on July 7, 1997, in Krasny Luch. Krasny Luch is a city in Luhansk Oblast, which is a region of Ukraine that has been occupied by Russia since 2014. Pavel is a citizen of both Ukraine and Russia. After graduating high school, he moved to Moscow where he lived with his wife Polina and worked as an MC, promoter, and as an administrator of an internet cafe. He is known by others for his love of computers and technology.

Pavel Grin-Romanov was arrested on January 31, 2021 for allegedly pepper-spraying a riot police officer during a street protest he attended with his wife on the Komsomolskaya Square by the Leningradsky railway station. Pavel has remained in police custody since February 2, 2021.  On April 9, 2021, the Meshchansky District Court of Moscow sentenced him to a 3 year and 6 month prison sentence to be served in a penal colony.

Pavel was charged under Article 318, Part 2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, for “violently threatening the life of an official on duty”. Though Pavel did plead “partially guilty”, this sentence is disproportionate and is the symptom of a corrupt legal system designed to punish those who openly criticize the Russian government. 

Despite his extremely difficult circumstances, Pavel has maintained an optimistic, positive attitude. His lawyer, Artem Nemov, confirmed that Pavel has remained in relatively high spirits given the situation. Unfortunately, it has been very difficult for Pavel’s wife, Polina, to visit him in detention.

Upon examination of the evidence in his case, it becomes clear that Pavel Grin-Romanov not only lacked the intent of carrying out a supposed “violent attack,” but that he also inflicted no physical or psychological harm on said OMON officer, Lieutenant Colonel-D.N. Terletsky.

OMON officers and riot police were attempting to disperse the protest on Komsomolskaya Square— attended by Pavel and his wife Polina. Videos provided as evidence by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation showed a chaotic crowd, with many confused individuals pushing against each other. Witnessing riot police officers acting violently, Pavel doused pepper spray in the air, to protect his wife and himself from riot police near him. Pavel stated that he sprayed pepper after seeing an officer beat a protester on the head with a truncheon.

On February 4, 2021, Pavel was taken to the Presnensky District Court of Moscow. Seven days later, he was officially charged under Article 318, Part 2, although his initial charges were under Article 318, Part 1. Part 2 of Article 318 provide for far harsher punishment and can result in a 5-to-10-year sentence. Analysts from MediaZona hypothesize that his sentence was increased because the OMON officer went to Botkin Hospital and received papers for sick leave from his departmental polyclinic despite suffering no injuries. Originally, the prosecution sought to sentence Pavel to 8 years, though this was reduced to 3 years and 6 months.  On July 30, 2021, Pavel’s sentence of three years and six months was shortened to three years. Despite being reduced, Pavel’s sentence is still highly unjust.

Pavel’s lawyer Artem Nemov asserted that his client’s sentence is entirely unjust given that it is based on false evidence, and that the prosecution could not prove that Pavel had any intent to harm, despite the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation posting the video where Pavel uses his pepper-spray canister. Moreover, the OMON officer in question has accepted Pavel’s apology and was wearing a helmet and face shield when he was allegedly pepper-sprayed, meaning that he could not have suffered any harm. 

Pavel’s lawyer has also pointed out that it was highly suspicious that officer Terletsky could not get a sick pass from a regular hospital and had to obtain one from his departmental polyclinic. The officer received his sick pass on February 2, but was registered as being on sick leave on February 1, 2021. Had the officer truly been injured, he would have received a sick pass from a regular hospital, the day that he came in. The judge reviewing Pavel’s case disregarded these arguments. He also chose not to wait for papers to come in from Ukraine, which attest to Pavel’s non-aggressive nature, to substantiate the assertion that Pavel showed no intent to aggressively assault officer Terletsky.

Pavel’s arrest is a politically-motivated punishment for his participation in the pro-Navalny protests which took place last year. There is undeniable evidence which points toward his innocence, and that he rendered no serious harm to the allegedly injured OMON officer. The unsubstantiated biased reporting in official Russian sources referring to Pavel as an aggressive individual, who was engaging in “unsanctioned activity” by simply attending the protest are highly suspicious.

Pavel’s arrest has received attention in both the U.S. and Russian media. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty published an article about him on April 9, 2021—the day that Pavel received his sentence from the Moscow court. Several Russian news sources wrote about Pavel’s arrest including Memorial, OVD-Info, Delo212, MediaZona, and the Official Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation. Additionally, several twitter users have also posted about Pavel’s arrest, including users “nesteliza_”, “DaniilKonon,” and “leonidragozin.” Memorial recognizes Pavel Sergeevich Grin-Romanov as a political prisoner because it is clear that he was arrested simply for taking part in a pro-Navalny protest; and that his arrest, trial and sentence have been politically motivated. Memorial asserts that Pavel acted in self-defense and inflicted no injuries on the OMON officer.

Roskomnadzor’s ultimatum: a new round of censorship in Russia

On February 1, 2022, dozens of independent media outlets received a 24-hour order from Roskomnadzor (Russian Federal Service for Supervision in Information and Communications) to remove news and materials related to investigations by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.

TV channel Dozhd was ordered to remove six specific articles.  Radio station Echo of Moscow— thirty-four posts. Meduza media outlet received a list of seventeen items, Znak.com—thirteen, The Village—eight, the Saratov newspaper Svobodnye Novosti —nine, and Bumaga from Saint Petersburg— three. Radio Liberty may have set a record with a notice enumerating 40 posts ordered for removal by Roskomnadzor; letters have also been received by the Ukrainian, Tajik, Kazakh, and Tatar-Bashkir services of the radio station.

The information that the Russian government finds so offensive mainly deals with real estate owned by officials and their families, including the head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin, presidential aide Vladimir Medinsky, State Duma deputy Leonid Slutsky, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, and Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev. Among the materials that Roskomnadzor demanded to be urgently removed were also FBK’s investigation into a luxury palace near Gelendzhik allegedly custom-built for Putin.

On January 28, 2022, Roskomnadzor also alerted the Office of the Prosecutor General that the outlets “disseminate materials from an organization whose activities are banned under the law against extremism.” In 2021, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation was designated as foreign agent, extremist organization and banned in Russia.

Many of the outlets complied with Roskomnadzor orders to avoid having their online resources blocked. Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of Dozhd, wrote in a Telegram post that he views such developments as an undeniable act of censorship, but “the blocked site would prevent the media from reporting on the following investigations,” he added. In addition, the Navalny investigations targeted by Roskomnadzor have been distributed on many platforms “and in general everywhere on the Internet,” he noted. Meduza, Echo of Moscow, Znak.com and other editorials have also removed publications under the threat of being blocked in Russia.

However, Radio Liberty and Current Time TV channel refused to remove articles about Navalny’s investigations. Jamie Fly, director of the media corporation, said that Radio Liberty would not comply with Roskomnadzor’s demands. “We will not allow the Kremlin to dictate our editorial decisions,” he said. The corporation called the Roskomnadzor’s demands “a blatant act of political censorship.”

Alexey Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh called Roskomnadzor’s demands an act of censorship. “Absolutely pure naked evil that everyone resents by reading about it in history textbooks. And now it’s all in reality before our eyes,” the Navalny associate tweeted.

Roskomnadzor is the Russian federal executive agency responsible for monitoring, controlling and censoring Russian mass media. The service has repeatedly been accused of attempting to censor the Internet and violate freedom of speech by blocking websites and services under the pretext of not transferring data to Russia from foreign web servers or “protecting children from harmful information” or directly criticizing the activities of the Russian Government or Parliament.

Censorship and violations of the right to freedom of speech are expressly prohibited by Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, but Clause 4 contains an exception to the rule that the legislature has the right to restrict the right to disseminate information by a federal law, which is regularly used by Roskomnadzor.

Why the Navalny Team’s Investigations Are Important Not Only to Russians

Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation investigated corruption in the highest echelons of the Russian government, big business, and regional elites.

The Foundation was created by Navalny in 2011. According to its website, its only source of funding over the years has been donations from supporters. The organization employed approximately 40 people who searched for and uncovered corrupt schemes and cases of illicit enrichment, and drafted complaints to the Investigative Committee of Russia, the Prosecutor’s Office, and the municipal services.

Since 2013, the FBK has released over 80 investigations, making serious waves in the public opinion. FBK’s documentary “Putin’s Palace.The Story of the Biggest Bribe” received over 120 million views and became the most viewed non-interactive content on Russian-language YouTube, as well as the record-breaker in the number of positive user ratings in the Russian YouTube segment.

Alexey Navalny has consistently emphasized that corruption is not only one of Russia’s main problems, but also one of the most important issues for the entire world. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the global ideological confrontation, it was corruption— in its classic definition of ‘the use of one’s official status for personal gain’— has become the universal basis for the new authoritarian international to blossom, from Russia and Eritrea to Myanmar and Venezuela. And corruption has long ceased to be only an internal problem of these countries. It is almost always one of the main causes of the world’s problems that the West faces,” Navalny wrote in his 2021 column published in major Western media outlets.

An important aspect of corruption in authoritarian countries— and Russia is a prime example here— is its use of the financial infrastructure of the West— 90% of the money stolen by an autocrat is stored there. According to Navalny himself, the FBK investigations should not only open Russians’ eyes to corruption in Russia, but also encourage Western leaders to show determination and political will towards Russian corrupt officials who take their assets to the West and legalize them there.

Alexey Navalny has expressed dismay that the FBK investigations do not seem to trigger action by Western tax authorities and prosecutors. “The US, the UK and Germany have excellent tools and laws for fighting foreign corruption. Guess how many cases were opened after the investigations of our Anti-Corruption Foundation, which is now qualified by Putin’s government as an extremist organization? That’s right, not a single one. Even Western law enforcement agencies behave cautiously with corrupt foreign officials,” Navalny reports.

Navalny’s team’s meticulously documented investigations churn up materials that could serve basis for the introduction of more precise sanctions —not only against law enforcement officials, but also against oligarchs and corrupt businessmen from Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and beyond. This is how Navalny describes it: “Until personal sanctions are imposed on the oligarchs – first and foremost from Putin’s entourage, who is a role model for corrupt officials and businessmen around the world – any anti-corruption rhetoric from the West will be perceived as a game and a hollow talking point. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing the names of colonels and generals of special services no one has ever heard of on another sanctions list, but not seeing the names of those in whose interests these colonels are acting. Putin’s oligarchs who run “state-owned” or formally private companies are not businessmen, but leaders of organized criminal groups. Right now the Western establishment is acting like Pavlov’s dog. You show them a secret service colonel, they shout, “Punish him!” You show them an oligarch who pays the colonel, and they shout, “Invite him to Davos!”

Perhaps this issue will move forward thanks to the Navalny List, a 2021 listing of 35 individuals from the upper echelon of Russia’s elite implicated in corruption and human rights abuses, as well as those directly linked to the poisoning and imprisonment of the Russian opposition leader. The list was compiled thanks to years of hard work by the FBK team. On September 24, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment to tighten anti-Russian sanctions in the new fiscal year’s defense budget. The House of Representatives bill calls the list’s members “Russian kleptocrats and human rights violators.”

Five Strikes Against The Kremlin.

Strike One: “Chaika”

Case in focus: an investigation into the business activities of the family of Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika. The investigation mainly focuses on the official’s sons Artem and Igor.

Release date: 12/01/2015

Number of views on YouTube: 25 million

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXYQbgvzxdM   

Contents:

Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) published a huge investigation about the family of Prosecutor General Yury Chaika. It is mainly about his eldest son, Artem Chaika.

Artem Chaika owns the posh Pomegranate hotel in Greece on the Halkidiki peninsula. Olga Lopatina, the former wife of Deputy Prosecutor General Gennadi Lopatin, also owns a stake in the hotel. The FBK staff believes that their divorce is a formal one, as she still wears a wedding ring.

Olga Lopatina is a co-owner of the Kuban Sakhar company, shares in which belong to the wives of Sergei Tsapok and Vyacheslav Tsepovyaz – leaders of the Kushchevskaya organized crime group, who committed the brutal murder of 12 people, including four children, which shocked Russia.

Artem Chaika has a villa in Greece where construction is continuing. Nearby, Olga Lopatina is building a villa for herself. FBK examined her tax returns from her time as the wife of Deputy Prosecutor General (up until 2011) and found that Lopatin earned 18 million rubles – not enough to buy part of a hotel and a villa.

Artem Chaika owns a house in Switzerland worth about three million dollars. At the same time, he lists the Swiss address of his more humble home in all the documents. Artem Chaika keeps money in Swiss accounts.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Artem Chaika seized the Verkhne-Lenskoe River Shipping Company in the Irkutsk region and appropriated 12 ships. That’s how Yury Chaika’s son allegedly earned his first capital, which he exported to Switzerland. The FBK investigation details the entire embezzlement scheme.

Artem Chaika has a holding company with a turnover of hundreds of millions of dollars. He buys assets randomly: he has salt and sand mining, construction, brick-making, and law offices.

The business structures of the youngest son of the Prosecutor General, Igor Chaika, were able to get government contracts worth 300 billion rubles.

Domestic and international reaction:

According to a mid-December 2015 study by the Levada Center, 38 percent of Russians knew about the film “Chaika” in one way or another. At the same time, 82% of Russians who have heard of the film consider the corruption schemes and connections with criminal groups described in the film to be typical for the modern Russian authorities.

In his official statement on December 3, Prosecutor General Yury Chaika called the film a fraud, and the facts presented in it untrue.

On December 7, Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the information from the film did not arouse the Kremlin’s interest.

On December 8, 2015, the Anti-Corruption Foundation filed a complaint against Artyom Chaika with the Swiss Prosecutor’s Office based on suspicions of money laundering. The complaint mentioned Artyom and Igor Chaika, the sons of the Russian Prosecutor General, as well as other individuals, firms, bank accounts, and real estate allegedly connected to them. In order to exclude any bias in the verification, the prosecutor’s office assigned the investigation to a special police unit in Lugano, which investigates “white collar” crime. The investigation confirmed that the individuals named in the complaint were in Switzerland and were connected to the company mentioned in the complaint. However, no money laundering facts were identified. Later, Artyom Chaika received a notification from the Swiss prosecutor’s office that there were no claims against him. Also, based on his own petition, Artyom Chaika received a notice from Greek officials stating that the transaction he had conducted in Greece to purchase a hotel on the island of Halkidiki was legal.

Strike Two: “He Is Not Dimon To You”

Case in focus: An investigation into the multibillion-dollar property and corruption schemes used to enrich Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, formerly President of Russia.

Release Date: 03/02/2017

Number of views on YouTube: 44 million

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrwlk7_GF9g&t=2090s 

Contents:

The investigation “He Is Not Dimon To You. Palaces, Yachts, Vineyards – Dmitry Medvedev’s Secret Empire” deals with the real estate and expensive hobbies of then-Prime Minister Medvedev in Russia and abroad. The film is divided into 10 parts – “chapters”, each lasting about five minutes. The majority of episodes deal with the assets of the “Dar” charitable foundation and its related companies. The chairman of the foundation’s supervisory board is Ilya Eliseev, an old acquaintance and classmate of Medvedev’s, who is referred to in the film as Medvedev’s key confidant. The film shows that, on the one hand, Medvedev is acquainted with the foundation’s management and uses the foundation’s property for recreation, while, on the other hand, the foundation is filled with contributions from Russian oligarchs.

According to the authors of the investigation, the image of an official who no one takes seriously has been created artificially. In reality, Medvedev is “the creator and head of a huge, multi-level corruption scheme. According to the FBK, the house on Rublevka District of Moscow, worth about 5 billion rubles, was a gift from oligarch Alisher Usmanov to structures associated with Medvedev. The FBK called this “gift” a “bribe.”

According to the anti-corruption activists, Medvedev is also connected to another estate on Rublevo-Uspensky Drive, as well as a residence in Kursk region, a mansion in St. Petersburg, two estates by the sea in Krasnodar Krai, a mansion near Sochi, vineyards near Anapa (Krasnodar Krai, Russia) and in Italy, and an estate in Ivanovo region of Russia (already announced by Navalny’s supporters last year).

The FBK investigation also disclosed two yachts registered in the names of people close to Medvedev. Navalny’s supporters claim that the funds of the foundations and companies that the head of the government controls total at least 70 billion rubles. In addition to Usmanov, the sources of this money include shareholders of the gas company Novatek Leonid Mikhelson and Leonid Simanovsky, as well as Gazprombank and Bashneft. Most of the funds, according to FBK, are withdrawn to offshore accounts.

Based on this information, Navalny accused Medvedev of creating a “multi-level corruption scheme” and “taking bribes from the oligarchs.” He said that thousands of people are involved in “servicing the schemes” and that his real estate is “guarded by state security services.”

Reactions:

Following the release of the film, FBK sent a statement to the Russian Investigative Committee demanding that criminal charges be filed against Dmitry Medvedev and billionaire Alisher Usmanov for bribery. Navalny accused the Russian authorities of failing to respond appropriately to the investigation and called for rallies across Russia to “ask the authorities to answer our questions about corruption.” On March 26, 2017, tens of thousands of people marched in several dozen Russian cities for mass anti-corruption protests, which were then repeated on June 12, 2017. The protesters’ main demand was the resignation of Dmitry Medvedev from his post.

On April 5, at a plenary session, the State Duma refused to support the CPRF party’s proposal to contact law enforcement agencies and verify the information presented in the FBK investigation.

On April 4, 2017, Dmitry Medvedev called the FBK investigation “rubbish, nonsense,” collected “according to the principle of compote,” and on April 19, he said that he would not “comment on the absolutely false products of political crooks.” For his part, Alisher Usmanov filed a libel suit against Navalny and FBK. On May 31, 2017, the Lublinsky District Court in Moscow ordered Navalny to retract the information in the investigation and remove the publications about Usmanov.

Navalny refused to comply with the court’s decision and appealed.

At the moment, materials about this investigation have been removed from the websites of most Russian media outlets at the request of Roskomnadzor and under the threat of blocking.

Strike Three: “Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov transports dogs on a private plane”

Case in focus: in two investigations, the FBK found that Deputy Prime Minister Shuvalov has a private jet for transporting dogs, as well as a large amount of luxury real estate

Release dates: 07/14/2016 and 03/06/2018

Number of views on YouTube: 2.5 million (1st investigation), 7.5 million (2nd investigation)

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tx8ZqZtjyT4 

Second Investigation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbRoZyuOijk 

Contents:

The Anti-Corruption Foundation published an investigation showing that Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov spends 130 million rubles a year on flights on a private jet and another 40 million on transporting his wife’s dogs to participate in foreign shows.

The FBK staff found that a member of the Russian government may own a $50 million Bombardier Global Express plane, which Shuvalov uses as a private jet. In the summer of 2018, it was also reported that Shuvalov’s family actually also owns a Gulfstream G650 aircraft with an estimated value of about $70 million.

Most often (18 times a year) the plane flew to Salzburg, Austria, where Shuvalov’s wife owns real estate. It was found that sometimes a private plane flew this route several times a week. The FBK investigation noted that the service of a one-way flight to Salzburg on a private plane costs from $40,000.

Olga Shuvalova, the wife of the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, confirmed to FBK the fact of flights with dogs on a private plane: “We take our dogs to exhibitions on our declared plane. By the way, of international level, to defend the honor of Russia”.

The investigation also revealed that Shuvalov’s money manager is buying up an entire floor of apartments in a high-rise on Moscow’s Kotelnicheskaya Embankment – 10 apartments worth about 600 million rubles. The fund previously wrote about Deputy Prime Minister’s London apartment of about 500 square meters and costing about 700 million rubles, as well as a luxurious Rolls-Royce for 40 million rubles.

Shuvalov’s family also occupied the former state summer residence of CPSU Politburo member Mikhail Suslov in the Odintsovsky district near Moscow on the area of about 7.5 hectares. The Italian architect Giuliano Moretti was in charge of designing the buildings, and the official’s neighbors include billionaires Roman Abramovich and Suleiman Kerimov.

Reactions:

Some economic observers believed that Shuvalov caused great irritation to the public by his indifferent attitude to the problems of ordinary citizens and the obvious “inter-class gaps.” Negative assessments of Shuvalov were given by opposition politician Vladimir Milov, who once worked with Shuvalov, drawing attention to the fact that he “does not hesitate to show money,” unlike his former boss Alexander Voloshin.

Shuvalov resigned as first deputy prime minister of the Russian government on May 24, 2018, and was appointed by the Russian president as chairman of Vneshekonombank. It was reported that “the investigations did not affect the official’s career and are not related to his possible departure from the government.”

Strike Four: “I Know All Those Who Tried To Kill Me”

Case in focus: A two-part video narrative about the secret group of assassins who tried to poison Alexey Navalny with a deadly chemical agent

Release Date: 12/14/2020 and 12/21/2020

Number of views on YouTube: 26 million (1st investigation), 29 million (2nd investigation)

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smhi6jts97I  

Second investigation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibqiet6Bg38 

Contents:

On December 14, 2020, The Insider, Bellingcat and CNN, with the participation of Der Spiegel and FBK, released a joint journalistic investigation. According to its conclusions, eight employees of the FSB special group followed Alexey Navalny for several years and poisoned him with Novichok warfare agent.

The investigators established the identities of the employees involved in the poisoning by comparing cell phone billing data with offline databases.

By analyzing airline flight records, investigators found that members of the group had flown to dozens of Russian cities where Navalny had flown to since 2017 – usually two or three operatives went on each trip, their lineup constantly alternating. They bought tickets under real and fictitious names, and tried to fly not on the same flights as Navalny, but on parallel ones, often from other Moscow airports. The main activity came in 2017 (when Navalny announced his intention to run for presidency) and then in 2020.

Navalny himself, commenting on the investigation, called what happened “state terrorism.”

At the end of December 2020, the second part of the investigation came out: Navalny called an FSB officer and recorded a conversation with him, saying that this conversation was an actual confession by a Russian special services officer of his participation in an assassination attempt.

Domestic and international reaction:

The poisoning of Navalny caused an international outcry and became a turning point in modern Russian history.

Even before the release of the investigation, on September 3, 2020, the European Union Foreign Affairs Office issued a declaration in which on behalf of all 27 EU member states, as well as Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, Georgia and Ukraine condemned in the strongest terms the attack on Alexey Navalny. German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a statement calling the attempt on Navalny’s life an attempt to silence him, “a crime against the basic values for which we stand.” Boris Johnson, for his part, said that the poisoning of Navalny “shocked the world” and called Russia’s use of chemical weapons “outrageous.” On October 15, “for the use of chemical weapons for the attempted murder of Alexey Navalny,” the European Union imposed sanctions against FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov and five other high-ranking Russian officials and security officers, as well as against the state-owned plant that was involved in the development of Novichok. On the same day, the United Kingdom announced similar sanctions.

According to the EU, the poisoning of Navalny was possible “only with the consent of the presidential administration” and with the participation of the FSB. Navalny himself believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally behind the attempt on his life. Putin himself characterized the investigation as “legalization of materials from the American secret services,” and said that if the Russian secret services had wanted to poison Navalny, they would have completed the case.

On December 23rd, a U.S. State Department spokesman accused the FSB of poisoning Navalny and the Russian leadership of creating conspiracy theories around him.

In mid-January 2021, Navalny returned to Russia. He was detained at the airport on suspicion of violating his probation in the Yves Rocher case. According to the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service, Navalny failed to report to his place of residence several times, as required by law for those sentenced to probation. Navalny himself indicated that he had been unable to do so because he had been undergoing rehabilitation in Berlin after being poisoned. On February 2 the politician was sentenced to two and a half years in a penal colony, after which several more criminal cases were initiated against him.

On August 20, 2021, on the anniversary of the poisoning of Navalny, Britain imposed sanctions on seven FSB officers it believes were involved in the poisoning. The U.S. imposed sanctions against nine FSB officers. In addition, the U.S. announced a second round of sanctions against Russia for the use of chemical weapons in the poisoning of Navalny, under which the U.S. imposed additional restrictions on exports of nuclear and missile-related products and technologies, as well as restrictions on imports of certain Russian firearms and ammunition.

Strike Five: “Putin’s Palace”

Case in focus: An investigative documentary about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal, incredibly expensive “mini-state” on the shores of the Black Sea.

Release Date: 01/19/2021

Number of views on YouTube: 121 million

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipAnwilMncI

Contents:

The documentary “A Palace for Putin” tells the story of a 17,700 square meter palace for the Russian president built on the Black Sea near Gelendzhik. According to the FBK, its construction was financed by state and private companies connected to Putin’s friends through corrupt schemes. The FBK estimated the total amount of money spent on the palace and the vineyards around it to be at least 100 billion rubles.

The authors of the investigation managed to unravel the complex web of property relationships around the palace. The data they collected showed that the palace belongs to Putin’s nephew, and its maintenance is entrusted to old cronies of the Russian president: former KGB employees.

The area of the palace complex is 68 hectares, and 7,000 hectares of land around the palace (including the airspace) is a closed area under the jurisdiction of the FSB.  The film claims that the Russian president’s residence near Gelendzhik was built in 2010 and has an underground ice palace, an “aquadiscotheque,” a concert hall, a church, an 80-meter bridge “for the approach to the tea house” and a tunnel to descend from the palace to the sea.

Domestic and international reaction:

Vladimir Putin, commenting on the investigation, stated that the palace had never been registered in his name and did not belong to his close relatives. In response, Navalny’s team pointed out that neither Putin’s brother-in-law Nikolai Shamalov, in whose name the palace was registered, nor Putin’s great-nephew Mikhail Shelomov, who was managing the construction site, were indeed close relatives under the Russian Family Code. Later, the owner of the facility called himself a businessman longtime acquaintance of Putin’s Arkady Rotenberg. He claimed that he was building an apartment hotel.

According to the Levada Center, of those who have seen the film, are aware of its contents, or have heard about it, the attitude toward Putin has worsened; 3% of those who have improved; 80% of those who have not changed. At the same time, 17% are certain that the content of the film is true; 38% believe that it is similar to the truth, but it is difficult to verify; and 33% are certain that it is not true.

The film caused widespread resonance and outrage in almost all of the world’s major media outlets.  Many Western journalists were shocked by the size of Vladimir Putin’s alleged palace, which is 39 times the size of the Principality of Monaco.

According to experts, the investigation was a serious blow to the position of the authorities and the image of the Russian president. It has also seriously broadened Navalny’s audience, allowing him to collect additional donations from sympathizers.

The investigation about Putin’s palace was a serious hit to the Kremlin, after which any actions by the authorities against Navalny were perceived as retaliation for the investigation. And so it happened: Alexey Navalny was detained at Sheremetyevo airport on January 17, 2021, immediately after returning from Germany, where he had undergone treatment and rehabilitation after severe poisoning. He was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison.

In the winter and spring of 2021, there were mass street protests in Russia – protests related to the detention of Navalny and rallies in his support. Police and Rosgvardia officers detained a record number of people at these events. The law enforcement agencies acted harshly; criminal proceedings were instituted against dozens of protesters.

Many of Navalny’s supporters were also put under investigation, or forced to leave Russia in a hurry. The politician’s structures are now considered extremist and banned in Russia. Any individual who has in any way helped or expressed sympathy for the opposition leader is now barred from running for a seat in the State Duma for several years.

On June 9, 2021, the FBK in Russia was recognized as an extremist organization and liquidated by court order.

2019 was an unprecedentedly good year for Russian-Chinese military cooperation featuring six joint exercises – nearly as many as Russia held with its longstanding ally Kazakhstan in that same year. However, the coming of COVID-19 in 2020 paralyzed Chinese military diplomacy and greatly reduced the quantity of interaction. Though cooperation recovered somewhat in 2021, pre-pandemic levels have not been regained, though some interesting developments did occur.

In the heady early days of the pandemic, the Russian Armed Forces’ medical specialists interfaced multiple times with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Military Medical University for notes on controlling the spread of the disease. The respective militaries cooperated on sealing the Russia-China border as ordered by Moscow to stop transmission of the disease. When Vladimir Putin belatedly held the 75th Victory Day parade in June, the Chinese National Defense Minister Wei Fenghe travelled to Moscow and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Y-20 transport aircraft participated in the celebration.

Yet despite this interaction and ceremonial interfacing, mil-to-mil contacts declined overall. Russia’s annual Army International Games – one of Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu’s obsessions – had featured PLA participation in 12 different events in 2019 but only 6 in 2020. China had hosted 4 events of the Army International Games in 2019 but none in 2020, sending only a small number of troops to compete in Russia.

From 6 joint exercises in 2019, only 1 was held in 2020 but it was an important one: the strategic exercise Kavkaz-2020. Kavkaz is one of the four rotating annual exercises the Russian Armed Forces conduct as a capstone of annual training. Kavkaz, which literally means “Caucasus,” features the Southern Military District, which includes the territory between Ukraine and Kazakhstan down to Georgia and Azerbaijan. As with Vostok-2018 and Tsentr-2019, the PLA was invited to participate in the main maneuver event of the exercise, this time at Kapustin Yar alongside Armenia, Belarus, Myanmar, and Pakistan. PLA troops from the 76th Group Army of the Western Theater Command participated in the exercise. Before Vostok-2018, only Belarus ever participated in these capstone exercises; after a trial of including China and Mongolia in 2018, Russia has opened participation to countries in favor in Moscow.

As with the previous two strategic exercises to which the PLA had been invited, though the PLA took part in the grandest spectacle of the event with Putin personally looking on, the more interesting components of the exercise testing new tactical concepts occurred elsewhere without PLA onlookers. Whereas each Russian capstone exercise features a day of large and dramatic maneuvers, many ancillary events also take place generally across many different training areas. Though the capability to do large maneuvers is a source of political pride for Moscow, the key capability Russia practices in these dispersed activities is the ability to exercise command-and-control (C2) across an enormous amount of territory and ably respond to disparate combat conditions.

Despite this stilted interaction in 2020, the year still ended happily with Shoygu and Wei extending an agreement on mutual notification of launches of ballistic missiles and space vehicles in December. This agreement gives Russia and China considerable insight into the early warning detection capabilities of the other as the two countries exchange information about rocket launches around the world from satellite launches from French Guiana to North Korean rocket tests. However, whereas Wei – uniquely among Chinese officials in 2020 – visited Moscow twice first for the 75th Victory Day parade and later for a SCO ministerial, he opted to conduct this ceremony extending the agreement virtually. Indeed, Chinese government officials literally phoned in all their regular diplomatic exchanges with their Russian counterparts in late November, demonstrating that their rapprochement with Moscow was insufficient to merit risking spread of COVID-19 through an in-person meeting.

2020 nevertheless ended dramatically with only the second ever joint strategic bomber patrol over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea on 22 December 2020. 4 Chinese H-6K and 2 Russian Tu-95MS strategic bombers took part in the event surrounding the Korean peninsula. Such a joint patrol is important as it signals the ability to potentially conduct joint nuclear targeting, i.e. the most drastic act of warfare. Though this patrol is on a very small scale relative to Russian and Chinese nuclear capabilities, it would potentially be sufficient either to nullify North Korean capabilities or else disable U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea. The first such patrol took place in 2019.

Though 2020 had seen a contraction in Russian-Chinese military interaction, 2021 saw some revival albeit at a still-reduced rate from 2020. The PLA participated in Russia’s Sayanskiy Marsh competition, another Russian military prestige event focused on sports, in Shoygu’s native Tyva Republic in April. PLA participation in Army International Games events surged to 15 and Russian troops were even welcomed back to Korla to participate in 3 of these.

Instability in and the ultimate Taliban takeover of Afghanistan also prompted military conversations on Central Asian security. In August, the Russian 29th Army of the Eastern Military District travelled to Qingtongxia, China, to conduct the Sibu/Vzaymodeystvie-2021 exercise, a nominally anti-terrorist event but with strong offensive desantand reconnaissance-strike components. For the first time, Russian troops used Chinese military equipment. though the Russian Armed Forces uses the Army International Games to let other countries’ militaries practice using Russian equipment, the PLA was always allowed to bring its own equipment; this deviation from the standard Russian practice of using mil-to-mil interaction as a sales pitch may hearken future Russian military equipment purchases from China. After the fact, the Chinese Ministry of Defense claimed Xi himself had not only thought of the exercise but designated where it should be held.

Though the Chinese name for the exercise – Sibu – meaning “west” in Chinese seemingly in anticipation of the Russian strategic exercise Zapad-2021 (“zapad” means “west” in Russian), the PLA did not fully participate in the strategic exercise. Whereas the armed forces of Armenia, Belarus, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia all participated in the exercise, China along with Vietnam and Myanmar merely observed the exercise.

Russia also hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) exercise Mirnaya Missiya-2021 at Donguz in September after the 2020 iteration (also planned to be held in Russia) was cancelled. This exercise also heavily featured developments in Afghanistan as a pretext, though notably did not take place in SCO member Tajikistan, which hosted a number of Russian-led exercises at other points in 2021 to signal anti-Taliban resolve.

Russia and China did resume joint naval exercises in 2021 with the renewal of the Morskoe Vzaymodestvie/Joint Sea exercise in the Sea of Japan in October. Afterward, a collective 10 ships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy ad Russian Pacific Fleet went on a joint cruise over 17-23 October into the west Pacific Ocean via the Sangar Strait, encircling Japan. This joint activity in East Asia was repeated in the air domain on 19 November 2021 with a third joint patrol of Russian Tu-95MS and Chinese H-6K strategic bombers accompanied by a Russian A-50U AEW aircraft over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea for more than 10 hours. Once again, the Korean peninsula was surrounded by this patrol.

Within a week of this joint patrol, Shoygu and Wei had a videoconference where they again renewed the agreement on mutual notification of ballistic missile and space vehicle launches and approved a cooperation plan extending to 2025. They also took the occasion to denounce U.S. strategic bomber patrols as “increasing geopolitical turbulence” as part of a general diplomatic campaign the two capitals have launched to claim that the United States is threatening the “United Nations Charter-centered international system” rather than Russia and China threatening the “rules-based international order.” Thus, Russia and China returned to three joint exercises in 2020 not counting two joint patrols. Already in early 2022, the Pacific Fleet sent its cruiser and a destroyer to the Indian Ocean for a trilateral anti-piracy exercise with China and Iran. Though COVID-19 seems to have dampened the pace of Russian-Chinese military cooperation, it has by no means broken it. In the short term, we can probably expect a gradual return toward 2019 levels of military cooperation and further such growth unless a more serious point of contention emerges between Moscow and Beijing. China does not yet rank with the pro-Russian former Soviet republics for Russian military cooperation: in 2019, Russia conducted 6 joint exercises with the PLA but 9 each with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, 11 with Armenia, and fully 17 with Belarus. China may not yet rank with these states, but the gap is closing and the spectrum of Russian cooperation with China far exceeds the range with any of Moscow’s treaty allies.

NATO, U.S., Russia, Ukraine: What’s Happening Right Now?

In late December 2021, the U.S. and NATO responded to Russia’s threats by asserting that Russian demands are unacceptable for the alliance —in particular, the demand to definitively preclude the incorporation of Ukraine into NATO. At the same time, NATO countries expressed their willingness to cooperate with Russia on such issues as arms control and disarmament.

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the alliance is “prepared for the worst,” so NATO would strengthen its posture in the Baltic and the Black Sea region. The US forces of 8,500 people stand ready for mobilization to Europe. Stoltenberg also called on Russia to “withdraw its troops” from Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted that Ukraine’s sovereignty, its territorial integrity, and the right to choose its allies are values that the United States and NATO are committed to defend.

In early January 2022, Russia, the U.S. and NATO held negotiations at which Moscow’s demands were discussed. Russia assessed these talks as unsuccessful and asked the U.S. and NATO to provide a written response. It was handed over to the Russian Foreign Ministry on January 26. Afterward, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held press conferences stating that NATO would not abandon the open-door principle.

While Russia waited for the U.S. to respond to its offers of security guarantees, the situation around Ukraine continued to escalate. Following the statements about the evacuation of Western diplomats from Kyiv, NATO leaders resolved to strengthen their eastern flank and sent additional forces to Bulgaria, Romania and Lithuania, while the US hinted that up to 50,000 American soldiers could be sent to Eastern Europe. Officials of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk and Luhansk expressed fears of an attack from Kiev, and the ruling United Russia party asked Putin to start supplying Russian weapons to the rebellious republics.

How Russia and Ukraine Found Themselves on the Brink of a Big War

The conflict between Moscow and Kiev has its roots far back in history, but its nature is simple: the Kremlin refuses to recognize Ukraine’s independence. Some of the key Kremlin’s positions are reflected in a document titled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, an oped by Putin published on July 12, 2021. In his oped, Putin advances the concept of the triune Russian people, which for centuries has formed a single cultural and spiritual space of historical Russia. According to the author, today’s Ukraine is “entirely the brainchild of the Soviet era,” largely created at the expense of what he calls “historical Russia.” Putin fails to mention that Russians and Ukrainians were not always on the same path and that two languages and two cultures had been formed—similar, but different. When Russia and Ukraine became separate states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, another difference became very clear— that of a political orientation. Kyiv has aspired to join Western democracies, with a rotating system of government, while Moscow turned away from it. The annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbass and the current conflict are the natural result of the Kremlin’s policy of the last 20 years.

Ukraine Coverage in the Russian Media

The downward spiral in the Russian-Ukrainian relations is widely covered in the Russian media, both state-owned and independent. Depending on the political stance and proximity to the Kremlin, the portrayal of current events in various media outlets differs significantly. Just as in a hypothetical armed clash between Russia and Ukraine, the balance of power in the information battle is not equal— the state-owned media with anti-Ukrainian positions far outnumber the opposition media in terms of coverage and influence.

And it is no longer just about funding: during 2021, the Kremlin unleashed an onslaught against independent journalism. While, at the end of 2020 there were only 17 individuals and organizations on the black list of Foreign Media Agent, by the end of 2021 their number increased to 111, with the most influential and popular editorial teams and journalists added. In addition, many journalists independent of the Kremlin were forced to flee the country as exiles.

“Journalism in Russia is going through dark times right now. In the last few months, more than a hundred journalists, media outlets, human rights activists, and NGOs have already been given the status of “foreign agents.” In Russia, these are “enemies of the people.” These are the words of Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, in his Nobel speech. This is how he described what happened to the journalistic profession in 2021.

The main narratives of the Russian media affiliated or controlled by the Kremlin include:

  • Relations between Russia and the United States have come to a dangerous critical edge due to the latter’s fault. The NATO bloc is carrying out hostile activities in the immediate vicinity of Russia’s borders, from military maneuvers to arms sales to Ukraine.
  • Russia has attempted to become friends and reliable partners of NATO, but the steps we took toward it were misinterpreted as weakness, and all we got in return was disregard for our priorities and a threat to our borders.
  • In Ukrainian society, a culture of fear is being cultivated, neo-Nazis are being indulged, militarization is on the rise, and Russophobe sentiments and the fight against the Russian language and culture are intensifying. At the same time, the Ukrainian media is actively spreading rumors of an impending Russian invasion of Ukraine, but this is only a distraction for building NATO infrastructure and preparing its own military provocations, such as a combat operation in the rebellious republics in the east of the country.
  • Ukraine’s military is ineffective, unprepared and unable to deal not only with Russia, but even with the DNR and LNR militias.

Key purveyors and amplifiers of these narratives include:

TV channels: Pervyi TV-channel, Rossiya-24, REN-TV, NTV, RT (Russia Today)

News agencies: RIA Novosti, Interfax, RT

Media outlets: Lenta.ru, Izvestiya, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Moskovsky Komsomolets, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Argumenty i Fakty

Pro-Kremlin media taking a neutral stance: Kommersant, RBC

Most stories on the escalation of the situation between Russia and Ukraine in the official Russian media violate basic principles of quality journalism, first and foremost the principle of neutrality and non-judgmentalism. Subjective evaluations are prominent event at the level of headlines, and are especially amplified in the texts of news and op-eds. When presenting information, journalists of pro-Kremlin media regularly use expressive language and evaluative epithets, such as “Ukrainian militants,” “neo-Nazi Ukrainian groups,” “terrorist authorities,” and “militarist psychosis.”

The state television and Kremlin-funded sources suggest to audiences that active military action in Ukraine is necessary to ensure Russia’s own security. Numerous political talk shows on state-run television stations make direct threats and statements about the need to use the force.

An important place in pro-Kremlin media is reserved for sessions in which readers’ and viewers questions are answered by experts. Oftentimes, the experts chosen by the editorial staff make evaluative and negatively expressive judgments in their answers, which are not supported by precise facts (or are counterfactual). When making even the loudest accusations, authors of such publications often do not cite a source of information that could serve as proof of their accuracy.

The language of publications in the state media can be characterized as extremely negative, and the tonality is dismissive and disparaging of Ukraine and its citizens.

In the article “Ukraine is always shooting itself in the foot,” Lenta.ru forecasts how the next escalation of the conflict between Moscow and Kiev will turn out for Ukrainians: “The problem is that the entire political life in Ukraine is a constant regrouping of resources in order not to touch its cronies, semi-criminal politics and manipulation of Western partners. The political class in Ukraine has only chimerical ideas and has proven to be bankrupt <…> Ukraine’s current economic situation is not the result of Russia’s actions, but of its own reckless attitude toward the resources it has received. Ukraine, of course, is a record-breaker in the way it can be wasted. It’s not Russia who carried it out <…> The new fragile countries with a large Russian community should be sensitive to the interests of the Russian minority, because this is what interethnic peace and stability in these countries are based on. And the well-being of this minority directly affects the quality of relations with Russia.

In loud and often misleading headlines Lenta.ru journalists use expressive phrases and evaluative epithets: “Rada deputy revealed “hellish” plans of the West for Ukraine”, “The actions of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry were compared to the behavior of a ” offended maiden”, “In Donbas they prepared for chemical attacks of Kiev”, “In Ukraine they warned about the growing “spiral of disasters”, “Accidentally gained control of the country” Zelensky was called to choose words more carefully.”

Part of the news stream is devoted to discussion of combat capabilities of the Ukrainian army and Ukrainian civilian population, as a rule, in a humorous manner: “Ukraine’s place in the rating of the strongest armies of the world was named” (“Experts gave Russia the second place in the pedestal of the strongest armies of the world, the first place went to the United States. Ukraine in the global list got only 22nd place”), “Ukrainian woman spent two thousand dollars on ammunition for “Russian invasion”, “Ukraine accused the US of “lame” and outdated weapons”, “Ukrainian commander promised to “tear Russians with his bare hands”, “Ukrainian reservists were trained to use an archaic machine gun.”

One of the world’s largest news agencies, RIA Novosti, is not far behind its colleagues. In the background of many news items on the topic of the conflict, journalists of the state news agency place the following text: “Moscow has repeatedly denied accusations of “aggressive actions” by the West and Ukraine, noting that it does not threaten anyone and is not going to attack anyone, while statements about “aggression” are used as a pretext to place more NATO military equipment near Russian borders.”

In the article “Total Dependence. Why the West Pushes Russians and Ukrainians” the head of Crimea, Sergey Aksenov, states that “Ukrainian politicians are dependent, they do not make independent decisions. First of all, President Zelensky. America and other Western countries do not need a prosperous Ukraine, they need a conflict with Russia. Their task is to push us against each other, two brotherly nations. This is solely the fault of the Ukrainian administration.”

RIA Novosti journalists regularly inform its readers about the West’s alleged preparations for major provocations in Ukraine: “Western countries are preparing several major sabotages in the situation around Ukraine, and Moscow does not rule out that they may be information or military, said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on the Russia-24 TV program ‘An Evening with Vladimir Solovyov'”.

RIA Novosti agency openly manipulates the facts, reinforcing anti-Ukrainian moods in Russian society. The news piece “Kiev told us when it will start organizing terrorist attacks in Russia” tells about how Ukraine will engage in sabotage on Russian territory in case of a full-scale war. And in the article “CIA teaches Ukrainian special forces to kill Russians. But they will blame Russia” the agency draws readers’ attention to the allegedly “leaked recent information that the CIA is intensively training the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces (SDF) at some secret base in the south of the USA. A former CIA official familiar with the details of this operation directly admits its purpose: “The program teaches Ukrainians to kill Russians.”

Journalists of the agency often mock Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky. “Well, that’s it then. Why have they started laughing at Zelensky in America?” (Quote: “In Ukraine itself, few people believe Zelensky’s statements. At one time, the main motive of Vladimir Zelensky’s election campaign was to establish peace in Donbass. However, he did not fulfill his pre-election promises, essentially deceiving his voters, so the current critical attitude of many citizens toward the Ukrainian president is completely natural”), “In Crimea they compared Zelensky to a disco dancer for the USA” (Quote: “Crimean political expert and VII State Duma deputy Ruslan Balbek, commenting on Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky’s call to activate the country’s foreign intelligence, compared his actions to dancing to the music of American composers”)

The main Russian news agency also regularly discusses the Ukrainian army. “The U.S. found out how long Ukraine will last in a naval battle with Russia” (Quote: “Taking into account Russia’s significant sea and air advantage, there is a high probability that the entire Ukrainian fleet will go down in one or two hours after the start of the operation”), “Forbes named the reason for Ukraine’s defeat in a hypothetical war with Russia” (Quote: “Outdated artillery and lack of ammunition will not allow Ukraine to defeat Russia”), “Expert assessed how the condition of the Ukrainian army has changed for seven years” (Quote: “Ukrainian army failed to make a leap in technical equipment”)

Other Headlines of Russian Media Financed by the Kremlin

RT (Russia Today)

  • “Pumping up arms”: how foreign military aid to Ukrainian army contributes to escalation of tensions in Donbass”
  • “Neo-Nazis get carte blanche for provocations”: the Russian embassy claimed the consequences of US arms supplies to Ukraine”
  • “Militarist psychosis”: how the Ukrainian authorities are preparing to repel possible “Russian aggression”
  • “Ukraine is sliding back to the tragic past”: radicals march in honor of Bandera was held in Kiev”
  • “Hate ideology”: how Ukraine continues to glorify collaborators”

Izvestia

  • “They need NATO: why foreign troops will move into Ukraine. North Atlantic Alliance draws nearer to Russia’s borders”
  • “A deal stronger than money: why NATO is escalating tension around Ukraine and why the alliance will not stand up for Kiev in case of a big war”
  • “Pregnant women and women with children to be registered for military service in Ukraine”
  • “Imprisonment: Ukraine has declared war on Russian citizens”
  • “Know your place: women in Ukraine are still “second-rate people”

Pervyi TV-channel

  • “NATO countries are whipping up hysteria over fictitious Russian aggression in Ukraine”
  • “Who will start World War III?”
  • “From the lectern of the Rada, the President of Ukraine talks about a military scenario, and not only in Donbas”

Rossiya-24

  • “Destruction of Russia is the main task of the West”
  • “Insanity in Ukraine Continues”
  • “Expert: Modern Ukraine is a cannon fodder”
  • “Ukraine will fall even without an invasion”
  • “Anglo-Saxons have gone crazy”
  • “Ukrainian Nazis will be killed in back alleys”

Moskovsky Komsomolets

  • “Rumors of war with Russia ruined the economy of Ukraine”
  • “Wasserman called Ukraine an artificial nation”
  • “In Ukraine they said that Zelensky would flee in case of war with Russia”

Komsomolskaya Pravda

  • “It is impossible to be photographed with the Russians, to talk, too. Ukraine frightens athletes before the Olympics”
  • “Shoigu: neo-fascists are paying back on Donbass for the decision of Crimeans”
  • “It has become easier for Russians to obtain Ukrainian citizenship. But who needs it”

Independent Russian Media

Key messages of the independent Russian media outlets include:

  • NATO does not surround Russia. Russia has over 20,000 kilometers of land border, NATO has only 1,215 kilometers, less than one-sixteenth of that. NATO is a defensive alliance with no aggressive intentions against Russia. On the contrary, NATO has been trying for years to get friendly with Russia, but these efforts have unfortunately been rejected.
  • Vladimir Putin’s aggressive policy towards Ukraine is due to the fact that he does not believe that Ukraine is a sovereign state. Also, the president of Russia claims that Ukraine is a threat to Russia.
  • Russia has deployed more than 100,000 troops, including tactical units, near the borders of Ukraine, a country it has recently invaded. This does not look like troop rotations or preparations for a military maneuver – more like preparations for an actual invasion or a politico-military adventure to force NATO and the U.S. to enter into negotiations on the non-extension of the alliance.
  • There are no credible reports of persecution of ethnic Russians or Russian speaking people in Ukraine. However, there are credible reports that Ukrainians in Crimea and Donbass face suppression of their culture and national identity and live in fear.
  • The Ukrainian army has become more combat-ready than it was during the 2014-2015 war and is ready to offer substantial resistance in the event of a Russian military invasion.
  • The economic sanctions that the West would impose if the country invaded Ukraine would be devastating for the whole country, undermining the economy for many years to come.

Key Media Participants

TV channels: Dozhd TV channel

Radio stations / News agencies:  Echo of Moscow

Media outlets: Meduza, Novaya Gazeta, Mediazona, Republic, Znak.com

Plots and Headlines

The pages of the independent Russian press contain both news and analysis on the current confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. In the news articles, the absence of explicit or implicit journalistic assessment of the actions of the parties to the conflict prevails. Neutrality of presentation is also preserved in large investigative articles, where facts are supported by quotations from credible sources.

The texts in the non-state media in Russia do not contain explicit signals of evaluation or signs of verbal aggression. These outlets, especially Meduza and Novaya Gazeta, engage in investigative journalism in which the authors collect and analyze large amounts of information from a variety of credible sources.

Criticism from the pages of independent press is usually directed at Russian political figures. Journalists use sarcasm as their main artistic device. This is especially evident in analytical articles, where the objects of sarcasm are statements by Vladimir Putin, his press secretary Dmitry Peskov and other first persons of the state.

In the article “In recent months, the Western media write about a possible war between Russia and Ukraine. How do ordinary people from both countries react to it?” Angelina Karyakina, head of the news department of the National Public Television and Radio Company of Ukraine, tells Meduza about the feelings of ordinary Ukrainians. And independent journalist Ulyana Pavlova tells how she worked on materials about the attitude of Russians to a potential military conflict.

In the article “If War Does Begin, Will the Ukrainian Army Be Able to Resist Russia? We Examine What Has Changed Since 2014,” Meduza journalists, together with military experts, explore the combat effectiveness of the Ukrainian army, concluding that propagandists’ claims that the Ukrainian army is unprepared for war with Russia are nothing more than a fake. “Has the Ukrainian army become more combat-ready than it was during the 2014-2015 war? Yes, undoubtedly. Ukraine’s armed forces have been preparing to continue the war in the Donbass for seven years; the state spent more on the army during that time than any country of the former Soviet Union except Russia. They succeeded in their preparations: Ukraine now has the second largest army in the region, an experienced reserve, a new command and control system, and a significant proportion of modern weaponry in combat units. This will probably be enough to prevent itself from being defeated by the two ‘corps’ of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and several battalion tactical groups of the Russian army sent ‘seconded’ to the region.” – reported in the article.

In the article “Who in the Russian Administration Wants War with Ukraine?” Meduza comes to a dreadful conclusion: if Russia starts hostilities, the country will face isolation, economic decline and a political system like in Turkmenistan.

The Echo Of Moscow also draws disappointing conclusions about the prospects for a hypothetical war and warns the Kremlin against such a scenario: “A war with Ukraine in the model of 2022 cannot be a repeat of the 2014-2015 military campaign that led to the signing of the “Minsk Protocol,” which is unbearable for Ukraine. Even if Ukraine is defeated in this war (which is possible, but not guaranteed), the price of victory will be completely different. The West, without directly intervening in the conflict (also likely, but not necessarily), will give Ukraine all the military and financial aid it needs to continue this war “to the last Ukrainian”. If anyone hopes that the Ukrainian army, with all its known vulnerabilities, being equipped in unlimited numbers with modern high-tech weapons, will not be able to inflict significant damage on the Russian army, he is mistaken.

Other Headlines from the Independent Russian Media

Novaya Gazeta

  • They are not there, but everyone is there! Deliveries of modern Russian weapons to the Donbass may become a new stage of escalation
  • Dead Man’s Donbass. What they sell, who covers them up, and who earns the most in Russia’s “gray zone”
  • Sergei Loznitsa: “War is always a disgusting way to solve a problem”

TV Channel Dozhd

  • The patriotic wave has subsided: why a possible war with Ukraine would not become “a second Crimea”
  • State Department published examples of “Russian lies” about the situation around Ukraine
  • “There are no people left around Putin who could dissuade him from madness.” Evgenia Albats on who may be pushing the president to start a war with Ukraine
  • This is what war is all about. What the propagandists on TV don’t talk about

Republic

  • The days when everybody lies: peculiarities of the pre-war propaganda
  • Oleg Kashin: For humanism and the cause of peace. What pacifism is missing now?
  • Putin’s hybrid ultimatum. How Russia’s president demonstrates to the world the comparative advantages of authoritarianism.

What do Ordinary Russians Think About a Possible Military Conflict with Ukraine?

Credible opinion polls – such as those conducted by the Levada Center (https://www.levada.ru/2021/12/14/obostrenie-v-donbasse/) – show that about half of Russians do not believe that a war between Russia and Ukraine will take place. However, a comparable number of people – 39% – hold the opposite opinion. Only 15% completely exclude the possibility of such a development of events. A quarter of the respondents consider a conflict between Russia and NATO possible.

More than half of respondents at the end of 2021 pointed to worsening relations with Western and NATO countries, which was one of the highest values of this indicator in the history of observation – it was higher only in 2014.

At the same time, the fear of a big war is much more widespread in Russian society. As recently as spring 2021, 62% of respondents felt it – a record high for a quarter-century of regular nationwide polls. Participants in focus groups explained: “When the state media say that we are going to enter a war not today or tomorrow, it’s scary! It’s scary, it’s tense… Everything pales in the background.” However, by the end of the year the fear of war had somewhat weakened (in December 2021 the corresponding figure was 56%). This was most likely due to the meeting between the presidents of Russia and the United States and the start of the U.S.-Russian negotiations.

A significant proportion of Russians believe that the war between Russia and the West has long been going on, albeit invisible, cold, and in the form of media war – an opinion that has been voiced in focus groups in various parts of the country for many years. According to surveys, Russian participation in all recent international conflicts has been perceived by Russian public opinion almost exclusively through the prism of geopolitical confrontation with the West, primarily with the United States.

The sociologists of the Levada Center, in their research, see that the majority of Russians blame the United States and NATO for the current escalation. This is the opinion of half of those surveyed. Only 3-4% hold the Russian leadership responsible, which can be considered a marginal position. And this structure of assessments of what is happening is quite stable: “Interference by the US and the West in the internal affairs of other countries” has long ago become a universal explanation for any foreign policy disturbances: from the conflict in Syria to the recent war in the Karabakh or the crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border. No matter what happens in the world, America is to be blamed.

In conversations with respondents, the United States and the West are not just seen as responsible for the conflict, they are deliberately and purposefully dragging Russia into the war. The word “provocation” was repeatedly heard from respondents. At the same time, the prevailing opinion was that Russia cannot but react.

At the same time, publications in the Western press about the pulling of Russian armed forces to the Russian-Ukrainian border seemed to most focus group participants not as an exposé of Russia’s aggressive intentions, but as an incitement to war on the part of the West itself.

All the events of recent months – Western claims about Nord Stream-2, the Belarusian border crisis, NATO naval maneuvers off the coast of Crimea, the constant threat of new sanctions, Western criticism of Russian military aid to Kazakhstan, talk of an upcoming invasion of Ukraine – for the average Russian has long blended into a stream of poorly discernible negativity “coming from the West.” This news causes nothing but annoyance to the vast majority of Russians, and they do not want to be understood. But with existing perceptions of what is happening, the war seems to be externally imposed and therefore practically unavoidable.Hence the growth of mass fears, conclude sociologists.

So most Russian citizens blame the West for the current escalation, while almost entirely absolving the leadership of their own country of responsibility. At the same time, there is no mobilization of public opinion around Russian leaders. In the last two months, when the topic of the conflict and new sanctions has been discussed most actively, the ratings of the president, the prime minister, and the government have been declining rather than increasing. Apparently, the confrontation with the West has already become boring and routine and does not arouse much excitement, despite the politicians’ harsh statements.

The majority of respondents see full-scale negotiations as practically the only alternative to the conflict. However, neither politicians nor ordinary Russians are confident that negotiations will lead to détente.

The asymmetry in Russian-Sino relations is caused above all by the disparity in the military and economic potentials of Russia and China. China’s economic power in the last two decades has significantly surpassed that of Russia. But Russia’s military mainly (mainly its strategic nuclear forces) significantly surpasses that of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Therefore, the two countries complement each other in different spheres.

In the last 20 years, the economic gap between China and Russia has continued to increase. According to the World Bank, in 2001, Russia’s nominal GDP was $306.6 billion, but the PRC’s GDP was $1.3 trillion, and in 2020, these figures were $1.5 and 14.7 trillion, respectively. Thus, China has increased its advantage by a factor of approximately four to 10, and the gap continues to grow. And China’s superiority over Russia in military expenditures in the last 20 years has increased from double to quadruple.

During this period, China significantly closed its military gap with Russia and the US, as can be seen with its tests of a hypersonic missile and the building of new silos for ballistic missiles.

At a parade in Beijing in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Republic in October 2019, China’s latest armaments were demonstrated for the first time – the Dongfeng-41 (DF-41), an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and the Dongfeng-17 (DF-17) hypersonic medium-range missile. The ICBM DF-41 can be modified to carry a hypersonic glide platform equipped with a conventional or nuclear warhead. According to a Nezavisimaya gazeta report based on an article in the Financial Times, Michael Gallagher, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a statement that China “now has an increasingly credible capability to undermine our missile defenses and threaten the American homeland with both conventional and nuclear strikes.”

At the present time, China has already formulated a nuclear triad and is actively increasing production of weapons-grade plutonium. Analysts at the RAND Corporation, in a report titled “Understanding Influence in the Strategic Competition with China” devoted to the position of the PRC on the world stage, acknowledged Beijing’s serious economic influence. China’s main trump card, in the opinion of experts, is its economic might. For China, the most effect lever of influence on third countries is its ability to offer them a trade or investment partnership – this is more effective than direct military threats or promotion of the Chinese political model.

Recently, China’s economic pressure on Russia has been increasing. A full-scale “trade war” has broken out in the fishing industry between Russia and China. Moreover, the degree of China’s brutality has been unprecedented.

For the Russian Far East, the fishing industry is a very important branch of the economy: 65% of the extraction of Russia’s aquatic biological resources comes from the Far East. And about 70% of all exports of fish and fish and seafood products are made to China.

Pollock is the chief type of fish produced in Russia, making up about 55% of the entire catch of Russian fishermen in the Far East this year. Most of Russia’s catch is exported. China is the chief buyer of pollock. In 2020, Russian exported a total of 793,000 tons of frozen pollock; of these 579,000 went to China, which is 73% of the export.

In October 2020, China began restricting imports after traces of COVID-19 were found on fish packaging coming from Russia. To combat the spread of the coronavirus, China began closing the ports through which Russian fish had been transported into the country; the last port, Dalian, closed in December 2020. Chinese ports remain closed to Russian refrigerated transport vessels to this day.

The Chinese government has announced that the reason for the closure of the ports is to tackle COVID-19 infection, but the reluctance of Chinese authorities to produce the results of laboratory tests and their methodology has caused concern. In the opinion of Russian fishing industry representatives, the actions of the PRC’s authorities appear more likely to be a trade war. From January to June 2021, exports of pollack to China dropped 64% compared to 2020.

Russia has already proposed to China that they discuss the issue of opening the ports and establish quotas for catching pollock in Russian waters. Russia offers other countries fishing quotas on a paid basis in its exclusive economic zone.

China was offered a quota of 20,000 tons of pollock in Russian waters “for cash,” but China refused to buy the quota on general terms, because it wishes to get a much larger amount for free.

China has been the world’s center for fish processing for many years. China adds at least $250 million in additional cost to processed filet of pollack. The high profitability of fish processing in China has for many years been ensured by a cheap work force, low tariffs on electricity and other expenses. But in recent years, the situation has changed; Chinese enterprises require more efforts to preserve their financial stability.

The position of China as the chief buyer of Russian fish gives it substantial advantages in negotiations. China may use the restriction on import of Russian pollack to strengthen its negotiating positions and as a method of trade warfare. The closure of the ports is an instrument of growing pressure on the Russian government.

China may put pressure on Russia in order to obtain permission for its trawlers to catch pollack in Russian waters, since the margin from the pollack haul is much higher than the margin for processing. In Latin America, there is a precedent when a Chinese fleet began to catch calamari directly, and not import it. This is the conclusion of a report titled “Pollockonomics” published in July about the pollock market by Planet Tracker, a British non-profit financial think tank.

As a result of the restrictions placed by China, export of Russian fish to what was once the largest sales market has collapsed. And although Russia has managed to redirect part of its exports to South Korea, the situation with deliveries to China has affected the volumes of fish caught – Russia does not have sufficient capacity for its own fish processing, and the catches have been reduced.

The trade war in the fish industry illustrates that China’s economic pressure on Russia will very likely increase. Chinese state companies already have experience in pressuring Russia, and in fact have been successful in the past. In 2011, the Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC) was able to force the Russian oil companies Rosneft and Transneft to insert changes into an already-signed contract for delivery of oil to China via the Skovorodino-Mohe pipeline or Eastern Siberian Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline, and got a discount of approximately $1.50 per barrel.

Rosneft, Transneft and the CNPC had signed an agreement in 2009. In exchange for loans from the China Development Bank amounting to $15 billion and $10 billion, respectively, the Russian state companies contracted to deliver 15 million tons of oil annually from 2011 through 2030 via the ESPO pipeline. For this, Transneft signed a contract to purchase 6 million tons of oil from Rosneft at the price tied to the cost of export to China. The price was determined by a special formula on the basis of quotations by Argus and Platts FOB to the end of the ESPO line, the port of Kozmino.

But as soon as the deliveries began in January 2011, problems emerged with the contract. The two sides made different assessments of the co-efficient which determined Transneft’s logistics costs for delivering the oil. CNPC began to underpay $13 per barrel, since it received oil from a branch of the ESPO – a route that was half as short. Transneft responded that a single network tariff was in effect throughout the pipeline equal to $65 per ton. For Russian companies, the losses from CNPC’s position for the period of the entire life of the contract could equal nearly $30 billion.

Rosneft, Transneft and CNPC agreed to changes in the contract in late December 2011. Rosneft and Transneft offered a “country” discount to the CNPC of $1.5 per barrel. China had initially demanded a discount of $13.5 per barrel. In total, the settlement of the dispute with the Chinese cost Rosneft about $3 billion.

Under conditions when the pipeline was built with a Chinese loan secured with oil deliveries, and which depended on a single consumer – China – it was clear that in fact China’s CNPC  would dictate its own terms.

It is quite logical that Russian has turned out to be the largest recipient of “hidden” loans from China.  From 2000-2017, Russia received $125 billion dollars from China. These loans were obtained largely by state oil and gas companies and secured by future deliveries of oil and gas. All the loans fall into two categories: official development assistance (ODA) and other programs of financing (other official flows or OOF) aimed at the demonstration of increased cooperation of Russia with China, and military or commercial projects advantageous to China.

Russia’s loans are in the OOF category. Venezuela follows Russia in this list ($85.5 billion), then Angola ($40.66 billion), Brazil and Kazakhstan ($39 billion each), Indonesia ($30 billion), Pakistan ($27.84 billion), and Vietnam ($16.35 billion).

In 2020, Beijing’s pressure forced Rosneft to refrain from drilling on a part of the continental shelf of Vietnam, which China considered part of is marine territory. Rosneft was forced to cancel a contract with the London company Noble Corporation for an exploration rig which had been planned for use on the shelf in Vietnam. The breaking of the contract took place amidst serious pressure from China.

In 2017, Rosneft signed six contracts with a Vietnamese drilling company for a total sum of $42 million.

Russian oil companies own two oil fields on the Vietnamese shelf. It was proposed to use the British platforms from Noble Corp. for drilling wells. In mid-July 2020, however, Petro Vietnam canceled the contract for the drilling platform due to pressure from China. Rosneft Vietnam became concerned that China had complained about its project, considering that drilling in the contested offshore waters was its prerogative.

Beijing is trying to push all foreign oil companies out of the South China Sea, leaving itself as the only potential partner for joint development by competing interests.

In the future, as Russia’s economic dependence on China increases, Beijing’s position in potential commercial disputes may grow significantly stronger.  Furthermore, China may use economic levers to change Russia’s position not on specific contracts, but on issues concerning Beijing’s foreign policy interests, for example, Moscow’s relations with Vietnam, India, or the countries of Central Asia.

Long-term trends of development of economic and military capacities are of prime importance in analyzing Russian-Sino relations. The current trends  are not favorable for Russia. They indicate that Russia’s role in bilateral relations with China will continue to diminish. Meanwhile, China’s role will grow and the asymmetry in the bilateral relations will increase.

Consequently, this will cause serious shifts in geopolitics since China in the near future is very likely to play the leading role in their relations.

Today, the greatest threat to international security and basic human rights is the military and political union of Russia and China which has virtually already been forged.

The reality of this union is demonstrated by the joint exercises of their armed forces.

Under these conditions, increasing disagreements in Russo-Sino relations would play a positive role, since the threats to international stability on the part of China and Russia (above all for Ukraine and Taiwan) would be reduced.

The Russian-Sino union suits the Russian political elite almost entirely. But it does not please the Russian military elite.

An important problem in the military-technical sphere of Russia and China is the extreme techno-nationalism of the military and military-industrial circles of both countries. Their ambition is to concentrate all important design and production within their respective countries. The import of goods and services for military purposes is viewed by both countries as a threat to security and a national problem that must be solved as quickly as possible.

Rossiysko-kitayskiy dialog: model’ 2017: doklad no. 33/2017/ [S.G. Luzyanin (ruk) i dr.; Kh. Chzhao (ruk.) i dr.] [gl. red. I.S. Ivanov] [Russian-Chinese Dialogue: 2017 Model: Report No. 33/2017, director S. G. Luzyanin et. al.; director Kh. Chzhao et. al; Rossiyskiy sovyet po mezhdunarodym delam  (RSMD). – Moscow, Non-Profit Partnership Russian Council on Foreign Affairs (NP RSMD), 2017, 112 pp., p. 28.

The Russian political elite will very likely be satisfied with the role of the “junior partner” in Russian-Sino relations. Until the union with China threatens loss of power and loss of corrupt dividends for the semi-criminal Russian elite, they will be prepared to play by the Chinese rules.

An effective method of Chinese influence is the development of informal ties with representatives of elites in other countries. As examples, RAND experts cite China’s attempts to influence elites in Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Korea. Chinese representatives have offered economic preferences to politicians in Australia and New Zealand so that they would take measures advantageous to Beijing.

A noticeable weakening of the Russian-Sino union, or rejection of it could very likely occur as the result of a drastic change in the domestic political situation in Russia or China, which could be provoked by a struggle for power in the ruling elite. This could be a struggle between the military and political (primarily Chekist) elites in Russia.

Meanwhile, concern is growing among those very siloviki (the intelligence services and law-enforcement agencies) about the growing activity of Chinese intelligence in Russia, and also the increasingly obvious domination of China in the economic and military spheres.

In the opinion of Igor Denisov and Alexander Lukin (authors of the article “Correction and Hedging,” in the journal Rossiya v global’noy politike [Russia in Global Politics], 2021, no. 4), fears are growing among Russian intelligence services regarding a new “assertiveness” in Chinese partners.

It is precisely as a consequence of these fears, in my view, that the Russian authorities are taking measures to contain the emergence of new Confucius Institutes. An agreement was reached so that the number of Russia Centers in China and Confucius Institutes in Russia were equal. In certain cases, law-enforcement agencies have even tried to halt the operation of several Confucius Institutes for supposedly unlawful activity, but to date, unsuccessfully.

Thus, in Blagoveshchensk in 2015, the city prosecutor’s office demanded that the Confucius Institute at the Blagoveshchensk State Teachers’ University be closed. Subsequently, the prosecutor’s office withdrew its demand.

This demarche by the city prosecutor’s office was likely coordinated with the leadership of the prosecutor general’s office and intelligence agencies in Moscow due to the particular importance of the issue for Russian-Sino relations. Such a step likely reflected the concern of Russian intelligence and law-enforcement over the growing activity of Chinese intelligence in Russia.

Right up to my departure from Blagoveshchensk in 2016, I had occasion to hear from informed persons there that among the Chinese teachers at the Confucius Institute, there were people who displayed a professional interest toward Russians.

Any domination by China in the military and military-technical sphere is absolutely unacceptable for the Russian military elite. The joint Russian-Sino exercises which took place in 2021 more than likely caused great worry about Russian military people.

Military cooperation between China and Russia this year has made a breakthrough, the Chinese Ministry of Defense announced, according to a TASS report December 23, 2021. The ministry noted that this was facilitated by the joint exercises Zapad [West]/Interaction 2021 and Joint Sea 2021.

“These measures have demonstrated a new breakthrough in the strategic cooperation between the armed forces of China and Russia,” said a statement published on the Defense Ministry’s site. (See Highlights of the China-Russia Joint Sea-2021 Military Exercise and Joint Cruise).

The joint Russian-Chinese strategic military exercises Zapad/Interaction 2021 took place in the Ningxia autonomous region of China from August 9-13. About 13,000 military personnel were involved in them, with approximately 200 planes and helicopters, 200 armored vehicles, and about 100 artillery systems.

The exercises gave the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLAC) the opportunity to test their latest weapons, and also demonstrate the ability to coordinate work with Russian troops.

For the first time, the armed forces of both countries used a joint system of command and control. According to a statement by the Chinese Defense Minister, Russian troops were integrated into larger Chinese formations and conducted operations planned by the PLAC.

From the political and training perspective, the most important aspect of the past exercises was the new level of integration during the maneuvers of the military of both countries. For the first time, a common joint staff was formed which led the maneuvers of the soldiers through a united command information system. Following commands transmitted through this system, Russian paratroopers along with their fellow Chinese servicemen landed from Chinese helicopters (to be sure of Russian manufacture) and captured the key objectives of a mock enemy, and the Russian Su-30SM launched mock air strikes on commands sent from the Chinese military.

Such a level of integration were characterized in the Chinese press, which is more inclined to vivid commentary in such areas, as “demonstrating a level of cooperation as in NATO.”

In 2013, the Russian military expert Vasily Kashin wrote: “On the whole, the formation of general-purpose forces is made with a clear consideration of the threat of hostility from the PRC.”

Each year, exercises are conducting in airlifting forces from the European part of Russia to the Far East. Great attention is paid to improving the strategic military transport aviation fleet. And nevertheless, the maximum which the general-purpose Russian forces can expect is a comparable armed provocation modeled on the Soviet-Sino border conflicts of 1969 or something slightly larger.

The Vostok [East]-2010 exercises in June-July 2010 in airlifting troops and military equipment to the Far East from the European part of Russia were the largest of those conducted in Russia up to that time.

About 20,000 troops took part in Vostok-2010, more than 5,000 units of weapons and military vehicles, more than 40 ships, and about 75 planes and helicopters.

There was nothing analogous in Soviet history, if we note the number of troops and military vehicles deployed from the west to the east of the country. In the opinion of the military expert Alexander Khramchikhin, who often articulates the concerns of the Russian military elite regarding the Chinese threat, the Vostok-2010 exercises were Russia’s response to the PLAC’s Stride-2009.

In 2009, Stride-2009, the largest military exercises up to that time were conducted in the PRC.  They were held on the territory of four of the seven military districts — Shenyang, Lanzhou, Jinan, and Guangzhou. Up to 50,000 soldiers from the ground forces and air force took part, along with 6,000 transport vehicles. In the course of the exercises, the troops covered a total of 50,000 kilometers. In particular, four combined arms divisions completed a march (first by railroad, and then on their own) over a distance of 2,000 kilometers.

Stride-2009 was an obvious development of the exercises conducted in 2006.

The scenarios for the 2006 exercises were a preparation for war with Russia, and in fact an offensive, not a defensive war.

Alexander Khramchikhin believes that during this period (2006-2009), the Chinese leadership and command of the PLA seriously reviewed the possibility of conducting in the foreseeable future offensive military actions against Russia and the countries of Central Asia.  Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the Russian Federation General Staff of the Armed Forces (June 2008-November 2012) state that Russia, in conducting these exercises, demonstrated a readiness for the change in military political situation in the region.  “Changes” apparently was to be understood as the change from a declarative “strategic partnership” between Russia and the PRC to a confrontation.

Russia’s chief defense capability vis-à-vis the PRC involves nuclear weapons, including tactical ones. The Chinese factor likely explains many aspects of Russian behavior in the area of control and reduction of strategic weapons.

Quite likely the idea expressed by past Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov (March 2001-February 2007) about withdrawal of Russia from the treaty on medium and short-range missiles was related to the Chinese factor.

In February 2007, speaking at a press conference upon the conclusion of the 43rd international Munich Conference on Security Policy, Sergei Ivanov emphasized that India, Pakistan, North Korean, China , Iran, and Israel had medium- and short-range nuclear missiles: “These countries are situated near our borders, and we cannot help but take this into account. Only two countries do not have the right to possess these missiles: Russia and the USA. This cannot continue forever.”

The Chinese threat is one of the chief factors defining Russian foreign policy and military development.

In 2013, Vasily Kashin articulated the Russian position regarding the Chinese threat.

Understandably, after 2014 (with a drastic deterioration of relations with the West and a declared turn to the East), such publications in the open press were no longer possible. But the military threats from China did not disappear and specialists involved in military planning also did not disappear.

Therefore, the policy of Putin and the Russian political elite aimed at clear subordination of Russia to China, including in the military sphere (which was demonstrated by the latest Russian-Chinese exercises) will very likely provoke increasing irritation and resistance on the part of the military elite (the senior officers).

If for domestic policy, the chief irritant for the military elite is the omnipotence and monopolist position of the Chekist elite (the Federal Security Service [FSB], the Federal Protective Service [FSO] and other agencies), then in foreign policy, the increasingly obvious subordination of Russia to China, both in the economic and in the military, spheres may become such an irritant.

Anti-Chinese sentiments have always been strong among senior officers in the army and navy (the military elite).

Many of them remember well (or know from their parents’ stories) of the battles between Soviet and Chinese forces near the Daman Island on the Ussuri River in March 1969. Therefore, many of them are clearly not thrilled with Putin’s open pro-Chinese policy and do not approve of it.

Alexei Navalny addresses supporters on the anniversary of his detention, as rallies were held all over the world demanding his release. A year ago, he bravely returned to Russia, having recovered from the Novichok poisoning — and was immediately detained by the government.

Opposition politician Alexei Navalny called on his fellow Russians to be brave and fear nothing. On the anniversary of his return to Russia after his rehabilitation in Germany, he published a post on his Instagram page (https://www.instagram.com/navalny/p/CY01DoLoJec/

“Having served my first year in prison, I want to tell everyone the same exact thing that I shouted at the crowd near the court, when the guards were taking me to the back of the truck: Don’t be afraid of anything. This is our country and we have no other. The only fear that should remain is that we may allow our homeland to be looted by a bunch of liars, thieves and hypocrites; that we surrender without a fight, voluntarily, forfeiting both our future and the future of our children. Thank you all very much for your support —I can feel it,” Alexei Navalny addressed his supporters in an emotional post.

“There are a lot of honest people in Russia—tens of millions. There are far more of them than is commonly thought. But it is not honest people who scare the authorities— disgusting then, and even more so now— but those who are not afraid. Or rather, to be more precise: those who are afraid, but overcome the fear,” he wrote.

He said that the year since his return to Russia flew by quickly. All this time Navalny remained behind bars.

“I do not know when my cosmic journey will end and whether it will end at all — just last Friday I was told that another of criminal cases against me goes to court. And there’s another one coming up —charging me as an extremist and a terrorist. So, I’m one of those “astronauts” who doesn’t bother counting the days until the end of the sentence. There is no point in counting. There have been  people who spent 27 years in prison.

But I find myself in this group of “astronauts” because I tried my best to pull this end of the rope. I pulled to this side those among the honest ones who did not want to or could no longer be afraid.

I did it, I do not regret it for a second, and I will continue to do it,” Navalny wrote.

Navalny’s Arrest and What Happened in Russia Over the Year

On January 17, 2021, Russian politician Alexei Navalny was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after returning to Russia from Germany, where he was being treated for poisoning with the Novichok nerve agent. Navalny spent the following year in custody: first in the Matrosskaya Tishina prison, and then in prison no. 2 in Pokrov in the Vladimir region. The formal reason for his imprisonment was parole violation. The authorities claim that while Navalny was treated in Germany, he failed to register with the Federal Penitentiary Service as required by the sentence from the “Yves Rocher” case.

According to the parole violation sentence, the politician must be released no later than fall 2023. However, several other criminal cases have been brought up by the government against him, including one for creating an “extremist community”. According to prosecutors, Navalny has created an “extremist community,” the purpose of which was to “discredit the state authorities.” Under this article Navalny faces up to 10 years in jail.

In addition, in late 2020, Navalny was charged with criminal fraud— the case is expected to be heard in court in late January or early February 2022. According to prosecution, Navalny had spent 356 million rubles collected as donations for the activities of non-profit organizations headed by him for personal needs. The fraud case is combined with the charges of insulting Judge Vera Akimova, who presided over the trial on the case of “defamation of a veteran.” The criminal case on “defamation of a veteran” was opened after Navalny called the heroes of RT TV channel’s propaganda video about amendments to the Constitution, in which Ignat Artemenko, a 94-year-old veteran of the World War II, appeared, “corrupt lackeys” and “traitors”. The Investigative Committee considered that Navalny’s comment attacked the veteran’s honor and dignity. The court sentenced Navalny to a fine of 850 thousand rubles.

In the winter and spring of 2021, mass rallies in support of Navalny were held in Russia, resulting  in mass detentions. In June, Navalny’s political network was declared “extremist organization” by a Russian court.

Navalny’s headquarters throughout Russia have been decimated, with dozens of their members either under arrest or forced to leave Russia, including Leonid Volkov, the former head of Navalny’s federal headquarters; Ivan Zhdanov, director of FBK;  and Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer for the foundation. On January 14, Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov were added to the list of terrorists and extremists. During the entirety of 2021, repressions in Russia continued to intensify: dozens of organizations and citizens, including media outlets and journalists, were declared foreign agents, and opposition activists were put behind bars.

Free Russia Foundation estimates that more than 1,500 activists and journalists left the country in 2021. This estimate includes only “political” emigrants.

At the end of 2021, the European Union recognized Alexei Navalny and awarded him the Andrei Sakharov Human Rights Prize. Navalny’s daughter, Darya Navalny, attended the ceremony to accept the prize on behalf the imprisoned politician. “This is a message to the tens of millions of citizens of my country who continue to fight for a better life in Russia,” she said, speaking at the European Parliament.

In January 2022, it was announced that CNN and the streaming service HBO Max had produced and intend to stream a documentary, “Navalny,” about the Russian opposition leader. The movie, with the tagline “Poison Always Leaves a Trace,” was created by Canadian documentary filmmaker Daniel Roher. The film’s synopsis says it is about “a courageous and controversial presidential contender who is willing to sacrifice everything to bring reform to his homeland.” The film’s premiere date has not been disclosed. Navalny wrote on Instagram from prison: “The film is ready, and you will definitely see it before I do.”

Navalny in Jail: Deteriorating Health, Hunger Strike, Doctors’ Denial of Access, and Torture by Prison Authorities

In March 2020, Navalny filed a formal complaint stating that prison authorities purposefully deprived him of sleep. Navalny said he was woken up eight times a night by guards asking him to confirm to a camera that he is still in his prison cell. Navalny also complained that he was not allowed to read newspapers or have any books including a copy of the Quran that he planned to study.

Navalny’s lawyers said that he was suffering from health problems, including a loss of sensation in his spine and legs, and that prison authorities denied Navalny’s requests for a civilian physician, claiming his health was “satisfactory”. On March 31, Navalny declared a hunger strike demanding proper medical treatment. On April 6,  six doctors, including Navalny’s personal physician, Anastasia Vasilyeva, and two CNN correspondents, were arrested outside the prison when they attempted to visit Navalny whose health significantly deteriorated. On April 7, 2021, Navalny’s attorneys claimed he had suffered two spinal disc herniations and had lost feeling in his hands, prompting international outrcy. Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International accused Vladimir Putin of slowly killing Alexey Navalny through torture and inhumane treatment in prison.

On April 17, it was reported that Navalny was in urgent need of medical attention. Navalny’s personal doctor Anastasia Vasilyeva and three other doctors, including cardiologist Yaroslav Ashikhmin, petitioned prison officials to grant them immediate access, stating on social media that “Our patient can die any minute”, due to an increased risk of a fatal cardiac arrest or kidney failure “at any moment”. Test results publicized by Navalny’s lawyers showed heightened levels of potassium in the blood, which may signal cardiac arrest, and sharply elevated creatinine levels, indicating impaired kidneys.

The following day, his daughter called on Russian prison authorities to let her father be checked by doctors in a tweet. Prominent celebrities such as J.K. Rowling and Jude Law also addressed a letter to Russian authorities asking to provide Navalny with proper medical treatment. U.S. President Joe Biden called his treatment “totally unfair” and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the Kremlin had been warned “that there will be consequences if Mr. Navalny dies.” The European Union’s head diplomat Josep Borrell stated that the organization held the Russian government accountable for Navalny’s health conditions. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also expressed her concern for his health. However, Russian authorities rebuked such concerns by foreign countries. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Russian prison officials are monitoring Navalny’s health, not the president.

On April 19, Navalny was moved from his cell to a prison hospital, according to the Russian authorities, for a course of “vitamin therapy”. On April 23, Navalny announced that he was ending his hunger strike on the advice of his doctors and as he felt his demands had been partially met. His newspapers are still being censored as articles are cut out before the newspaper is given to him.

On May 20, Navalny’s ally Ivan Zhdanov reported that Navalny had “more or less” recovered and that his health was generally satisfactory. On June 7, Navalny was returned to prison after fully recovering from the effects of the hunger strike.

In early November 2021 Navalny’s former prison-mates described his harassment in detention. An independent Russian TV channel Dozhd broadcast an interview “Torture for Navalny: Who Surrounded Him in the Penal Colony, How They Compromise Him and Break Him”. In the expose, former inmates at the Pokrov’s Correctional Facility Number 2, described the torture and abuse targeting Navalny.

Dozhd reporters spoke with former convicts Nariman Osmanov and Yevgeny Burak, who served time in the same quarters as Navalny. According to Osmanov, this unit was put together by authorities before the arrival of the opposition leader to the prison, and with each of the prisoners a conversation had been held in advance. Osmanov said that all prisoners in the brigade were instructed not to communicate with the politician and record each of his steps on a daily basis.

“Naturally, we suffered with him. Mentally, I still haven’t recovered, to be honest,” Osmanov told reporters. According to him, Navalny tried to talk to him, but he stopped these attempts.

During the hunger strike, which Navalny held from March 31 to April 23, inmates brought a bag of sausages into the barrack and roasted the sausages on the premises, perhaps with the intent to seduce Navalny with the smell of the food, which is not allowed could have only been done with the permission of authorities.

On another occasion, a detainee was placed in the same cell as Navalny, and later taken to the sanitary unit and declared to have a contagious form of tuberculosis.

Osmanov claimed both events had been staged and he managed to tell Navalny about that.

Another prisoner, Yevgeny Burak, talked about a movie screening that was held for the colony’s inmates on Navalny’s birthday, June 4. The movie insinuated that Navalny is a homosexual— which, in Russian prisons, would expose an inmate to grave danger of physical and sexual abuse by other inmates. The movie was attempting to discredit and threaten Navalny. These claims have been corroborated by Osmanov.

After Navalny returned from the hospital warden to the regular prison cell, he was again precluded  from sleeping for several days — an inmate was roomed in the same cell with him and “made different sounds,” and all this was done on the instructions of the colony’s leadership, Osmanov claims.

Global Support

To mark the anniversary of Alexei Navalny’s arrest, his supporters rallied in dozens of cities around the world to call for his freedom. Pickets and rallies were held in Russia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, the United States, Switzerland, Denmark, New Zealand, France, Canada, Norway, Belgium, Estonia, Australia, Spain, Finland, Georgia and other countries.

The U.S. Congress released a statement on the anniversary of Navalny’s arrest (https://www.csce.gov/international-impact/press-and-media/press-releases/helsinki-commission-marks-one-year-anniversary)

Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) wrote:

“In the past year, while Alexei Navalny has remained unjustly imprisoned, the Kremlin has doubled down on its absurd persecution of his anti-corruption organizations as ‘extremist’ /…/ Nevertheless, Mr. Navalny’s colleagues, friends and allies, in the face of grave threats, continue to risk their own freedom to expose Putin’s thuggery across Russia.”

“Putin would not have gone to the trouble to imprison Alexei Navalny unless he perceived a serious threat to his power,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Mr. Navalny and his team across Russia were instrumental in revealing the ill-gotten gains of Putin and his cronies. This tells you all you need to know about why they are a target.”

“During his imprisonment, Alexei Navalny has used his own suffering to call attention to the plight of the hundreds of other political prisoners in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “We have not forgotten him or others who are persecuted for their beliefs, and we look forward to a Russia in which they finally are free.”

“Despite the Kremlin’s attempts to push Alexei Navalny out of public view and prevent him from challenging Putin, we will not stop calling for his release,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russians who challenge Putin should not have to fear for their safety in their own country.”

“A Man Has Entered the Cage with a Tiger.” What Russian Public Figures are Saying on the Anniversary of Navalny’s Arrest

Vladimir Milov

“It’s been a tragic year. I don’t think it’s right to put it in the category of defeat, because the authorities had pretty obvious goals— to completely isolate Navalny from society. And it didn’t succeed. As you can see, we constantly get his messages of hope even from the colony, even from prison. The second goal was to completely destroy his team. And that also failed, although many of them had to go into exile, but we continue not just to work, but to influence the political situation in Russia <…> So we continue to fight. Of course, we received a very serious hit, but we have withstood, we are fighting, I am sure that we will win in the end.”

Kirill Rogov

“What a great man Navalny is. How great that he flew to Moscow a year ago. What a sensitive politician.

Have you looked in history books? There’s a lot of it there. At first, for a few years, everyone will say: Why did he do it? It made no sense, he miscalculated, he set us all up, do you see what happened as a result? But then. Everyone will say: can you imagine, it didn’t seem to make any sense, it seemed that he miscalculated, there were those who said “he set us all up”.

The Man went into the tiger’s cage, the Man puts his head into the beast’s mouth. And the beast is thinking— do I  bite off the head and show everyone, which is all they expect, that I’m a bloodthirsty scumbag, or do I not bite it off and appear weak?

A man risking his life is high stakes, it’s memorable for decades, if not more. History is made up of these actions. Here we have another entry in Russian history. Our backbone.”

Viktor Shenderovich

“When he returned a year ago, Alexei Navalny acted as a courageous man and a professional politician. Putin wanted to drive him out of the country, that’s why he allowed him to leave for treatment. Since Navalny could not be killed, Putin tried to throw him out of the country this way. He didn’t succeed. At the cost of his freedom, luckily, not his life, Alexei Navalny remains a huge factor in Russian politics even in prison. If he were free now, but outside, abroad, he would not be a factor in Russian politics.

He has acted as a politician, as a courageous, responsible and consistent man. The price he pays for his confrontation with Putin is enormous. It is not only the time he has spent in jail, but also his health. That said, Navalny is indeed Vladimir Putin’s number one political opponent.”

Fedor Krasheninnikov

“I believe that the return of Alexei Navalny was the catalyst that forced Putin’s regime to finally throw off its mask and unleash repressions against the entire class of political activists, human rights defenders, independent journalists and opposition activists. There is no point in talking about any kind of hybridity: we are dealing with an authoritarian police dictatorship that is actively using terror against its opponents as a permanent practice. Vladimir Putin’s main goal is to remain in power, and intimidation is a method for achieving this goal.”

Boris Akunin

Today is a year since Alexei Navalny has been behind bars. He will, of course, get a new sentence (they might even kill him), but the winner in this war of one man against the whole machinery of the police state is already clear. And that’s exactly what Alexei does, every day and every hour: he holds the front line. The first part of the oath— “one for all”— is done. Now it’ s time to fulfill the second part.

Ilya Yashin

“Exactly one year ago, Navalny flew to Moscow. They tried to kill him there, tried him in absentia, and made sure that he wouldn’t even think about returning to Russia. And as soon as Alexei crossed the border, they immediately snapped handcuffs on his hands.

Today again everyone will discuss— was it really necessary to take that risk? Was there a point in voluntarily going to jail? Maybe he should have stayed in exile? But the truth is that the question was never framed that way. There were no meetings, no discussions about Navalny’s return to his homeland. Because almost the first thing he said when he came out of his coma was, “I will definitely go back to Russia.”

And I understand very well why he did that. Many of us think that the point of Navalny’s work is to expose crooks and thieves in power. But this is a shallow view. The point of Navalny’s work is to demonstrate by personal example: in Russia, it is possible to live without fear, without hunching one’s shoulders or lowering one’s eyes. It is possible to remain a free man in an unfree country.

And when each one of us learns not to be afraid, the country will change very quickly. Navalny sets an amazing example of courage, and I am proud to call him my friend and comrade. And I believe he has a great future. Freedom to Alexey Navalny!”

Elections to the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, took place on September 26, 2021, and not surprisingly, attracted a great deal of attention. Their outcome determined not just the formation of a new ruling coalition of Europe’s largest economy but changed the head of its government. Angela Merkel left the post of federal chancellor, which she had held since 2005; and Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was elected in her place.

Free Russia Foundation expresses solidarity with the people of Kazakhstan in their aspiration to reclaim the right to direct the political and economic course of their nation. 

We condemn the use of violence by government forces against peaceful protesters, and mourn the loss of life resulting from the brutal put down. 

Free Russia Foundation, and specifically the Russian citizens among us, fervently oppose the Kremlin’s decision to send military forces to prop the authoritarian and thieving regime of Kazakhstan whose people languish in poverty and suffer from environmental woes while its elites top the global wealth ratings.  

We are outraged by the lack of moral clarity in the official statements coming from the Western democratic nations— once again underscoring the profound corrosive influence that authoritarian regimes have been able to exert through corruption of western institutions and cooptation of Western elites.

International Memorial Society, which documents Soviet-era repressions, was charged with breaching a law on foreign agents, as well as “whitewashing Nazi criminals” and “distorting the image of the USSR as a terrorist state.”

What Happened this Week

By a December 28, 2021 ruling, Russia’s Supreme Court dissolved the “Memorial” International Historical Educational Charitable and Human Rights Society, satisfying petition by the Attorney General’s Office, which charged that the organization repeatedly violated Russia’s laws on “foreign agents” by failing to disclose its “agent” status in content shared on social media.

In his closing statements, prosecutor Alexey Zhafyarov accused Memorial of “distorting the image of the USSR as a terrorist state” and said the group “whitewashes and rehabilitates Nazi criminals.”

“Why are we now, descendants of the victors, forced to watch impunity for traitors to the homeland, Nazi collaborators? Why, instead of being proud of the country that won the war and liberated the entire world, we are being asked to repent for our, as it turned out, hopeless past? Probably because someone is paying for it. That is the real reason behind the aversion with which Memorial vehemently denies its status as a “foreign agent”. That is the real reason why an organization that claims the honorable role of the nation’s conscience does not really want to be reminded in every publication that they are paid for. And if we take these motives into account, the state has requirements to consider that the repeated disregard of the requirement of the law to indicate the status of a ‘foreign agent’ is a gross violation of the law,” the prosecutor opined theatrically.

Representatives of Memorial rejected the claims of the General Prosecutor’s Office, insisting that there are no legal grounds for closing down the organization.

Henry Reznik, a prominent Russian attorney representing Memorial, emphasized at the end of his statement that “Memorial contributes to the health of the nation. And to remove it from our history would be to promote the idea that the state is always right.

Another Memorial advocate, Maria Eismont, said the organization was dedicated to fighting for the openness of information, yet was accused by prosecutors of hiding the truth. She quoted George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” to describe the prosecution’s case, saying: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

After the ruling, Jan Raczynski, chairman of the board of “International Memorial”, asserted that the organization intends to appeal the verdict, and if necessary, will file an appeal with the ECHR. He also noted that there would be no changes in the work of the organization until the appeal is considered.

After the announcement of the verdict, Memorial supporters chanted “Shame!” outside the court. Earlier same day, the police arrested several Memorial supporters gathered near the court building who held up signs with slogans such as “Hands off Memorial.”

On December 29, 2021, a day after Russia’s Supreme Court dissolved the Memorial International Historical Educational Charitable and Human Rights Society, the Moscow City Court ordered the closure of the Memorial’s Human Rights Center, satisfying petition by city prosecutors who argued that the organization’s financial activities are “non-transparent.”

Prosecutors claimed the Memorial Human Rights Center “justified the activities” of several Islamist terrorists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Artpodgotovka left-wing nationalists by naming them as persons persecuted for religion and as political prisoners.

Prosecutors criticized the organization for supporting uncoordinated protests allegedly aimed at “destabilizing the country.” They also accused Memorial of receiving foreign funding from Britain, Norway, the Netherlands, and other countries, as well as of compiling a list of political prisoners maintained by Memorial. All of this, according to the prosecutor’s office, is aimed at forming a negative attitude toward the judicial system of the Russian Federation.

Defense lawyers for Memorial say they plan to appeal the ruling.

Final court deliberations seem to have been deliberately set for the very end of the year, with the expectation of minimal public attention. But the plan failed. On December 29,  a crowd of over a hundred gathered near the courthouse, chanting slogans in support of Memorial.

Russian and International Reactions to the Court Ruling

On December 28, 2021, International Memorial issued an official statement regarding the decision of the Russian Supreme Court.

“The decision of the Supreme Court has once again confirmed that the history of political terror, organized and directed by state power, remains for Russia not an academic topic of interest only to specialists, but an acute problem of our time. Our country needs an honest and honest appraisal of its Soviet past; this is the key to its future. It is ridiculous to assume that the judicial liquidation of the International Memorial will remove this issue from the agenda. All of Russian society needs to remember the tragedies of the past. And not just Russian: the memory of state terror unites all former Soviet republics.”

Memorial assured that it will appeal the Supreme Court’s decision. “And we will find legal ways to continue our work,” the organization added. “Memorial is not an organization, it’s not even a social movement. A memorial is a need of Russian citizens for the truth about its tragic past, about the fate of many millions of people. And no one will be able to ‘liquidate’ this need.”

“Even by the standards of the year 2021, the liquidation of Memorial is an extraordinary event. It is monstrous. The only meaning of the destruction of Memorial is in the brazen demonstration of force… The Supreme Court decision shatters the delicate balance Russian society has been holding for decades,” says a statement from the authoritative Russian newspaper Meduza. “You can try to change attitudes toward history, but you can’t cancel history. Those who fight the past have no future.”

Nyuta Federmesser, head of the Moscow Palliative Care Center and founder of the Vera Hospice Foundation, called the court decision “a disgrace to live with at about the same time.” “Memorial was founded by Academician Sakharov. Memorial is one of the country’s most worthy endeavors. Memorial is memory. Memory cannot be liquidated, it cannot be killed,” she stated.

Boris Vishnevsky, deputy of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, directly accused Vladimir Putin of closing the Memorial. “How the heirs of the executioners are afraid of those who keep the memory of the crimes. And yes, this decision could not have been made without the consent (or initiative) of Putin. He is the direct perpetrator of it,” Vishnevsky stressed.

Renowned Russian human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who fled Russia in September after authorities charged him with disclosing state secrets when he was representing a journalist charged with treason, said the verdict sends a message that anyone engaged in activism faces possible prosecution. “Yes, it’s a new, dark and difficult era, but it will end, too,” Pavlov encouraged.

Writer Viktor Shenderovich called the liquidation of Memorial “an empty fuss”. “Who can forbid us to remember our dead? The murderers are making a fuss in vain,” he pointed out.

Russian politician Grigory Yavlinsky stated that with this decision the Russian authorities declared themselves the successor of the Stalinist and Soviet regime. “Memorial was liquidated because it tells the truth. It is a transition from an authoritarian regime to a totalitarian regime. This is another step toward war,” he said in a statement.

Dmitri Gudkov, an opposition politician, stressed that the Russian court’s decision in the Memorial case is absolutely worthless for civil society. “Except that they will not destroy the memory, nor will they be able to declare political prisoners as criminals in the eyes of society. And the fact that we are declared a war of extermination is not news. Only we will win in the long run: they will simply die out in the long run.”

Condemnations of the ruling poured in from rights advocates and political figures around the world as well.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan called the ruling “a blatant and tragic attempt to suppress freedom of expression and erase history.” Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, called the decision “heart-breaking” in a tweet. Denmark’s foreign minister, Jeppe Kofod, said Memorial’s liquidation “is another step in the deplorable degradation of human rights” in Russia. And Sam Zarifi, secretary general of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, called it “another step toward darkness” for Russia.

Over the past month, dozens of Russian and international organizations, politicians, scientists, and cultural figures have also spoken in support of Memorial. Among them were Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the first president of the USSR.

What Memorial Stands for and What it Symbolizes

The Memorial International Historical Educational Charitable and Human Rights Society, known simply as Memorial, is Russia’s oldest and most authoritative and respected human rights organization.

Memorial was established in the late 1980s during the “perestroika” reforms in the USSR. Between 1987 and 1990, while the USSR was still in existence, 23 branches of the society were set up and became active. When the Soviet Union collapsed, branches of Memorial in east and south Ukraine remained affiliated with the Russian network. By 2018, Memorial had more than 60 branches and affiliated organizations throughout Russia, with a quarter of them established in 2014 or later.

The organization was set up by Soviet dissidents — including renowned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov — during the final years of the Soviet Union. It is focused on researching and documenting the Soviet abuses in the gulag, a vast web of prison camps where political prisoners toiled and died, many of them executed on the basis of concocted evidence.

Memorial has developed an archive of the case files of more than 60,000 Soviet victims of state repressions, its searchable database containing 3 million names of victims, and its database with the names of nearly 42,000 people who worked for the Soviet secret police from 1935 to 1939, when repression peaked.

International Memorial was added to the “foreign agents” registry in October 2016.

The organization’s human rights wing, Memorial Human Rights Center, faced a similar court hearing to address charges of justifying terrorism and extremism, which could also result in its liquidation. The center focuses on contemporary human rights abuses. It released a tally of the 419 political prisoners jailed in Russia several months ago, and it has helped more than 1,500 Russians take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, to challenge rights abuses by Russian authorities

The Biggest Achievements of Memorial

Preserving Historical Memory

Since 1988, Memorial has been collecting personal effects of victims of political repression and their relatives. Over 33 years, the collection has accumulated tens of thousands of letters, photographs, items of clothing and other artifacts that tell about the Great Terror in USSR.

Memorial is also a scientific institution, which constantly replenishes the database of the politically repressed; it already contains more than three million records on the victims of terror. In archive of the organization it is possible to find lists of people shot in Moscow; lists of those sentenced to the highest measure of punishment by Stalin’s personal order; more than thousand memoirs about GULAG camps from its prisoners and workers; information on personnel structure of NKVD. The “Topography of Terror” project gives the memory of repression a geographical dimension: it is a directory of places in Moscow and the Moscow region associated with political terror. In addition, Memorial researches the repressions against religious groups, Russian Germans, and Polish citizens.

Commemoration of Victims of Repressions

One of the society’s first initiatives was to erect a monument to the victims of political repression in the USSR. It was decided to start with the collection of signatures. They were collected on the Arbat and Pushkinskaya Square, and when the police started detaining the agitators, they moved to clubs, theaters and concerts. After six months, the activists had several hundred thousand votes. By that time, the Memorialists had already decided that their goal was not just to erect a monument, but to create a whole memorial complex with a museum, an archive, and a library.

The memorial was opened on the Memorial Day of the victims of political repressions — October 30, 1990. So the relatives of the victims of repressions got a place where they could bring flowers and honor the memory of their relatives. In 2007 near Solovetsky stone an action “Return of Names” took place during which all people who wished could read out loud the names of victims of political terror. Memorial came up with the idea of this action as a counterweight to the official rallies. Since then it has been held annually.

Assistance to Refugees and Victims of Military Conflicts

Although Memorial was initially conceived as an educational organization, its members soon realized that they could not do no more than study the past and ignore the current political agenda. Thus in 1991 the independent Memorial Human Rights Center emerged. Its work was constantly expanding: in addition to political prisoners, Memorial members dealt with contemporary military conflicts, prepared reports from hot spots, searched for and released hostages from the First and Second Chechen wars.

Svetlana Gannushkina, who cooperated with Memorial on the problems of refugees, participated in the creation of the Human Rights Center. In 1996 she succeeded in separating the work with migrants within the framework of the Center for Human Rights into a separate field, with reception offices in the regions; this is how the network Migration and Law came into being (by 2021, 33 reception offices opened throughout Russia). Over time, there were fewer people fleeing the war conflicts, but the work of the organization did not end: the Human Rights Center focused on labor migrants who found themselves in terrible conditions in Russia.

Defending Human Rights in The North Caucasus

Memorial’s Human Rights Center has been one of the leading rights watchdogs in the North Caucasus, opening an office in Grozny in 2000, when thousands of civilians were falling victim to kidnappings, torture, and so-called “sweeping-up” operations by both Russian federal forces and local militia groups. Memorial was forced to close its Grozny office after the 2009 killing of activist and board member Natalya Estemirova, who was personally investigating cases of kidnapping and murder. Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial HRC, was sued for defamation after accusing Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov of orchestrating Estemirova’s assassination but was eventually acquitted. At a time when virtually no independent voices remain in Chechnya, Memorial continues to publish near-daily bulletins on human rights abuses in the North Caucasus.

Defense of Political Prisoners and Critics of the Regime

Throughout its existence, Memorial has provided legal and moral support to jailed government opponents in Russia, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Aleksei Navalny, Belarus’s Ales Byalyatski, and Andrei Barabanov, Aleksei Gaskarov, and other participants in 2012’s Bolotnaya Square protests. Memorial also maintains a closely watched list of political prisoners, fighting with Kremlin regime.

How the Kremlin Started its Prosecution of Memorial

The early 1990s were perhaps the only relatively peaceful period in Memorial’s history. To this day, some Russian human rights activists consider those years a “golden era,” a time when legislators listened to them and the security forces agreed to cooperate.

The pressure on Memorial intensified rapidly in the 2000s, especially in the Russian North Caucasus. In 2007, Memorial’s Oleg Orlov and journalists from REN TV were kidnapped from a hotel in Ingushetia and beaten up. The crime was attributed to unspecified “destructive forces” — no charges were laid. In 2009, Memorial human rights advocate Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped and murdered in Chechnya. The perpetrators were never found.

The pressure hasn’t let up since. Just a few years ago, the head of Memorial’s Chechnya office, Oyub Titiyev, was arrested for alleged drug possession. A week after his arrest, Memorial’s office in neighboring Ingushetia was burned down. The rights group decided to shut down its Chechnya office for security reasons.

After the start of Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term, the battle against Memorial and other human rights organizations became part of state policy in Russia. The law on “foreign agents” was adopted in 2012; the Memorial Human Rights Center was blacklisted as a “foreign agent” a year later. Its parent organization, Memorial International, was slapped with “foreign agent” status in 2016.

The Karelian branch of Memorial was deprived of its head in 2020: historian Yury Dmitriev was sentenced to 13 years in a strict regime penal colony on charges of child sex abuse. On December 27, 2021 Dmitriev’s sentence was increased by two more years: from 13 to 15 years. Memorial says that the case was a fabricated and politically motivated one. Dmitriev was responsible for drawing up lists of the repressed in Karelia and conducting search operations at the sites of the shootings. In the late 1990s, a search group led by Dmitriev discovered execution pits in the Sandarmoh woods where the victims of 1937-1938 repressions were buried.

Finally, on November 11, 2021, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office has asked for the liquidation of International Memorial. The organization was accused of violating the legislation on “foreign agents,” specifically the absence of appropriate labeling in its materials.

During a recent meeting with the Presidential Human Rights Council, Vladimir Putin responded to a question about the federal case against International Memorial by pointing out that the group accidentally listed three Nazi combatants among the victims of the Stalinist Terror. Memorial’s executives say the group’s shortage of resources makes such errors possible, and researchers do their best to correct any inaccuracies as quickly as possible. Human rights activists warn that the Russian authorities want to establish a monopoly on all sensitive topics. “Unfortunately, the government is aiming to subjugate dangerous spheres,” says Memorial’s Sergey Bondarenko. “There can be remembrance. But it shouldn’t include any independent, [non-government] organizations. Everything should be understood by the authorities.

On December 22, 2021 Dmitry Zimin, a Russian philanthropist, who was renowned globally for his strong support of science and education as key pillars of the societal progress, passed away in Switzerland. His son Boris Zimin announced it on his Facebook page.

Dmitry Zimin was 88 years old.

His son specified that Zimin had been battling an illness. “My father was a great lover of life and lived a great life. Thank him for everything, for what he created, for what he was <…> He left in full consciousness, peaceful, a little sad about us and life, but still with relief — he had been seriously ill for the last few months,” wrote Boris Zimin.

Dmitry Zimin was born in Moscow in 1933. He graduated from the Department of Aircraft Radioelectronics at the MAI. In the early 1960s he joined the Radio-Technical Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences, where he rose from laboratory chief to director of the Radio-Technical Equipment Development Center. He was involved in scientific research and published more than 100 scientific papers, including some of his own inventions.

Since the early 2000s, Dmitry Zimin had been involved in charitable work. He created the Dynasty Foundation in 2001, almost immediately after he resigned as CEO of VimpelCom. Zimin gave away almost all of his earnings — “with the permission of his family” — to a charitable foundation, from which none of his relatives are allowed to receive money. He formulated its mission as follows: “search and support of talents, their ideas and projects in the field of natural and social sciences.”

Zimin believed that one of the main problems of Russia is “washing out” of the intellectual elite from the country: “It is not only about financing, which is also a very important issue, but it is more about creating an atmosphere of creativity, an atmosphere of freedom. <…> So far we are witnessing degradation. <…> So far we see degradation. Personally I do everything that depends on me to solve this problem — I gave almost everything I had, trying to support scientists.”

The foundation awarded grants and scholarships to young scientists-physicists, mathematicians, and biologists. In addition, Dynasty sent young researchers to international scientific programs and helped organize scientific conferences in Russia.

The first thing the foundation did in 2002 was to award grants and scholarships to young physicists. Research projects are funded  by the Scientific Council of the Foundation through scholarship (5400 rubles per month for one year) and grants (10800 rubles per month for three years). Candidates of Science can receive support of 19500 rubles per month, Doctor of Science — 26000 rubles. In 2014 alone, 92 Russian physicists received support from the foundation.

Since 2004, the foundation has organized an annual all-Russian competition for teachers of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. Winners are selected by university students votes. In 2014, about 500 teachers received grants of 38,000 rubles each; the four winners of the Award for Excellence in Education received 150,000 rubles each. Since 2009 there has been a contest of educational projects for schoolchildren: the scientific council of Dynasty selects clubs, science schools, and science tournaments, which receive from 300 to 600 thousand rubles in financial aid.

Since 2006, Dynasty has published 83 popular science books, including “God as Illusion” by Richard Dawkins, and “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. The Foundation distributes all the books released to libraries throughout Russia.

In addition to natural sciences and mathematics, Dynasty has supported the Liberal Mission Foundation since 2005, whose mission was “to develop and disseminate liberal values and ideas in Russia.” Under the leadership of Yevgeny Yasin, the foundation held roundtables and published collections of articles. In 2004, the Liberal Mission published the book “Down Vertical Path”, and in 2013, the book “Law and Power.”

In 2012-2014, Dynasty invested more than 300 million rubles annually in scientific and educational projects.

In 2015, Zimin announced the liquidation of the foundation. This happened because the Ministry of Justice included Dynasty in the list of so-called “foreign agents.” The “foreign agents” registry also included the Russian Media Support Foundation “Sreda”, which was created by Dmitry Zimin’s son Boris. After that, the organization decided to liquidate.

In 2016, Dmitry Zimin and his son founded the Zimin Foundation, an international NGO that supports education and science around the world.

Zimin was the first and only Russian citizen to be awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy for his social investment work. He was conferred an Honorary Doctorate Degree by the Tel Aviv University in Israel. Zimin was also recogninzed by the Russian Ministry of Science and Education “For Commitment to Science.” He established the prestigious literary award Premya Prosvetitel (“Enlightener Prize”), which annually awards prizes to the best authors of popular science books in Russian language. Zimin established the Dynasty Library project to translate and publish over 100 international works on popular science in Russian language. In addition to the monetary prizes (700,000 rubles), the laureates receive the opportunity to widely distribute their texts — the Foundation is buying up 500 books by the finalists for distribution to Russian libraries.

As a side event to the Biden’s 2021 Summit for Democracy, Free Russia Foundation, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group hosted  a conversation of the outlook for democracy and human rights in Russia, concrete steps that must be taken to advance this agenda, and ways the international community can support this agenda

The discussion featured three prominent members of Russian civil society: 

  • Vladimir Milov, Russian opposition politician; 
  • Vasily Gatov, USC Annenberg Center on Communication, Leadership, and Policy; and
  • Evgeniya Chirikova, Activatica.org.

The December 2021 Summit for Democracy convened global leaders from 110 nations and partners to lay out new commitments to human rights and a democratic renewal. The summit served as a platform to non-governmental voices from civil society, independent media, activists, and the private sector to detail their priorities, demands, and goals for democratic progress. 

Not surprisingly, Putin was excluded from the list of summit invitees. The Putin regime’s actions —through grave human rights violations, endemic corruption, and hybrid aggression— have threatened democratic actors and institutions globally and intensified its domestic repression.

We must remember, however, that Putin’s government does not represent the Russian people and does not speak for the Russian people. Events of the past few months have shown that Putin’s government is undergoing a crisis of legitimacy and the political transition phase has begun. The Russian civil society remains committed to the pursuit of democracy despite brutal repressions at home and waning support from the international community.

On November 18, 2021, US Congressmen Steve Cohen (D-TN), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission, along with the Helsinki Ranking Member Joe Wilson (R-SC), introduced a Congressional Resolution to end recognition of Vladimir Putin as president of Russia.

Free Russia Foundation applauds this principled public stance, sees it as the only position appropriately reflecting the criminal and murderous nature of Putin’s regime, and calls on all Members of the US Congress and the Biden Administration to adopt the policy of non-recognition of Vladimir Putin and his illegitimate government.

The resolution makes the case that Putin’s continuation in office after May 7, 2024 would be illegitimate. It asserts that the amendments to the Constitution of Russia, one of which provides for Putin’s so-called zero term limit and allows him to run for president in 2024 and 2030, were adopted in violation of international conventions, as well as through extensive fraud during the so-called popular vote last year.

Cohen and Wilson call Russia’s 2020 constitutional plebiscite “the most manipulated vote” in the country’s modern history. Their resolution decries ballots cast at “park benches, car trunks and shopping carts” during weeklong voting period with people prodded to polling centers in the midst of COVID-19 outbreak.

“Any attempt by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin to remain in office beyond the end of his current and final term on May 7, 2024, shall warrant nonrecognition on the part of the United States,” the resolution states.

Kremlin’s Reaction

The resolution struck a nerve back in Moscow and has evoked an immediate and vehement reaction from the Kremlin, with each statement, however, using the same precise formulation as coordinated from the top.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced the proposal as “aggressive” meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs.

“We consider this interference in our affairs and we’re convinced that only Russians can determine who and when should be president of Russia,” says Peskov. Peskov added that the State Duma deputies will not leave this proposal unanswered.

The Russian Federation Council said that if Congress passes the resolution, it will “lead to a rupture in relations between Russia and the United States.” The document itself was called “interference in the election.”

Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council of Russia Konstantin Kosachev said that “it’s a little early this time the Americans started interfering in the presidential elections in Russia.” Kosachev called what was happening interference in Russia’s internal affairs “in its purest form” and a provocation that could disrupt the emerging improvement in relations between the countries.

Andrei Klishas, chairman of the Federation Council Committee on Constitutional Law, pointed out that only the Russian people can recognize or not recognize Putin as president of Russia. “If the president decides to take part in the 2024 elections and is elected by the citizens of our country, everyone, even the most sullen Russophobes in the U.S. Congress, will recognize this,” he said.

Ironically, in the past two years, the Kremlin has effectively neutralized the Russian civil society and independent political forces through massive repressions, disenfranchising even by most conservative estimates at least 9 million Russians from participating in elections —thusly denying Russian citizens the choice that they now extol with regards to Putin’s tenure.

Today, Putin is the second-longest serving head of state in Europe, after Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. Notably, in 2018, Putin publicly stated that he was not going to hold the post of president for more than two consecutive terms and denied the possibility of his participation in the 2030 election.

Having held on to his power through various schemes for over twenty years, in 2020, Putin signed into law constitutional amendments allowing him to run for reelection twice more, potentially extending his presidency to 2036. Amendments to the Constitution of Russia solved so-called the “2024 problem” that was connected with end of Putin’s presidential powers in 2024. More than 200 amendments were introduced to the Russian Constitution last year. The amendments were widely criticized both in Russia and abroad.

By Yury Krylov

The United States has added Russia to the list of countries implicated in “egregious violations of religious freedom,” a move that comes as ties dip to their lowest since the Cold War. This is reported on the website of the U.S. State Department.

In addition to Russia, the list includes China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and Myanmar. According to the Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the situation with violations of religious freedom in these countries “is of particular concern.”

Algeria, Comoros, Cuba and Nicaragua have been placed on a watch list.

“The United States will not waiver in its commitment to advocate for freedom of religion or belief for all and in every country,” Blinken said in a statement. “In far too many places around the world, we continue to see governments harass, arrest, threaten, jail, and kill individuals simply for seeking to live their lives in accordance with their beliefs.”

Antony Blinken stressed that the U.S. will continue to push governments to correct deficiencies in local laws and hold those responsible for violations accountable.

Earlier, the US State Department had criticized the Russian court over the imposition of prison terms for the followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses (an organization recognized as extremist and banned in Russia). The denomination was banned in Russia in 2017 under allegations of “extremism,” and hundreds of worshippers have been jailed since. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, 257 criminal cases have been launched against the members of the group, 559 men and women have been charged with extremism, and 70 believers are currently incarcerated. Among those classified by Russia as extremist and banned are also a Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir and The Church of Scientology.

On November 4, 2021, 35 OSCE Participating States[1] invoked the Vienna Mechanism and addressed human rights concerns regarding actions by the Government of Belarus, noting the mutual accountability shared amongst OSCE Participating States for full implementation of their OSCE commitments. It requested “concrete and substantial responses” to eight questions that summarised its principal concerns regarding the human rights situation in Belarus.

On 12 November 2021, Free Russia Foundation lodged a submission to the OSCE entitled “Concerning the Decision of 35 OSCE States to Invoke the Vienna Mechanism in Relation to Serious Human Rights Violations in Belarus.”

The submission was addressed to all 57 OSCE Participating States (including Belarus), as well as Helga Maria Schmid, OSCE Secretary General; Margareta Cederfelt, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; Matteo Mecacci, Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights; and Wolfgang Benedek, OSCE Rapporteur under the Moscow Mechanism on Alleged Human Rights Violations related to the Presidential Elections of 9 August 2020 in Belarus.

Free Russia Foundation has observed that the Government of Belarus has been unresponsive to OSCE concerns and has no intention to answer the questions. Belarusian civil society, on the other hand, is precluded from responding due to its well-founded fear of retribution and further persecution. Accordingly, Free Russia Foundation prepared this submission articulating responses to the eight questions by the 35 OSCE States.

The Submission asserts that:

  1. No steps have been taken by Belarusian authorities to investigate allegations that the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is being unduly restricted, that individuals are being arbitrarily detained or arrested, and that numbers of political prisoners are increasing. 
  2. On 26 August 2021, the Investigative Committee of Belarus announced that it would not criminally investigate or prosecute allegations by 680 persons regarding allegations of torture and other crimes under international law.
  3. Belarusian authorities incite hate and intolerance towards representatives of any political views that contradict the state and that their lack of a proper legal response to hate crimes creates an atmosphere of impunity for offenders.
  4. Belarusian authorities have hindered the ability of civil society and media actors to document and report on human rights concerns in Belarus and persecuted individuals and groups attempting to do so. 
  5. Belarusian authorities have facilitated irregular migration (to other OSCE Participating States) which puts vulnerable people at risk, impacts on their human rights, and has a destabilizing effect on regional security. In doing so, they use people in a vulnerable position as an instrument of pressure on other countries.
  6. Belarusian authorities have disregarded its OSCE membership obligations by failing to substantively respond to human rights concerns identified by OSCE Participating States.
  7. The Government of Belarus has closed at least 185 organizations, arbitrarily arrested dozens of their associates and taken no meaningful steps to engage with civil society. Further, it has taken no steps to respond to the recommendations contained in the 5 November 2020 report under the Moscow Mechanism.

Free Russia Foundation (4freerussia.org) is an international NGO dedicated to advancing democratic development and supporting civil society with centers in Kyiv, Ukraine; Tbilisi, Georgia; Prague, Czechia; Berlin, Germany; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Washington, DC, US.

The submission was prepared in cooperation with Scott Martin of Global Rights Compliance (‘GRC’). GRC is an international LLP working on international human rights, international humanitarian law and environmental law matters throughout the world.


[1] Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Montenegro, The Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, and the United States.

Over 100 Russian human rights activists and artists, as well as 60 members of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) have signed the appeal in support of the Memorial Rights Group. Among signatories are writers Dmitry Bykov, Viktor Shenderovich and Lyudmila Ulitskaya, actress Liya Akhedzhakova, rights activists Andrei Babushkin, Nikolai Svanidze and Natalia Yevdokimova, politicians Lev Shlosberg, Grigory Yavlinsky, Dmitry Gudkov, Ilya Yashin, Andrei Nechaev and many others.

The petition stresses the importance of continuing the human rights association’s mission of preserving the memory of victims of the USSR repressions:

We, the creators and staff of educational projects, book publishers and editors, protest the persecution of the Memorial Society, the oldest non-governmental organization in Russia today.

Since 1989, Memorial has investigated the history of state terror in the twentieth-century Russia and commemorated its victims. Memorial is a museum, archive, and library; it hosts discussions, lectures, exhibitions, and books; and organizes the annual “Return of Names” campaign. Memorial is the repository of the historical memory of our society, the foundation for its healthy development and its future”— a November 15 statement signed by activists and scholars said.

“Today this future is in danger. Persecution of political opposition, civic organizations and independent journalists has become the norm. New Russian laws are at odds with civilized understandings of the law. The rector of one of Russia’s best universities has been imprisoned on manufatured charges… We demand the release of political prisoners and the repeal of unlawful repressive laws. Our country is in trouble, and we must unite to protect its future”, it added.

On November 15, the Kremlin’s top spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not comment directly the case of Memorial, but opined that Memorial “has been having problems for a long time in terms of following Russian laws.”

In the first four days since its launch, nearly 25,000 Russians have signed the online petition called “Hands Off Memorial!”. Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the moves to close Memorial and demanded Russian authorities stop using the illegal Foreign Agent law to persecute and intimidate the organization.

Case Background

On November 11, 2021, Russian human rights group Memorial received a notice from the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. According to it, the Office of the Russian Prosecutor General has requested the Supreme Court to shut down the international branch of the country’s most prominent and respected human rights group for failure to comply with requirements of the illegal law on “foreign agents” (in particular, its requirements for labeling).

Putin’s government uses the new “foreign agents” designation to target whom it perceives as foreign-funded organizations engaged in political activity and affiliated persons.

The post on the website of the Supreme Court states that the Prosecutor’s Office also demands the liquidation of the organization’s subdivisions — a human rights center, an archive, a library and a museum.

A court hearing is scheduled for November 25, 2021.

Memorial itself has characterized the General Prosecutor’s order as “a political decision to destroy civil society” focused on “the history of political repression and the defense of human rights.” The group believes there are no legal grounds for liquidating the organization.

“We have repeatedly stated that the law was originally conceived as a tool to crack down on independent organizations, and insisted that it should be abolished,” Memorial said in a statement. “The decision to abolish International Memorial is politically motivated. It aims to destroy the organization which deals with the political repressions of the past and fights for human rights today.”

Late last month, Memorial said that the number of political prisoners in Russia has risen sharply in recent years. It listed more than 400 political prisoners, including top Kremlin critic and opposition leader Alexey Navalny who survived a poisoning attempt with Novichok nerve agent last year.

Recently Russia declared the rights group “Russian LGBT Network” a “foreign agent,” along with lawyer Ivan Pavlov and “Team 29” Lawyers’ Association.

About Memorial

Memorial was established in the late 1980s during the “perestroika” reforms of the USSR. Between 1987 and 1990, while the USSR was still in existence, 23 branches of the society were set up and became active. When the Soviet Union collapsed, branches of Memorial in east and south Ukraine remained affiliated to the Russian network.

By 2018, Memorial had more than 60 branches and affiliated organizations scattered across Russia, with a quarter of them established in 2014 or later.

The branches advance the same mission of upholding human rights, documenting the past, and marking Days of Remembrance for the victims of political repression. Over the past twenty years Memorial has built up an online database of the victims of political repression in the USSR. Its fifth version contained over three million names and yet it was estimated that 75% of the victims had not yet been identified and recorded. International Memorial was added to the “foreign agents” registry in October 2016.

On November 11, 2021, Russian human rights group Memorial received a notice from the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. According to it, the Office of the Russian Prosecutor General has requested the Supreme Court to shut down the international branch of the country’s most prominent and respected human rights group for failure to comply with requirements of the illegal law on “foreign agents” (in particular, its requirements for labeling).

Putin’s government uses the new “foreign agents” designation to target whom it perceives as foreign-funded organizations engaged in political activity and affiliated persons.

The post on the website of the Supreme Court states that the Prosecutor’s Office also demands the liquidation of the organization’s subdivisions — a human rights center, an archive, a library and a museum.

A court hearing is scheduled for November 25, 2021.

Memorial itself has characterized the General Prosecutor’s order as “a political decision to destroy civil society” focused on “the history of political repression and the defense of human rights.” The group believes there are no legal grounds for liquidating the organization.

“We have repeatedly stated that the law was originally conceived as a tool to crack down on independent organizations, and insisted that it should be abolished,” Memorial said in a statement. “The decision to abolish International Memorial is politically motivated. It aims to destroy the organization which deals with the political repressions of the past and fights for human rights today.”

Late last month, Memorial said that the number of political prisoners in Russia has risen sharply in recent years. It listed more than 400 political prisoners, including top Kremlin critic and opposition leader Alexey Navalny who survived a poisoning attempt with Novichok nerve agent last year.

Recently Russia declared the rights group “Russian LGBT Network” a “foreign agent,” along with lawyer Ivan Pavlov and “Team 29” Lawyers’ Association.

About International Memorial

Memorial was established in the late 1980s during the “perestroika” reforms of the USSR. Between 1987 and 1990, while the USSR was still in existence, 23 branches of the society were set up and became active. When the Soviet Union collapsed, branches of Memorial in east and south Ukraine remained affiliated to the Russian network.

By 2018, Memorial had more than 60 branches and affiliated organizations scattered across Russia, with a quarter of them established in 2014 or later.

The branches advance the same mission of upholding human rights, documenting the past, and marking Days of Remembrance for the victims of political repression. Over the past twenty years Memorial has built up an online database of the victims of political repression in the USSR. Its fifth version contained over three million names and yet it was estimated that 75% of the victims had not yet been identified and recorded.

International Memorial was added to the “foreign agents” registry in October 2016.

Five Russian lawyers have been put on the list of foreign agents, the Russian Justice Ministry announced on Monday, November 8, 2021.

On Monday, November 8, the Justice Ministry declared Ivan Pavlov a “media foreign agent” along with four other former employees from his now-closed organization Team 29 — Maxim Zagovora, Valerya Vetoshkina, Elena Skvortsova, and Maxim Olenichev.

Also, the Ministry has added the Russian LGBT Network to its registry of “unregistered public associations performing the functions of a ‘foreign agent’.” According to the Ministry, the Russian LGBT-network was sponsored by the Sfera charity fund for social and legal assistance.

Pavlov, commenting on the Justice Ministry’s decision, said that “becoming a “foreign agent” nowadays is almost like receiving the State Prize for special services in the field of freedom of speech and information. He promised to appeal the actions of the Ministry of Justice in court.

Pavlov himself is now in Georgia.

Who is Ivan Pavlov?

The lawyers’ association “Team 29” is led by Ivan Pavlov, who has defended Alexey Navalny’s organization. Pavlov has been under criminal investigation since April when the Kremlin accused him of disclosing investigation information relating to one of his clients.

Navalny himself is in prison for parole violations over an embezzlement case he says is fabricated. He was arrested in Moscow earlier this year after flying back from Germany where he had been recovering from a nerve agent Novichok poisoning.

Pavlov also was the attorney of former journalist, Roscosmos adviser Ivan Safronov. In April 2021, Pavlov was charged with leaking classified trial data from the treason case against Safronov. He fled Russia in September, after which authorities put him on a wanted list.

What is The Russian LGBT Network?

The LGBTQ+ rights group Russian LGBT Network is best known for helping evacuate people fleeing persecution in Chechnya. The group’s operator, the charitable foundation Sfera, was registered as a “foreign-agent NGO” in 2016. After that, it continued working as a crisis group under the name “North Caucasus SOS.”

The movement has 17 regional offices throughout Russia, from Moscow to the Primorsky region, with HQ in St. Petersburg.

By Vladimir Milov, Expert of Free Russia Foundation, Russian prodemocracy politician, publicist, economist and energy expert

According to Freedom House, global freedoms and democracy have been retreating for 15 consecutive years. While the conventional wisdom points to the imperfections of the democratic systems themselves as the main reason, coordinated and orchestrated efforts of global autocratic regimes have played the key role in this process. Equipped with advanced technology and commanding trillions of dollars derived from unprecedented economic growth of the past few decades, contemporary autocracies are capable not only to suppress the natural demand for democratization from their own societies, but also to go on the global offensive. They interfere with domestic policies of the democratic societies, launch cyberwars, propaganda and disinformation attacks, sow division, civic apathy and distrust in democratic institutions, paving the way for new authoritarian trends in societies previously considered solid democracies.

These efforts are well-coordinated. Autocracies continuously learn from each other, adopting ‘best practices’ of oppression to be used against their own societies— sharing the data harvested through surveillance, leveraging law enforcement mechanisms and physical policing hardware, to coordinating cyber and disinformation attacks.

Several autocracies, which should have fallen under the pressure from their own societies demanding democratic changes, have managed to stay afloat and keep dictatorships in place merely due to massive and coordinated support from foreign powers. Syria, Venezuela, Belarus, Myanmar— these regimes wouldn’t hold, were it not for a coordinated intervention of autocratic foreign powers such as Russia, China and Iran to save them.

The international community should recognize this trend as a grave breach of national sovereignty and address it head-on.  Allowing autocracies to continue such anti-democratic interventions will lead to their rapid proliferations, taking down fragile democracies one by one like dominoes.

Global coordination to defend democracies against autocratic onslaught is a matter of self-preservation for democratic systems. Such coordination should be formalized in structure and be continuous, and not pop up ad-hoc at summits. It should be organized along the following vectors of effort:

1. Coordinating international political positions and legal actions

It is extremely important to counter global anti-democratic actions of autocracies in the international public space and legal forums.

Systemic interference by autocracies in domestic politics of democratic countries, or interventions of foreign autocratic powers to protect dictatorial regimes like Venezuela, Syria, Belarus or Myanmar have not been raised even once at the U.N. Security Council or other important international bodies.

The democratic world must muster the courage to acknowledge the autocratic threat for what it is and address the systemic nature of the problem at the global stage.

We must develop an international legal framework to punish political interference in domestic affairs of democratic countries. Sanctions should be adopted against autocracies complicit in interventions aimed at saving individual dictatorships despite broad democratic aspirations of the people.

We must clarify the definition of national sovereignty. Autocracies interpret national sovereignty as the right of those who have grabbed power to do as they wish within their national borders. This interpretation contradicts even their own constitutions and national statutes who assert that sovereignty is derived from the free will of the people.

2. Coordinating defense against attacks on democracy

Permanent mechanisms should be established to facilitate information exchange and coordinate best response to autocratic cyberwars, disinformation and propaganda wars, weaponization of migration, drug traffic sponsored by autocracies, and other malign activities in specific areas.

3. Using economic power to halt the autocratic offensive

Democracies dominate the global economy, generating well over 70% of the global GDP. Therefore, they command an enormous economic leverage over autocracies. If used collectively and wisely, this leverage can proof to be powerful enough to create both the incentives for nations to join the democratic community, as well as effective checks on the aggressive behavior of the autocracies. Some ways in which economic leverage can be used include:

  • Promoting free trade and investment between democratic nations first, to make sure that democracies enjoy the advantages of free flow of goods, services and investment to a significantly higher extent than autocracies;
  • Promoting human rights clauses to free trade and investment agreements as a universal approach— which would end the debate as to whether oppressive regimes should be allowed access to free trade, defining the boundaries purely in legal terms. So far, human rights clauses to FTAs is an option which remains mostly on paper— but can emerge as a powerful leverage over global trade and investment processes.

4. Reaching out to civil societies of the oppressed world

Democracies should clearly distinguish between autocratic regimes and their oppressed peoples— who also want to join the world of democracies but are denied the opportunity to realize their aspiration by brutal self-proclaimed autocratic rulers.

The democratic world should coordinate efforts aimed at:

  • Providing global access to free information for oppressed peoples living under autocratic regimes— an extremely important goal, especially in the environment of intensified efforts by autocrats to block their populations from access to free information;
  • Providing a wide range of legal and other forms of support to the oppressed people living under autocratic regimes;
  • Addressing the demand of the people of non-free societies for enlightenment, education on the principles and foundations of democracy, self-government, and other forms of knowledge that will help them build prosperous democratic societies in the future;
  • Actively working with global diasporas of the non-democratic nations to help them become forces of positive change in their own societies;
  • Creating new international justice mechanisms for peoples of the non-free societies who lack legal and judicial protection in their own countries, especially important as autocracies have been actively retreating from international justice mechanisms like ECHR, Roman Statute of the ICC, etc.

5. Preventing access to potentially oppressive technologies

Democracies should improve the coordination of their efforts to prevent access for autocracies to products and technologies which can be used to enhance oppressive techniques against their own societies. It is no secret that the bulk of technologies and tools used for domestic repression used by autocracies— from public space surveillance to sophisticated hacking tools to police hardware— originate in the democratic world.

The democratic world should monitor the markets of oppressive tools and techniques and develop an effective mechanism of collective sanctions against domestic producers of equipment and technology, who supply these products to autocratic regimes to be used for malicious purposes.

6. Coordinated sanctions for human rights abuses

Sanctions against individuals and entities involved in human rights abuses in autocratic countries will be more effective if coordinated across the democratic world. Particularly effective are the sanction tools which prevent exports of corrupt capital from autocracies to the free world where money and property is protected by the rule of law. There is an urgent need to develop mechanisms like the Global Magnitsky Act to send a clear signal to autocrats— you and your family cannot count on a good life and well-being in the democratic societies with corrupt money earned through repression and attacks against the democratic world.

The First Edition, July 7, 2021

Abbreviations:

FOM – Fond Obschestvenovo Mneniya – Public Opinion Foundation
VTsIOM – Vserossiyskiy Tsentr Izucheniya Obshesvenovo Mneniya – Russian Public Opinion Research Center
CPRF – The Communist Party of the Russian Federation
SR – Spravedlivaya Rossiya – The Just Russia Party
LDPR – the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia
FSIN – Federalnaya Sluzhba Ispolneniya Nakazanii – Federal Penitentiary Service
PA – the Presidential Administration
CEC – the Central Election Commission

DYNAMICS OF PARTY RATINGS

Over the past week, FOM was the only one of Russia’s big three sociological services (which includes VTsIOM, FOM, and Levada) to have released new studies.

The most notable recorded data is the rating of the United Russia party which fell to 29% for the first time in four months. 28% is the lowest party rating recorded by the polls within the past year, so one can assert with confidence that the United Russia rating is fluctuating around its lowest values ​​in the entire history of the polls. This data should be considered within the context of the United Russia’s party convention, the announcement of the federal list, and the announcement of the regional lists of candidates approved by the convention.

All other parliamentary parties— CPRF, LDPR, SR—have seen their ratings increase

  • CPRF grew by 13% —around its highest ratings for the year;
  • LDPR grew by 11%, wavering near its average ratings;
  • JR grew by 8%, against the backdrop of numerous newsworthy announcements surrounding the party;
  • Cumulatively, the ratings of all non-parliamentary parties grew by 7%.

The share of respondents who said that they plan to spoil their ballot or not go to the polls at all has grown to 2% and 15%, respectively

The latest poll by VTsIOM from June 27, 2021, shows similar ratings of parliamentary parties, but shows an even higher percentage of votes for non-parliamentary parties – 13%.

Thus, the following conclusion can be drawn from the data of opinion polls:

  1. The rating of the ruling party is nearing its all-time lows.
  2. The ratings of other parliamentary parties are stable and have not absorbed the support of voters lost by the United Russia.
  3. The ratings of non-parliamentary parties are at levels ​​insufficient for concluding that even one of them would be able to gain 5%. However, according to VTsIOM, one or two such parties can pass the 3% barrier required to receive federal funding.
  4. There is no trend toward a high voter turnout, rather, the overwhelming political news of the last week (broad coverage of pre-election party conventions by the mass media) reflect the growing apathy among voters.

Russians perceive that the most important events of the last week were not political events, but events concerning the coronavirus pandemic and natural disasters— fires, floods and extraordinary heat waves. The events concerning the coronavirus pandemic are about three times more important to Russians (23%) than natural disasters (8%). For comparison, the meeting between Putin and Biden was deemed important only for 4% of Russians.

Over the second part of June, the anxiety among Russians has sharply spiked. For the first time in the past six months, the number of those who feels that the overall mood is more anxious than calm has increased – 47% versus 46% respectively. The highest level of anxiety was recorder by sociologists in the fall of 2020.

The political developments of recent weeks did not cause a sharp change in the attitude of Russians toward the State Duma elections. Large-scale party conventions did not produce any sensations that could dramatically change the ratings of the parties.

The list of United Russia ended up boring and predictable, consisting of candidates who personally do not intend to become deputies, the federal platform is completely made up of those who tow the party line.

According to Russian political scientist Alexander Kynev, the announcement of the United Russia’s main five candidates did not result in additional mobilization of new party supporters. The party has removed the unpopular Dmitry Medvedev from its list, but added Sergei Shoigu and Sergei Lavrov, whose ability to mobilize new supporters has already been exhausted. Dr. Dmitry Protsenko does not have a broad national recognition either and is not able to attract new supporters.

The Yabloko party convention is an event that has caused a passionate discourse online. The public has expressed strong opinions about the nominated candidates and those left off the lists. However, the soonest we will be able to see whether the party’s ratings have changed — is within a week’s time, and only via indirect indicators— none of the sociologists measure Yabloko’s rating separately.

Consistent with other moves, the party has released its regional electoral lists. They feature a couple of regional heavyweights, a local physician and a renowned cultural figure. Such lists do not help mobilize additional supporters. Moreover, the reaction to doctors as candidates has been uneven, to put it mildly, especially given the great criticism from the public toward the state medical system, which has shown unable to cope with yet another wave of the coronavirus infections. The national vaccination program has failed— vaccines are now in short supply, and one of the two Russian vaccines has now proven ineffective.

There is a notable relationship between the individual vaccination decision and political behavior.  Putin’s government has practically refused to introduce a full-fledged lockdown, shifting the introduction of quarantine measures to regional governors. As a result, there was a profound confusion and inconsistency with quarantine measures and mandatory vaccinations. Some regions introduced strict lockdowns but did not compensate small businesses and citizens for the economic loss that resulted from them. Some regions and municipalities took minimal measure, such as introducing operations restrictions for retail— restaurants and shopping centers. Others, through various approaches, attempted to increase vaccination rates among citizens.

There is a robust discussion on the legality of compulsory vaccination as well as the government refusal to import foreign vaccines to Russia, and the non-recognition of foreign vaccination certificates.

These issues have, most likely, also contributed to the drop in the rating of the ruling party, since the policy of the Russian government in relation to measures to combat the Coronavirus pandemic has been inconsistent. The government has consistently shifted the responsibility to regions who lack the resources for implementation of full-fledged quarantine measures. At the same time, in June 2021, as result of the third wave of the Coronavirus, hospital wards were close to 100% occupancy in Russia, and planned medical care for the population was practically suspended.

It is safe to assume that anti-COVID measures will continue affecting the rating of United Russia leading to the elections, especially with the third wave of the virus forecast to end in September-October 2021.

Candidate Nominations

The key development from early July 2021 is that all politicians who had a direct connection with Navalny’s foundation or Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s entities have dropped out, or were forcefully removed from the race:

  • Alexey Vorsin, Khabarovsk— refusal due to failure to reach an agreement with Yabloko
  • Oleg Stepanov, Moscow— not included in the Yabloko list, refusal to open an electoral account
  • Alexey Pivovarov, St. Petersburg— nominated by Yabloko in Krasnodar, FSIN actively opposes the collection of electoral documents.

It can be assumed, that, given the timing of the registration of candidates, the position of election commissions and courts, these candidates will not be registered.

Analysis of the candidates lists from parliamentary parties shows that a significant part of young and charismatic candidates from the CPRF and LDPR will not participate in the elections —for example, Bondarenko in Saratov and Lyubenkov in Bratsk.

The average profile of a candidate from parliamentary parties is a passive party functionary, taking cues from the Presidential Administration, one who does not engage in constituent work unless specifically funded by the party to do so.

The Competitive Field

Considering that government officials currently refuse to register candidates from the “non-systemic opposition”, the elections landscape will be dominated by lackluster officially-sanctioned politicians with slack agenda and avoidance of any criticism targeting the president, government officials, deputies and each other.

It can be expected that fringe parties will run active campaigns only in large Russian cities, where different support groups exist for niche interests. One should also expect that a certain number of active civic groups, in order to achieve their own goals, will try to increase the turnout of voters in the elections.

Systemic participants will operate within the framework of their respective agreements with the Presidential Administration. For example, in Irkutsk, a KPRF party deputy Mikhail Shchapov will face off an exceptionally weak rival representing the United Russia in his district —as part of an agreement with PA made a year ago during the election of the governor of the Irkutsk Oblast.

Campaign Progress

Last week’s party conventions and the filing of election registration applications to the Central Election Committee by candidates— are the defining events of the election season. In fact, prior to registration, an electoral campaign is not maintained in single-ballot districts; an informal tally of party lists is publicized by the news media.

Smart Voting Campaign

Over the past week, the Smart Voting campaign organizers have mailed out appeals to the addresses of those who had registered to vote urging them to spread the information about Smart Voting initiative and donate to its candidates. However, the Russian social media during this period was dominated by the discussion of the Smart Voting as it related to the publication of Yabloko and CPRF candidates lists. The main discussion themes included the prospect of voting for Stalinists and the changing view of Yabloko as it refused to include certain political activists into its list of candidates.

Voting Procedures

Last week, it was announced that e-voting procedures will not be consistent throughout the nation. In six regions, the e-voting will be conducted according to algorithms developed by the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation, implemented through the State Service system. In Moscow, it will be a system based on the algorithms of the Moscow City Hall. This directly contradicts the current legislation in terms of ensuring standardization of methods for counting votes and maintaining the voter list. As of now, there is no data on popular reaction to this violation.

Notable Regional Activities

  • In Moscow, candidate Roman Yunemann continues to collect signatures— one of the few who is attempting to register through signatures.
  • A double-ganger of Boris Vishnevsky has been put up for election in St. Petersburg.
  • In the Irkutsk Oblast, Evgeniy Yumashev has not been nominated by a single party( last year, during the gubernatorial elections he was the only one the in the nation to have passed the municipal barrier).
  • In Ingushetia, Ayup Gagiev represents Yabloko. He is an active participant in protests against changes to the republic’s borders.

Regional Elections and Their Political Context

On September 19, 2021, several elections will take place in Russia, which will affect the situation in the country.

Election of the governor of the Khabarovsk Krai: Formally, the Khabarovsk Krai is the most contested region in Russia— its governor Furgal and most of the deputies of the Legislative Assembly of the region are represented by LDPR and were elected as a result of a protest vote. After the arrest of Furgal, it was in Khabarovsk that the most massive political demonstrations took place in the country, which is notable— especially since the police was sent to disperse them only once.

The main intrigue of these elections will be who will support Smart Voting and how. Current acting Governor Degtyarev is also a member of LDPR.

United Russia did not nominate a candidate for these elections.

Supplementary elections for the Moscow City Duma in two districts: The well-known opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who was accused by the election commission of extremist activities, was disqualified from these elections. This is the first time a charge under the new legislation was applied. The legislation disqualifies candidates accused of extremism and “undesired” activities. Notably, Yashin has been removed precisely by the decision of the Election Commission, there are no court decisions restricting his rights, and no criminal charges were brought against him.

Elections for the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg: The main intrigue of the election in the country’s second largest city, centers on determining which of the independent candidates will be able to register. Irina Fatyanova, the former head of Navalny’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, is participating in the elections, and unlike Yashin, has been given the opportunity to collect signatures for her nomination.

Other elections: On September 19, 2021, elections will be held to fill governors posts in 12 Russian regions. These are the Republics of Dagestan, Ossetia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Chechnya, Tyva and Mordovia. The oblasts of Belgorod, Penza, Ulyanovsk, Tula and Tver regions and the aforementioned Khabarovsk Territory will also cast their votes.

Additionally, legislative bodies will be elected in 39 regions of Russia and for the first time in Russia the Council of the Federal Territory of Sirius will be elected.

Upcoming Announcements

Between July 7 and 14, we will see the registration of all party lists by the Central Election Commission of Russia.

Sources

Public Opinion Foundation. “Dominants. Opinion Field. 25th Edition – Results of Weekly All-Russian Polls by FOM.” Public Opinion Foundation, 1 July 2021, fom.ru/Dominanty/14602. 

Russian Public Opinion Research Center. “Rating of Political Parties.” VTsIOM, June-July 2021.

Second issue: https://www.4freerussia.org/monitoring-the-pre-election-situation-in-russia-second-edition/

On September 6, 2020, Salman Tepsurkaev, a 19-year-old Chechen native, was abducted from his workplace by two men who introduced themselves as Chechen law enforcement officers. When Salman’s family tried to report an abduction to the police, they were promised that their son would be back home in a week if they kept quiet. It’s been almost a year, and Salman is still being held hostage by the Chechen authorities.

Case Background

Salman Tepsurkaev lived with his parents and brother in a small Chechen village before moving to Gelendzhik to work as a waiter at a resort hotel. Along with this, he was secretly moderating the 1ADAT Telegram channel. Created in March 2020 to connect Chechen immigrants abroad, the channel gained thousands of followers in just six months. 1ADAT positions itself as a “civil movement against Ramzan Kadyrov’s dictatorship”.  1ADAT exposes government torture and repressions, gross human rights violations, mass corruption, secret prisons, and other illegal actions of Chechen officials and sheds light on  social inequality in Chechnya, documenting the incredible wealth and luxurious lifestyles of Chechen officials in contrast with the unemployment, corruption, and poverty that ordinary Chechens face daily.

In May of 2020, the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, appointed several journalists of the Grozny State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company to high level government jobs. Kadyrov was explicit about the mandate of these appointees— identifying and punishing his critics on the Internet. Seeing that the 1ADAT Telegram channel was one of the most influential outlets criticizing Kadyrov’s tyrant regime, the newly appointed officials immediately started the “hunt” on the channels’ activists. At their command, a few anonymous 1ADAT’s channel members sent $500 to Salman Tepsurkaev’s PayPal account under the pretext of donating. These transactions were made to identify Salman’s phone number and location. Obtaining such data would have been impossible without access to Tepsurkayev’s detailed phone billings, which are available only to law enforcement.

The Abduction

On September 6, 2020, two men dressed in black came to the Laguna resort hotel in Gelendzhik where Salman Tepsurkaev worked as a waiter. While one of the men guarded the front entrance, another went into the building and grabbed Salman. Salman tried to escape from the abductors, holding on to a column by the front desk and shouting “Call the police!” The hotel workers called security and tried to intervene, but one of the abductors showed them a law enforcement ID.

Salman was forced out of the hotel and his coworkers never saw him again.

For an entire day afterward, Salman’s phone was turned off and his location was unknown until it was turned back on briefly the next day. At that point, his family discovered that their son was kept at a police office in Grozny, Chechnya. That specific office is notorious for being the holding space for abducted Chechens and the location of many extrajudicial executions. Salman’s family quickly traveled to Grozny, but when they got to the location, they were told Salman was not there. The relatives tried to report the abduction to the police, but Grozny Investigative Department told the family to keep quiet and they would see their son in a week. A week later, Salman was not released.

Public Torture and Humiliation

On the day of the abduction, an anonymous member of the 1ADAT channel under the nickname “Hunter” published a video of a completely naked Chechen youth sitting on his knees with a glass bottle in front of him. In the video, a young man introduces himself as Salman Tepsurkayev, and states that he is 19 years old and is one of the administrators of 1ADAT. In a distraught and confused speech, he tries to explain what the channel is about, calling it a “dirty group”, in which the administrators “do disgusting things” that he is ashamed of. Salman also insults his mother and calls himself a bastard and a scum who was rejected by his father a long time ago. In the end, Tepsurkaev says he “punishes himself for a behavior inappropriate for a Chechen and passes the baton to other channel administrators and followers”.  He then attempts to sit down on a glass bottle. His face contorts in pain and the video cuts off. In the next few days, more videos of Salman were released by anonymous users both on Telegram and Instagram. In the videos, Salman continues to criticize the Chechen opposition and keeps cursing himself. In addition, the Chechen state-controlled TV channel published a video message from Salman’s father.  In which he states that he disowned his son years ago for “disobedience and terrible behavior”.

Case Proceedings

On September 8, 2020, the Memorial Human Rights Center (MHRC) filed a complaint with the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation in the Chechen Republic, demanding an investigation of the abduction and torture of Salman Tepsurkaev.

The Chechen Republic refused to open the case citing the absence of a crime.

On September 11, 2020, lawyers of the Committee Against Torture filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on the violation of Salman’s rights under Articles 3 and 5 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: “Prohibition of torture” and “The right to personal inviolability.” The ECHR lodged an inquiry with the Russian government on what measures to release Tepsurkaev are being implemented on the national level. The ECHR has not received any response from the Chechen officials.

On October 15, investigators from Gelendzhik, where Salman’s workplace is located, transferred the materials they had collected to the Chechen Investigation Department since the car of Tepsurkaev’s alleged abductors had crossed the Chechen border.

The Chechen police refused to initiate a criminal case, citing the absence of a crime.

At this time, it is unknown where Salman is located or whether he is alive.

Why the Memorial Human Rights Center Recognizes Salman Tepsurkaev as a Political Prisoner

Involvement of the Chechen Special Services

The MHRC believes there are serious grounds to believe that the Chechen Special Services were involved in the kidnapping of Salman Tepsurkaev. Discovering Salman’s location required access to information from telecommunication networks.  This information is only available to law enforcement officials associated with the Chechen Special Services. Investigation has also revealed that at least one of the two vehicles involved in the abduction belonged to a current Chechen Interior Ministry employee.

Salman Tepsurkaev is a Victim of Kadyrov’s regime

As it has been documented by numerous sources, including Novaya Gazeta and Kavkaz Uzel, psychological pressure and torture are known methods of Chechen authorities.  These methods are used to punish those who criticized Ramzan Kadyrov and whose political beliefs differ from the government’s. The facility in Grozny where Salman was kept has become a place of detention, torture, and extrajudicial executions of illegally arrested residents of Chechnya.

The open approval of torture by Chechen officials

Several representatives of the Chechen top leadership including Adam Delimkhanov and Salakh Mezhiev, indirectly confirmed that they knew the identities of those behind the abduction of Tepsurkaev and had approved such actions. At the same time, the investigative authorities of the Chechen Republic refuse to investigate the abduction.

Violation of the right of freedom of expression

The MHRC asserts that although the current location of Salam Tepsurkaev is unknown, and information is lacking on the circumstances of his abduction, the MHRC considers him alive and illegally detained by Chechen officials. The MHRC claims that the video recordings with Salman’s participation were made under extreme pressure and are the result of torture. Salman’s persecution seeks to silence all public criticism of the Chechen authorities and terrorize the opposition with cruelty and public humiliation. Salman’s persecution violates his right to freedom and security, as well as freedom of expression. The Memorial Human Rights Center along with the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and the Representative for Foreign and Security Policy of the EU demand that the Russian government takes immediate action to ensure the safety of Salman Tepsurkaev and investigate the illegal actions committed against him.

It was shocking for Western friends of Georgia, and supporters of Georgia’s bid for membership at NATO and the EU, to learn that an angry mob in Tbilisi stormed LGBTQ activists’ centers, attacking journalists and tourists. Yet, as we saw on July 5, 2021, this is precisely the reality on the ground in the Georgian capital.

On the day when Georgian LGBTQ community planned to hold its Dignity March, groups of angry men, including thousands of far-right radicals and priests, violently attacked people on the streets. Among the 55 people injured, there were journalists, activists and tourists. Earlier, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili called the Dignity March “inappropriate,” saying it is “unreasonable” to hold the demonstration in a public place that could lead to “civil confrontation.” NGO representatives evaluated statement made by Garibashvili as incitement to hatred. Organizers of the Dignity March, not willing to endanger participants, canceled the event. This, unfortunately, did not quell the homophobic violence of the right-wing mob.

This attack fits within the global trend of resurgent homophobia. Indeed, there are many countries where LGBTQ-organized events are met with violent opposition and hatred. There are some countries where you can’t even talk about the existence of LGBTQ persons. But the fact that Georgia has been vying for invitations from both the EU and NATO for years accords the homophobia in this South Caucasus post-Soviet country a very different context. A country is not ready for a NATO or EU membership if it fails to defend fundamental principles of the democratic community: the protection of human rights.

Without doubt, respect for human rights and the dignity of others is an area where Georgia is in desperate need of development. A significant part of Georgia’s population does not accept LGBTQ peoples’ right to exist authentically; and believes, more broadly, that Western democracy is a threat to Georgia’s traditions and values. Foreign propaganda and disinformation campaigns support and mobilize such views targeting the less educated and more radical segments of the population. These groups see that LGBTQ events present a threat to their religion, a narrative greatly strongly supported by the Church.

There are also less aggressive and non-violent groups who oppose LGBTQ rights due to their view that heterosexual orientation is at the center of the Caucasian masculine identity. In attacking LGBTQ rights, these groups often invoke the importance of Caucasus tradition.

What factors have made homophobia so defining to Georgian identity and in which way is Georgian homophobia different from other non-democratic countries? Why should NATO and the EU make special accommodation for an aspiring member where a significant part of population do not respect another part, even to the point of violence and terrorism?

Let us start with examining the key participants of last week’s attack, both internal and external. Evidence is emerging that many of those who took part in the July 5 assaults in Tbilisi were called to the streets by pro-Kremlin organizations and their allies in the Georgian Patriarchy, which is well-known for its close ties to Moscow. For example, one of the organizers of the violent mob is the founder of the new political party “Eri”, Mr. Levan Vasadze, who has emerged as one of the public faces of the anti-LGBTQ rally. Vasadze is a Georgian Orthodox Church-affiliated entrepreneur who made millions in Moscow. Since 1995, Vasadze has been conducting business in Russia. He is a close friend of Mr. Alexander Dugin who is a well-known supporter of Vladimir Putin, and a Russian political analyst and strategist known for his fascist views. Vasadze made his fortune working for Russian companies such as AFK Sistema and Rosno. AFK Sistema is a Russian conglomerate owned by an oligarch. It seems that the Kremlin deploys Vasadze to Georgia to execute special influence campaigns promoting radicalization and chaos. Within the last two years, Vasadze has initiated several violent protest rallies in Georgia. His efforts are always targeted against the West.

Most recently, Levan Vasadze was sent to Georgia after the failure of another Kremlin-backed Georgian political party Alliance of Patriots. The party was created in 2012. In 2016, it managed to garner 5% of vote in an election and the party’s chairperson became a vice-speaker of Georgian parliament. From its very first day Alliance of Patriots have engaged in vicious and continuous attacks on the West and democracy. In Georgian politics, the group is the purveyor of the Kremlin’s agenda. According to files distributed by the Dossier Center in August 2020, Alliance of Patriots was under the direct control of the Russian Presidential Administration and received large sums of money from Moscow during the elections of 2020. After the scandalous revelations, the party failed to get the percentage of votes required to enter the parliament (only 2%). This failure of the Kremlin’s malign influence operators in Georgia resulted in the need to create and grow a new movement, capable of securing at least 5% of votes during elections. Enter Vasadze.

The recent EU-mandated agreement between the Georgian ruling-party and opposition, and the increased involvement of NATO member Turkey in Georgia and South Caucasus, together with the recent successful attempt of the U.S. to become more engaged in the region by moderating a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has pushed the Kremlin to become more aggressive in its campaigns throughout the South Caucasus. The “charismatic and eccentric knight in shining armor” Levan Vasadze was dispatched to promote chaos and instability in Georgia, attack Western values, undermine Georgian society and, in this way, demonstrate to the West that Georgia is not a reliable partner.

Moscow’s long-term goal here is clear: ensuring that Georgia will never be invited into the EU or NATO. The Kremlin sees the issue of LGBTQ rights as the perfect way to make the West distance itself from Georgia, because defending human rights (LGBTQ rights) is often seen as a litmus test for Western democracies.

Any investigation into Russia’s malign campaigns must be based on proper analysis of the target country, its society and vulnerabilities. So-called protection of traditions and religion are the two fundamental narratives promoted by the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation in Georgia and other post-Soviet countries. Throughout the post-Soviet space, the Kremlin backs Church clergy, journalists, NGOs and other operators, who help manipulate the less-educated segments of the population and make them believe that their way of life is threatened by the West. Common arguments include the narrative that LGBTQ events “will make them all ‘gays’,” “promote LGBTQ ideology among their children,” and “undermine their traditions, history and the memory of their grandfathers and grandmothers.” These narratives are being advanced during church sermons, protest rallies, by live broadcasts of Moscow-backed media outlets, etc. Kremlin-controlled opinion makers and bots promote these narratives on social media networks, leading to further incitement of hatred.

The Kremlin is also using Vasadze to counter Turkish expansion and to preserve the Kremlin’s regional influence. As soon as Vasadze returned to Georgia, he financed massive protest rallies targeting the newly improved Georgia-Turkey relations. Pro-Kremllin media outlets, both in Georgia and Russia, actively covered these rallies to promote hatred against Turkey in Georgia. Their goal was to alienate Georgia from Turkey, one of the rising powers in the South Caucasus in the aftermath of the Second Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Another organizer behind the July 5 attacks on LGBTQ activists is the radical group Georgian March. This group was established in 2016, when several right-wing activists visited Moscow in an attempt to solicit money for a new political party. At the time, the Kremlin supported two parties in Georgia and they did not see the need for a third one, so they declined to support new party. As a result, Gia Korkotashvili, Sandro Bregadze and their allies established the movement Georgian March to promote chaos and initiate aggressive anti-Western campaigns. Yet, it’s important to note, that their closest ally is Mr. Dmitry Lortkipanidze, who officially heads the Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Centre funded by Russian MFA through the Gorchakov fund.

The third Kremlin-aligned power that is promoting hatred and aggression against the LGBTQ community is the Georgian Patriarchy. The Patriarchy is a huge organization financed by the State. Each year, the government provides the church with new funds and lands. The Church is very popular in Georgia. Resultantly, the Georgian government uses the Church to secure votes during elections. Similarly, the Church uses the government to get more funds and grow its power. The current leadership of the Patriarchy has direct historical, business and political ties with Moscow. During its services, the Church supports pro-Kremlin or anti-Western politicians, laments “the threat from the West” and attacks liberal or democratic values.

Therefore, denying Georgian membership to NATO and the EU due to human rights violations against the LGBTQ community is not as straightforward as it might seem. Each participant of the attacks has done so at the instigation by Russian-backed politicians, groups and institutions.

This does not mean that there is no problem with homophobia in Georgia, and it is certainly true that some parts of Georgian society do not accept LGBTQ people. But what this analysis does reveal is that much of the incitement to hatred, and aggression has been artificially manufactured by the Russian presidential administration with the intent of alienating Georgia from the West, to Moscow’s strategic benefit. The Kremlin sees a vulnerable issue and chooses to promote radicalization and chaos.

Sadly, the Georgian government does not have effective tools to prevent or counter Russia’s influence campaigns targeted against its people. Over the past nine years, Georgia’s vulnerability has only grown, while the Kremlin’s attacks have increased in intensity, overtness, funding and scale.

In public statements, The Georgian government, including the ruling party Georgian Dream and its founding oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, has continued to assert their commitment to joining NATO and the EU. IN public statements, they admit that Russia is their biggest threat and that Moscow’s occupation of Georgia’s territories is unwanted and illegal.

However, in reality, the Georgian government has never taken concrete steps to counter the Kremlin’s influence, and in some cases it has actually helped Russia to achieve its goals . Among some of the most unfortunate recent examples is the case of the U.S.-backed deep-sea port Anaklia, a project, financed by U.S. companies, which was shut down by the current government. But there are countless others, such as the non-response policy towards the creeping Russian annexation of Georgian territory or inviting a Russian state Duma delegation to Georgian parliament. The will of the Georgian government to push back against Moscow’s influence is weak at best, and completely non-existent at worst.

The events of June 20, 2019 when the Georgian government ordered police to violently disperse a spontaneous anti-Kremlin rally offers some context on government capabilities to deal with mobs. Gas and rubber bullets were used by the police. Hundreds of people were injured, and several protestors even lost their eyes. Yet, on July 5, when pro-Russian radicals attacked 55 journalists, activists, and tourists. Eventually, eight people were detained. Radicals openly threatened organizers of the Dignity March, their allies and supporters for weeks. Organizers wrote letters to the Georgian police, asking to ensure their security. However, supposedly they still “were not ready” to defend their citizens.

Unfortunately, the EU- and U.S.-backed agreement signed between the government and opposition has not resulted in a long-term de-radicalization. The agreement stipulates that if the ruling party does not obtain at least 43% of votes in the upcoming local elections in 2021, snap elections will be announced automatically. For those in government, failure in these upcoming elections may result not only in the loss of power, but also prison terms in some cases. This incentivizes them to try anything possible (including bribes, usage of administrative resources, etc.) to get the needed result and stay in power. The personal risks of not succeeding in the elections for those in government are too high.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that the government decided not to alienate their core electorate and supporters by dispersing the anti-LGBTQ mob, encouraging them instead. That is why, on July 5, we all heard from the news broadcasts how the Georgian Prime Minister —the closest ally of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili and one of the major peddlers of Chinese economic influence in Georgia—Irakli Gharibashvili opined that the Dignity March is “inappropriate” and “should not be held.”

To sum it up, the July 5 attacks on Georgia’s LGBTQ community, and the attacks resultant impacts on the country’s path towards the Western community, is the result of joint efforts implemented by the Kremlin, the Georgian Patriarchy and the Georgian government. The only way to increase the security of the Georgian people and support country’s development is to build a resilient society, better protected against propaganda and manipulations, both domestic and foreign. It is impossible to help Georgia move forward, when government-affiliated people are deciding who to work with and which programs to schedule without the proper tools to combat disinformation. To do that, serious efforts must be made to develop prevention and response mechanisms to counter malign interference and propaganda campaigns. These must include large-scale educational programs and media campaigns, providing unbiased information to most vulnerable audiences; as well as establishing early-response mechanisms.

On July 2nd, Putin signed an updated version of the “National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation.” However, updated is only a technical term, merely characterizing the fact that the strategy is formally revised every six years (with the previous document adopted in 2015). By any other merit, the “strategy” is nothing less than completely outdated and offers a glimpse of a weird salad of conspiracies, prejudices and medieval worldviews that thrive in the minds of the Kremlin rulers.

Make no mistake, international attention to this document is hardly worth its actual practical importance, or lack thereof. Such “strategies” is a specific genre of the Russian bureaucracy – the purpose is to show themselves that “yes, we do have a plan” (to address the key challenges and issues Russia is confronting). But in the real world, these thick “strategic white papers” usually end up quickly forgotten and sidelined by tactical issues of the day. So was the fate of the “national security strategy” adopted in 2015 (and before that – in 2009), which had zero relevance over practical Russian policies and, inevitably, the current version will end up in the same historic trash dump.

What is interesting though, is that the document opens the door into the Kremlin’s strategic thinking, and allows a bit more understanding of how Putin and the top decision makers truly view the world. The National Security Council (NSC), which was responsible for preparing it, arguably became the top influential Russian authority presiding over decision-making both on domestic and international politics in the recent period. The meetings of the Permanent Members of the NSC happen in a weekly format, and it is there where key decisions on new domestic repressions and foreign policy adventures are being made. The NSC Permanent Members council includes 13 top officials in the country and can be easily considered a modern-day Politburo. Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of the NSC, has become Putin’s top policy adviser on strategic issues and a mouthpiece of the Kremlin’s worldview.

So, obviously, the main “strategic” document coming out of the NSC is somewhat interesting because it comes directly from the top folks defining the Kremlin’s strategy with the exact purpose to publicly outline one. And, demagoguery aside, it offers very important – and often scary – insight into the mindset of the current Russian rulers.

First and foremost, the document outlines multiple problems and challenges for Russia, but strikingly avoids any analysis of what went wrong in the past 20 years of Vladimir Putin’s rule. That’s a big contrast with any normal strategic policy concept paper – particularly the one which is re-adopted and adjusted every 5-6 years. Usually, such documents begin with a cross-check of which previous goals were achieved since the last adopted strategy, which were not, and why. That helps provide an understanding of the shortcomings and correct the mistakes.

Not in the case of Vladimir Putin – who, obviously, never makes any mistakes. This has become one of the most unquestioned narratives of Russian officials of late – be it speeches by Vladimir Putin, articles by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, or any other official documents. To these leaders ensconced in the Kremlin, they are always right. If something is wrong, it’s only someone else’s fault. The same is the case with the NSC strategy: you read it and wonder – wait, but extraordinary leader Putin is more than twenty years in power, and we still have to fight poverty (paragraph 32)? There’s still high crime (paragraph 42)? Still mounting social and economic problems (paragraph 45), etc., etc.? How could this be? Whatever happened to the $4.2 trillion that we received in revenues from exports of oil, gas and petroleum products from 2000-2021? What happened to that money? Some countries have managed to achieve a much better standard of living, security and prosperity with far, far less.

But no, $4.2 trillion in revenue is not mentioned in this “strategy” at all – almost as if it never arrived. Instead, the document puts forward the concept of “conservation of population” (paragraphs 28-33) as the key priority – like we, Russians, are an endangered species. The concept of “conservation of the population” goes back to the ideas of conservative writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn – who had many questionable ideas about Russia and its future, but that “conservation” theme was promoted when Russia was really in dire straits at the time of the collapse of communism and the beginning of difficult reforms.

However, that was three decades ago, and Russia has enjoyed more than 20 years of Putin’s governance genius and a $4.2 trillion paycheck – so why is “conservation” still so hot on the agenda? What predators dare to endanger that vulnerable species? In early 2000s, Putin’s speeches and strategic documents were all about development and positive prospects – life was good, the worst was over, we were rapidly integrating into the world, and his administration had launched many reforms to solve the remaining problems. There was much more optimism and forward thinking in the Russian government’s rhetoric back then. But now we’re in 2021, and the key task seems to be “conserving the population” on the background of poverty, crime, various social, economic and environmental problems, among others. What happened?

The strategy gives a straightforward hint: it is predatory, hostile foreign powers that can’t hold back the multiple crises of a liberal system, yet are still hungry for destabilizing others and , therefore, are to blame for everything. There is no mention of Chinese ballistic missiles at our borders or a North Korean projectile falling in the sea a short distance from the Russian city of Nakhodka. Of course these are not mentioned as security threats because we’re all friends, you know? It is the West, with its immoral decaying liberal values, that is the biggest threat – using the Russian “objective social-economic difficulties,” in the phraseology of paragraph 44 that the West is launching an information war against young, unstable Russian minds only but to destroy and conquer our proud sovereign state. Objective difficulties? after $4 trillion in oil export windfall? This isn’t a strategy written by serious people other than to shift blame from their own incompetence. Perhaps it’s better to ask, where’s the money, Putin?.

The treatment of “sovereignty” question by the Kremlin’s thinkers is also very interesting. In the official Russian rhetoric of the recent period the issue of “sovereignty” is always central. But in reality, the Kremlin has a very special, medieval view on sovereignty; more like a sultan’s right to do what he will once he’s in the monarchic chair. The Russian Constitution and Criminal Code both envisage a very different concept of sovereignty – as the right of the Russian people to freely choose their rulers through democratic procedures. Anyone who interferes with that right (i.e. kills opposition leaders or jails them, prevents freedom of speech, free assembly, bans candidates with opposition views from running in elections) is seen as a criminal, subject for up to 20 years in prison (article 278 of the Russian Criminal Code “Illegal seizure of power”).

The Kremlin nominally repeats that Constitutional definition of sovereignty as a “power of the people” in paragraph 28 of the “national security strategy” – but otherwise, throughout the document, treats the Russian people as stupid, unable to solve their own problems, prone to degrading foreign influence, and therefore subject to guardianship and “conservation efforts” by the Big Brother state, which reserves the right to dictate every aspects of peoples’ life, from access to information to culture and moral values.

To drive attention away from that clear aim at total control over society, NSC thinkers portray the modern-day reality not as a postwar and post-communist democratic rules-based order challenged by autocrats and dictatorships for their selfish purposes, but as a medieval dog-eat-dog world, where people need a strong Big Brother guardian to be “conserved.” Without such protections, the Russian people will be wiped away by a shockwave of “Western liberal values” – obviously the utmost threat in the history of mankind. How Western nations achieved the outstanding living standards for their citizens that Russians can only dream of remains an open question. 

The medieval reference is also interesting. On one hand, Russian leadership is blaming the West for a return of the medieval “might is right” principle into international relations – as directly said in one of the Patrushev’s speeches right before the adoption of the “national security strategy”. On the other hand, they seem to be fascinated both with “traditional and historic values” – which can’t be translated other than medieval, particularly when contraposed against “Western liberal values” – as well as with the concept of making Russia a “strong power” (“сильная держава”) at any cost, central to the “national security strategy.”

The “strong power” concept brings us to the “Back to the Concert of Nations” trope, put forward earlier by Vyacheslav Nikonov, a powerful foreign policy thinker under Putin, and the grandson of ex-Stalin’s foreign minister Molotov, Ribbentrop’s counterpart in the infamous Soviet-Nazi pact of 1939. Nikonov argues that the Twenty First Century style “concert of nations,”  when strong powers have decided the world’s fate on a transactional basis without any liberal rules-based order getting in the way – is a much better alternative to the world where strong democratic powers keep asking Russia about its constant violations of human rights and international law. Make no mistake: that dream of return to pre-democratic world order is what is hidden behind a “strong power” paradigm. Putin wants a stake at the roundtable of global powers and is ready to sacrifice a lot for it.

Generally, reading through all these descriptions of Russia as a “besieged fortress surrounded by enemies” and “chaotic world undermined by Western liberal powers” can’t help but make you sick. Twenty years ago, when Putin just came to power, he talked about democracy, integrating Russia into the world, enjoying the benefits of globalization and international division of labor but you won’t find these words in this “security concept” now. Foreign investment? Forget it, we put an emphasis on “internal potential” in the North-Korean juche style (paragraph 65). Threats, enemies, an unstable world rattled by the Western powers, traditional values, total mobilization, endangered population in need of “conservation” – makes one think you’re reading a Warcraft game scenario, not a description of a Twenty-First Century world.

All this is beyond archaic. It doesn’t reflect the current global realities even to a smallest bit. If only the humanity wasn’t held back by greedy dictatorships who would go to great lengths to oppress, disrupt, obstruct, and corrupt in order to preserve their power, the world – and Russia – would have been a totally different place by now. Needless to say, none of Putin’s archaic views reflect the aspirations of Russians – not only those who took to the streets in recent months to protest against Putin’s oppression, but more generally: according to recent Levada Center opinion poll, there’s a clear majority of Russians aged 40 or younger who simply don’t want to see Putin in power beyond 2024. They want modernity and global integration, not isolation and backwardness. More and more people feel how obsolete Putin and his system are, and what a source of insecurity the Kremlin’s policies have become for Russia. They understand that Putin’s “security strategy” in reality is all about preserving and “conserving” himself and his grip on power, and has nothing to do with the interests of the country.

Listen, Putin and Patrushev – I, Vladimir Milov, am one of the Russian people, and I don’t need any “conservation” efforts from you. You are as good at “conserving” as a poacher with a gun looking to hunt down an endangered animal and to sell its horn to China for a bargain price. I, among many forward-looking and truly patriotic Russians, need you gone for good – the faster, the better. You have wasted all the chances that the history have given you – and, instead of development, have thrown Russia into endless economic stagnation and decline, rampant corruption, vassal dependency on China, and international isolation. We are paying this price for your limitless hunger for power and stolen billions – and that is the one and only threat that stands in the way between Russia and prosperity. You bring insecurity to Russia – and double down on it with your medieval, dog-eat-dog worldviews. The Twenty First Century has no place for backward so-called leaders like you. Be gone – that’s the least you can do to make Russia secure, once and for all.

“I came out to the street to express my solidarity with Alexei Navalny and support the Russian people. I just wanted to help an innocent kid when I saw he was brutally mishandled by the police. I never wanted to cause any harm or humiliate anyone, especially the security officers.”
Valeriy Yevsin during his court hearing on April 7, 2021

Case Background

On January 23, 2021, mass protests broke out in almost 100 cities across Russia and internationally. Thousands of peaceful protesters came out to support Alexei Navalny, a prominent ant-corruption politician and Putin’s top political rival, who was illegally arrested by the Russian government on January 17. People who have participated in these protests are now facing the most brutal repression in the history of modern Russia. Hundreds of people were assaulted on the streets by the police, and in the months since, more still have faced interrogations, house raids, psychological abuse, and illegal incarcerations at the hands of law enforcement– all because they peacefully exercised their legal right to protest.

Though the intensity of these repressions has certainly increased since the spring of 2020, the approach and schemes used by law enforcement to crack down on protestors, are not new. Indeed, after an earlier wave of mass protests in Russia took place in July of 2019, dozens of people faced criminal charges for allegedly “causing harm to the health of the police officers.” This particular criminal charge has emerged a frequently-used government method for prosecuting protestors. The most notorious example is the “Moscow case,” opened on July 27, 2019, in which 13 protesters received anywhere from two to four years in prison for merely “pushing a government official,” “touching the arm of a government official,” or “slapping a government official’s helmet.” Beyond the disproportionate punishment for such actions even theoretically-speaking, these charges were made without any supporting evidence (read more on the “Moscow case” in our report). No matter their validity, these cases have established a new avenue for the government to silence opposition: prosecuting the innocent for supposedly endangering police officers and making it clear that anything that is ever said or done against the police will result in a prison sentence.

The 2021 protests in support of Alexei Navalny have deployed this mechanism en masse, with dozens charged with “causing grievous bodily harm to the police.”In reality, these brave Russians exercised their constitutionally-guaranteed rights and stood up to the government oppression.

Case Defendant

Valeriy Yevsin came to Moscow from the Pskov Oblast to work as a taxi driver. He is married and is a doting father to two small boys. His social media pages used to consists mainly of family photos and reposts of content from opposition politicians and activists. But now his account has been flooded with “pro-Kremlin” trolls barraging him for his criticism of the government and divulging personal information about his life: “Pal, are you not satisfied with your life? You have kids, a car, you go on vacations. What else do you need?”

On April 7, after two months in detention without seeing his wife and kids, Mr. Yevsin was found guilty by the court and sent to prison for two years. The supposed crime he committed: “pushing a metal street closure barricade in the direction of a police officer” during the protest on January 23. These charges fall under Part 1, Art. 318 of the Criminal Code of Russia – “The use of violence, not dangerous to life or health, against a government official on duty”.

Events preceding Mr. Yevsin’s arrest

According to Mr. Yevsin, on January 23, he was walking down the Sretenskiy Boulevard in Moscow with a group of protesters when he heard someone from the crowd scream that the police was assaulting a teenage boy. Valeriy said that he saw the police grabbing a skinny-looking teenager and dragging him away. Mr. Yevsin felt he simply could not just walk away and he felt the responsibility to help the boy. He confornted the police and asked them to release the innocent kid. The crowd supported Mr. Yevsin and started screaming “Let him go! Let him go!,” a plea which the police ignored, continuing to drag the boy away . Furious, Mr. Yevsin and a few other protesters pushed a metal barrier toward one of the police officers, which lightly brushed one of the officer’s chest. The officer wielded his baton to hit Mr. Yevsin, but Valeriy managed to duck the hit.

Later, during his interrogation, Mr. Yevsin said: “I saw that the police had finally released the boy, and I shouted to the crowd that we could leave and that the conflict was resolved. Everyone started applauding and we left.”

A few days later, the police found Mr. Yevsin by tracking his car’s license plate number, arrested him, and brought him to the detention center. The police officer brushed by the metal barrier against claimed that Mr. Yevsin was aggressive, that he tried to grab his baton, and that he deliberately lifted the metal barrier with the intent of hitting the officer in the chest and the stomach. The officer maintained that the incident caused him great physical pain.

According to the Memorial Human Rights Center, this claim was intentionally exaggerated to make it seem like Valeriy Yevsin had caused damage to the health of the police officer which in reality did not happen.

 Speaking in his own defense, Mr. Yevsin said he never wanted to cause harm or humiliate a police officer and that all he wanted was to help a child in danger. He said he was sorry that this situation took place and he later admitted his guilt hoping that the court would reduce his punishment. Nevertheless, on April 7, the court sentenced him to two years in prison.

Why does the Memorial Human Rights Center consider Valery Yevsin a political prisoner?

Politicized context

The Memorial Human Rights Center asserts that to understand the nature of a person’s detention it is important to consider the context of the event, as well as the reactions of the law enforcement and judicial systems to it.

 In this case, the important elemnt of the context is that Valeriy Yevsin was taking part in a peaceful protest that constituted a legitimate expression of public outrage at the Putin government’s repressive actions. Yet, in spite of the legal nature of this protest,, law enforcement agents used extreme violence towards protesters trying to silence them and end their completely legitimate activity.

 Mr. Yevsin’s arrest is political in that it seeks to scare activists and silence voices of dissent. Furthermore, Russian law enforcement have already violated people’s right to protest, by brutally and illegally beating up protestors each time they take to the streets. The police officer identified as the victim in Yevsin’s case declared that he ‘experienced great pain’ from the push. Yet, at the time of the incident, he was wearing full body armor and could not have possibly suffered any physical injuries from such an insignificant push. In contrast, on the same day of the incident with Mr. Yevsin, the police seriously injured dozens of protesters and have gone unpunished for their violence. This is in spite of the fact that their actions were recorded in photos and videos and that the protesters’ injuries have been confirmed by medical records. The Memorial Center claims that such a selective use of criminal prosecution is evidence of a clear bias of the Russian authorities on who deserves punishment and who does not. Thus, Mr. Yevsin must be considered a political prisoner.

Biased legislation

Common punishments based on Article 318.1 (the statute under which Mr. Yevsin was charged) imposed on people in non-political cases are far less severe than those imposed on protesters. For example, outside of the context of a protest, for punching a police officer in the jaw, one could get fined for 50 thousand rubles (approximately $680), and for swinging at a police officer with an ax one could get six months in a penal colony. Yet, while at a political protest, if one touches the helmet of a police officer, a person could receive a three-year prison sentence.

The Memorial Center believes that such blatant disparities prove the unjust selectivity of persecution of this particular law. Through prosecutions like that of Mr. Yevsin, the police and the National Guard are transmitting a clear message to the public: the police are allowed to commit any act of violence with impunity, while ordinary citizens who dare to disagree with the government will be punished as severely as possible.

The Memorial Human Rights Center considers Valeriy Yevsin a political prisoner and demands that he and other victims of the regime arrested and jailed during peaceful protests are released and the persecution against them is stopped immediately.

“Wow, what a situation. I did not expect that at all. I wanted to go on vacation, and then this happens: the police enter the plane and tell me: “You are on the federal wanted list.” What a crazy special operation, I was escorted from the plane minutes from take-off and arrested. What was the reason? I planned to run in the State Duma elections. That’s all. The case was fabricated in two days. Except for the immense desire of the Russian government to restrict political activity and silence the opposition, I see no other reasons.”

-Andrei Pivovarov in court on June 2, 2021

Case Background

In 2015, the Russian government created a new law on “undesirable organizations”. According to this law, any organization that, in the view of the Kremlin, “undermines the safety, security, and the constitutional order” of the country can be declared undesirable. The law, however, is unconstitutional, as it encroaches on the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the Russian constitution.

Organizations that have so far been targeted by this regulation, work in international education and cultural exchange, or advance political and economic development of Russia. All of them do so by peaceful, non-violent and legal means. Currently, there are 35 undesirable organizations both in Russia and abroad, and the list will likely keep growing. The law has unleashed a new wave of oppression against these groups, with their employees and even volunteers facing home raids, interrogation, and incarcerations.

Case defendant

Since 2018, Andrei Pivovarov, one of the most prominent leaders of the democratic opposition in Russia, has served as the Executive Director of the Open Russia.

The goals of this organization included “strengthening relations between the state and society in Russia, promoting free and fair elections, and ensuring rights and freedoms of the Russian citizens.” Such activities are lawful and common in any democratic society. Open Russia activities and methods have always been peaceful and never supported destructive methods of building democracy in the country. Nevertheless, for the past 5-6 years, Open Russia’s staff members, such as like Yana Antonova, Anastasia Shevchenko, and Mikhail Iosilevich, have been harassed by the officials, interrogated, and prosecuted on false charges.

Since 2015, Andrei Pivovarov has faced four administrative and criminal charges ostensibly due to his affiliation with Open Russia. The Memorial Human Rights Center has concluded that all of the charges against Mr. Pivovarov c are baseless, have no constructive evidence, and were imposed on him solely because Putin’s regime feels threatened by him. Charges against Mr. Pivovarov are nothing but the Kremlin’s attempt to silence this activist and stop his legal political and social activities. Pivovarov has already been recognized as a political prisoner by the Memorial Center in 2015, when he was falsely accused of bribery and abuse of authority. A few weeks ago, he was granted this status again.

On May 27, 2021, Andrei Pivovarov publicly announced the dissolution of Open Russia. He did so preemptively— as the organization had not yet been declared undesirable. However, Mr. Pivovarov anticipated that, in light of increased political repressions, it was forthcoming. He did not want to put his people at risk of being thrown in prison at Putin’s command for trying to restore democracy in Russia. In his video address publicized on May 27, as well as in his media interviews that followed the announcement, he explained the rationale behind this decision.

On May 31, Mr. Pivovarov was getting ready to fly to Poland for vacation. Minutes before his plane’s take off, the police stormed the plane, arrested Andrei and hauled him away. He was taken to the Investigation Committee where he learned he was being charged for cooperation with an undesirable organization (under Article 284.1 of the Criminal Code of Russia).

A few days later, the police raided Pivovarov’s  house in St. Petersburg.  Mr. Pivovarov was transported to Krasnodar for trial. This was when he was informed that he was facing six years of prison for a repost on Facebook from the “United Democrats” page made a year ago about supporting candidates on municipal elections.

According to Andrei Pivovarov’s lawyer, the post in question was not even published by him.  Anna Kuznetsova, one of Mr. Pivovarov’s page administrators, admitted to publishing the post which was also certified by a notarized technical expertise. Andrei’s lawyer filed an appeal citing Ms. Kuznetsova and the conclusion of the expertise demanding the immediate release of Andrei Pivovarov, but the court ignored his petition. On June 2, after a court hearing, Mr. Pivovarov’s detention was extended to two months.

The Memorial Center believes the persecution of Andrei Pivovarov is directly related to Mr. Pivovarov’s announcement to run for the State Duma as an independent opposition candidate in September of this year. His arrest is a part of the Kremlin’s efforts to clear the political field before the elections, eliminating all independent candidates and viable competitors.

Why the Memorial Human Rights Center recognizes Andrei Pivovarov as a political prisoner?

  1. The law on undesirable organizations is unconstitutional — it contradicts the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution of the Russian Federation. The definition of an “undesirable” organization is vague and allows for arbitrary interpretation, and the fact that the organizations are recognized as undesirable without any trial and behind closed doors is outrageous. It assumes the absolute subjectivity and groundlessness of such decisions with the complete absence of evidence-based argumentation and transparency of the procedure. In the case of Open Russia, the organization does not in any way fall under these vague criteria, and there is no reason to assert that it poses a threat to the country.
  1. The law on undesirable organizations is unconstitutional — it contradicts the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution of the Russian Federation. The definition of an “undesirable” organization is vague and allows for arbitrary interpretation, and the fact that the organizations are recognized as undesirable without any trial and behind closed doors is outrageous. It assumes the absolute subjectivity and groundlessness of such decisions with the complete absence of evidence-based argumentation and transparency of the procedure. In the case of Open Russia, the organization does not in any way fall under these vague criteria, and there is no reason to assert that it poses a threat to the country.
    Consequently, when the case against Pivovarov was opened, the charges against him included leading the undesirable organization registered in the UK rather than the one in Russia. Unsurprisingly, no objective evidence was presented to support this claim. Moreover, a study of public registry indicates that British organizations that were declared undesirable in 2017 never, in fact, existed. Therefore, it allows one to assume that all these manipulations were done to target Open Russia led by Pivovarov at some point in time.
  1. Andrei Pivovarov’s prosecution even contradicts the undesirable organizations law itself. Mr. Pivovarov was detained three days after he announced the dissolution of Open Russia. The law states that “a person who voluntarily stopped participating in the activities of an undesirable organization is exempt from criminal liability.”
  1. Andrei Pivovarov’s prosecution even contradicts the undesirable organizations law itself. Mr. Pivovarov was detained three days after he announced the dissolution of Open Russia. The law states that “a person who voluntarily stopped participating in the activities of an undesirable organization is exempt from criminal liability.”

The Memorial Center asserts that the criminal charges against Andrei Pivovarov are part of the massive campaign of political repressions, and demands that they are dropped immediately, and the persecution and pressuring of the independent candidates and their lawful activities are stopped at once.

Until 2020, Vadim Bektemirov led a quiet life in his native Crimea. He was a family man, a father of two young daughters, and a loving husband to his wife who was expecting their third child. He made his living as a translator, though his dream was to become an Imam.

In July of 2020, his life was brutally turned upside down when Russian security officials raided his house. He was arrested and charged under Part 2, Art. 205.5 of the Criminal Code of Russia —participating in a terrorist organization. He remains in illegal captivity to this day. Following the sudden arrest of his son, Vadim’s father suffered a heart attack and died. Vadim was not allowed to attend his father’s funeral and was denied the opportunity to say goodbye. Vadim has not been allowed to welcome his new baby boy or support his wife through her pregnancy and postpartum recovery. Rather, he is languishing in prison, and his family deprived of its breadwinner.

What was the crime committed by Vadim? At his first court hearing on May 26, 2021, Vadim Bektemirov stated: “I just followed my religion. This is a continuation of the genocide that began under Stalin. These are repressions against my people. I am facing charges only because I am a Muslim and a Crimean Tatar.” The Memorial Center which documents political prosecutions in Russia agrees with his assessment.

Case Background

In 2014, Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea. Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group indigenous to the region were vocal in their opposition to the peninsula’s annexation and as a result, have faced Kremlin repression. Putin’s government views Crimean Tatars as a political threat because of their opposition to his aggressions in Ukraine, as well as their tightly-knit and well-organized communities. In fact, Putin has been so threatened by this group that the Russian government targeted their executive-representative body, the Mejlis, declaring it an extremist organization and banning it in 2016.

Recent Russian criminal cases against the Crimean Tatars are mainly based on their affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), an international Islamist party which the Kremlin designated a terrorist organization in 2003. Yet, HT’s members in Russia have never promoted violence or organized terrorist acts. Nevertheless, Russian security forces regularly raid the Crimean Tatars’ homes, interrogate and torture them, and place them in detention, claiming to be defending against the supposed threat of HT. Furthermore, those community members who dare to come out and support neighbors during a raid are frequently detained by the police.

In 2013, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that the government was no longer required to prove that someone accused of terrorism was plotting or committing terrorist acts for that person to be found guilty of the crime. As a result, the mere joining HT or participating in its activities is now sufficient for convicting a person of terrorism. The simplification of the investigation process has allowed Russian security forces to falsify the statistics, claiming an artificially inflated rate of terrorist plot prevention and misleadingly demonstrating high performance to their superiors.

According to the Memorial Center, as of June 15, 2021, 326 people have faced persecution for their affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Over 210 of them have been incarcerated, serving sentences of at least ten years.

Case proceedings

The evidence of Bektemirov’s participation in terrorist activities is based on the testimony of two anonymous witnesses who claim that from 2015 to 2018 Bektemirov took them to secret HT meetings in Simferopol. According to their testimony, Bektemirov discussed the need to follow the HT’s ideas, attract new supporters to the organization, and publicize the facts of oppression of Muslims in Crimea. The case file also mentions a video recording in which Bektemirov allegedly defended the activities of HT “in front of other people present in the room.” Another piece of supposed evidence of Bektemirov’s guilt, according to the investigation, is the Islamist literature seized from his house during the raid. Finally, they cite as evidence the fact that Bektemirov constantly supported his coreligionists, attended their trials, helped those imprisoned, and advocated for the Crimean Tatars’ rights.

Why does the Memorial Human Right Center consider Vadim Bektemirov a political prisoner?

1.         Bektemirov is facing charges without corpus delicti.

The “evidence” of his crime includes meetings of other HT followers, discussion of religious topics, and reading Islamic literature. These actions are absolutely legal in Russia. Indeed, Freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly are guaranteed by the Russian Constitution.

2.         Bektemirov’s charges violate international law.

According to Amnesty International, post-annexation Crimea constitutes an occupied territory in international humanitarian law. In this situation, therefore, Russia has no right, under any circumstances, to eliminate the previously existing system of government and its criminal legislation. Under Ukrainian law, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a legal organization. Therefore, the persecution of HT’s members in Crimea is inherently illegal. The Memorial Human Rights Center demands Vadim Bektemirov’s immediate release and the complete termination of all criminal prosecution against Crimean Tatars and members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

“Everyone is guaranteed freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, including the right to profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion or not to profess any religion at all, to freely choose, have and disseminate religious and other beliefs and to act in accordance with them.”

Article 28 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation

Case overview

On April 10, 2018, the police arrested Anatoly Vilitkevich, a member of Jehova’s Witnesses, recognized as an extremist religious group in Russia, for organizing the activities of the said organization (Art. 282.2, Section 2 of the Criminal Code of Russia). Vilitkevich now faces up to 10 years of deprivation of liberty. After spending two months in a detention facility and eight months under house arrest, Vilitkevich was asked to sign an undertaking not to leave town on February 28, 2019.

Court proceedings

The hearings on the case were resumed in February 2021, when Vilitkevich discovered that in 2017, a year before his arrest, the police secretly installed wiretapping and cameras in his rented apartment to monitor his and his wife’s daily activities. The apartment’s landlord permitted to install the surveillance and signed the acknowledgment that he had no complaints against the police. By infringing the Vilitkevichs privacy, the police collected the alleged evidence that Anatoly Vilitkevich ran a branch of Jehova’s Witnesses in Ufa. By evidence, the police consider Anatoly and his wife Alyona inviting other Jehovah’s Witnesses to their apartment, dining with them, singing religious songs, watching movies on religious topics, and discussing the spread of their faith among other people. During hearings, the prosecutor was reading out the verbatim transcript of the recorded conversations for over an hour, including the following remarks: “Anatoly and Alyona are in the common room,” “Alyona is cleaning, then the music starts playing loudly,” “Alyona laughs,” “Baby, when we sing songs, the door needs to be closed.” The transcripts were also accompanied by an explanation of what styles and colors of clothes the couple were wearing at the time of the recording.

Why does the Memorial Human Rights Center consider him a political prisoner?

In Memorial’s view, the charges against Vilitkevich are based solely on the fact that he is a Jehovah’s Witness. The government’s actions are discriminatory and violate international law, particularly the right to freedom of religion. Moreover, it contradicts Article 28 of the Russian Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of conscience and religion. The case of Anatoly Vilitkevich is part of an extensive campaign of persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses that started in 2017 and took on fresh vigor in 2018. Each year, the Russian government arrests and prosecutes hundreds of Jehova’s Witnesses. Among those who have spoken out against this campaign of persecution of a whole religious group are the Delegation of the European Union to the OSCE, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and Russian and foreign human rights defenders. Memorial Human Rights Center demands that charges against Anatoly Vilitkevich and other Jehovah’s Witnesses, prosecuted solely for their religious beliefs, are immediately dropped.

The profound and longstanding negligence which characterize Moscow’s attitude toward the Far East as Russia’s extractive colony and periphery is most clearly manifested in environmental disasters continuously ravishing the region.

In the past two centuries, the Far East has figured in the designs of the Russian government only in its role as a military outpost and a geostrategic junction. Indeed, almost all significant projects implemented in the Far East have been of a military or paramilitary nature, conducted at the expense of the needs of the local population and the region’s socio-economic development.       

During the Soviet era, when the Far East functioned as a military fortress, the economy of the region became heavily dependent on housing the Pacific Fleet and the economic activity generated by the Far Eastern Military District.[1]

While very little thought was given to the environmental situation at that time, without a doubt, environmental disasters plagued the region even then.

The most infamous of these incidents was the August 1985 radioactive pollution disaster involving the nuclear-powered submarine K-431 of the Pacific Fleet. This accident occurred at the Chazhma Bay naval facility in Primorsky Krai. A violation of tech protocols during a planned refueling of the two submarine reactors’ resulted in a spontaneous uranium fission reaction leading to a thermal explosion. This was followed by a fire resulting in the release of powerful radioactive dust and steam emissions. The disaster claimed the lives of ten naval personnel, and hundreds of people were harmed by the radiation.[2]

The water and the surrounding territory were contaminated with dangerous, long-lasting radiation. The incident, just one example of the incompetence of the Soviet Navy, was kept secret until the collapse of the Soviet Union. In total, there were ten known accidents that involved Soviet nuclear submarines.[3]

A similarly devastating military activity in the Russian Far East, was a routine planned disposal of radioactive waste by the Pacific Fleet into the Sea of Japan which continued until the mid-90s. The catastrophic effects of this radioactive discharge are still felt to this day.

The Russian government went to great lengths to cover up these military-caused environmental disasters. Military journalist Grigory Pasko, who published investigations about this and other environmental incidents stemming from the operation of the Pacific Fleet, was convicted of treason in the late 90s. He was the first and, for many years, the only Russian journalist convicted for disclosing state secrets.[4]

After the release of Pasko’s film High-Risk Zone depicting a Russian tanker dumping radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan, the Japanese government allocated money to sponsor the construction of a liquid radioactive waste disposal plant in Russia.[5] 

More recently, another major environmental disaster took place on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the autumn of 2020. In early October, the public learned of the mass death of sea creatures off the coast of Kamchatka Krai near the Avacha Bay’s beaches. Thousands of dead marine animals and invertebrates washed up on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Further, surfers reported eye pain and skin irritation after contact with the water.

Although the Russian Academy of Sciences has issued a public statement asserting that the cause of the environmental disaster in Kamchatka was a blooming of algae, the government decision to create the Center for the Study of the World Ocean in Kamchatka in 2021 points to severe human-made environmental threats to the entire region.[6]

The environmental disaster that occurred in Kamchatka likely resulted from the uncontrolled activities of the military on the peninsula. The most likely pollutants include rocket fuel, disposal of toxic chemicals in the sea, and other pollutants from Navy ships, or nuclear submarines. Indeed, containers with rocket fuel were stored just over 6 miles away from the contamination area, holding up to several hundred tons of toxic rocket fuel.[7]

This helps to demonstrate Kamchatka, like the entire Far East, is treated as one large military base. The military controls the area, and their activities are unregulated when it comes to the environment and the local population, often leading to disaster.

However, Russian militarization is not the only cause of environmental crisis in the region. Another serious problem in Russia’s Far East is the cross-border pollution of the Amur River by industrial production located in Northeast China. An example of this can be seen in 2005 when a large amount of a toxic fuel benzene flowed from the Amur’s Chinese tributary, the Songhua River, into the Russian Amur after explosions at a petrochemical plant in China’s Jilin province. It is important to note that Benzene is a potent carcinogen that is toxic to humans even in small quantities.[8]

The authorities of the Chinese province where the pollution originated attempted to conceal the catastrophic effect of toxic emissions spilled into the Songhua River from both Moscow and Beijing.

By the end of 2005, this pollution threatened the water supply of Khabarovsk and other cities and towns in the lower reaches of the Amur River. It also severely damaged the overall quality of the Amur’s water resources.

Another man-made accident with severe cross-border environmental consequences occurred in the Amur River basin (on China’s territory) in March 2020, fifteen      years later. Emergency disposal of waste from Heilongjian province molybdenum mine, owned by Yichun Luming Mining Co., Ltd. resulted in the contamination of the Yijimi River. 2.53 million cubic meters of tailings started a cross-border reaction as the waste flowed from the Yijimi River into the Hulan River, which in turn flowed into the Songhua River – China’s largest tributary of the Amur River.

The mine waste products contained, in addition to the molybdenum, various heavy metals, petroleum products, and chemicals used in the molybdenum mining process, many of which are toxic to humans.[9]     

China has to undertake significant mitigation activities to prevent further pollution of the Amur basin.

Deterioration of the Amur basin habitat has increased dramatically since the mid-1990s, due to both natural and man-made factors including repeated pollution of the water, abnormally low water levels in the early 2000s, the catastrophic floods of 2013 and 2019, industrial accidents in China, a significant rise of water level in the lake Khanka, accelerated soil erosion, degradation of riparian ecosystems, reducing fish stocks and many other processes and phenomena.

Industrial accidents, along with regular man-made pollution pose a dire threat to the water supply for the population of the Amur region, both in Chinese and Russian territory and in. It spans close to 1300 km and affects the vast water areas in the Amur Liman and the Sakhalin Gulf. The water quality studies conducted by the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences indicate that heavy metals and organochlorine compounds, which are particularly dangerous for the Amur river water ecosystems, mainly come from China.[10] 

This is not merely a problem of the past. Indeed, the year 2020 was marked by a number of severe environmental emergencies in Russia’s Far East, most notable among these were disasters in the Amur basin and Kamchatka, oil spills from the Okha—Komsomolsk-on-Amur main oil pipeline, catastrophic forest fires, etc.

Forest fires in Russia often provide a cover for illegal logging operations. Among all Russian regions, the illegal logging problem is most acute in the Far East. Specifically, it is the worst in Primorsky Krai.                

At the beginning of 2019, Yandex revealed the smuggling and exportation to China of valuable wood. 15 thousand cubic meters and 691.5 million rubles’ worth of Mongolian oak and Manchurian ash sawn timber had been exported to China.[11]

It should be pointed out that the real volume of logged wood products in the Far East is twice as large as the officially permitted amount. This is likely a result of low domestic demand for lumber products and growing interest from Asian countries, shifting the orientation of the Far East’s forest sector toward export. Indeed, up to 95% of the lumber logged in the region is exported.      

A related issue is illegal timber trafficking and export with valuable wood varieties (oak, beech, ash, cedar). According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), half a million cubic meters of oak and ash are illegally logged in the Far East every year. Simultaneously, in the Primorsky and Khabarovsk Krai, the volume of illegal timber has been, on average, twice as high as permitted amount for decades.

Before 2000, the bulk of illegal timber entered the market due to unauthorized and undocumented logging. Today, the primary source of such wood is unsupervised logging (over-cutting) under the cover of an official license.

A significant part of rare wood appears on the market due to forest fires organized by “shadow” lumberjacks.[12]

The fires of recent years have pointed to the likely involvement of “shadow” lumberjacks in illegal activities.

“There are several possible options. The first one is that ‘shadow’ lumberjacks cover up the traces of illegal logging starting a fire; that is, it is not the forests that are burning, but what is left of them. The second option is that the interested parties deliberately set fire to the forests, while the tree trunks are almost not damaged. They need it to get a contract for the sanitary felling of ‘burned’ trees at a lower price, but in reality, they export the undamaged wood to China at the same price.”

Today, the logging industry in the Far East is under the near-complete control of Chinese corporations. They buy wood, oversee the logging, and perform quality control before sending it to the PRC. It is impossible to sell timber to China without intermediaries. The sale of round logs is the most profitable, even considering the dealers’ share. Hence, Chinese businesses have no incentive to develop deep processing of wood in Russia. Furthermore, China is not interested in buying processed products since border provinces have an abundance of enterprises to process round logs imported from Russia.[13]      

This has led experts to assert that Chinese business directly or indirectly controls Russian forest and wood processing enterprises.[14]      

However, the profit from the export of treated wood and raw timber to China is almost entirely received by large Moscow businesses represented by Russian billionaires. The residents of the eastern regions, left without forests, are increasingly at risk of catastrophic fires and floods and, what’s more, given no compensation for the destruction of their lands.

Among the owners of logging companies are the top Russian billionaires. Roman Abramovich, Alexander Abramov, and Alexander Frolov control RFP, the largest timber holding in the Far East; these billionaires own 58% of the company while the Russian-Chinese Investment Fund own the other 42% of the RFP Group. To these corporations and billionaires, the Far East is a raw materials colony.[15]

In recent years, environmental issues have led to many mass protest movements   in Russia. Indeed, environmental crises emerged as the driving force of demonstrations starting in 2018when the stubborn resistance to constructing the ‘Shies’ landfill in the Arkhangelsk region drew a wide response. The month-long confrontation, accompanied by attacks from security forces and retaliatory actions by activists, ended with the closure of the disputed facility.

Similarly in 2019, 482 environmental and city protection protests were reported in the Russian Federation (most associated with the protection of parks and squares). This is double the corresponding figure of environmental protests from 2018.[16]   

Dissatisfaction with the state of environmental protection and quality of air and water is the second reason for engaging in opposition activity by Russians, after the infringement of political and civil rights.

The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily made it impossible to hold protests, including environmental ones. However, with the weakening of the quarantine measures, the fight for a better environment has returned to the top of many activists’ agenda.

New hot spots have appeared in Bashkortostan and Kuzbass, where residents’ interests clashed with the plans of mining companies. Both conflicts have followed the ‘Shies’ pattern: the deployment of construction workers, the appearance of a protest camp, the mobilization of local and visiting volunteers, physical confrontation, and a detente when the head of the region comes up with a compromise between activists and the corporation. 

The decisive factor in Bashkortostan (Kushtau) was the willingness of the protesters for violent clashes.

In Kuzbass (Cheremza), there were not many protesters, and the confrontation was less acute. Still, protests united residents of many cities and villages who have their own issues with mining companies. 

It is possible that the escalation of the conflict in Kushtau led the local or federal authorities to eliminate that potentially dangerous hotbed of discontent in Kuzbass. The authorities’ responsiveness may also be explained by fears that environmental protests will escalate into internal unrest.

Local and national movements are emerging throughout Russia as local  populations are forced to defend their land from large companies. Locals often perceive these companies as greedy newcomers supported by Moscow.[17]      

The fact that the Kremlin is afraid of such trends is confirmed by the recent increasing penalties for separatist appeals. However, the policy of removing environmental barriers to business increases the potential for new hot spots to appear in the near future.[18]

Given the accumulated environmental problems in Russia’s Far East and the extremely high level of dissatisfaction with Moscow’s openly colonial and predatory policy, confirmed by the month-long protests in Khabarovsk, mass protests over environmental issues and anti-Moscow sentiments in the region are likely to escalate soon.


[1] Yuri Moskalenko, Why does the Far East need the Vostochny cosmodrome?, Novaya Gazeta, April 27, 2016, https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2016/04/27/68407-zachem-dalnemu-vostoku-kosmodrom-vostochnyy.

[2]Alexander Khrolenko, Secrets of the radiation accident in the Chazhma Bay, RIA Novosti, August 10, 2017, https://ria.ru/20170810/1500109220.html.

[3] Kyle Mizokami, In 1985, a Russian nuclear submarine exploded in an accident (radiation is still present). And its consequences are still felt, InoSMI, July 12, 2016, https://inosmi.ru/social/20161207/238353490.html.

[4] Maria Litvinova, I told you, and I did the right thing.” Russian journalist Grigory Pasko, who served time for treason, told Kommersant why he does not admit his guilt, Kommersant, September 7, 2020, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4407980.

[5] The journalist publicized military secrets now he faces 20 years in prison, Kommersant, January 2, 1999, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/211529.

[6] The RAS said that the cause of the ecological catastrophe in Kamchatka was algal bloom, Tass, December 18, 2020, https://tass.ru/obschestvo/10294213; The Center for the Study of the World Ocean will be created in Kamchatka in 2021 with the participation of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Tass, December 29, 2020, https://nauka.tass.ru/nauka/10382603.

[7] Nikolay Nelyubin,“This is definitely not oil. We need to look deeper. ” Scientist – about the disaster in Kamchatka, Fontanka, October 5, 2020, https://www.fontanka.ru/2020/10/05/69493179/.

[8] Irina Petrakova, Amur waves are poisoned, Bellona, November 24, 2005, https://bellona.ru/2005/11/24/amurskie-volny-otravleny/.

[9] A chemical slick approaches Amur after an accident at a mine in China, DVHAB, April 9, 2020, https://www.dvnovosti.ru/khab/2020/04/09/112956/.

[10] Alexey Makhinov, Cupid needs help, Far Eastern Scientist, December 12, 2019, http://debri-dv.com/article/23681/amur_nuzhdaetsya_v_pomoshchi.

[11] Daria Voznesenskaya, Fires provide cover for illegal logging in Siberia and the Far East, Novye Izvestia, September 9, 2020, https://newizv.ru/news/economy/09-09-2020/pozhary-sluzhat-prikrytiem-dlya-nezakonnyh-vyrubok-lesov-v-sibiri-i-na-dalnem-vostoke.

[12] Elena Berezina, Do you hear, they are chopping:The real volume of harvesting of valuable species of trees is twice the permitted, Rossiyskaya gazeta, September 5, 2017, https://rg.ru/2017/09/05/reg-dfo/eksportnye-poshliny-na-dalnevostochnyj-krugliak-mogut-podniat-v-2017-godu.html.

[13] Ivan Zuenko, Investment battles in the Far East. What’s happening with Chinese and other investments in the region, Carnegie Moscow Center, March, 13, 2020, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/81181.

[14] Stanislav Kuvaldin, Is China destroying the Russian taiga… Continuation of the cycle “What’s going on in the Russian forest”, Snob Media, August 6, 2019, https://snob.ru/entry/180933/.

[15] RFP is the largest timber industry holding in the Far East, RFP Group, https://www.rfpgroup.ru/holding; Krestova Darina Sergeevna, Who owns large forestry enterprises in Russia: what do the extracts from the Unified State Register of Legal Entities say?, Moneymaker Factory Magazine, June 8, 2019, https://moneymakerfactory.ru/spravochnik/lesopromyishlennyie-predpriyatiya-rossii.

[16] How do they protest Russians Monitoring results protest activity in the fourth quarter of 2019, Center for Social and Labor Rights, http://trudprava.ru/images/content/Monitoring_4_Quart_2019.pdf.

[17] This is the land of our ancestors – they stand and look at us Anti-garbage protests at the Shies station led to the rise of nationalists in the Komi Republic. They are unhappy with the “colonial policy”, Meduza, December 12, 2019, https://meduza.io/feature/2019/12/12/eto-zemlya-nashih-predkov-oni-stoyat-i-smotryat-na-nas; Andrey Kolesnikov, Politicization, regionalization, shiesization, vedomosti, April 10, 2019, https://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/columns/2019/04/10/798740-politizatsiya-regionalizatsiya-shiesizatsiya

[18] Ivan Alexandrov, Russia: will the authorities’ eco-policy lead to an increase in the number of protests?, Eurasianet, August 31, 2020, https://russian.eurasianet.org/%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%81%D0%B8%D1%8F-%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B8%D0%B2%D0%B5%D0%B4%D0%B5%D1%82-%D0%BB%D0%B8-%D1%8D%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%BF%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%BA%D0%B0-%D0%B2%D0%BB%D0%B0%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%B9-%D0%BA-%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%82%D1%83-%D1%87%D0%B8%D1%81%D0%BB%D0%B0-%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%B5%D1%81%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%B2.

Over the past several decades, the economy of the Russian Far East has become increasingly oriented toward serving China.

In March 2021, Vladimir Putin approved a new large-scale project for the Russian Railways to build hundreds of kilometers of rail tracks for exporting coal from Yakutia to China. The project will cost 700 billion rubles (around $9.5 billion) and additional money is needed to provide a power supply to the Tynda-Komsomolsk section of the railway and to develop the ports of the Vanino-Sovgavansky junction. Further, in April 2021, Russian Railways started the 340 km construction of second rail tracks on the Ulak-Fevralsk section of the Baikal-Amur Mainline. The Ulak station gives access to export markets for coal from the Elginsky Coal Mine in Yakutia.

Amur Oblast is crucial for China. Besides coal mining, the Amur region holds the Power of Siberia gas pipeline and the Eastern Siberia -Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline, both of which run to China. The Amur region also houses the Zeiskaya, Bureyskaya, and Nizhne-Bureyskaya hydroelectric power plants which provide electricity both to the Amur region and the adjacent territories in China. Finally, another strategically important infrastructure project to Beijing is the Amur Blagoveshchensk-Heihe road bridge. In the future, Russia plans to build a railway bridge in the same direction. The governor of the Amur Oblast, Vasily Orlov, is actively promoting this project as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative that will primarily serve China’s interests.

The influence exerted by China on the economy of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and Primorsky Krai is also notable. The agricultural sector of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast is almost entirely focused on producing soybeans for China. The railway bridge across the Amur Tongjiang-Nizhneleninskoye in the oblast allows for efficient export of this lucrative crop. Similarly, in the Primorsky Krai, the seaports, the agricultural sector, the logging industry, and the fishing industry are critical for the PRC.

China seeks to control the extraction and export of natural resources in the region. This can be seen prominently in the Far East’s logging industry, a sector that is under complete control of Chinese businesses. Chinese companies buy wood, primitively saw it, and control the wood quality before sending it to the PRC. The sales of round timber are the most profitable even with the intermediaries’ share, so China has no incentives to develop deep wood processing in Russia. In addition, China is not interested in purchasing processed products since it has plenty of timber processing plants in the border provinces.

The infrastructure of the Far East

The construction of a road bridge across the Amur River between Russia and China in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast is almost complete. Around six million tons of cargo are expected to pass through the bridge annually, and the flow of passengers should be approximately 3 million people per year. The length of the bridge is a little over a kilometer, and the total length of the crossing is 20 km (6 km of roads in China and 14 km of roads in Russia). The cost of the project is about 18.8 billion rubles ($256.6 million). Instead of budget funds, a concession model was used to finance the project. This provides for the construction and operation of the bridge on a commercial basis during the first 20-year billing period of the bridge’s existence. After a three-year construction period an enterprise will be permitted to collect tolls on the bridge for the first sixteen years of operation.

In Amur Oblast, Blagoveshchensk is the only regional center in Russia located on the Chinese border. The Amur River separates Blagoveshchensk and the Chinese city of Heihe. The construction of the first cross-border road bridge in the Blagoveshchensk region was completed in December 2019. Now, Russia and China are considering constructing a railway bridge in the same direction. The decision on this will be made after evaluating the economic efficiency of the road bridge. Overall, the construction of these bridge crossings will tie the transport infrastructure of the Russian Far East to China. However, China will be the one to benefit from these projects primarily.

A similarly asymmetric interaction between Russia and China can be seen in how China stands to receive economic benefits from the Power of Siberia gas pipeline and the ESPO oil pipeline for many years to come. The agreement on the oil export which established this relationship was signed in 2009. In exchange for $15 billion and $10 billion loans from the China Development Bank for Rosneft and Transneft respectively, the Russian state-owned companies pledged to supply China with 15 million tons of oil annually through the ESPO from 2011 to 2030.

Moreover, Rosneft and Transneft have provided the Chinese company CNPC with a discount of $1.5 per barrel causing Rosneft to lose about $3 billion. Therefore, it was clear from the start that China was dictating the terms under which these pipelines would operate.

As for the gas export to China, the experts say that the Power of Siberia will not pay off for its Russian creators until 2030. According to RusEnergy’s calculations, the total costs of the Power of Siberia, including the development of fields, the construction of pipelines and gas processing plants in wild taiga, the crossing near the Amur River, etc., will amount to about $100 billion. This will be almost double Gazprom’s $55 billion cost estimate. When it comes to natural gas, China is a unique consumer – it is not a “monopoly” but rather a “monopsony,” meaning that the PRC as the sole buyer in the market sets its own terms.

The Power of Siberia, which is about three thousand kilometers in length, transports gas from the Irkutsk and Yakutsk gas production centers to Russian consumers in the Far East and, crucially, to China. The parties determined the terms of the partnership in an intergovernmental agreement in October 2014, and the gas supplies started flowing in December 2019. Russia is the second biggest gas supplier to China after Turkmenistan. Gas exports to China via this pipeline in 2020 amounted to 4.1 billion cubic meters. In 2021, the supplies are expected to double. The planned level of supplies for the Power of Siberia is 38 billion cubic meters per year. Still, China and Russia are discussing the possibility of increasing the maximum supply volume by another 6 billion cubic meters.

In the first quarter of 2020, the price for a thousand cubic meters was $202. In January 2021, the price fell significantly and is now below $120. Of all pipeline gas suppliers, Russia exports gas to China at the lowest price. In comparison, in January 2021, Turkmenistan received $187 per thousand cubic meters for its gas, Kazakhstan for $162, Uzbekistan for $151, and Myanmar for $352.

Additionally, the Amur Gas Processing Plant (GPP) is one of Gazprom’s most significant infrastructure projects in the Russian Far East. This plant will process multicomponent natural gas from the Yakutsk and Irkutsk gas production centers supplied through the Power of Siberia gas pipeline. Valuable components extracted during processing will become raw materials for enterprises in the gas, chemical, and other industries. The capacity of the plant will be 42 billion cubic meters of gas per year. The GPP will also include the world’s largest helium production venue, producing up to 60 million cubic meters per year. In addition to natural gas and helium, the plant’s commercial products will include ethane, propane, butane, and pentane-hexane fraction. The plant will consist of six processing lines, and the launch of the first two is scheduled for 2021. Gazprom will be gradually introducing the rest of the lines in the next four years. Thus, the plant will start working at its total capacity by the end of 2025.

In 2020, Russian company SIBUR and Chinese company Sinopec signed an agreement on creating a joint venture on the Amur Gas and Chemical Complex (AGCC). It is one of the world’s largest plants producing base polymers with a total capacity of 2.7 million tons per year. Russian’s share in the deal will be 60%, and Chinese will be 40%. The construction of the complex will be synchronized with Gazprom’s Amur GPP, so that both reach full capacity by 2025. The supply of ethane and liquefied hydrocarbon gas from Amur GPP will provide the AGCC with raw materials for further processing into high-value-added products. Due to the geographic location of the complex, the AGCC’s products will be focused primarily on the PRC market, the largest consumer of polymers in the world. The budget of the Amur Gas Chemical Complex is estimated at $10-11 billion.

Timeline: Export of electricity to China

1992 A 110 kV transmission line “Blagoveshchensk-Heihe,” connecting the power systems of Russia and China, was built. Electricity exports to China began at 30-160 million kWh per year.

2005  A long-term cooperation agreement was signed between the Unified Energy Systems (UES) of Russia and the State Grid Corporation of China.

2007  Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a joint declaration “Supporting Major Energy Projects.” This document outlined Russian-Chinese energy cooperation’s fundamental principles and approaches.

2009 Russian Eastern Energy Company (EEC) and the State Grid Corporation of China signed a contract to supply China with electricity via the existing 220 kV Blagoveshchenskaya-Aigun and 110 kV Blagoveshchensk-Heihe transmission lines. The total volume of annual electricity supplies that year amounted to 854 million kWh.

2011 Russian company EEC built a 500-kV power transmission line, “Amurskaya-Heihe,” which connected the Amur Region of Russia and the north-eastern regions of the PRC with an interstate ultrahigh voltage power transmission line. The project made it possible to significantly increase the export of electricity to China, which amounted to 1.24 billion kWh that year.

2012 A 25-year contract was signed to supply China with electricity in a total volume of 100 billion kWh. In June, the State Electric Grid Corporation of China and Inter RAO signed a memorandum on expanding electric power cooperation. Electricity exports to China in 2012 amounted to 2.63 billion kWh.

2013 An agreement to expand Russian-Chinese electricity cooperation was signed. The document envisages the complex projects for the development of coal resources in the Russian regions of the Far East, the construction of large thermal power plants, and ultra-high voltage power lines to increase the volume of electricity supplies to China. Electricity exports in 2013 amounted to 3.495 billion kWh.

Ou Xiaoming, the representative of the Russian branch of the State Grid Corporation of China, said at the Russian Energy Week international forum that in the future, the volume of electricity imports from Russia to China would not change.

Chinese investments in the economy of the Russian Far East

The Russian Central Bank (CB) publishes official statistics on foreign investments in Russia. According to the CB, the presence of Chinese capital in the economy of the Far East is surprisingly negligible. As of July 2019, China’s share in the total accumulated foreign investment in the region was only 0.8% ($530 million). For reference, Cyprus’s investments in the Far East amounted to $4.1 billion.

The specifics of the CB’s calculations explain this seeming absence of Chinese investment. The CB does not take small business investments and informal business activity into account. In addition, the Central Bank’s data does not trace the investors in offshore schemes, which account for up to 95% of foreign investments in the Far East region. As a result, many Chinese enterprises appear in the official data as Russian or, for example, Bahamian.

However, the data of the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East tell a very different story. According to the Ministry, at the end of 2019, China’s share in the total volume of foreign direct investment in the region was 63% (45 projects worth $2.6 billion). In 2017, the investments were $4 billion.

 This large difference can perhaps be explained by the fact that the Ministry simply summed up the announced project estimates without investigating how much money actually got into the region. In other words, it is impossible to know precisely how significant the Chinese investment in the Far East of Russia actually is. Yet, it can be claimed with some certainty that the real numbers are higher than the official ones but less than those publicly announced by Chinese and Russian officials.

Agriculture, forestry, and construction are the three pillars of Chinese capital in the Far East. Small and medium-sized Chinese companies in the Far East have extensive experience doing business and supporting informal relations with their Russian counterpart s. Many Russian and Chinese entrepreneurs are family friends who send their children to study with each other. As a result, a solid foundation for cross-border investment has been formed.

Chinese migration

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia, for the first half of 2019, one in every ten foreigners coming to Russia were Chinese citizens. During this time, 863, 000 Chinese citizens were registered for migration, which was 30% more than in the first half of 2018.

The informational and analytical agency “East of Russia” analyzed the Ministry of Internal Affairs data and discovered that there are more Chinese people among the foreign employees who got work quotas than those from other nations. Indeed, the Ministry of Labor issued more than half of all quotas for this region to Chinese citizens, but the actual numbers are relatively modest – 27.8 thousand people. Overall, at the end of the first half of 2019, 39.8 thousand Chinese had a valid work permit in Russia. These documents are usually valid for a few months.

Russians’ attitudes towards the Chinese migration is generally negative. According to the Levada Center poll published in September 2019, more than half of Russians (53%) favored limiting Chinese migration. 28% of those surveyed were ready to let Chinese people in the Russian Federation only temporarily, and 25% were in favor of a complete ban on the arrival of Chinese citizens in the country. Only 19% of the respondents were ready to see immigrants from China among the residents of Russia.

The main risk of the Chinese migration in the Far East is that the number of Chinese people permanently living in the region can increase due to their shared border of the Amur River. This could happen quickly with the construction of two bridges across the Amur in the Amur Oblast and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Most importantly, the Chinese (both who live in the Russian Far East and those who live in the border provinces of China) consider the Russian Far East to be historically Chinese land.

Yuri Moskalenko

Case Overview

On 7 November 2019, 27-year-old Artyom Zagrebelny was detained by three Federal Security Service (FSB) officers in the entrance hall of this apartment building. The officers attempted to detain Zagrebelny using physical force to search his apartment, but he resisted and sprayed pepper spray in the officers’ direction. The spray got into the eyes of two of them, and after a brief struggle, the officers finally detained Zagrebelny.

According to the investigation, Artyom Zagrebelny knowingly used violence against the two FSB officers on duty and deliberately pepper-sprayed them, ‘being dissatisfied that he was being detained and wishing to flee.’ The two officers testified in court that they told Zagrebelny they were from the FSB, and one of them showed his official ID. Based on the conclusions of forensic expertise, the court charged Zagrebelny based on Article 318, Part 2 of the Criminal Code of Russia (“Use of violence dangerous to life or health of a government official”).

The Description of the Events

However, according to Zagrebelny, he did not know they were FSB officers because they wore civilian clothes, did not introduce themselves, and did not show any ID. The officers simply forced Zagrebelny out of the elevator of his apartment building, after which he used pepper spray against them as self-defense. As soon as one of the officers shouted he was from the FSB, Zagrebelny immediately stopped resisting and using the pepper spray.

According to the human rights center Otkrytki, Zagrebelny shared that after he was detained, the officers put him in a car and beat him up: “They started asking questions like ‘you, pravosek [member of the Right Sector, a far-right Ukrainian nationalist party], came from Khokhlyandiya [a derogatory name for Ukraine], right?’ Then someone burst into the car and started kicking me in the back with their legs. Then they grabbed me by the neck and lifted me.”

After that, the officers interrogated Zagrebelny and demanded that he confess to trying to kill a government employee (Article 317, Part 2 of the Criminal Code), all while beating Zagrebelny up and threatening to rape his wife, Margarita. On November 10, 2019, Zagrebelny went to the doctor and was found to have multiple bruises all over his body and a broken rib.

Also, according to Zagrebelny, one of the FSB officers Aleksandr Akhmetov, came up to his wife and started forcing her to commit an administrative crime. “He told her to find the Third Reich’s symbolism on the Internet, post it in some group on social media and send it to the officer on WhatsApp so he could charge her for an administrative offense, fine her for 1,000 rubles, and let her free. She asked him why she would do that, and he said it was revenge for the pepper spray. Another officer told her earlier they would keep taking revenge on her in many different ways, including the “not-so-legal” ones. Later in the day, Akhmatov messaged her on WhatsApp, saying, ‘Margarita, are you forgetting something?’ I told her not to post anything.”

Current State of the Case

Zagrebelny is currently in prison. The Prosecutor’s Office was initially asking to give Zagrebelny nine years in prison. The court of the original jurisdiction gave him five years, and after the appeal on April 22, 2021, the sentence was reduced to three years and ten months.

Why has the Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Zagrebelny as a political prisoner?

Based on the case materials, Memorial has concluded that Artyom Zagrebelny did not exceed the limits of reasonable self-defense while using pepper spray on his attackers. It was not apparent to him that the men belonged to law enforcement agencies or that their actions were lawful.

CCTV footage from the entrance hall and the elevator in Zagrebelny’s apartment building confirm his version of the events. The footage clearly shows that none of the officers showed any ID or introduced themselves. It is also doubtful that the officers suffered any injuries. The examinations carried out the day after the incident found no evidence of any injury. However, they were established during subsequent tests carried out three weeks later. The context of Zagrebelny’s case is also essential. The day Zagrebelny was detained, the FSB officers went to his home on the minor matter of checking his correspondence on the VKontakte social media site for extremism. No criminal case was opened regarding the correspondence. As described above, once in detention, Zagrebelny and his wife were subjected to extreme intimidation (forcing to confess to a nonexistent crime arrest under threat of his wife getting raped). The Memorial Human Rights Center believes that this case is strictly politically motivated, and Artyom Zagrebelny is being held in prison illegally. The Memorial demands his immediate release.

The forced diversion and landing in Minsk of a May 23, 2021 Ryanair flight en route from Greece to Lithuania, and the subsequent arrest of dissident Roman Protasevich who was aboard the flight, by the illegitimate Lukashenka regime pose an overt political and military challenge to Europe, NATO and the broad global community.  NATO members must respond forcefully by demanding (1) the immediate release of Protasevich and other political prisoners in Belarus, and (2) a prompt transition to a government that represents the will of the people of Belarus. 

The West’s passivity in the face of massive, continuous and growing oppression of the Belarusian people since summer 2020 has emboldened Lukashenka to commit what some European leaders have appropriately termed an act of “state terrorism.”

The West has shown a manifest disposition to appease Putin’s regime —Lukashenka’s sole security guarantor. It has made inappropriate overtures for a Putin-Biden summit and waived  Nord Stream 2 sanctions mandated by Congress. These actions and signals have come against the backdrop of the 2020 Russian constitutional coup, the assassination attempt against Navalny and his subsequent imprisonment on patently bogus charges, the arrests of close to 13,000 Russian activists, and the outlawing of all opposition movements and activities. All this has led Putin and Lukashenka to conclude that they eliminate their political opponents with impunity.  

Today’s state-ordered hijacking of an international passenger airplane—employing intelligence agents aboard the flight,  and accomplished via an advanced fighter-interceptor—to apprehend an exiled activist, underscores that violation of human rights is not only a domestic issue, but a matter of international safety and security.  Western governments unwilling to stand up for the victims of Putin’s and Lukashenka’s regimes are inviting future crimes against their own citizens. 

Absent a meaningful and swift response, the escalation of violence and intensity of international crimes committed  by Lukashenka’s and Putin’s regime will continue, destabilizing the world and discrediting the Western democratic institutions. 

In March 2020, under the pretense of battling the coronavirus epidemic, federal and regional authorities of Russia adopted repressive legal norms and vague, potentially dangerous criminal articles that attack constitutional rights and freedoms. Unsurprisingly, in January 2021, the adoption of these repressive norms led to a political case. 

Case overview 

On January 23, 2021, mass protests supporting Alexey Navalny, fueled by horrendous police brutality, were held in 198 Russian cities and 95 cities abroad. The next day, the Investigative Committee of Russia opened a criminal case against ten opposition activists and politicians for calling people to a peaceful protest on January 23. The criminal charge is based on Article 236 of Part 1 of the Criminal Code of Russia (envisaging a prison sentence of up to 2 years), indicatingthe incitement to violate sanitary and epidemiological rules which, by negligence, entailed a mass illness or poisoning of people, or created a threat of the onset of such consequences.” 

According to the Memorial Human Rights Center, this criminal case is politically motivated and is related to the defendants’ political beliefs violating their right to freedom of expression and the right to protest. The persecution is carried out in violation of the right to a fair trial and aims to forcibly end opposition activities and intimidate Alexey Navalny’s supporters.

Illegally prosecuted case defendants 

While awaiting trial, the case defendants are either banned from performing specific actions or are held under house arrest. House arrest implies the inability to leave the house, communicate with certain people (often, the communication is limited to the relatives living in the same house), send and receive letters, and use the phone and the Internet. 

Maria Alyokhina – activist and member of a feminist music band “Pussy Riot”. She was previously recognized by the Memorial Human Rights Center as a political prisoner and already spent two years in prison. Alyokhina is once again a victim of the repressive system and has been under strict house arrest since January 29, 2021, as part of the “Sanitary” case. 

Nikolai Lyaskin – an oppositionist who was also recognized as a political prisoner by the Memorial Human Rights Center before. Just like Maria Alyokhina, he is once again a victim of the repressive system and has been under house arrest since January 29, 2021, as part of the “Sanitary” case. On April 26, the court allowed him to leave the house for 12 hours instead of the 2 hours permitted initially. 

Oleg Navalny – Alexey Navalny’s brother, another previously recognized political prisoner who already served a sentence of almost 4 years. On April 7, 2021, as part of the “Sanitary” case, he was released from house arrest but is still banned from leaving the house at night, communicating with other case defendants, and using mail and the Internet. 

Lyubov Sobol – opposition politician and the Anti-corruption Foundation’s lawyer who was put under house arrest on January 29, 2021. She was not allowed to go to church on Sundays or take her daughter to school. 40 NGOs appealed to the United Nations to release Lyubov Sobol, stating in a joint appeal that “Sobol has been condemned to total isolation under house arrest awaiting trial on two fake criminal charges. Her only crime was peacefully calling for a more fair, free, and democratic Russia. The arbitrary arrest and detention of Sobol are a blatant violation of human rights. She must be released immediately.” On April 7, 2021, she was released from house arrest but just like Oleg Navalny Sobol is still not allowed to leave the house after 8 PM, communicate with other defendants, write letters and use the Internet. 

Konstantinas Yankauskas – municipal deputy of the Zyuzino district in Moscow. He has now been recognized by the Memorial Human Rights Center as a political prisoner twice. He has been under house arrest for two months and was released on April 7, 2021, with a ban on performing specific actions along with Lyubov Sobol. 

Dmitriy Baranovskiy – municipal deputy of the Northern Izmailovo district in Moscow, was arrested on February 1, 2021, and has been under house arrest ever since.

Anastasiya Vasilyeva – an ophthalmologist, leader of the independent labor union “Alliance of Doctors,” has spent a month under house arrest and was released on April 7, 2021, but is still banned from leaving the house at night. 

Lyudmila (Lyusya) Shtein – municipal deputy of the Basmanny district in Moscow. She has been under house arrest for two months and was released on April 7, 2021, but along with other case defendants, she is also not allowed to perform specific actions. 

Oleg Stepanov – the former coordinator of Alexey Navalny’s Headquarters in Moscow, was arrested on January 29, 2021, and has been under house arrest ever since. 

Kira Yarmysh – Alexey Navalny’s press secretary, has been under strict house arrest since January 29, 2021. As mentioned above, on April 7, 2021, the court released a few case defendants from house arrest but refused to release Kira Yarmysh. 

Six reasons why the Memorial Human Rights Center considers 10 case defendants political prisoners 

1. The restrictive measures taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus are not sufficient grounds to unconditionally ban public events and grossly violate the right to freedom of assembly, enshrined in Art. 31 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. 

2. Almost all restrictions on cultural and entertainment events in Moscow were lifted before the protests. 

3. The case defendants did not know and could not know if people who were on self-isolation would respond to their calls to protest on social media. 

4. The defendants’ actions do not constitute corpus delicti as they should not be held responsible for the irresponsible behavior of others. 

5. There is no conclusive evidence that public events, carried out with the necessary precautions in the open air, can seriously increase the spread of coronavirus infection compared to attending cultural and recreational events or using public transport. 

6. Prosecuting thousands of peaceful protesters based on the violation of sanitary and epidemiological restrictions is especially cynical given that the protesters were being transported in cramped police vans, held in police departments and special detention centers in conditions that are much more conducive to the further spread of the disease.

A group of deputies from the Russian State Duma, members of the notorious “Commission to Investigate Outside Interference,” established by the Federation Council, has presented a package of new bills for consideration in Parliament. The bills’ objective is to limit rights and harness the Russian criminal justice system to persecute members of the opposition, thereby building a foundation for yet another cycle of repressions against Putin’s adversaries.
The first bill toughens criminal penalties for participating in or leading foreign nongovernmental organizations deemed undesirable by Russia. It proposes sentences of one to four years of imprisonment for participating in these organizations’ activities, and from two to six years for leading them. The bill’s authors have also sought to include punishments for working with “undesirable” organizations for the Russian citizens abroad. Upon returning to Russia, they might face criminal punishment. If adopted, this bill would also significantly increase the definition of “undesirable” organizations to include any foreign or international NGOs acting as intermediaries for monetary transactions on behalf of the organizations already deemed “undesirable” in Russia.

On May 4, the same group of deputies presented another bill. It would ban anyone who ever worked, donated, or was in any way involved with an extremist organization (the text from the State Duma uses the word “consulting”.) Given the practices of Russian courts, this definition would likely be interpreted as broadly as possible against anyone charged. The most outrageous fact is that the bill would violate the Russian Constitution and apply to anyone who ever donated money to Aleksei Navalny’s activities even before they were declared “extremist.” Navalny’s team has already calculated that this ban would affect over 200,000 people who sent donations to one of Navalny’s organizations at some point in time.

Given that any organization, particularly the opposition ones, can be declared undesirable or extremist in Russia, the motive behind these bills is clear. In anticipation of State Duma election campaigns, the Russian government seeks legal means to ban anyone inconvenient for the Kremlin from taking part in politics for years to come.

Unfortunately, there is no doubt that these bills will be adopted either in their current form or even in a more severe form. The bills most likely come from President Putin’s inner circle, and the deputies are fulfilling his wishes, like the obedient servants they are. They are not trying to hide that they are criminalizing the fight against Putin’s dictatorship. It is time to acknowledge the involvement in adopting these laws harmful and destructing. Even though many of those who participated in crimes against freedom and democracy in Russia are already subject to Western sanctions, it is important to understand that most of those crimes would not have been possible without the laws that intensify repressions against the opposition.

State Duma’s deputies are guilty of the latest attempts to entrench Putin’s dictatorship. However, when discussing sanctions against Russian oligarchs, officials, security officers, and departments, the matter of sanctions against members of Putin’s parliament is never raised. It is possible that Western parliamentarians still view them as colleagues who were elected by the Russian people, but their politics have nothing in common with Western values.

Additionally, in recent years, the Presidential Administration approved future candidates for State Duma. This applies not only to political parties allowed to be elected but also to elections in single-mandate districts. To ensure the approved candidates’ victories in their constituencies, no effort or administrative resource is spared, and “dangerous” candidates are either removed from elections or not allowed to take part in them at all. Since the deputies are prechosen, it explains the overrepresentation of former officials and members of law enforcement. Nothing could be further from democracy and transparent elections. It is not possible to respect these individuals or consider them legal representatives reflecting the will of the Russian people. The State Duma and the Federation Council represent and carry out the will of one man – Vladimir Putin. Each new law has one objective: to deny Russian citizens the ability to change the state of affairs in the country.

Russia’s parliament comprised of the State Duma and the Federation Council is the most important component of Putin’s dictatorial machinery. Neither the State Duma’s nor the Federation Council’s members are officially elected by citizens’ vote, yet they are responsible for everything happening in Russia. It is hardly possible to consider it a parliament when Andrei Lugovoi, a person accused of poisoning Aleksandr Litvinenko, is a State Duma member (all criminal charges against Lugovoi have been removed). It will not come as a surprise if following the fall State Duma elections, a whole new faction of saboteurs and poisoners will take office and start adopting new destructive laws.

Putin’s parliamentarians are silencing Russian people’s voices. There is hope that Western sanctions might force them to reconsider their actions. Those behind the most shocking and repressive laws, and those who voted for their approval, deserve the most severe sanctions.

Please join Free Russia Foundation for an expert brief and discussion on latest criminal operations conducted by Russia’s GRU worldwide with:

  • Christo Grozev, Bellingcat— the legendary investigator who uncovered the Kremlin’s involvement, perpetrators and timeline of Navalny’s assassination attempt. 
  • Jakub Janda, Director of the European Values Think Tank (the Czech Republic) where he researches Russia’s hostile influence operations in the West
  • Michael Weiss, Director of Special Investigations at Free Russia Foundation where he leads the Lubyanka Files project, which consists of translating and curating KGB training manuals still used in modern Russia for the purposes of educating Vladimir Putin’s spies.

The event will take place on Tuesday, May 11 from 11 am to 12:30pm New York Time (17:00 in Brussels) and include an extensive Q&A with the audience moderated by Ilya Zaslavskiy, Senior Fellow at Free Russia Foundation and head of Underminers.info, a research project on post-Soviet kleptocracy

The event will be broadcast live at: https://www.facebook.com/events/223365735790798/

  • The discussion will cover Russia’s most recent and ongoing covert violent operations, direct political interference, oligarchic penetration with money and influence; 
  • GRU’s structure and approach to conducting operations in Europe
  • Trends and forecasts on how data availability will impact both, the Kremlin’s operations and their investigation by governments and activists; 
  • EU and national European government response and facilitation of operations on their soil; 
  • Recommendations for effective counter to the security and political threats posed by Russian security services. 

On May 6, 2020, at least five YouTube channels belonging to key Russian opposition leaders and platforms received notifications from YouTube that some of their content had been removed due to its being qualified as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

They included: 

Ilya Yashin (343k YouTube subscribers)

Vladimir Milov (218k YouTube subscribers) 

Leonid Volkov (117k YouTube subscribers)

Novaya Gazeta (277k YouTube Subscribers) 

Sota Vision (248k YouTube Subscribers)

Most likely, there are other Russian pro-democracy channels that have received similar notifications at the same time, and we are putting together the list of all affected by this censorship campaign. 

The identical letters received from YouTube by the five account holders stated:

“Our team has reviewed your content, and, unfortunately, we think it violates our spam, deceptive practices and scams policy. We’ve removed the following content from YouTube:

URL: https://votesmart.appspot.com/

YouTube has removed urls from descriptions of videos posted on these accounts that linked to Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting website (votesmart.appspot.com).

By doing this, and to our great shock and disbelief, YouTube has acted to enforce the Kremlin’s policies by qualifying Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting system and its website as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

This action has not only technically disrupted communication for the Russian civil society which is now under a deadly siege by Putin’s regime, but it has rendered a serious and lasting damage to its reputation and legitimacy of Smart Voting approach. 

In reality, Smart Voting system is not a spam, scam or a “deceptive practice”, but instead it’s a fully legitimate system of choosing and supporting candidates in Russian elections who have a chance of winning against the ruling “United Russia” party candidates. There’s absolutely nothing illegal, deceptive or fraudulent about the Smart Voting or any materials on its website.

We don’t know the reasons behind such YouTube actions, but they are an unacceptable suppression of a constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the Russian people and help the Kremlin’s suppression of civil rights and freedoms by banning the Smart Voting system and not allowing free political competition with the ruling “United Russia” party. 

This is an extremely dangerous precedent in an environment where opposition activities in Russia are being literally outlawed;  key opposition figures are jailed, exiled, arrested and attacked with criminal investigations; independent election campaigning is prohibited; and social media networks remain among the very few channels still available to the Russian opposition to communicate with the ordinary Russians.

We demand a  swift and decisive action on this matter from the international community, to make sure that YouTube corrects its stance toward Russian opposition channels, and ensures that such suppression of peaceful, legal  pro-democracy voices does not happen again. 

The new round of sanctions against Russia’s authorities naturally begs the question: will they simply backfire, rallying Russia’s citizens around Putin and worsening the already-negative perception of the West? The answer depends on how tangible and bold those sanctions actually are. It also depends on how they are presented to Russian society – not only through state propaganda, but from the West as well, which has various means of conveying its own opinion to Russia’s population.

The key to understanding the true feelings of Russian society and its potential reactions to new sanctions might be found in Putin’s recent address to the Federal Assembly and his nearly simultaneous statements about de-escalating tensions on the Ukrainian border. It is important to not lose sight of the fact that since the early 2010s, Putin has not made a single effort to satisfy Russians who identify with the opposition. He prefers ignoring or intimidating anyone who expresses dissatisfaction with his politics. That is why he first and foremost addresses his base, and focuses on smoothing over his relationship with them and them alone.

The very fact that most of Putin’s address was dedicated to the social problems Russia face and promises to provide all kinds of payments and benefits, whereas the traditional threats to the West and foreign policy and ideology in general were a distant second and presented in a far more peaceful tone speaks volumes about the radical shifts taking place, not only in Putin’s head, but in Russian society as a whole.

First of all, the issue of confrontation with the West, the situation in Ukraine, and international policy are not interesting to Putin’s target audience, and may even annoy them. By all accounts, the night before his address, Putin received reliable information that Russian citizens do not want war on any scale. Not only that, they are so strongly and clearly against the idea, that they can no longer be ignored.

Secondly, Putin’s electorate is poor and does not enjoy a high quality of life. They are becoming increasingly disgruntled. Thus, Putin found himself forced to focus on promises for social assistance for the people, specifically some form of direct payments. He has now tied his own political prospects to his regime’s ability to satisfy growing social obligations in a context of increasing problems on the Russian economy.

Russian domestic politics have now been reduced to the most primitive formula: on the eve of the elections, Putin gives his electorate additional money from the budget, thereby buying their votes and general loyalty. He simply does not have any inspirational slogans or ideology to mobilize society.

As a result, international sanctions designed to hit at the Russian economy and state revenues will also strike a blow to the Putin regime. The minute he is unable to fulfill all of his obligations to the citizens, violence will be the only means left for him to hold onto power. But this time, things will be different – Putin will not just be fighting against the political opposition, but rather the vast swathes of society on which he has relied for the past two decades.

There is no doubt that Putin and his propaganda will attempt to blame the West for all of the trouble, but that approach is already starting to raise some eyebrows.

To begin with, the very idea that the West is capable of inflicting serious damage on the Russian economy through sanctions has broken down some of the peoples’ trust in Putin: it means he is not quite as all-powerful as he claims, and his reassurances that Russia is a strong, independent economy with no fear of any sanctions is nothing more than a lie. What’s more, the people will inevitably start to demand a normalization of relations with the West. Sociologists have already begun to note this phenomenon – if the sanctions are such a burden for Russia to bear, isn’t it time to start seeking paths toward reconciliation with the rest of the world? The ultimate goal of confrontation is inexplicable given that Russian society is decidedly not willing to engage in any wars. 

It is important to note that the West has not yet pulled the lever that the Russian opposition has been offering it for many years – large-scale personal sanctions against Putin’s inner circle – Russia’s richest and most influential families, including that of the Russian President himself.

Striking such a blow to the main beneficiaries of the current Russian regime would resolve several issues at once. It would force oligarchs under sanctions to consider decisive steps aimed at removing Putin – if only to save their own capital and international businesses. It would also make it very difficult for Putin’s propaganda to leverage the sanctions to consolidate the electorate. Paradoxically, those who most support the capitalist economy are the same people who oppose Putin, as he relies on poor, embittered people with nostalgia for the USSR, who believe that capitalism and capitalists are evil. Harsh sanctions against the billionaires in Putin’s entourage will arouse nothing but Schadenfreude among these sectors of society, and any appeals for sympathy from the authorities will likely not go down well among those who are mainly concerned with simple survival. The effect will in fact be quite the opposite, once they begin to wonder why the authorities are suddenly so concerned about the very richest, while seemingly unbothered by the problems of the very poorest.

It is important to note that “sanctions against Russia” is a very unfortunate turn of phrase, which is often heard in official statements. This is a gift for Putin’s propaganda machine, and feeds fears about “Russophobia” in the West. In the context of today’s Russia, it would make more sense to talk about “sanctions against Putin,” or “sanctions against the Putin regime,” focusing on the fact that the West, its leaders, and people have nothing against Russia or its citizens, and that a free, democratic Russia and its people would be accepted as friends, partners, and allies. That kind of a shift in focus would make it easier to disseminate the idea in the widest sectors of the population and the administrative and economic elite that Putin is Russia’s problem, and denying him power is the quickest, and in fact the only path toward normalizing all areas of life in Russia.

Speaking at a climate summit of the world leaders organized by the United States, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, for the first time in history, discussed environmental challenges the way leaders of the developed world discuss the issue. Not only did he recognize the need for urgent action to reduce emissions, but he also vocalized a number of concrete steps to be taken by Russia and called for broad international cooperation. However, taking his statements as a cause for celebration would premature, as they will not result in a major shift in policy.

In order to understand the meaning of Vladimir Putin’s message, one needs to take a close look at the energy policies and energy strategy currently governing Russia’s approach to the issue. The statements made by the Russian president are clearly aimed at two goals. The first goal is to convince the global community that Russia is not an irresponsible polluter unconcerned about the climate crisis, but one of the global leaders in combatting climate change. The second one is attracting foreign investments into climate-beneficial projects in Russia by pretending to be genuinely interested in joining the efforts of the global community to address environmental challenges.

Vladimir Putin began his speech at the summit by restating the line long used by the Russian diplomats at the UN climate talks: Russia’s emissions have declined since 1990 from 3.1 billion to 1.6 billion tons of CO2 equivalent due to Russia’s efforts in “restructuring” its industry and its energy sector.

In reality, the drop in emissions did not happen as a result of the concerted efforts by the Russian authorities, but because of the breakup of the Soviet Union, when one country with its many polluters has split into many.

More important than the validity of historic claims, however, is what Russia intends to do to reduce emissions moving forward. According to the Presidential Decree No. 666 signed in November 2020, Russia’s greenhouse gas emissions are in fact expected to rise by almost 40% by 2030 (VTimes; in Russian). Putin might as well have said at the summit: those tons of carbon dioxide that you won’t be emitting, Russia will gladly emit for you.

Today, about 60% of Russia’s energy needs is satisfied by natural gas, 16% by coal, around 13% by oil, 8% by nuclear energy, and 3% by large hydropower (VTimes; in Russian). When the Russian president says at the global climate summit that 45% of Russia’s energy is produced from low-carbon energy sources, he apparently means not the entire energy sector, but only that generating electricity. But Russia is a northern country. A considerable portion of the energy it produces and consumed is thermal energy and not electricity.

Adopted in 2020, Russia’s Energy Strategy 2035 is unambiguous about the development priorities it lays out for the next decade and a half. At a time when the global community is undertaking sweeping measures to cut its use of fossil fuels and reach carbon neutrality, Russia is planning to ramp up fossil fuel production. In the next 15 years, according to the Strategy’s rather optimistic scenario, coalmining is set to increase by about 50% and gas-drilling — by almost 40%, while oil production is expected to remain at today’s levels.

For all its booming development around the globe, renewable energy, plays a negligible role in Russia. In 2020, its share in Russia’s energy mix was about 1%, and no serious steps to stimulate its growth are envisaged in government plans. Energy efficiency, which could become one of the major areas of climate work, is all but ignored in the Energy Strategy. Today, Russia uses twice as much energy per unit of GDP as the global average, and three times as much as in the European Union.

No efforts are planned by Russia in the foreseeable future to phase out fossil fuels – on the contrary, production and exports are only set to rise. How, then, is Russia planning to curb its emissions?

In his statements at the climate summit, Vladimir Putin spoke about how Russia’s forests absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide – another point stressed repeatedly by Russia’s representatives at the UN climate talks, much like the position that this absorbing capacity is underestimated by the West. In essence, rather than reducing actual emissions, the proposal Russia routinely makes at the climate conferences boils down to simply changing calculation methods to evaluate its forests’ carbon-absorption capacity. However, there is a problem with that approach: as the UN data shows, the capacity of Russian forests to absorb carbon emissions is rapidly depleting due to aging, fires, deforestation, and other factors (VTimes; in Russian). The most pessimistic forecasts anticipate that by mid-century, carbon dioxide absorption by Russian forests will shrink from 700 million tons in СО2 equivalent per year to a mere 100 million. In other words, Russia cannot hide behind its forests anymore.

The Russian president proposes to increase international cooperation to combat climate change and, speaking of climate solutions, mentions specifically carbon-capture technology, nuclear energy, and hydrogen production. Therefore, when Vladimir Putin speaks of providing incentives for foreign investors willing to participate in climate projects in Russia, the audience is led to assume that he speaks of projects in these areas and not just climate projects in general. Such an assumption is erroneous, unfortunately.

There is a prescient term with established international usage to characterize the technologies mentioned by Putin, and that term is “false solutions.” Nuclear generation, for instance, is too expensive and too time-consuming to establish to efficiently bring down emissions, and, furthermore, it entails risks of nuclear proliferation and large-scale accidents.

The real reason Vladimir Putin is promoting nuclear energy is that reactor export projects are used to increase his political influence in other countries. The loans issued by Russia and backed by the Russian budget for the construction of nuclear power plants abroad amount to about $100 billion, yet no investors unaffiliated with the Russian government are willing to participate in these projects (Vedomosti; in Russian).

Within Russia itself, however, nuclear energy development plans are rather modest: fewer reactors are currently expected to be built than are needed to replace the old units scheduled for decommissioning in the coming 10 years. (Heinrich Böll Stiftung; in German).

Russia has designed a floating nuclear power plant that it plans to export to other countries, which means a rather significant nuclear proliferation risk due to the high level of enrichment of the fuel used. Taking into account the extremely underwhelming potential for emissions reduction that nuclear technology can offer, are we prepared to accept the risk of proliferation of nuclear materials all over the planet?

Hydrogen production is a promising direction – but only if this is green hydrogen, that is hydrogen produced using renewable energy. What Russia has in view is producing hydrogen primarily for the purpose of exporting to Europe – and doing so by using fossil fuels (gas) and nuclear energy. The export potential of such very ungreen hydrogen is quite dubious, since, in contrast to Russia, the rest of the world intends to stop using fossil fuels.

And as for carbon capture, the technology behind the idea is nowhere near as developed or effective as it needs to be to help avert the worst consequences of climate change in the foreseeable future. There are indications that it may be possible to trap some of the emitted carbon dioxide, but no clarity exists as to whether it could be stored for long periods of time with no risk of leakage. And let’s not forget, that carbon capture is deemed a false solution precisely because, while diverting attention from the pressing energy transition needs, it lulls one into a hopeful expectation of continuing to burn fossil fuels for as long as the fuels are there to burn.

As one evaluates all the points made by the Russian president in his speech at the summit, the following troubling picture emerges:

  • In the next 10 to 15 years, Russia will ratchet up its production and exports of fossil fuels, increasing global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Russia is somewhat open to technologies that may help it put a green sheen on its policies while concealing its contribution to the growing emissions.
  • No development of technologies that could lead to real emissions reductions – those in the fields of renewable energy or energy efficiency – are likely.
  • And if one sets aside Vladimir Putin’s climate rhetoric and takes a hard look at the real situation at hand, it becomes very clear that Russia’s climate action is only possible to the extent that it is dictated by Moscow’s export considerations. Within the country, the dirtiest sources of energy will still be in use, while the export shipping routes will carry what will be in demand abroad.

The only real way to decrease Russia’s contribution to the global climate burden, therefore, is to stop importing any fossil fuels Russia has to offer.

The events of the past few days have clearly demonstrated that Putin and his regime perceive Russia’s youth, especially its most active and politicized members, as the biggest enemy.

The Kremlin’s attacks on Aleksei Navalny and his movement, attacks on the Internet, attacks on the student-ran magazine DOXA, attacks on education, targeted repressions throughout Russia — all of them in one way or another target youth, more than any other group.

This comes as no surprise. After all, young people are most active online, they are the backbone of Navalny’s movement, they take part in protest rallies, attend all kinds of lectures and discussions, create and consume independent media, travel abroad, and participate in volunteer and crowdfunding projects. Moreover, they share the same information space as their peers around the world — they listen to the same music, play the same video games, follow the same fashion trends, watch the same shows, and generally view the world through the same lense as young people in Western Europe and North America.

Certainly, in each demographic group of Russia’s population there are people who subscribe to Western values; conversely, there are young people in Russia who support Putin. But young Russians generally lead lives and are steeped in values that make them organic opponents of the conservative, backward-looking, retrograde, and xenophobic Putin establishment.

Putin has focused his wrath on Aleksei Navalny precisely because by 44, Navalny has managed to find an approach that appealed to Russian citizens 10, 20, and even 30 years his junior. In contrast, Putin, who has no plans to step down any time in the foreseeable future, simply does not have the creativity, tools, or even desire to reach younger generations of Russians. This makes perfect sense — Vladimir Putin’s electorate base is the older generation, and he is concentrating his efforts on pleasing them, pandering to them, and manipulating their emotions — the most prominent of which is a nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union.

Had Putin come to power democratically, had he actually faced serious criticism from opponents, and had he gotten used to fighting for every electoral vote, perhaps he would make at least a cursory attempt at appealing to younger voters. But Putin is a product of the KGB and the bureaucratic apparatus. He has never taken part in any free elections, and therefore has no intentions of trying to win over any naysayers.

Outside observers need to keep in mind that when Putin speaks about the Russian people or on their behalf, he is only referring to those who support him. He views anyone who does not support him as a traitor, who should, and in fact must be denied any political standing or representation.

Last week’s story of repressions against the editorial board of a student magazine DOXA is very telling. DOXA gained prominence among the general public in 2019, against the backdrop of protests in response to the Kremlin’s refusal to allow opposition candidates to run for the Moscow City Duma. College students from various Moscow universities took part in the protests, and DOXA threw its support behind them. The publication and its editorial office have been watched by security agencies since then, and by 2021, the surveillance was in full force, culminating in a series of searches, interrogations, and an investigation, resulting in DOXA employees placed under house arrest and officially banned from engaging in any journalistic activity.

It would be absurd to claim that DOXA had any real ability to influence the political situation in Russia or any significant groups of the population. After all, this is a specialized publication for students, graduates, and professors from Moscow’s most prestigious universities. But it is for this exact reason that the magazine has been so closely watched, and reprisals against the editorial staff have been so over-the-top, despite the outpour of support from professors, students, journalists, and members of the creative intelligentsia. The politicization of young people in Moscow is extremely concerning to the Russian authorities. Widespread street protests in the capital have been a nightmare for Putin for years. That is why any approval of protests, taking part in them, or calling on others to join them, particularly among youth, are punished with an increasing severity.

The persecution of DOXA sends a clear and powerful message to all you people in — if the authorities are not afraid to carry out public reprisals against youth in Moscow — in the plain view of the domestic and international public — then no one else can expect any mercy or indulgence, either. Like many other activists in today’s Russia, DOXA’s editorial board is accused of inciting people to take part in unsanctioned rallies expressing solidarity with Aleksei Navalny last January. The video that landed the students in court is entitled They Cannot Defeat the Youth. It was released following Navalny’s arrest, and contains the following words:

“Universities, colleges, and schools intimidate students, threatening them with expulsion or other sanctions. We demand an end to the destruction of education, which our generation has yet to rebuild. The authorities have declared a war on youth, but we are the youth. And we are sure to win.”

The mere mention of schoolchildren in the video has been taken by the authorities as pretext to file the same charges against DOXA’s editorial board as those filed against the head of Navalny’s headquarters, Leonid Volkov — i.e. involving minors in unlawful activities. This includes participation in banned protest rallies.

The video’s description of what is happening in Russia is, in fact, spot on — Putin has, indeed, declared war on youth, and his regime is spending most of its efforts on repressing and intimidating young Russian citizens, effectively subordinating the entire education system to the security apparatus, and preserving the current regime at any cost — robbing entire generations of Russian citizens of their future, condemning them to either leave their own country, or live isolated and in fear of the world.

Putin’s main opposition in Russia today is not the handful of dissidents or political activists who have stood in the streets for decades. It is the vast majority of the Russian youth that is on the rise. The leaders of the opposition today are whoever the youth hold in such regard. For this reason, anyone who is willing and able to support resistance to Putin’s regime would do well to focus their efforts on the younger segments audience. Sooner or later, the youth will inevitably win. And even a mighty dictator such as Vladimir Putin can escape the passage of time and death.

On April 15, 2021,  President Biden signed new sanctions against a number of officials and agents of the Russian Federation in connection with malign international activities conducted by the Russian government.

The list of individuals sanctioned by the new law includes Leonid Mikhalyuk, director of the Federal Security Service in the Russian-occupied Crimea.

A report issued by Free Russia Foundation, Media Initiative for Human Rights and Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union in December 202, identified 16 officials from Russian law enforcement and security agencies as well as the judiciary operating on the territory of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula currently occupied by the Russian Federation. These individuals have been either directly involved or have overseen political persecution of three prominent Crimean human rights defenders – Emir-Usein Kuku, Sever Mustafayev and Emil Kurbedinov.

Leonid Mikhailiuk is one of these officials. He has been directly involved and directed the repressive campaign in the occupied Crimea, including persecution of innocent people on terrorism charges and massive illegal searches. The persecution of Server Mustafayev was conducted under his supervision. As the head of the FSB branch in Crimea, he is in charge of its operation and all operatives working on politically motivated cases are his subordinates. 

Within the extremely centralized system of the Russian security services, Mikhailiuk is clearly at the top rank of organized political persecution and human rights violations.

Free Russia Foundation welcomes the new sanctions and hopes that all other individuals identified in the report will also be held accountable.

Things are heating up on the Ukrainian border right now. To the casual observer, it might look like a repeat of what we saw in 2014. In fact, what we are seeing in 2021 is the exact opposite of 2014, and something far more sinister is afoot.

2014’s attack on Ukraine was a rude awakening for everyone — for Ukraine itself, for Russian society, and for the West. Putin managed to leverage the element of surprise and achieve victory in Crimea. In Donbass, things were not so easy — in part because Ukraine had begun to resist and had time to repel attacks of the Russian-backed separatists.

In 2021, the landscape has turned upside down. Today, no one questions whether Putin is capable of aggression. That reputation for treacherous opportunism has become his trump card in geopolitical games. By all accounts, Putin is convinced that the West will blink first and make concessions, no matter what. This belief lies beneath his increasingly aggressive rhetoric and conspicuous concentration of troops along the Ukrainian border.

While military hostilities could break out at any moment, starting a war is not Putin’s real goal. War, after all, is unpredictable. The Crimean adventure was a success for Putin precisely because it was quick, bloodless, and victorious. If his next war becomes protracted and bloody, Putin will face serious problems with his own nuclear electorate, as well as his elites who would never forgive him for the defeat, and possibly would go even further and attempt to oust him in retribution.

Putin’s goal is not to start a conflict. Instead, he aims to achieve his goals by scaring the Western elites with the very prospect of war. In an extraordinary situation, no doubt, he would be prepared to fight, but only with Ukraine, and only with guarantees that Ukraine would receive no meaningful assistance from the outside. Putin can afford only victory, and he will shy away from any hostilities if failure is in the realm of possibilities.

So, what does Putin really want from Ukraine? Let’s start with the basics: due to a variety of circumstances, Crimea, annexed by Russia, is suffering from water shortages. Prior to the occupation, mainland Ukraine supplied the peninsula with water. In part, Putin’s current theatrics may be aimed at forcing Ukraine to resume supplying Crimea with water. This could easily be “sold” to the Western public as a humanitarian mandate without forcing Putin to renegotiate any key issues. Naturally, to the Russian audiences, it would be presented as a major victory for Putin, and to a large extent, it would be — the water issue would have been resolved, and Ukraine would have made concessions, including indirect recognition of the new Crimean status.

The water issue is just one part of the larger problem. Putin does not need Ukraine as much as he needs to legalize the annexation of Crimea. There are two ways for him to do this. First, he could strongarm the West to start suggesting to Ukraine that it better accept Crimea as part of Russia. Alternatively, he could try to pressure the Ukrainian government directly to recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea, which would immediately render any Western sanctions moot.

Despite the fact that Russia has dedicated considerable efforts on shaping the public opinion in Western countries, it is Ukraine that the Kremlin views as the weak link — and rightly so. In its current state, the Ukrainian government is unwilling to recognize Crimea as part of Russia, just as it is unwilling to acquiesce to being within the Russian sphere of influence. This means that Russia would need to bring down the current Ukrainian government, and then negotiate with its new authorities on more favorable terms. In this sense, the Kremlin may view the threat of war, and military operations in particular, as a pragmatic attempt to resolve this matter.

But in addition to these goals, there is another, far more sinister and far-reaching goal behind the current escalations. Putin wants the West, and specifically the United States, to recognize him not only as an equal player on the world stage, but also as that free to do whatever he pleases both within Russia and any countries that he considers within its sphere of influence.

In Putin’s dream world, the West would not only stop asking him uncomfortable questions about his repressions on the political opposition or the state of human rights inside Russia but would also actively muzzle his critics around the world, so as not to provoke the dangerous tyrant in the Kremlin who is ready for war at any moment. He clearly views Ukraine and other countries bordering Russia, particularly those that were once republics of the former USSR, as those belonging to Russia’s zone of influence, where no change of government should take place without the approval of the Kremlin. That is why his antics are not just about Ukraine. Unfortunately for Ukraine, it has been used as a convenient testing ground for Putin’s techniques for pressuring the West and intimidating Western political elites with his audacity and willingness to trample on all principles of contemporary international politics.

All of this aside, we can’t lose sight of the fact that Putin’s main goal has always been holding onto power in Russia. People’s lives, the future of entire countries and nations, including that of Russia itself, only concern him in the context of achieving that goal. Just as annexing Crimea in 2014 helped Putin rebrand his regime domestically, becoming significantly more brutal, current situation with Ukraine is likely to lead to similar outcome — Putin’s regime in Russia will become more ruthless, punishing anyone who dares resist him.

For this reason, as tensions rise along the Ukrainian border, the level of police terror is also growing inside Russia. The leader of the Russian opposition, Alexey Navalny, is being held illegally in prison with the treatment amounting to torture, and all critics of the regime are subjected to brutal reprisals. The Kremlin propaganda portraits anyone dissatisfied with the Putin regime as a Western agent, and the authorities have proposed prosecuting them “under wartime laws”.

Putin’s adventurism abroad may indeed lead to war in the near future. Even if we dodge a bullet this time, Western elites need to understand that as long as Putin is Russia’s leader, global tensions will continue to grow, and any concessions made to him will be interpreted as proof that he has chosen the right strategy.

On April 7, well-known Russian opposition politician and Council chairman, Ilya Yashin, a deputy of the Krasnoselsky municipal district, received an electronic notification that a court sentenced him to a fine of approximately 15,000 rubles for taking part in a municipal deputy congress that was later broken up by the authorities. Neither the fact that the congress was broken up nor the fine itself were any surprise in today’s Russia. What is surprising is that Yashin’s trial had been set for the day after, April 8.

Several media outlets picked up the strange notice after Yashin published it on social media. However, on April 8, this did nothing to stop the judge from issuing the same sentence, which had audaciously been sent a day earlier. This was no shock to anyone, least of all Ilya Yashin. Shocking would have been if the judge’s sentence had differed from the one Yashin was notified of in advance. This is how things work in Putin’s court system: After widespread protests, the courts systematically issue the same verdicts and sentences. This is clear proof of what everyone already knows – the courts are biased, and decisions are made in advance of any actual proceedings.

A great deal of criticism has been lodged against Russian courts, but this issue is too serious to simply look away. As a player on the global economy and world stage, the Russian Federation demands that the rest of the world recognize its courts’ decisions. That is to say, an individual who has been convicted of a crime by a Russian court should be recognized as a criminal by the entire world.

To many, this is already misleading. For example, what does it actually mean if someone has been convicted in a Russian court of political extremism or even terrorism? Does it mean that he aided and abetted or actually carried out a criminal act? That he actually killed or was planning on killing peaceful citizens and law enforcement officers? That he held criminal opinions? And if all sentences for these types of convictions are in fact politicized, does it mean that there are no terrorists in Russia?

Problems like these will only grow more complicated. The more politicized court decisions are, and the more examples we have of the courts’ hand in political repression, the less trust there will be in any rulings or sentences from Russian courts. It’s not difficult to imagine where this will lead in the foreseeable future.

There are already many complaints about Russian courts, whether criminal or economic – and in many cases, they are less-than-impartial in these matters. But when it comes to politics, the Russian justice system is irrefutably an instrument of punitive power, with no regard at all for the presumption of innocence or the supposedly adversarial nature of any proceeding.

As in the Soviet Union, political cases are not necessarily tried in political courts. The Russian authorities are in a campaign to paint any critics as common criminals, as if their legal troubles stemmed from their own criminal activities. For this reason, a political trial in today’s Russia is any trial in which the defendant is a political or civil activist, journalist, publisher, politician, or even just a passerby accused by the authorities of taking part in some kind of political activism. The charges themselves in these cases are of little importance, as is any evidence, or lack thereof. For example, historian Yuri Dmitriev, who was researching mass executions in Karelia under Stalin, was charged with pedophilia.

For some time now, the most important evidence in Putin’s courts is the opinion of an expert witness brought on by the investigation or a certificate issued by the intelligence services. In Stalin’s day, investigators would torture their victims in order to extract a confession. Putin’s courts need no such formalities, as they unconditionally trust whatever the investigator has to say, as well as any statements made by experts involved in the case, no matter how biased or unsubstantiated.

All of Alexey Navalny’s court proceedings are the most shameless example of what Putin has done to the Russian court system. Navalny has been tried for stealing timber, commercial fraud, insulting a war veteran, and violating the terms of a suspended sentence. And yet, to any casual observer, it is obvious that in each case the judges were not only biased, but openly working in the interest of the authorities, as part of Vladimir Putin’s punitive system.

Alexey Navalny and Ilya Yashin are no ordinary Russian citizens. But their lot is in no way extraordinary. Because of the publicity that surrounds them, it is easy for anyone to closely follow the workings of the Russian justice system through their cases. Many lesser-known political activists and ordinary citizens have also been tried and convicted for trumped-up charges as they fall victim to Putin’s punitive machine in retaliation for hasty posts on social media. However, as many human rights defenders say, in cases that have nothing to do with politics, the courts nearly always take the side of the investigator. Again, this is no surprise. This is not an issue affecting individual judges, but the system as a whole.

What has happened to Russia’s courts is a feature, not a bug in Putin’s dictatorship. Under Putin’s leadership, Russia’s justice system has been methodically twisted to the point of becoming a targeted instrument of political oppression and justification for any decision made at the very top.

In order to ensure that anyone who is deemed inconvenient is guaranteed the ruling and sentence that best serves the authorities’ needs, officially, all Russian citizens have the right to a fair trial. After all, there can be no court system in which some cases are decided fairly and others are not.

When Russia returns to the democratic path of development, its new leadership will have to put in herculean efforts in order to overhaul the entire justice system. We want to believe that the errors of Boris Yeltsin and his team will not be repeated, and that any judges who have taken part in the system of repression will be dismissed and answer for their crimes. Thousands of cases will have to be reviewed, sentences will need to be overturned, and the very notion of the judiciary’s makeup will need to be reformed. It will take years to return any sense of authority to Russia’s courts in the eyes of Russian citizens and the international community.

In the meantime, it is important to remember that right now, Russian courts and Russian judges are just one more part of Putin’s machine. The judiciary as an institution as it is known in the civilized world has been destroyed in the Russian Federation, and any verdicts or sentences should be seriously questioned in Russia, and especially beyond its borders.

April 8, 2021

We, the undersigned, are shocked and troubled by the most recent news of Alexei Navalny’s condition in prison. 

Russia’s leading opposition figure is reported to suffer severe back pain with losing sensitivity in parts of his legs. It is no more than six months since he survived a vicious poisoning attack with a nerve agent that has long-term crippling effects on his health. In prison, he is systematically denied any medical treatment. On top, prison guards wake him up every hour at night, a practice amounting to torture by sleep deprivation according to his lawyers. This is why medical experts called on the Russian authorities to allow Mr. Navalny’s treatment and why he himself now resorted to a hunger strike. Let’s not forget: Mr. Navalny’s incarceration itself is a travesty of justice – he was formally sent to prison for not checking in with Russian authorities on a fabricated case (as confirmed by European Court of Human Rights) when he was recuperating in Germany from poisoning and subsequent coma.

Russian authorities with its secret services tried to kill Alexei Navalny last August, they may now be attempting the same, in a slower, even more cynical way. 

Europe has offered Alexei Navalny a place to recover from the attempt at his life. Specialized labs in Germany, France and Sweden confirmed the assassination attempt used Novichok, an internationally banned chemical weapon. Angela Merkel personally met Mr Navalny in hospital and many other Western leaders expressed their solidarity after the poisoning attack. We need to intervene again. 

We urge Russia to immediately allow medical treatment of Alexei Navalny and release him from prison. We call on the EU Council as well as EU member states’ leaders to reach out to Russian authorities to request the immediate release of Alexei Navalny, which was mandated by European Court of Human Rights’ decision in February 2021. In addition, we demand the EU Council task EU ambassador to Russia to conduct, together partners from the UK, Canada and the US, a visit of the prison facility and meet Alexei Navalny. It is critical now that Alexei Navalny’s fate became the symbol of injustice many thousands face because of increasing brutality of Russian regime against its own citizens. 

In December 2020, the EU launched its Global Human Rights Sanction Regime modelled on so-called Magnitsky Act. This law has been inspired by one Sergei Magnitsky, a brave Russian lawyer who was tortured to death in prison in 2009 – he was systematically denied treatment when he developed a serious medical condition. We still can act now in case of Alexei Navalny so we avoid commemorating later.

Marek HILSER, Senator, Czech Republic

Andrius KUBILIUS, MEP, EPP, Lithuania

Lukas WAGENKNECHT, Senator, Czech Republic

Žygimantas PAVILIONIS, MP, Lithuania

Miroslav BALATKA, Senator, Czech Republic

André GATTOLIN, Senator, France

Mikulas BEK, Senator, Czech Republic 

Nicolae ŞTEFĂNUȚĂ, MEP, Renew, Romania

David SMOLJAK, Senator, Czech Republic 

Petras AUŠTREVIČIUS, MEP, Renew, Lithuania

Tomas FIALA, Senator, Czech Republic 

Liudas MAŽYLIS, MEP, EPP Lithuania

Zdenek NYTRA, Senator, Czech Republic 

Dace MELBĀRDE, MEP, ECR, Latvia

Jan SOBOTKA, Senator, Czech Republic 

Matas MALDEIKIS, MP, Lithuania

Jiri RUZICKA, Senator, Czech Republic 

Bernard GUETTA, MEP, Renew, France

Jaromira VITKOVA, Senator, Czech Republic 

Rasa JUKNEVIČIENĖ, MEP, EPP, Lithuania

Petr OREL, Senator, Czech Republic 

Tomasz FRANKOWSKI, MEP, EPP, Poland 

Miroslava NEMCOVA, Senator, Czech Republic

Hermann TERTSCH, MEP, ECR, Spain

Premysl RABAS, Senator, Czech Republic 

Aušra MALDEIKIENĖ, MEP, EPP, Lithuania

Ladislav KOS, Senator, Czech Republic 

Attila ARA-KOVÁCS, MEP, S&D, Hungary

Sarka JELINKOVA, Senator, Czech Republic

Erik MARQUARDT, MEP, Greens, Germany

Pavel FISCHER, Senator, Czech Republic

Pernille WEISS, MEP, EPP, Denmark

Helena LANGSADLOVA, MP, Czech Republic

Roberts ZĪLE, MEP, ECR, Latvia

Jan LIPAVSKY, MP, Czech Republic

Klemen GROŠELJ, MEP, Renew, Slovenia

Pavel ZACEK, MP, Czech Republic

Riho TERRAS, MEP, EPP, Estonia

Ondrej BENESIK, MP, Czech Republic 

Miriam LEXMANN, MEP, EPP, Slovakia

Frantisek KOPRIVA, MP, Czech Republic 

Sandra KALNIETE, MEP, EPP, Latvia

Petr GAZDIK, MP, Czech Republic 

Jerzy BUZEK, MEP, EPP, Poland

Tomas MARTINEK, MP, Czech Republic 

Janina OCHOJSKA, MEP, EPP, Poland

Jan BARTOSEK, MP, Czech Republic

Eugen TOMAC, MEP, EPP, Romania

Jan FARSKY, MP, Czech Republic

Ivan ŠTEFANEC, MEP, EPP, Slovakia

Roman SKLENAK, MP, Czech Republic

Krzysztof HETMAN, MEP, EPP, Poland

Frantisek VACHA, MP, Czech Republic

Ivars IJABS, MEP, Renew, Latvia

Marek VYBORNY, MP, Czech Republic

Franc BOGOVIČ, MEP, EPP, Slovenia

Zbynek STANJURA, MP, Czech Republic

Radvilė MORKŪNAITĖ-MIKULĖNIENĖ, MP, Lithuania

Petr FIALA, MP, Czech Republic

Raphaël GLUCKSMANN, MEP, S&D, France

Vít RAKUSAN, MP, Czech Republic

Juozas OLEKAS, MEP, S&D, Lithuania

Jaroslav VYMAZAL, MP, Czech Republic

Assita KANKO, MEP, ECR, Belgium

Adela SIPOVA, Senator, Czech Republic

Radosław SIKORSKI, MEP, EPP, Poland

Róża THUN UND HOHENSTEIN, MEP, EPP, Poland

Javier NART, MEP, Renew, Spain

Andrzej HALICKI, MEP, EPP, Poland

Alexander ALEXANDROV YORDANOV, MEP, EPP, Bulgaria

Ondřej KOVAŘÍK, MEP, Renew, Czech Republic

Andreas SCHIEDER, MEP, S&D, Austria

Leopoldo LÓPEZ GIL, MEP, EPP, Spain

Sergey LAGODINSKY, MEP, Greens, Germany

Antonio LÓPEZ-ISTÚRIZ WHITE, MEP, EPP, Spain

Marketa GREGOROVA, MEP, Greens, Czech Republic

Lolita ČIGĀNE, MP, Latvia

Marko MIHKELSON, MP, Estonia

Renata CHMELOVA, Czech Republic

Bogdan KLICH, Senator, Republic of Poland

In 2021, Alexei Navalny, the main opponent of the unchanging head of state Vladimir Putin, is being tortured and unlawfully held in prison in Russia, a nuclear state and member of the UN Security Council, aspiring to the role of a center of modern civilization and world politics. Moreover, Alexei Navalny found himself in jail following the Russian secret services’ failed attempt to poison him with a banned chemical weapon. Although this may sound like dystopian fiction, a scenario of a Bond movie or a dark comic, this is not a make-believe story – this is reality.

Many people living in Russia or closely following the events there cannot understand why Western countries have been so lenient towards Vladimir Putin all these years. After all, Putin has been in power for over 20 years now, and Alexei Navalny is not the first opponent of the Putin regime who has been subject to persecution for his views. Vladimir Putin has the blood of Boris Nemtsov on his hands, as well as of many other men and women who tried to oppose him at different times and for different reasons, not to mention the victims of his foreign policy adventures from Georgia to Crimea, from Syria to the Central African Republic. How many more political assassinations will be carried out before the Western political elite finally realizes what Russia has become under Putin and what regime he has built in the country?

Stronger language could become a big step toward fully grasping the nightmare that Russia is facing. Calling the Putin regime authoritarian or hybrid plays into Putin’s hands. Of course, researchers and politicians who grew up in free societies find these words strong enough. However, they all make the Putin regime look more decent than it actually is and allow the Russian government to avoid unpleasant questions and tough sanctions for years.

Time has come to call a spade a spade: the regime built by Putin in Russia can and should be called fascism. In this case, the term “fascism” would not be a label used for publicity purposes but a statement of fact. Suffice it to recall Umberto Eco’s “Eternal Fascism” essay to realize that the system built by Putin fully meets the criteria described by the author.

Particularly cynical is the behavior of fans of the Putin regime, who like to talk about fascism while attacking their opponents and critics in and outside of Russia. Meanwhile, they consciously juggle with concepts equating fascism with Nazism. This wordplay is not coincidental.

In the modern world, Nazism has become the synonym of absolute evil – and for very good reason. Mass culture has reduced its well-known external attributes to comics-like straightforwardness: antisemitism, racism, uniforms, swastika, a leader in a military jacket making speeches, and death camps. This allows Putin’s propagandists to claim that today’s Russia is not a fascist state since it does not display any of those characteristics.

The Putin regime is in fact not a Nazi one. Indeed, it officially denounces racism and antisemitism. However, even though free of theatrics and straightforwardness of the 1920s and 1930s, the political regime in today’s Russia is a form of modern fascism that inherited the most gruesome traits of its 20th century counterpart. Putin does not have any “death camps,” but the number of people subject to different forms of criminal and administrative sanctions for their political activities in Russia is growing and their treatment is getting increasingly harsh. The case of Alexei Navalny, who was not just thrown in jail but is being systematically tortured there through sleep deprivation and denial of medical care, proves this point.

Beside political terror, Putin is no stranger to the use of political assassinations as a means of intimidating enemies of the regime and taking revenge on people he dislikes in Russia and all over the world. It is the Putin regime’s reliance on physical elimination of its opponents, the criminalization of any opposition and protest activities, and the stigmatization of pro-Western, pro-democracy, and liberal thinkers that give reason to believe that we’re dealing with a modern version of fascism.

Russia has been transformed into a fascist police state the unchangeable leader of which maintains his power through repression, violence, and endless persecution of all those disobedient and opposed to his rule. Human rights are being trampled upon and violated whenever it suits the regime, and citizens have no means of making sure their rights are respected. Constitutional guarantees of respect for human rights and freedoms have become a fantastic notion, and the judicial system serves as an appendix to the punitive one. Russian courts fine and send to prison political opponents of the current government just as readily and ruthlessly as they jail Jehovah’s Witnesses which proves yet again that the Putin regime does not persecute real or even potential extremists but anyone whom it dislikes – sometimes completely irrationally.

There is no reason to believe that a few polite reprimands and symbolic acts will put an end to Putin’s interfering in conflicts all over the world and sending assassins to deal with his enemies and critics of his regime. Such instances will probably increase in number since in the context of the country’s deteriorating domestic problems the regime’s real or alleged successes in its confrontation with the West, and particularly with the United States, remain virtually the only trump cards used for propaganda purposes and to satisfy the ambitions of Putin who still believes himself to be the most influential politician of modern times.

Putin has long ceased to be Russia’s domestic concern – he bids defiance to the entire world order. Moreover, the existence of the Putin regime and the West’s permissive attitude toward it serve as a bad example for the multitude of smaller autocracies and dictatorships from Myanmar to Venezuela. If Putin can disregard the international law, wage wars against neighboring countries, send his assassins all over the world, and keep his critics in prison, why cannot other regimes do the same? This is why the fight with Putin and his regime is very important not just for Russia but for the entire world, and Western leaders should be more confident both in their opinion of Putin and his system and in measures aimed at containing the current Russian regime.

It is in fact absolutely unimportant what US and European politicians publicly call Putin and his regime. It is, however, important for them to admit it at least to themselves that they are dealing with an established fascist regime and his creator and leader.

Photo: Kremlin.ru

On March 31, it was reported that Aleksei Navalny, who is currently imprisoned in a penal colony, began a hunger strike to protest prison officials’ abuse and the refusal to provide him with critical medical care. No one goes on a hunger strike unless they truly have nothing left to lose and no other means to fight for their rights.

The news should alarm anyone concerned about the fate of Navalny or, for that matter, Russia’s fate. If Putin’s government is prepared to go to such drastic lengths to silence Navalny, it is frightening to imagine what it is prepared to do in terms of its domestic and foreign policy.

We can’t lose sight of the fact that Aleksei Navalny’s life is now solely in the hands of one man — Vladimir Putin. The Russian President himself is Navalny’s judge, jailer and executioner. Anyone who claims otherwise has a poor grasp of how the Russian regime is structured, or is simply lying.

Without a direct order from Putin himself, or at least his approval, the FSB would not have spent years stalking members of the opposition, much less have made such a high-profile attempt on the life of Putin’s most prominent critic.

Putin himself has admitted that he gave personal authorization for Navalny to be flown to Germany for medical treatment. It is crystal clear that Putin was also behind Navalny’s outrageous arrest upon his inspirationally courageous return to Russia in January.

The actions of the Russian authorities, and that of Putin himself, in the aftermath of their failed attempt to kill Navalny, drive home the ugly reality that the Kremlin’s sole regret is that Navalny did not die on the spot after they poisoned him. Should we be surprised that those directly responsible for this crime and those who took part in the cover-up are now even more emboldened?

Despite the demands of the European Court of Human Rights for Navalny’s immediate release, he continues to be held in a penal colony in the city of Pokrov in Vladimir Oblast, where investigators, police officers, judges, and prison staff merely follow orders from the very top. Navalny is trapped in a penal colony with no medical assistance worthy of the term, where he is subjected to continuous abuse, not against the wishes of Putin or unbeknownst to him but rather because this is exactly what Putin wants.

No one is surprised to hear that no-holds-barred repression has been unleashed against the Russian opposition. But Navalny’s case is exceptional. There are not many Russians whose name is regularly raised in conversations with Putin by world leaders.  And in Russia, there is certainly no other person whose plight brings out hundreds of thousands to the streets in a show of support – while risking their own freedom, health, and well-being. This is what sets Aleksei Navalny apart from so many Soviet-era dissidents, contemporary opposition figures and fearless investigative journalists, whose persecution and even murder never prompted sustained reverberations within Russia, let alone abroad.

While the Russian authorities persecute Navalny, they are also terrified of him. They are trying to destroy him, not as an individual or even as the leader of a handful of dissidents, but as the founder and leader of a powerful opposition movement that Putin has every reason to dread.

The authorities are clearly petrified. Otherwise, they would have no reason to continue intensifying their crackdown on Navalny’s associates and allies, or the thousands of ordinary citizens who took part in the protests they organized. Not a day goes by without someone being sentenced for taking part in January’s nationwide demonstrations of solidarity with Navalny. The closer we get to new protests, the more arrests and politically-motivated persecution we will see.

This is why it comes as no shock to learn that nearly all of Navalny’s inner circle in Russia find themselves under house arrest or in formal detention. Some whose actions offer no grounds for formal prosecution are nonetheless made targets of despicable attacks. The elderly parents of Leonid Volkov, who heads Navalny’s network headquarters, had their apartment searched. Just a few days ago, the 66-year-old father of the FBK Director Ivan Zhdanov was thrown into a pretrial detention center for far-fetched reasons. It is hard to say whether the Kremlin has any specific plan in mind vis-à-vis Ivan Zhdanov, or whether its actions are driven by pure revenge or Stalinesque terror. In either case, the Russian government’s actions evoke only the most profound alarm and sensation of disgust. It goes without saying that confinement of an elderly and not particularly healthy man to a Russian jail cell with four beds for five people is torture by any definition.  Moreover, and this surely accounts for such action, the son will suffer anguish – psychological torture – in knowing that his father is suffering and he is powerless to do anything to help. 

History has shown that regimes that terrorize their own citizens and critics are prone to start wars of aggression against other nations. The events of 2014 made it clear that Putin’s regime is already there. Since then, Russia’s domestic situation has become more dire, while the terror against critics of the regime has grown more brazen and cruel.

Right now, Navalny and his protest movement in Russia urgently need a demonstration of international solidarity, not only for the sake of noble ideals like freedom, democracy and justice, but to protect global security, as well. The international community has stood by passively for too long, allowing Putin to go too far, both domestically and abroad. Backing down even more or stopping at toothless statements of concern will only make things worse. Without meaningful external pressure, Putin will never stop his aggression. To him, each concession, each instance of eyes delicately averted, each failure to back words with deeds is a new victory, proof that he is untouchable, has chosen the right path, and may act with impunity.

The fight for Aleksei Navalny’s freedom, against political repression, and for free elections in Russia is much more than a moral imperative for honest people everywhere. It is the fundamental duty of all responsible democratic politicians.

Paying a heavy price with his own suffering and the unmistakable threat to his life, Aleksei Navalny is unmasking for all to witness the extent of the Putin regime’s depravity, cruelty, and crimes. Over the last 20 years, thousands of Russian citizens have suffered for their beliefs, and their numbers are growing. Do they need to number in the millions, with Russia’s aggression concurrently spilling out in all directions before the civilized world finally grasps the true scale of the problem and delivers an appropriate response?

According to official Central Election Commission data, in September 2020, Ivan Belozertsev, member of the United Russia party nominated by Putin, won an amazing 78.8 percent of the vote in the first round of the gubernatorial election in Penza Oblast.   The results of the election were certified despite the fact that many pro-opposition observers voiced their skepticism about their veracity. Belozertsev occupied the gubernatorial chair until he was arrested in March 2021 on bribe-taking charges and dismissed by the president’s decree.

Despite Belozertsev’s recent electoral triumph and seeming resulting popularity, not one rally in support of the governor has been held. Moreover, no one has even tried to organize one. 

Of course, it’s possible one could say that Belozertsev’s voters were completely disappointed in him after learning about the charges. This version, however, is rather questionable.  Russian citizens have no trust in the law enforcement services, and there is overwhelming evidence to support this. For instance, the authorities’ official charges against Navalny did not convince his supporters that they were rallying around a criminal.  There is an even more powerful example: the arrest and dismissal of Khabarovsk region’s governor Sergei Furgal provoked months-long protests across the region despite the fact that he was being accused of committing different crimes. 

So why didn’t the residents of the Khabarovsk region believe the charges against Sergei Furgal and instead rallied and fought for him, while residents of the Penza region behaved the exact opposite?  Also, if they suspected Belozertsev of dishonesty, why did they actively vote for him only six months earlier?

The answer is simple. Sergei Furgal is a rare exception to the rule according to which the entire Russian system of government operates. He won as an opposition candidate in a tough struggle against a candidate who was supported by Putin and the entire federal government.   This means that all the votes he received had been casted consciously. 

Belozertsev’s case is rather typical for today’s Russia though.  A former member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and ex-military, Belozertsev went into politics under Putin when elections lost their competitive character.  Someone so uncharismatic and with such a mediocre background could not obviously be elected to any key position even in the 1990s. However, in Putin’s Russia, it’s not about candidates like by voters who win elections but about those preferred by the authorities. The reason Ivan Belozertsev won his most recent election is not because he had the support of almost 80 percent of his region’s population but that his candidature had been approved by the presidential administration.  As a result, he faced no real competition while all administrative resource mechanisms, including mobilization, manipulation, and sheer fraud worked in his favor. This was officially admitted, even though implicitly. Right after the governor’s arrest, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation initiated a case about election fraud at one of the polling places where Belozertsev had allegedly won 85 percent of the vote.

The population’s complete indifference with regard to governors’ dismissals despite the seemingly high support during elections is quite natural for Putin’s regime.  Thus, former governor of Russia’s Komi Republic Vyacheslav Gaizer was arrested on bribery charges in September 2015, just one year after having received 78.97 percent of the vote thanks to the support of President Putin and the United Russia party.  No rallies in his support were held in the Komi Republic following his arrest. In April 2017, Aleksandr Solovyov, the head of Russia’s Udmurtia Region, who had allegedly won the sensational 84.85 percent of the vote in the 2014 gubernatorial election, was removed from office and arrested which, again, did not provoke any support rallies or waves of public outrage across Udmurtia. 

All this makes one doubt that the results of gubernatorial elections in Russia reflect the real sentiment of voters, and, naturally, makes one question the population’s support of the current Russian authorities’ policy based on official election results. The cases of Belozertsev, Solovyov, and Gaizer should be brought to mind every time there is talk about Vladimir Putin’s high approval rating, the population’s incredibly strong support of him or his new electoral victories. One should ask oneself whether these numbers actually mean anything and whether those millions of alleged supporters are willing to do anything for their leaders.  

The political system built by Putin is not based on the population’s true support but rather on police violence, administrative resource and propaganda-enforced polling and voting results, the authenticity of which is more than questionable.  In many respects, Putin copied the Soviet political system that had for many years appeared to be solid and supported by the majority of the population.   However, when the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, no one anywhere went out in the streets in its support. Millions of Communist party members, law enforcement operatives, state servants, and employees of the budget sector not only just passively watched the regime crumble but often welcomed the collapse themselves.    

The arrest of Penza governor Ivan Belozertsev has once again demonstrated that in today’s Russia the percentage of the vote received by pro-regime candidates in the elections that they themselves hold has nothing to do with these people’s actual popularity. There is no reason to think that Vladimir Putin’s official approval rating or his election results are any more authentic than the former Penza governor’s questionable electoral achievements. 

Even though this may seem incredible today, a day may very well come when Vladimir Putin’s removal from office will not provoke any indignation of the Russian population and his popularity will prove to be nothing but a propaganda myth and a result of election fraud and vote rigging on all levels.