Russia has cracked down brutally on independent media sources. Europe must support them and other activists to help smooth the transition to a better Russia once Putinism falls.
Since Russia began its war in Ukraine, it has conducted a large-scale campaign against everyone and everything even remotely critical of it, especially organisations and groups that can spread information or potentially self-organise. Despite reports of considerable support for the war, the Russian state acts as if it is fighting a substantial foe within – a foe that only grows bigger with every week of the fighting in Ukraine. This increase in domestic repression might be explained by Russia’s transformation into a totalitarian state, in which any deviation from official thinking is considered dangerous. But the truth is more trivial – support for the war is not as high as reports indicate. More importantly, the state does not regard this support as reliable.
The Russian state has attacked the independent media and individual journalists with increasing force for at least a decade, but since February this assault has crossed new lines. Remaining oases of independent journalism, like Echo of Moscow and the Dozhd TV-channel, have finally been shut down. Platforms that work from abroad have been censored. For example, Novaya Gazeta – one of the few remaining independent media outlets that was forced to halt its operations in Russia until the end of the war – opened a new website from abroad, Novaya Gazeta Europe. In Russia, this was blocked less than two weeks after its launch. Almost daily, all types of independent media content run from aboard and Russian regional media that was still operating in relative freedom before the war, are being banned.
With equal ferocity, Russians are being designated as individual foreign agents. Almost 200 individuals, mostly journalists and bloggers, have received this status, making it much harder for them to continue working inside Russia. Independent NGOs and every corner of civil society not run or controlled by the state tell similar stories.
The war on ‘foreign agents’
The Kremlin now wants the power to designate people as foreign agents even in the absence of formal proof that they are financed from abroad, let alone working in the interests of a foreign state. This would allow the state to disfranchise Russian citizens simply accused of ‘foreign influence’, a system clearly open to abuse.
Even so, 2022 is not 1937 and the Putinist state is not Stalin’s USSR. Russia does not have the reach to be properly totalitarian (though not for lack of trying). In its latest assault on Meta (Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) the state blocked the websites of Facebook and Instagram, but allowed WhatsApp to remain – officially because it is a tool of communication not of information, but in fact because it is used by 86% of Russians, including Putin’s core electorate. Similarly, YouTube, which hosts the most prolific anti-Putin and anti-war content, is watched by 80 million Russians, mostly for entertainment rather than independent content, and has not been banned.
In March, seven of the top ten most downloaded apps were VPNs – services that allow users to bypass national bans on online content. Many Russians use VPNs to access Instagram, which reportedly lost only half of its audience in Russia after being banned. But the readership of the most successful independent news platform in Russia – Medusa, a Latvian-based, blocked website – increased from 25 million monthly visits in January to nearly 50 million in March. The more niche outlet, Mediazona, increased its readership from one to four million in the same period and even the human rights project, OVD-info, grew its readership six-fold between January and March, achieving 600 000 monthly visits.
Although the Russian state is increasing pressure on civil society and forcing many independent voices to leave Russia, there is evidently an interest in independent content which is growing despite state bans and other limitations. It may be that Russia will eventually close some of the loopholes, ban YouTube and other websites, and restrict the use of VPNs (which are technically already banned). But a repeat of the Telegram ban, pursued for over two years only to be dismissed, is a more likely scenario. The first two months of the war have shown that Russia is not ready to erect a ‘Great Russian Firewall’ even if that was technically possible.
As there is no hope for a quick ceasefire in Ukraine and the effects of sanctions will become more evident in the months to come, it is reasonable to predict an increased interest in independent content amongst those Russians who are sceptical, or even those who are in favour of the ‘special military operation’. It thus makes sense to increase efforts to support Russian civil society by providing proper context and helping to dissolve the toxic constructs of state propaganda.
Supporting civil society
Propaganda cannot be fought with propaganda. To increase the numbers of informed Russians – and in this case being informed raises the chances of becoming anti-war – it is crucial to support initiatives and platforms that produce news and reports, publish analyses, create documentaries, investigate war crimes, and provide open-source intelligence. With the help of donations and direct donor support there are many organisations that could effectively fight Russian propaganda in Russia, from the outside. As there are differences in taste with regard to style and methods of delivery, it makes no sense to focus support in one basket, but to invest in several organisations that were either forced to leave or have been established outside Russia from the beginning. With rare exceptions, this type of media organisation cannot survive on advertising or paywall income alone, especially if they are blocked in Russia or have been designated as foreign agents. To survive, let alone to thrive, they need direct core support as well as assistance with legal and visa issues.
Since the beginning of the war, between 200 000 and 300 000 Russians have left the country. Many stay close to Russia in states where Russians do not require visas or find otherwise favourable conditions. Hubs of Russians in exile are also emerging in Riga, Vilnius, Berlin, and Prague – often including highly educated professionals with experience of pro-democracy work in Russia. Many have had political ambitions and have participated in protests against the war and authoritarianism in Russia. Naturally, it is in the interest of the West to inject such Russians back into Russia once it becomes safe enough to do so – or at least to encourage their fight for a different future. But, given the current circumstances, it makes no sense to create more political prisoners now, when these people could be helpful in the near future.
The key question is whether that future will arrive in 2023 or 2030. I would argue that the Russian political system will experience challenges in multiple dimensions at the end of 2022 and well into 2023. For as long as it makes sense for pro-democratic forces to remain active and engage, it makes sense to continue supporting them and their communities in Europe, allowing them to gather strength, infrastructure and expertise to bring back as soon as Putin’s regime shows signs of instability.
The EU has been ready to accept huge costs in this war. To host a few thousand Russian activists and several thousand professionals who could in any case benefit the EU economies does not sound like a costly investment.
Given the complexity of Russia’s political construct, its nuclear arsenal, and the potential value of its economic collaboration, it is essential to attempt to look past the horrors of the war towards a future when Russia is transitioning from Putinism. What will that Russia’s place in Europe be? What role can it have? What kind of Russia would the EU like to live alongside? Russian civil society would like the EU to consider these questions now, so that once the changes in Russia begin, this complicated conversation does not start from nothing.
Russia will not disappear once the war is over. The way it transforms and what it aspires to become are matters that should be on the agenda of every single neighbour. The Russians who oppose the war understand that there is no future for Russia under Putin. To convince those who doubt this, they too need to be able to propose a better future. Clearly, this future would be full of challenges and hard choices. But having a beacon in sight would make things somewhat easier.
Anton Barbashin’s writing is part of the article series written for the Lennart Meri Conference 2022 special edition of the Diplomaatia magazine. More articles: lmc.icds.ee/articles/