Hello! Three weeks into the Kremlin’s so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, the atmosphere in Russia is getting darker and darker. President Vladimir Putin gave a speech Wednesday about a “fifth column” that, he said, should be spat out “like a mosquito swallowed by accident”. At the same time, investigators are opening cases under new laws on fake news, and opposition activists are finding the letter ‘Z’ (a patriotic symbol promoted by the authorities) daubed on the doors to their apartments. Voices of dissent are rare.
Scum & traitors
Since the start of the ‘special military operation, almost every one of Putin’s speeches has been chilling. But the speech he gave on Wednesday at a government meeting still stands out. No head of state in post-Soviet Russia has ever made such threatening allusions to the possibility of mass repression against ordinary people.
- The first part of Putin’s speech was devoted to bolstering the Russian narrative of the past week: claims that Ukraine is developing biological and chemical weapons. “With foreign technical support, the pro-Nazi Kyiv regime would have obtained weapons of mass destruction in the foreseeable future and, of course, would have used them against Russia,” Putin said. “There was a network of dozens of laboratories in Ukraine, where military biological programmes were conducted under the guidance and with the financial support of the Pentagon, including experiments with coronavirus strains, anthrax, cholera, African swine fever and other deadly diseases”.
- Putin said three times that Russia had no choice about how to act in Ukraine: it “simply had to” start a “military operation”, that it “had no right to act differently” and that “we were left with no option but to defend ourselves”.
- Another section of the speech was devoted to one of Putin’s favorite theories — the apparent decline of the West. “The truth is that the problems faced by millions of people in the West are the result of many years of actions by the ruling elite of your respective countries, their mistakes, and short-sighted policies and ambitions. This elite is not thinking about how to improve the lives of their citizens in Western countries. They are obsessed with their own self-serving interests and super profits… the whole planet is now paying for the West’s ambitions.”
- According to Putin, Russia will never allow itself to be brow-beaten. “Russia will never sink to such miserable humiliation,” he said. “The battle we are fighting is a battle for our sovereignty, for the future of our country and our children. We will fight for the right to be and remain Russia.”
- But the most attention-grabbing section was when Putin focused on a “fifth column of national traitors.” He said: “They [the collective West] will back the so-called fifth column of national traitors – those who make money here in our country but live over there, and “live” not in the geographical sense of the word but in their minds, in their servile mentality. I do not in the least condemn those who have villas in Miami or on the French Riviera, who cannot make do without foie gras, oysters or so-called gender freedom. That is not the problem, not at all. The problem, again, is that many of these people are, essentially, over there in their minds and not here with our people and with Russia. In their opinion it is a sign of belonging to the superior caste, the superior race. People like this would sell their own mothers just to be allowed to sit in the entrance hall of the superior caste.”
- Putin alleged that the “collective West” was trying to divide Russia, provoke civil unrest and, ultimately, destroy the country. “But any nation, and even more so the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors — who will simply be spat out like a mosquito… I am convinced that a natural and necessary self-detoxification of society like this will strengthen our country, our solidarity and cohesion, and our readiness to respond to any challenge.”
Putin’s comments about a “fifth column” sent shockwaves through Russian society. “This statement by the president of my country shocked, insulted and offended me,” a former senior manager at a state-owned company ex-KGB operative wrote on Facebook. “I served for 30 years and I don’t want to be ‘spat out’ along with 25 million others who don’t agree.”
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, was forced to explain Thursday that the president did not have mass repression in mind. But he repeated the same chilling rhetoric: “A lot of people show themselves, in Russian terms, as traitors. They themselves disappear from our lives, some quit their jobs, some leave the services, others leave the country and go to live in different states. This is how a cleansing happens,” he said.
Russian officials understand how to read the signals from the top. A couple of hours after Putin’s speech, the Investigative Committee said it had opened the first case under a new law that criminalizes the publishing of ‘fake news’ about the Russian army (that can be p[unished by up to 15 years in jail). Their first target was a woman who fits Putin’s words about those who “cannot make do without foie gras”: Instagram star Veronika Belotserkovskaya, the ex-wife of a gambling tycoon who has long lived in France. Clearly, Belotserkovskaya cannot be sent to jail, but there are also new cases against people currently in Russia: two were recently opened in the Tomsk Region of Siberia.
So far, there are relatively few criminal cases linked to the fighting in Ukraine. However, there are already dozens of ‘administrative cases’ that could entail fines of up to 50,000 rubles ($500) and lead to jail time for repeat offenses. One such case was opened by investigators in the southern city of Krasnodar after a man waiting in a traffic jam got out of his car and spat at an advertising hoarding with the now-infamous ‘Z’ symbol. One of the more alarming things about this video is that the man was almost certainly only arrested after being denounced by a motorist behind him — likely the one who filmed the incident.
At the same time, the authorities are piling pressure on Russia’s remaining opposition. Police raided the homes of politicians from the liberal Yabloko Party and independent journalists in the north-western city of Pskov early Friday morning. Their targets included prominent Yabloko politician Lev Shlosberg, and local journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva (who is not a member of Yabloko). In the case of Prokopyeva, police broke down her door, hauled her out of bed and held her face-down on the floor while she was handcuffed.
A court will announce its verdict Tuesday in the trial of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. The prosecution is asking for him to receive a 13-year prison sentence.
Support for the ‘special military operation’
Surveys show that Russians support the Kremlin’s ‘special military operation’. State-owned pollster VTsIOM said at the start of the month that 71 percent of Russians support the operation, 70 percent think it’s going well and 84 percent trust the military.
Even independent polling outfits, which cannot be accused of bias, give similar figures. One independent poll published by Kirill Sukhotsky, European bureau chief for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, showed that 75 percent of people get their news about the ‘special military operation’ from the television and 75 percent support military action. Moreover, from late February to mid-March, Sukhotsky wrote, the amount of support has grown.
The Bell obtained figures from another independent survey in which Russians were asked to identify the aims of the ‘special military operations’. A total of 32 percent said it was to “assist the Donetsk and Lugansk Republics”, 15 percent said it was to “protect Russia’s security” and a further 15 percent offered various other positive explanations (including “we’re saving everyone”). However, 27 percent said that they did not understand the aims of the military action. Only 3.7 percent described it as “Russian aggression”.
Obviously, it’s impossible to entirely trust the words of those taking part in surveys in an authoritarian country during a period of military conflict. At the same time, though, this is the sort of sociological data that the Kremlin is likely using when making decisions.
Limited opposition and protest
There is no mass opposition movement in Russia. Demonstrations against the ‘special military operation’ have been sporadic and uncoordinated. Even so, protest-monitoring group OVD-Info said more than 15,000 people have been detained by police in three weeks.
The most high-profile protest in Russia came from Marina Ovsyannikova, a member of the production team at state-owned Channel One who burst onto the set of a news broadcast waving an anti-war poster. She has since been fined 30,000 rubles ($250), and she may yet face a criminal prosecution and jail time.
The only member of the Russian elite to openly speak out against the ‘special military operation’ is Arkady Dvorkovich, a former deputy deputy prime minister and the current president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE). Dvorkovich is also head of the Skolkovo Foundation, a high-tech fund that was set-up when Dmitry Medvedev was president to build bridges between Russia and the West. The day after Dvorkovich’s initial comments, the Skolkovo Foundation published a second statement from Dvorkovich — this time without any anti-war sentiment but with condemnations of Western sanctions and a world order in which “Nazism and the domination of one nation over others is possible”.
It seems likely Dvorkovich was hoping to remain president of FIDE (a position he is unlikely to continue to hold without condemnation of Russia) and keep his role at Skolkovo. But his gambit failed: after Putin made his ‘fifth column’ speech, a top official from the ruling United Russia party, Andrei Turchak, publicly accused Dvorkovich of “treason” and demanded his dismissal. Dvorkovich announced his departure Friday.
The most influential group of Russians suffering in the current circumstances are the country’s super-rich. Western sanctions have deprived them of money, yachts and private jets. However, there have been few public statements of dissent. The most outspoken billionaire so far has been Mikhail Fridman, the founder of Alfa-Group who is worth $12.1 billion (prior to sanctions). In an interview to Bloomberg, Fridman complained that he was having to live in London on the €2,500 ($2,768) a month that the U.K. government will allow him to withdraw from his bank. Fridman also stated that Russian billionaires have no way of influencing Putin. On the latter point at least, he is right: in the past (which Fridman prefers not to discuss) such opportunities existed — but those days are over. Billionaires today are one of the biggest losers from Russia’s ‘special military operation’, and have no instruments to try and change the situation. Not one big business owner or prominent entrepreneur in Russia has spoken out against what the Kremlin is currently doing in Ukraine.