EXPERT’S COMMENTARY: The world is mobilising in response to the threat posed by Putin‘s Russia – is Russian opposition playing its full part? (Robert Pszczel)
International response to the barbaric invasion of Ukraine by Russia has been impressive. Nothing is perfect and there is a share of disappointment in the veracity of reaction (vide position taken by one or two NATO/EU member states, hesitations regarding supplies of sophisticated military equipment in some quarters of the West or ambiguous stand taken by the Vatican and some NGOs). But overall, international community has been active, united, concrete and determined, in facing up to the challenge thrown at us by Russia. Can be the same said about the Russian opposition?
This determination has taken the Kremlin by surprise. Not for the first time Putin and his coterie were found wanting when it comes to understanding of the outside world, beyond the confines of his Kremlin delusional bubble. They completely misjudged Ukrainians – the state, its leaders and institutions, and Ukrainian people. The amazing heroism and skilful organisation of Ukrainians (on the battlefield and elsewhere) so far has proven more than a match for the brutal but decrepit instruments used by Putin to subjugate and destroy Ukraine. The Russian regime has also confirmed once again that he has a very shallow grasp of drivers and sentiments underpinning Western policy. Democracies are always slow to enter a conflict as they value human life and care about the quality of life – but, once provoked, they usually show tenacity and decisiveness that has confounded dictators well before Putin’s time. Military assistance to Ukraine is flowing – weapons, ammunition, training opportunities are being offered on long-term basis. Sanctions are in place, and more are in the works. Russia’s isolation is growing every week. Even close Russian allies such as Kazakhstan are refusing to approve Moscow’s actions (e.g., on its sham attempt to grab new parts of Ukraine as part of Russia).
In Russia itself, Putin’s mad gamble to prolong the war (the war that he is losing) by forcing mobilisation is encountering not only logistic problems (caused by all-pervasive corruption and ineptitude), but also generating a huge exodus of young Russians abroad and sporadic but visible protests. Regime’s political prisoners such as Alexei Navalny and Kara-Murza continue to offer their voices of conscience, from behind the bars. Even paid Kremlin propagandists show dissatisfaction with the course of events, clearly confused by the latest military and political setbacks.
Russian society remains traumatised and desperate in its attempt to ignore the real responsibility of Russia, its institutions and many people for the barbaric war, crimes and atrocities committed in Ukraine. This desperation has become more acute as the war has literally knocked on people’s doors – in Buryatia, Dagestan, but also in Moscow or St. Petersburg. For the first time in decades, millions of Russians have an existential reason to fear the bloodthirsty regime, which wants to turn thousands of them into cannon-fodder. At the time of writing, we are already witnessing the first cases of forced recruits sent to the frontline (immediately, without any meaningful training, frequently with substandard equipment), surrendering to Ukrainian forces. Economic conditions in the Russian Federation are becoming dire. Forced mobilisation of thousands of key employees is aggravating already existing economic woes.[i] The combined effect of sanctions, regime’s rejection of any reforms, decay of moral and legal norms, the costs of financing the war – all combine in destroying long-term basis of support for the autocratic system, built ruthlessly over the years. Putin’s regime looks more than fragile; its aura of invincibility is gone.
One telling indicator is the clear and recent increase in demand among the broad sectors of Russian society for information content prepared by independent Russian media outlets. Russians, when faced with decisions that affect their lives in an essential manner, suddenly rediscover (or recreate) an appetite for the truth and credible information.
History is being written and some even venture today to compare the situation of Russia to that of 1917. While such comparisons are premature there is no doubt about one thing: Russian society, Russian state, and its framework, are experiencing the most consequential period of turmoil in post-Soviet history. Judging by the effects already generated in Russia’s neighbourhood, especially in CSTO/CIS countries, we may be seeing at least the beginning of an end to the post-Soviet empire, so coveted by Putin himself.
Speaking of Russian society and its propensity to institute a rebellion against the regime, one may remain sceptical of such a scenario for a variety of reasons, not least due to an ingrained apathy and the absence of moral compass plaguing most of the population. Still, the boulders of a semi-automatic (“no questions asked”) passive loyalty to the system have been unchained by Putin’s high-risk mobilisation decision. He came to power after the first Chechen war, when the state apparatus was reeling from unpopularity caused by the plight of thousands of young Russia sent to battle against their will. Putin drew cynical yet rational lessons, i.e., by making sure that only professionals and volunteers would fight in his military adventures – but on 21 September he broke that rule. The bets are off.
Equally important (or even more so perhaps) is the inevitable dissatisfaction of many members (or pillars) of the regime with the latest developments. Wars are always bad for business’ fortunes, so are sanctions and other restrictions. One is certain that many tense conversations are taking place in Rublovka and other places inhabited by Russia’s current ‘‘elite,” focusing on the question whether Putin is still the lynchpin of the system benefitting thousands of regime cronies – or the biggest threat to it. Who knows what may ensue from such conversations. Russian history’s dramatic change moments suggest that nobody can predict with any certainty a political upheaval, but when it comes it comes without a warning and unfolds swiftly.
All the above points to conditions that offer unchartered waters for those Russians who want to influence changes. In Russia itself, jailed democratic leaders, persecuted opponents of the war and others risking their careers, freedom or even life, by publicly standing against the regime, deserve our unquestionable support and encouragement. Real political debate in Russia is all but restricted to the kitchen table chatter and, as long as mass protests in places such as Dagestan are not replicated in large numbers across the whole country, authoritarian apparatus will ensure that this remains the case. However, such restrictions do not apply to Russians abroad.
The behaviour of the Russian diaspora in Western countries (and in other places) have been a subject of much scrutiny and frequently justified criticism. Car rallies and other public events in support of Russia’s war have not been uncommon. We have seen graffiti with the shameful Z symbol painted on walls of famous cathedrals, there have been incidents with Ukrainian refugees (some from the places of carnage, such as Bucha) assaulted by Russians. Visitors to countries where Russian tourists are still allowed in large numbers, offer stories of provocative and insulting behaviour. Even after the mobilisation decree of Putin, many young Russians fleeing to e.g., Georgia (a country partially occupied by Russia) or Kazakhstan, show scant gratitude for their hosts, not to mention recognition of Russia’s wrongdoings.
Information space also abounds with articles and social media entries produced by Russian emigres that completely misrepresent for example the positions of frontier states which argue strongly for the freezing of tourist visas to Russian citizens (on persuasive moral, political and security grounds). This is although asylum or other forms of permitted entry on humanitarian grounds are available and there is no intention to restrict them.
Sadly, even analysis offered by many respected and astute analysts of Russian politics too often prefers to blame the West for the condition in which Russia finds itself. Mistakes of Western policies, the role of Putin’s enablers (which regrettably included individuals, companies, even countries) are equated with responsibility of Russians themselves. Some policy decisions which the Russian diaspora finds inconvenient are even ludicrously explained by effective Ukrainian lobbying.[ii]
This contrasts with a positive picture. There are numerous examples of Russian emigres fully using opportunities offered in free countries for managing innovative media outlets which cannot operate in Russia. These, together with independent Russian analysts and academics, provide unique and valuable insights into Russian domestic and foreign policy, or offer some blueprints for future solutions that could work in a fully democratic Russia. There are also thousands of hard working and creative Russian professionals, who enrich our economies and show ethically acceptable positions on the current phase of Russia’s imperialism.
The problem is that the second group, regardless of its high intellectual calibre, does not seem to dominate in public discourse among the Russian diasporas.
And this is how we come to the curious case of the bona fide Russian oppositionists residing in the West. This groups includes many high-profile, reputable politicians and activists, who at different periods had to escape from Russia.
One may do a simple internet exercise – using any search engine, type in the words “Russian opposition” and see what comes up. In majority of cases, you will see the name of Alexei Navalny appear, and sometimes Vesna (an anti-war group based in St. Petersburg which has called for demonstrations after the mobilisation drive was declared). What you will hardly see on your screen is a link to public statements of a Russian opposition group based outside Russia. If you make your search categories more precise you may be directed to Wikipedia entry on the Anti-War Committee of Russia.[iii] It is an organisation founded by a group of exiled Russian public figures (members include politicians, entrepreneurs, writers, journalists, lawyers, and economists) for the purpose of opposing Putin’s regime and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Apart from issuing public statements (there have been about a dozen of them since March 2022), the Committee runs some projects, primarily aimed at helping emigrants leaving Russia due to the war.
There is much to like and respect in the public positions taken by this coordinating body. It has called, inter alia, for investigating the crimes of the Russian army committed in Ukraine, explained the importance of sanctioning the regime and providing material support to Ukraine defending its territory and people.
But the work of that Committee (or other, less known projects) still illustrates the weaknesses of the Russian opposition abroad.
First, it seems to have insignificant impact on the behaviour of the large Russian diaspora in the West and even lesser on society in Russia itself. While the challenges are substantial and one should not downplay them, the gap between political potential of opposition figures’ activity and its concrete results is just too big. Before 24 February this was regarded as a source of some frustration, but now the evaluation has moved towards the realm of irritation.
Second, its loose structure (even membership seems to fluctuate) lacks significant focus and commitment one would associate with a serious political initiative. Individual figures are active in information space – but one gets an impression that they act more like commentators and analysts in Western media than a coherent structure with a clear and united set of positions and principles. While the Belarussian case is of course very different but it is impossible not to compare the results of this type of activity with work undertaken by the united movement in exile led by S. Tsikhanouskaya.
Third, even though Russian high-profile political figures in exile have an abundance of public experience and exposure to Western countries, their rare collective statements sometimes replicate the clichés and unjustified demands and criticism of the West. Examples include claims that the West has Ukrainian blood on its hands, that it did nothing but issue warnings, and of course that popular red herring – that calling for the end of tourist visas is reminiscent of dark pages in European history. In short, on occasions these views give an impression that Russian democratic opposition wants to downplay the responsibility of the Russian society for the existence and actions of the Putin regime. This generates a lot of head scratching in many countries with an otherwise very positive attitude towards Russian emigres.
Outlining those weaknesses should not be seen as a way to undermine the potential or penalise Russia’s opposition. Friends need to be able to tell each other the full truth. There is a false dichotomy presented in the public sphere that tries to divide European views into two camps – those in Europe who allegedly believe in a possibility of a Russian democracy and those who are very sceptical about the chances of a future Russian democracy. Most recently it was promoted in a piece published by six well-known Western politicians and experts.[iv]
However, the reality, in my view, is different. Democracy in Russia has a future. But it needs to be built. By Russians. Thus Russian opposition deserves strong support from the West. But democratic people in Russia and outside have the right to expect from the Russian opposition figures residing abroad that they organise themselves in a more focused and united fashion, leave any individual differences behind and come up with a truly united political platform.
We all face at the moment a supreme test for the whole international community as a result of barbaric actions of Putin’s regime. Can be state unequivocally that the key Russian opposition figures in exile in the West, the people whom we have grown to admire and respect individually over the years – are fully passing the test by being sufficiently organised to influence changes in Russia and among Russians? Probably not. Can they still do it? Yes. Should they be supported and encouraged in this task? Yes. But the urgency is there. History’s judgment, of Russia and of the world, will be harsh if the task is not fulfilled now.
Author: Robert Pszczel, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Programme of the Casimir Pulaski Foundation
Photo: Владислав Постников, CC BY-SA 4.0
[i] “The Russian economy will ‘die by winter’ because of the ‘catastrophic consequences’ of the military mobilization, a top Russian economist warns,” Fortune, September 26, 2022, https://fortune.com/2022/09/26/russian-economy-die-by-winter-says-economist-vladislav-inozemtsev-putin-mobilization/
[ii] Irina Borogan, Andrei Soldatov, “Europe’s Disastrous Ban on Russians Putin’s Exiles Are Crucial to Winning the War—and to Building a Better Russia,” Foreign Affaires 101, no 5 (September/October 2022), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/russian-federation/europe-disastrous-ban-russians?utm_medium=social
[iii] „Anti-War Committee of Russia,” Wikipedia, last modified August 19, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-War_Committee_of_Russia#Initiatives_and_activities
[iv] “’Collective guilt’ — the dilemma of penalising Russia’s opposition,” Observer, September 27, 2022 https://euobserver.com/opinion/156141