Russia’s top investigative official has called for a sweeping new approach toward political protests, internal dissent, and the media, warning that a "hybrid war unleashed by the U.S. and its allies" has entered the phase of "open confrontation."
The comments by Aleksandr Bastrykin, published on April 18 in the magazine Kommersant Vlast, were some of the most strident to date by officials in the top echelons of the Russian government.
They also echo earlier statements by President Vladimir Putin himself, and other allies, that reflect hardening thinking by the Kremlin toward many of the democratic, and possibly economic, reforms implemented since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the magazine piece, Bastrykin, who heads the Russia’s Investigative Committee, said the "destructive" influence of the United States needed to be counteracted, and he proposed new rights restrictions on Russian society.
“Over the past decade, Russia, as well as a series of other countries, has lived under the conditions of a hybrid war unleashed by the United States and its allies,” he wrote. “The war is being conducted along many fronts: political, economic, informational, as well as legal. Moreover, in recent years, this has entered a qualitatively new phase of open confrontation.”
“Unfortunately, the weapons used in this war with increasing frequency have become that of international law and the justice based on it,” he said.
As evidence, Bastrykin, who is considered an ally of Putin if not a member of his inner circle, cited a series of arbitration rulings in the case of the Yukos oil company, which was broken up and its assets sold off to state-run Russian companies in a series of controversial auctions in the early 2000s. Recent arbitration rulings in European courts have awarded billions to former shareholders, and in some locations, courts have ordered Russian government assets seized.
He cited the case of former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko; blame for his murder in 2006 in London was pinned on the Russian government by a British judge. And he pointed to the findings of the Dutch Safety Board which suggested Russian involvement, or knowledge, of the missile that downed a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 people on board.
Other examples of "legal weapons," he said, included the U.S. corruption investigation of world soccer's governing body, FIFA, and the prosecution in U.S. federal court of Russians arms smuggler Viktor Bout.
Bastrykin proposed criminalizing criticism of Russia's annexation of the Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in 2014, something that has been condemned by the European Union, the United States, and others. And he suggested Chinese-style restrictions on the Internet such as blocking access to foreign media.
He also accused the United States of funding opposition parties and stirring up the recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, the enclave in Azerbaijan that Baku and Yerevan continue to fight over.
Since returning to the presidency in 2012, Putin has retained widespread popularity in Russia, particularly since the annexation of Crimea and the more recent military campaign in Syria. But there are signs that the Kremlin fears growing discontent, particularly as the country’s economy stagnates.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for September, government officials have proposed or implemented new policies aimed at restricting the influence of independent nongovernment organizations.
Earlier this month, Putin announced the creation of a new National Guard, headed by his former bodyguard, whose ranks would include riot police and rapid reaction police units. Many experts interpreted the move as aimed at suppressing internal dissent.
Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who studies Russian security services, said that Bastrykin’s article might be "a manifesto for Russia’s comprehensive declaration of independence from the world."
"Bastrykin’s manifesto might represent not just the fulminations of an authoritarian out of step with the mainstream, but an attempt to pitch ideas to a Kremlin contemplating an authoritarian turn," he wrote in a blog post.