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Halfway between opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s grim winter homecoming and September parliamentary elections that will test President Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy, analysts say Russia has entered a new era of repressions that poses risks for the Kremlin -- and will be hard to reverse.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
'A Major Policy Shift'
When Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko scheduled a meeting of the upper house of parliament after President Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the-nation speech last month, she said it would follow an address for a “new time.” It was unclear what she meant, and speculation that her remarks signaled some aggressive move by Moscow -- such as a merger with Minsk or a new offensive against Ukraine – has not been borne out so far.
But she was not wrong: It is a new time.
Since Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny was jailed upon his return to Russia in January -- and arguably since his poisoning last August, or even earlier -- there has been a substantial alteration in the Kremlin’s approach, analysts say, and one that will be hard to reverse, even if Putin wants to.
Different observers have put it in different ways: One wrote of a “worst-case” scenario coming true; another said that Putin’s Kremlin is “killing off hope”; while a third tweeted that the Russian state has gone “all in on repression.”
Still another said the level of “repression and authoritarianism” in Russia today “marks a milestone in the political decay and intellectual debasement of late Putinism.”
“There is no way of escaping the realization that a major policy shift has taken place in Russia,” Mark Galeotti, an analyst, author, and expert on the state security services, wrote in an article published in The Moscow Times on May 1.
“A regime that for 20 years sought to be an exemplar of a kind of ‘hybrid authoritarianism,’” he wrote, has shifted to a more menacing style of rule that “could be called post-post-authoritarianism -- or maybe just plain, old-fashioned authoritarianism.”
Since Navalny’s return, this shift has for some, at least, come to seem inevitable. Each week, perhaps even every day, has brought multiple fresh signs of an intensified crackdown on dissent -- what Freedom House called Putin’s “vicious efforts to silence dissenting voices” ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
“The attempted murder of Aleksei Navalny in 2020 and his imprisonment…. This year was just the most prominent demonstration of the regime’s cruelty,” the U.S. government-funded NGO said in its annual Nations In Transit report, released on April 28. Russia’s National Democratic Governance score dropped to its lowest possible position, the report said.
“The suppression of protests with unprecedented severity, the extension of the foreign agents law to practically any citizen involved in political activities, and plans to tighten state control over the Internet all suggest that the Kremlin is fearful of its critics and determined to secure a choreographed victory in the fall 2021 elections by any means necessary,” it said.
But like other major moves that have ratcheted up tensions with the West in recent years, such as the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, it was not easily predictable. And it was not widely predicted -- certainly not before it became clear, just 14 months ago, that Putin would hand himself the option of seeking two more six-year terms after his current Kremlin stint ends in 2024.
“I didn't think the Kremlin would go all in on repression as quickly and as deeply as it has,” Sam Greene, a political analyst and director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, said in an April 30 thread on Twitter.
In November 2018, Greene “looked at the challenges facing Vladimir Putin, the options on his menu, and tried to predict what he’d do,” he wrote. “Looking back, I was right about most things, but wrong about one. I wish I hadn’t been.”
Among four paths Putin might choose to take in a bid to solve his problem, Greene wrote in 2018, one was to “break the constitution” by “engineering an end to term limits” for himself, as Greene accurately predicted Putin would do.
The Risks Of Repression
But he predicted Putin would stop short of seeking to “break the people,” to turn to “wholesale repression in order to cow opponents and make democratic legitimacy less important.”
Greene guessed wrong, he wrote, because he “misunderstood the cost-benefit analysis from the Kremlin’s point of view.”
He thought that Putin would reason that “increased repression created risks, if only because it could spark an unpredictable dynamic of contention,” and would decide not to take that risk, Greene wrote. But in the Kremlin, “the question was evidently posed differently: Was it riskier for the Kremlin to have an autonomous opposition, or to have none? The answer is clear.”
Putin’s administration “has gradually concluded that it is no longer bound by the niceties of democratic procedure,” Greene went on. “The Kremlin -- much like the Chinese authorities in Hong Kong, or its neighbors in Minsk -- has decided that outright repression is now a legitimate form of governance.”
Other analysts have also suggested they thought, or at least hoped, that such a dire turn of events was unlikely as well as unfortunate.
“I am struck by the extent to which Russia today, and US-Russian relations today, resemble the worst-case scenarios of those ‘possible Russia futures’ studies we wrote in the 90s and oughts,” Olya Oliker, Europe and Central Asia director at the International Crisis Group, wrote on Twitter on April 30.
Greene bet against the “break-the-people” option because, he wrote, “Given that the relationship with the opposition was manageable, why risk it?”
Galeotti suggested that he also struggled to understand why the Kremlin decided to take the path it has chosen.
Despite years of challenges to the viability of a “hybrid” or “postmodern” brand of authoritarianism that “relied largely not so much on fear and force as control of the narrative,” he wrote, Putin’s “regime was still solidly in power. There was no meaningful opposition, the elite were either content or fearful of losing what they had, and the state’s capacities, from financial reserves to repressive capabilities, in healthy surplus.”
“This makes it all the harder to explain “the apparent decision to drop the mask and turn to much more openly repressive measures,” he wrote.
'A Throne Of Bayonets'
He indicated there may have been several factors. One of them: The challenge mounted by Navalny, whose arrest and imprisonment have sparked several rounds of nationwide protests since his return on January 17 following treatment for the nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin. Another: Sheer momentum.
“Once you start along some roads, it’s hard to stop,” Galeotti wrote. “When [Navalny] survived and defiantly returned to Russia the regime clearly felt it had no alternative but to imprison him, lest it look weak. And once his movement began to hold mass protests, which spread beyond the usual metropolitical set and into towns and cities across the country, then the ‘logic’ of cracking down more broadly became hard to resist.”
Another ingredient is the Kremlin’s narrative -- deep-rooted and still growing, it seems, despite a lack of evidence -- according to which the West, and in particular Washington, is bent on undermining Russia and pushing Putin from power. There’s debate about whether Putin and other Russian officials believe that, but Moscow’s actions suggest that may not matter much.
In any case, Galeotti wrote, while “the scale of repression can and will be modulated depending on the needs and fears of the Kremlin at any time,” the road the Russian state has taken “is not a path that can be retraced.”
“Putin’s is now a throne of bayonets -- and billy clubs -- and he will have to sit on it,” he wrote in The Moscow Times article.
Greene, too, warned that Putin and his government have passed a point of no return. They will share the risks run by other states that have cracked down hard, from China to Belarus, where Alyaksandr Lukashenka has chosen violence and repression as the means to retain power amid determined opposition to his 26-year rule following a deeply disputed election last August.
“China may never again be able to govern Hong Kong with the consent of its residents; Lukashenka’s rule will last only as long as the police are content to keep him in power,” Greene wrote. “For the Kremlin, too, there is no turning back.”