By Marcus Kolga, November 28, 2023
For more than two decades, Vladimir Putin has consolidated his power and dashed any hope of democratic transformation in Russia. His actions have dragged his nation back towards neo-Stalinist totalitarianism and a perpetual state of war and violence. While the possibility of a democratic and free post-Putin Russia may seem remote today, it is not without hope. By supporting Russian independent journalism and civil society organizations, Canada and its allies can help activists maintain and eventually realize the hope of a democratic future.
Since 2000, Vladimir Putin has relentlessly chiseled away at Russia’s post-Cold War potential, creating an Orwellian mafia-state through political repression, rampant corruption, the suppression of free media, and costly neo-imperialist wars like the one currently ravaging Ukraine. He has weaponized misinformation against his own people, creating false realities that distract from his failed leadership. This includes manipulating history, rehabilitating Stalin, glorifying Soviet colonization, and fostering radical Russian nationalism, xenophobia, and irrational fear and animosity toward the Western democratic world.
Through disinformation and conspiracies, Putin has fashioned an image of an all-powerful Russian leader who is uniquely qualified to defend Russia against the “pure Satanism” of the West and the “fabricated threat” of NATO imperialism. Putin’s – and thereby Russia’s – domestic adversaries include the LGBTQ community, pro-democracy liberals, and anyone who challenges his official narratives or authority.
Putin relies on disinformation and conspiracies to deflect attention from his failure to improve the quality of life for ordinary Russians over the past two decades, while simultaneously reinforcing the impunity of the kleptocrats who support his regime. A 2019 report by Russian auditors revealed that one-third of Russian medical facilities lacked running water, over 40% were without central heating, and 35% had no sewage systems.
This toxic blend of disinformation and stagnation fosters a climate of paranoia and reverence for power and violence, laying the groundwork for bloody conflicts and Russia’s murderous aggression against Ukraine. Putin’s wars, from those against Chechen separatists in the early 2000s to those in Georgia and Ukraine in 2014, are in part, designed to appease a Russian populace deprived of the standard of living, democracy, human rights, and freedoms commonly enjoyed in the West.
The Russian pro-democracy opposition and the anti-corruption activists who have courageously exposed and criticized the regime’s abuses have endured severe repression. Boris Nemtsov, among the brightest symbols of hope for a free and democratic Russia, was assassinated in 2015 near the Kremlin. Vladimir Kara-Murza, Nemtsov’s protege, narrowly survived two poisoning attempts and is now serving a 25-year sentence in harsh conditions for his human rights advocacy and criticism of the Putin regime. Alexey Navalny suffered a similar fate and was arrested upon his return to Moscow from Germany in January 2021. Over 3,000 Russians who protested Navalny’s detention (including 300 children) were arrested; many of them were beaten in clashes with Russian police. The Kremlin’s relentless and severe repression spares no one, regardless of age or social standing.
The latest phase of Russia’s war against Ukraine has intensified government repression, censorship, and informational warfare, both at home and abroad. Anti-war protests have been violently suppressed, with over 13,500 protestors arrested in the first two weeks of the conflict. Human Rights Watch reported at the time that “the police used excessive force against protesters while detaining them and, in several instances, inflicted abuse amounting to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment, on those in custody.”
Fear of arrest and reprisals have effectively suppressed protestors for the time being but a new challenge emerged in June 2023 when Yevgeni Prigozhin, a former close ally of Putin and head of the infamous Wagner private militia, ordered his soldiers to march on the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District in Rostov and then on to Moscow. Prigozhin’s march was not motivated by democratic principles or values, but by jealousy, personal grievances and a demand for more freedom and support for his troops fighting Putin’s war in Ukraine.
In a video posted on June 23, Prigozhin publicly exposed Putin’s false justifications for Russia’s invasions of Ukraine, revealing that there never was a credible threat from Ukraine or NATO, and that the Kremlin was concealing true Russian casualty rates. Despite this, the overarching demand of his march was not for an end to the war, but for further unrestrained violence towards Ukraine and Ukrainians.
Having occupied the city of Rostov and Russia’s Southern Military District Headquarters, his 5,000 soldiers stopped 200 km short of marching into Moscow after Prigozhin accepted a deal to redirect his private army into exile in Belarus. A few weeks later, the crash of Prigozhin’s private jet outside of Moscow sent a deadly message to any future insurrectionists who might be considering plotting against Putin.
Prigozhin’s sole positive impact may have been exposing Putin’s vulnerability and suggesting that change in Russia might not be as impossible as many believe it to be. Despite Prigozhin’s own fate, the shattering of the illusion of Putin’s invincibility was a significant development that may yet embolden pro-democracy activists and even members of the elite to seriously contemplate the possibility of political change in Russia.
Almost all Russian pro-democracy civil society activists share the common dream of a democratic, post-Putin Russia, although their thoughts on how to get there diverge. With many leading dissidents forced into exile over the past decade, the regime’s media censorship and widespread repression of civil society present significant challenges in raising awareness and organizing activists inside Russia. While most seek a peaceful transition to democracy, others, like former Russian parliamentarian Ilya Ponomarev, are working towards a more radical approach.
Over the past year, Ponomarev has led the development of the Congress of People’s Deputies while living in exile. The Congress, a collection of dissident former Russian officials – and, clandestinely, some current ones – shadows the Russian parliament and government, positioning itself as a transitional government-in-waiting. Ponomarev also heads the Freedom of Russia Legion, comprising around 1,400 soldiers who, according to him, are on standby for an armed rebellion against Putin, if and when it should occur. Using Prigozhin’s aborted march on Moscow as a proof-of-concept, Ponomarev envisions expanding the Legion to 5,000 or more troops, and launching a second march – only this time, with a determined resolution. He said during a recent appearance in Vilnius, Lithuania, that he promises free tours of the Kremlin for all those who join him.
Despite the severe repression of pro-democracy and human rights activists (as well as journalists) through assassinations, arbitrary arrests, threats, intimidation, and violent repression, hope remains. Opposition leaders in exile continue to fight for change, and, crucially, Russian independent journalists remain steadfast in pushing back against the Kremlin’s fabrications and conspiracies. This is one area where the Western world can offer support.
How Can the Democratic Community Help?
Reflecting on pivotal moments from the 2012 pro-Democracy protests in Moscow, spearheaded by since-assassinated Putin rival Boris Nemtsov, to the January 2021 demonstrations in support of Alexey Navalny, a large segment of Russia’s population has persistently voiced a desire for a democratic future.
If a democratic Russia that respects human rights, the rule of law, its neighbors’ sovereignty, and global peace and stability is in our interests, we must support Russian human rights and pro-democracy movements. As my friend and imprisoned Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza has often emphasized, historically, political change in Russia occurs suddenly and seemingly out-of-nowhere. Canada and its allies can assist Russian civil society organizations in succeeding when that window for democratic transformation opens. In other words, we can help ensure that pro-democracy activists are prepared to lead their countries towards a democratic future, knowing that they have the support of their friends among the community of democracies.
The success of Russian pro-democracy activists is dependent on work of the brave independent journalists who challenge the regime’s toxic stream of lies and fabricated conspiracies with truth and facts. They expose the regime’s corruption, its criminal repression of its own citizens and the atrocities it commits abroad. Canada’s leadership in supporting international media freedom should extend to independent Russian and Belarusian journalists and platforms. Funding should be made available for the training of journalists – to ensure their safety and to intensify their reach and impact.
Supporting the development of a strong community of independent Russian and Belarusian journalists will contribute to the overall defence of the democratic world against Russian misinformation operations. The increased production of high-quality content by independent journalists would challenge the dominance of the Putin and Lukashenko regimes in their domestic information environments, forcing them to adopt a defensive stance in the broader information domain.
Left alone and isolated, this task is formidable for the journalists and activists who find themselves underground or in exile. With the support of the community of democracies, it is not insurmountable.
Driven by their commitment to transforming their nations, Russian and Belarusian activists and journalists are innovating ways to elude state censors and authorities to disseminate reliable information in the face of aggressive state propaganda. This includes new ways of connecting with large audiences inside both counties and the strategic development of content that promotes democratic values to otherwise apolitical audiences.
Western support for some of the most vulnerable journalists, those who continue operating inside of Russia and Belarus, is vitally important to ensuring the sustained flow of factual information from regions outside of primary urban centres. Reporting from stringers, operating outside of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Minsk, is sent back – often at great personal risk – to journalists in exile and published in the form of text, podcasts and videos online and on social media platforms like Telegram. The risks that these journalists take can be mitigated with training that focuses on cyber and physical safety, as well as with contingency plans to evacuate them if they face arrest (or worse).
Experienced Russian and Belarusian journalists in exile should receive support to train early career and aspiring journalists and cultivate their investigative skills through the utilization of open-source intelligence methods, existing databases, satellite imagery, and sources within Russia and Belarus.
The facts and truths uncovered by independent journalists, along with the content they produce, are essential not only for aiding pro-democracy activists but also for maintaining the well-being of Russian and Belarusian communities in exile – whether in the Baltics, Canada, or elsewhere.
Canada and its allies should consider supporting:
- Independent Russian and Belarusian journalists who expose the corruption of autocratic leaders, state officials, and the oligarchs who support them.
- Journalists who have become adept at connecting with apolitical audiences in Russia and Belarus through accessible platforms and employ them to train others to do the same.
- Expanding the ability of those under authoritarian rule to safely circumvent state censors using existing technologies (VPNs, Samizdat Online) and develop new ways to access independent journalism and independently verified facts.
- Providing training for Russian and Belarusian journalists to perform their jobs safely, offering tools to protect themselves against state repression and strategies to cope with intimidation, information warfare, and psychological warfare.
- Ensuring the long-term sustainability and quality of independent journalism in authoritarian countries like Russia and Belarus by supporting content creation and training aspiring journalists.
- Supporting reporting from the non-urban regions of Russia and Belarus, where there is, at present, very little or no independent information available.
- Amplifying the voices of independent Russian and Belarusian journalists in Western media to foster greater understanding and awareness of their cause.
Armed with facts and information from a robust community of independent journalists, civil society activists in Belarus and Russia will possess the ammunition needed to challenge corrupt authoritarian regimes and champion the ideals of democracy, freedom, and human rights.
While Vladimir Putin continues to manipulate Russia’s constitution to prolong his stay in power well into the next decade, his rule will end one day. Similarly, Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian grip on Belarus will not last forever. (Putin is now in his 70s and Lukashenko will be turning 70 next year).
There are no guarantees that, when political change eventually occurs in Russia or Belarus, the forces of democracy will prevail, as recently witnessed by Yevgeni Prigozhin’s march on Moscow. However, change is inevitable and it’s only a question of when it will come.
If we envision a future with a free and democratic Russia and Belarus that uphold human rights, the rule of law, sovereignty, and peaceful coexistence with their neighbors, we currently have an opportunity to support the civil society activists and independent journalists who will play key roles in realizing that vision. By aiding in their development, bolstering their resilience against repression, and encouraging their success, we will enhance their capacity to guide their nations away from dark autocratic pasts toward democracy, peace, and freedom.
Ultimately, if our defence of democratic values is confined to mere rhetoric without translating it into concrete, measured, and targeted action, we will never effectively counter the threat posed by Vladimir Putin and his growing axis of totalitarian allies.
This Inside Policy article was supported by the Konrad Adenaeur Foundation (Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung).
Marcus Kolga is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.