Russia Cracks Down After Spotlight Fades

Today is World Press Freedom Day. Russian authorities are clamping down on independent media.

A few weeks ago, tensions between Russia and the West were high. Russia was amassing troops on the border with Ukraine. Vladimir Putin was set to give a major speech in front of the Federal Assembly, raising concerns that he would announce a war. The United States sanctioned Russian officials for interference in the 2020 election and cyber-attacks and warned of "consequences" if Alexei Navalny were to die on hunger strike.

By April 23, tensions appeared to have somewhat eased. Some troops were ordered to leave the border. Putin's speech had no major announcements. Navalny was allowed medical treatment and ended his hunger strike. Authorities allowed protesters to march with fewer arrests at the event than in the past in most large cities and Moscow. It appeared Russia had stepped back from the brink.

Actually, the crisis has entered a new and more pernicious phase -- one which is not attracting as much international attention. For example, while authorities did not arrest as many protesters as in past marches, police used facial recognition to arrest protesters at home.

Prosecutors have pushed to designate Navalny's political group an "extremist organization" under Russian law, which would put it in the same legal category as al-Qaeda and ISIS. That designation means anyone working for the organization or funding it could receive sentences of up to ten years. "The preservation of the operations in its current form is impossible," said Navalny's right-hand man, Leonid Volkov, speaking from exile in Lithuania. It shut down its network of regional offices on April 29. On April 30, Navalny's lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, was arrested by the F.S.B.

Russian authorities have declared Meduza, an excellent Latvia-based online independent news site, a "foreign agent." As a result, it lost virtually all of its advertising, and resorted to an emergency crowdfunding campaign. Its journalists in Russia face at minimum, immense difficulty working for an outlet designated as a "foreign agent," and risk harassment, criminal investigations, and jail time. Its Russian articles now has a big warning label on each page saying that the content was made by a "foreign agent."

A Russian military intelligence unit has recently been accused by the Czech and Bulgarian governments of having caused mysterious explosions between 2011 and 2020 at arms depots, and in the Czech case, causing two fatalities. The blasts were ostensibly attempts to divide the European Union and NATO.

While the Czech government expelled Russian diplomats over the explosions, its pro-Russian and largely ceremonial president Milos Zeman, floated another theory that the blasts might have been caused by inexpert handling of munitions and there was "neither proof nor evidence" that Russia had done it. His statement led to massive protests in Prague. 

After ending his hunger strike, Navalny's health is still precarious -- international and domestic politics are being played out on his human body. Weighing 158 pounds and looking still extremely gaunt after resuming eating, Navalny himself appeared via video for another court case. "I had four spoons of porridge yesterday, five today, it will be six tomorrow. Waiting for ten spoons, that will be a breakthrough,” adding that he had applied to receive 60 kilograms of carrots a day. 

The crackdown has been very effective at kneecapping independent voices, while raising little public international outcry. The crackdown appears to be an asymmetric response to Western sanctions. Ascribing motivation is difficult. The Russian political commentator Maxim Trudolyubov aptly compared Western analysts trying to understand the motivations of the Kremlin to the Indian parable of blind men trying to identify an elephant. "The Russian authorities are constantly creating and changing their bargaining terms," he wrote. "The current Kremlin is a difficult-to-describe object, opaque; its motivations are obscure, and its rational decisions are being replaced with hysterical ones."

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