White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said President Biden was not advocating for regime change in Russia when reporters asked. The US has called for it in the past, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and other nations, so it is a fair question. In those instances, we have taken direct military actions or manipulated others to eject their leaders. However, this time it may have to result from internal politics in Russia.
There are serious political conditions brewing that threaten 69-year-old Vladimir Putin’s 22-year autocratic control over Russia. Moreover, its current economic collapse coincides with percolating discontent despite massive censorship.
THE RUSSIAN ECONOMY IS COLLAPSING
Russia’s economy is entering a free-fall resulting from the US lead financial punishments. On March 15, Wharton finance professor Nikolai Roussanov said that the ruble is now worth less than a penny, and the economy is teetering. He said the disappearance of goods from supermarkets coupled with rising prices will be very unpleasant in the short run and will likely lead to jobs disappearing.
Russia is behind on payments of billions of dollars in foreign debt. International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on March 13 that the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the Western democracies will trigger a deep recession there this year. In light of these predictions, the Yale-educated economist head of the Russian Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, reportedly has resigned and told Putin that his invasion of Ukraine has plunged the Russian economy into a ‘sewer.’
A shrinking economy hurts working families and businesses and cripples the state from raising money to finance a stalled war. These were the same conditions that eliminated 300 years of Russia being ruled by the Czars. Nicholas II was forced to abdicate a century ago. While his army was losing massive amounts of soldiers in WWI, the economy was collapsing and his nobility was deserting him.
However, economic penalties are not enough to dislodge an autocratic regime. America has levied complete embargoes on Iran and Venezuela, bringing hardships to their citizens, but not toppling their leaders. Even the participation of foreign companies halting their businesses in Russia could have a limited impact. According to The New York Times, Putin said assets of those companies should be put under “external management” and transferred “to those who want to work.” Cutting to the chase, he’s talking about nationalizing them.
Sanctions must be linked to discontent to push Putin off his throne. And that movement must involve both the upper and lower levels of Russian society.
PUBLIC DISCONTENT IS ONCE AGAIN BEING SUPPRESSED
Public discontent, even if it is widespread, failed to topple Putin with the massive protests of 2017–2018. The timing of these protests occurred in the aftermath of Russia’s two-year financial crisis. The current economic sanctions could lead to similar discontent, but street protesting is being more suppressed now.
More than 100 cities in 2017 saw citizen protestors sparked by the investigative film He Is Not Dimon to You. It exposed the corrupt activity of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. It had more than 23 million views on YouTube.
Putin was the president at the time. The non-governmental polling and sociological research organization, Levada Centre survey, showed that 38% of surveyed Russians supported the protests and that 67% held Putin “entirely” or “to a large extent” responsible for high-level corruption. Tens of thousands protested in central Moscow, and riot police detained more than 1000 of them.
In the summer and fall of 2017, there were more large protest gatherings; It was estimated that 60,000 people took part in anti-corruption protests across 80 Russian towns and cities. Hundreds of protesters were detained, including the creator of the expose on corruption, Alexey Navalny. Additional protests continued in 2018, including protestors against the government-planned retirement age hike.
The failure of these massive protests show that Putin is still in power, and Navalny is in prison after Putin failed to have him assassinated. Putin has been able to hang onto power through police suppression of any dissent and control or limit all the public’s information.
Police suppression has reached a new level with the war on Ukraine. Instead of arresting 1,000 protestors as in 2017, police arrests have amounted to over 14,000, according to a post on the website of OVD-Info, an independent media project on human rights and political persecutions in Russia. Although most arrested were released, individuals could still be charged under a new law that passed unanimously in both houses of Russia’s parliament.
Under the law, spreading false news about the military, such as Russia invading Ukraine, could result in fines or three years in jail. If a statement resulted in “severe consequences,” a person could face 15 years in prison. The speaker of the lower parliamentary house said that they passed the law “to protect our soldiers and officers, and to protect the truth.”
HOW TO GET TRUTH TO THE RUSSIAN PEOPLE
The question is, how would Russians receive the truth? To grasp the enormity of that task, look at the demographics. You have a population of 143 million, which is less than half of the US, but in an area nearly double ours.
When network pundits blithely suggest that the Russian people must get rid of Putin, they must be ignoring the demographics, history, and current political suppression of the news. For a nation’s citizens to successfully challenge the power of their government, they must have reliable knowledge and an opportunity to share that knowledge with others openly. Unfortunately, Russians face severe obstacles to having both.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, its government prosecutors had the Russian media watchdog restrict access to several media broadcasts from Western democracies, including BBC and the Russian-language website of the United States-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Russia complained that Radio Liberty’s Russian service had spread “obviously fake” socially significant information about the alleged Russian attack on Ukrainian territory.”
To get past Russia’s blocking of BBC’s popular Russian language internet news site, BBC has introduced shortwave radio, which uses frequencies that carry over long distances. Blocking shortwave transmissions is labor-intensive and takes time and experience, so the BBC’s programming is getting through. However, reception is limited to shortwave portable sets, not commonly found in households.
Despite the Russian constitution providing freedom of speech and press, Putin’s administration has forced the press to exercise self-censorship. This practice has constrained the press’s coverage of controversial issues. For instance, Al Jazeera reported that Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper, whose editor Dmitry Muratov was a co-winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, would remove material on Russia’s military actions in Ukraine from its website because of censorship.
Putin has also moved to curtail internet content that criticizes the government. As a result, TikTok users can see only old Russian-made content, and all non-Russian content is blocked. Also, adding new content originating within Russia is banned or heavily censored.
A Russian court banned Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, for “extremist” activities, making its work in Russia illegal. The ruling was precipitated by Meta relaxing its rules against violent speech by people inside Ukraine, which was directed at the Russian military invasion of their country. Meta does not permit calls for violence, harassment, or discrimination against Russian people. Russian authorities have also restricted access to Twitter under a federal law regulating calls for riots, extremism, protests, and the spread of false information.
Russians circumvent these restrictions and bans by using virtual private networks or VPNs in response to these multiple restrictions and prohibitions. Their use has increased almost by 3,000% since the war began. One app being used is Psiphon, a free and open-source Internet censorship circumvention tool that uses secure communication and obfuscation technologies.
One of the most unique and potentially powerful mediums to reach Russians is Reface, a viral face-swap app from Ukraine that adds anti-war push notifications. As of the end of February, their anti-war campaign has targeted specific messages to its 5.5 million users in Russia. They provide a link to a slideshow of war imagery from inside Ukraine — including images of burnt-out and bomb-damaged buildings and photos of civilians trying to shelter. More potent than words, images do not need to be in Russian to convey a message.
Meanwhile, Russia’s RT platform had over a million subscribers in the European Union before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok dropped Russia’s RT off their platforms. Their action followed the EU imposed sanctions on the Kremlin-backed media network for distributing disinformation. However, the Telegram platform, which has massive audiences, still carries RT in Europe.
Putin’s regime has shaped the internet pipeline into the country. Only an unchallenged narrative is presented to the Russians where the Ukrainian conflict is a minor police action to attack a stronghold of Nazis. Putin augmented his internet dominance with a massive rally in a Moscow stadium last Friday.
City police said more than 200,000 people gathered in and around the stadium (the stadium itself holds 81,000). He spoke for just five minutes. Although photos showed a flag-waving crowd, the speech was not interrupted. Reuters and several Russian outlets reported that state employees had been ordered to attend.
Could there be some discontent with a war that is dragging on? Is there some unease with restricted access to their bank savings underneath this passive acceptance of turning out to wave flags as required? Is news of the possible 12,000 Russian troops killed in Ukraine spreading word-by-mouth among the general public? Even the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda posted that 10,000 had died, but quickly removing that post after it went up.
RUSSIANS NEED A SAFE PLACE TO GATHER
Mass rallies or solo internet surfing do not provide the needed ingredient to allow Russian citizens to exchange and discuss the limited amount of critical information that is getting through to them.
Although people could gather in their homes, they might feel that their homes and families could be threatened if any criticisms were leaked to the government. However, coffee houses have provided gathering places in the past that welcomed open and intimate discussions among friends. Like other momentous civilian movements, the American Revolution owes its origins to such a setting.
The US could promote coffeehouse environments to allow for some fermentation of ideas on how Russian citizens could regain some control over their government. Ironically, that effort could be nourished by Starbucks reopening a limited number of its 300 venues. The ones selected to be reopened could be in just five cities: Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Samara, Kazan, and Nizhny Novgorod. A third of all Russian universities are in these cities. Students and youth would most likely be Starbucks customers. If Starbucks provides settings like those in the US, discussions could flow naturally among these young, probably news-conscious customers.
Starbucks would not have to lift a finger to encourage discussions. Doing so might alert the authorities to the possibility of seditious activity. These coffeehouses merely need to operate as a business that serves the needs of their customers to drink coffee, read whatever they wish, and talk among their friends.
This approach has a chance of allowing citizens to think about what is happening in Ukraine and share their thoughts with others. Students are also likely to be in that tiny 5% of Russians that speak English, which is the language that carries critical information about the Ukraine War into Russia. So, yes, a multi-national corporation could serve to stimulate democratic ideas within an autocratic state.
PUTIN’S KREMLIN IS CRACKING
Students attending the best Russian colleges, located in these five cities, would have the most influential people in Russia as parents: government and military leaders or business oligarchs who are becoming seriously bothered by the economic sanctions. Just as the sons and daughters of America’s leaders in the sixties brought home their ideas about the need to stop the Vietnam War, Russia’s youth could do the same regarding the war in Ukraine. They could be the seeds that break the ground upon which Putin stands.
And recent reports indicate that Putin is on shaky ground. He fired eight generals due to his military losses in the invasion of Ukraine coupled with the Russian invaders facing severe shortages of fuel, food, and ammunition. One of those fired was his deputy chief of Russia’s National Guard, accused of leaking information.
Furthermore, according to Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s military and security services, a top Russian intelligence official has been put under house arrest along with his deputy. Even Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, has lost his standing with Putin. In protest of the war, Russian climate envoy Anatoly Chubais resigned and left the country.
These and other top-level firings, still to be revealed, may portend a reenactment of Joseph Stalin’s purging of his closest subordinates. Putin’s public announcements called for Russia to get rid of “scum and traitors” as “a necessary self-purification of society.” Oligarchs and those in the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) who profiteered from Putin’s kleptocracy may be targets more than any street protestors. They serve as visible scapegoats for a failing war and the corruption that has been a source of huge public demonstrations in the recent past.
Putin shaped the FSB from its predecessor, the KGB, the Soviet Union’s security agency. He is most aware that the KGB attempted to depose President Mikhail Gorbachev in a failed coup d’état. Consequently, Putin has a keen interest in keeping FSB leaders in check by either detaining, arresting, or demoting them. Moreover, they hold the secured knowledge of who has the political, economic, and military power to challenge Putin.
Putin’s arrests of those with power around him and his attempts to project himself as Russia’s champion against the elites could be his play to block any coup. However, as the war drags on, his efforts may consolidate opposition more than diminish it. So the race may have begun to determine if Russia’s internal high-level opposition will be mobilized and act before Putin can end the war with some measurable victory, no matter how small of a fig leaf.