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The Hill - The flames of Russian dissent

The Hill - The flames of Russian dissent

This article was originally published by The Hill on August 31, 2023. To read the original article in full, click here.

Even if he didn’t order the killing of Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russian President Vladimir Putin has plenty to gain if the Russian people believe that he did. On June 23, Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group private military company, led his forces in the seizure of the Russian Southern Military District Headquarters, en route to Moscow from Ukraine. He was largely unopposed, engaging in a minimal amount of violence. He eventually called off the coup attempt, but he sent a chilling signal to Putin’s inner circle that the Russian president’s position was tenuous. 

Six weeks later, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, declared that democratic elections have become an unnecessary “costly bureaucracy” since “Mr. Putin will be re-elected next year with more than 90% of the vote.” Two weeks after that statement, and two months after his aborted coup, Prigozhin is dead via a fiery plane crash. 

Recent events in Moscow betray deep insecurities. With elections in about six months, Putin and his loyalists may fear he’s losing the Russian people’s support. Putin may also be losing his loyalists. Prigozhin’s untimely death sends the right message for Putin: challenge me and you will lose.

Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, thousands of Russians have gathered in the streets in protest. Authorities have responded with mass detentions and police brutality. In 2022, more than 21,000 Russian antiwar activists were penalized with fines or prison time, according to Amnesty International. In articles published in The Hill last MarchApril and November, I pointed out that Putin’s greatest threat comes from inside the state — the Russian people themselves. Putin’s recent actions continue to reinforce this point. Prigozhin was a loyalist, gained positions of trust, and then turned against the autocrat.

Shortly after the invasion, Putin signed a law criminalizing independent war reporting and any public opposition to the war, according to Human Rights Watch. Journalists are not even allowed to call it a “war” or an “invasion”; instead, they must use the phrase “special military operation.” 

These don’t seem like the actions of a leader who is confident that 90% of his people support him. Putin is engaging in textbook tyranny.

Here’s one example: Vladimir Rumyantsev lived, until very recently, in Vologda, 500 kilometers north of Moscow. He held jobs as a trolleybus driver, a factory worker, and most recently as a furnace stoker. In his spare time, he launched his own amateur radio show from his apartment. He liked to play classical music from old Soviet archives, with a signal so weak it only reached the nearby apartment buildings. 

Following the invasion of Ukraine, he began commenting on the war on his channel. He now resides in a Russian prison. A confident and strong leader does not imprison a poor furnace stoker who has an amateur radio show. 

Putin fears the Russian street and his generals. Dictators lose power in one of two ways: the people get organized enough to overthrow, or a trusted member of the inner circle takes the leader out of power. Putin has faced both of these challenges this year. In 2024, he must face a public election. This is an element in the foreign policy debate that needs far more attention. 

If Western leaders want Putin out of Ukraine, empowering the people of Ukraine (e.g. sending munitions and other aid) is necessary, but not sufficient. The only way to get Putin out of Ukraine is to empower the people of Russia.

How does that happen? Through the voices of journalists like Marina Ovsyannikova and Vladimir Kara-Murza; through Russian celebrities like Oxxxymiron, Russia’s most famous rapper; through athletes like soccer player Fedor Smolov and tennis player Andrey Rublev; and through everyday people like furnace stoker Vladimir Rumyantsev.

Civil society in Russia exists, although it is rightly fearful of the government — just as government leaders fear civil society. Over the coming months, before Russia’s March 2024 election, we’ll see Putin increasingly attempting to craft a winning narrative of strength — an attempt to convince the Russian people that they need him to protect the country. 

This is classic dictatorship — create a common enemy to unite the people behind you. Putin told the Russian people that the invasion was a necessary action to prevent “hostilities against our country.” He told Russian media in February that Western countries are trying to take control of Russia’s raw materials. “I do not even know if such an ethnic group as the Russian people will be able to survive in the form in which it exists today,” he said.

If the free people of the world support Russian civil society — the institutions and leaders who support democracy and liberty and freedom of speech and free press and fair elections — and if each of us as individuals supports Russian civil society in our media, social media and politics, then Putin will either change his policies or lose power.

Gary M. Shiffman is an economist and Gulf War veteran. He has traveled the trans-Siberian railroad and covered Russia while serving in the Pentagon. He is the founder of two technology companies, Giant Oak and Consilient, and author of “The Economics of Violence: How Behavioral Science Can Transform our View of Crime, Insurgency, and Terrorism.”

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