Russia's President Vladimir Putin boarding a car upon arrival at Ezeiza International airport in Buenos Aires, on November 30, 2018. Photo: AFP via by G20 Press Office
Russia's President Vladimir Putin only wants to hear good news about his invasion of Ukraine. Photo: AFP via G20 Press Office

Though busy for a month trying to erase Ukraine’s independence via a land, sea and air invasion, President Vladimir Putin has also crushed the last vestiges of political opposition in Russia.

This week, a Russian court sidelined two active opponents of his totalitarian regime. At a trial held inside a penal colony 60 miles east of Moscow, a judge sentenced opposition political leader Alexei Navalny to nine years in jail. The punishment comes atop a sentence of three years handed him last winter on charges of financial fraud.

Russia’s Supreme Court also confirmed the closure of Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights organization, for supposed connections to foreign agents. During the late years of communist rule in Russia, Memorial gained fame for documenting Stalinist crimes.

In December, a Moscow court shut Memorial’s Human Rights Center, which campaigned against rights violations.

Such suppression is not new. Putin had long silenced dissident voices that opposed his march toward dictatorship. He’s is now focused on blocking criticism of violent Russian foreign adventures.

Recent military interventions include Russia’s armed meddling in African conflicts via a Kremlin-sponsored militia known as the Wagner Group. Putin supplied key military air support in Syria for Bashar al-Assad’s war with Islamist as well as nationalist rebels.  And in 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine to annex the Crimean Peninsula.

“The authorities intended to crush Russia’s civil society and the peaceful anti-war movement, and will intimidate, smear, and ostracize them in seeking to do so,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Hugh Williamson, in a report issued on March 24. “They are apparently trying to pave a way toward a police state of absolute control and fear.”

The Russian court handed Navalny the new sentence in a high-security penal colony east of Moscow. He may be moved further away, to Russia’s harsh Far East. It is likely his internet connections will be cut.

As the sentence was read, Navalny fiddled with some papers and occasionally spoke to a pair of lawyers at his side. He jokingly asked the judge if he was free to go between the reading of an old canceled sentence and the imposition of the new one.

Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny appears on screen via a video link from prison during a court hearing, at a court in the town of Petushki some 120 kilometers outside Moscow, on May 26, 2021. Photo: AFP / Dimitar Dilkoff

“Navalny will be behind bars exactly until the moment Putin leaves power. Nine years can turn into half a year and a year into eternity,” wrote The New Times, an independent online Russian newspaper.

The decision against Memorial did not signify the end of its persecution. On Wednesday, police searched a Memorial office in Moscow looking for evidence for use against legal rights activist Bakhrom Khamroev, who was arrested last month according to the government’s TASS news agency.

He has been under investigation for several years for what Memorial characterized as “trumped-up charges” of illegally helping immigrants to gain Russian residency.

Police also searched the offices of Civic Assistance, a legal aid office that serves migrants. Civic Assistance officials said the Federal Security Service, heir to the KGB, carried out the search.

In tandem with the Ukraine invasion, Putin has shut down two of Russia’s last critical independent news outlets.

Directors of Ekha Moskvy (Moscow Echo) radio, stopped operations in early March after government censors ordered its website blocked. Officials said Ekha Moskvi spread “deliberately false information about the actions of Russian military personnel.”

The censors had already ordered broadcasters and newspapers to use only official Defense Ministry information when reporting on the war in Ukraine.  Words like “invasion,” “war” and “offensive” were forbidden. Only “special military operation” can be used to describe what’s going on in Ukraine.

Dozhd TV, another independent outlet, suspended operations the same day as did Memorial on orders of government censors.

Putin’s assault on civil liberties began during his first weeks in power in the year 2000. If repression then was useful to shore up his newly minted authority, it has now become a fundamental element of his rule.

In 2000, he attacked NTV, a television outlet owned by media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky. NTV was fundamental in reporting military abuses during the first Chechen war and was planning investigations of the same kind during the second war, which had just gotten underway.

Gusinsky was forced to sell his company. He fled into exile in Spain and Israel. Russian police have occasionally asked for his extradition to Moscow, but foreign courts rejected the requests as being politically motivated.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has consolidated control of the airwaves in Russia. Image: Screengrab

A wave of official harassment of independent media accompanied the first Ukraine invasion in 2014. Putin accused one editor, whose radio station reported openly on abuses, of “pouring diarrhea over me day and night.”

Police visits and false accusations of corruption represented unsubtle efforts to scare away advertisers.

Speaking in 2014 about the financial dangers of crossing the Kremlin, New Times editor Evgenia Albats laid out the stakes: “If you are loyal you get ads. If you are not loyal, you don’t.”

Dmitry Muratov, then editor of the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said that by 2015 most Russian media simply became “instruments of mass propaganda and manipulation.”

Despite censorship of news about the current Ukraine war, anti-war demonstrations have taken place across Russia. OVD-Info, a Russian human rights monitor, reports that police have arrested more than 15,000 protestors since the war began on February 24.

The organization suspects that police have detained more demonstrators than have appeared on official lists.

“Essentially, we are witnessing military censorship. We are seeing rather big protests today, even in Siberian cities where we only rarely saw such numbers of arrests,” said Maria Kuznetsova, an OVD-Info spokeswoman, in Tbilisi, Georgia. 

The crackdown will try to eradicate any dissent, concluded HRW’s Williamson, “by escalating their witch-hunt even further, to punish all anti-war sentiment.”

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.