By Robyn Dixon
Dec. 27, 2020
The Washington Post
MOSCOW — As the Kremlin awaits what it fears will be a hostile Biden presidency, President Vladimir Putin is shifting course on two fronts — accelerating a drive to full-blown authoritarian control at home and escalating his defiant rhetoric against the West.
Domestically, a grudging tolerance for opposition and protest has been all but abandoned, while internationally, the Kremlin is taking particularly sharp aim at the United States ahead of the change of administration next month.
Russian-U.S. relations are going “from bad to worse,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Wednesday, adding that Russia doesn’t expect “anything good” from President-elect Joe Biden and suggesting it adopt a policy of “total deterrence” toward Washington, with minimal dialogue.
In addition to signs that Biden will pursue a tough line with Moscow, Putin has seen his popularity slowly decline even as parliamentary elections loom in 2021. The move to double down against both the West and opponents at home reflects a perception of them as enemies working hand in hand to undermine Russia.
In this view, critical journalists and bloggers are potential terrorists, extremists or spies, and civic activists and nongovernment organizations may be labeled foreign agents. The Russian heroes Putin extols are spies who hack into U.S. agencies and domestic intelligence agents whose main role, like that of Stalin’s secret police, is the repression of dissent.
A raft of new, repressive laws sees Russia moving from partial to all-out authoritarianism, said Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.
“There is an open war with civil society,” he said, noting the Kremlin’s concern that Putin — who could legally stay in power until 2036 — may someday face protests
like those in Belarus, where the August presidential election was condemned as rigged by the opposition and Western nations.
“This is the same regime, but it is tougher and more intransigent to the demands from society and civil society, and it’s ready to fight,” he said. “They must be ready for anything, and this is something new.”
Putin has always been a pugnacious, risk-taking leader, thumbing his nose at Western liberalism, but he is sending more strident signals to Biden and a team he sees as stuffed with Russophobes.
In recent weeks, Russia has launched a flurry of missile tests, while Putin boasted Monday of a “cosmic” rate of change in Russia’s advanced weaponry, vowing to stay ahead of rivals in the development of hypersonic and other advanced weapons.
He laid flowers Sunday at a monument to Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, the SVR, calling its work “extremely important,” days after the agency was accused of unprecedented hacking of U.S. agencies. Marking its 100th anniversary and Security Services Workers’ Day, he had high praise for the “the difficult professional operations that have been conducted” by Russian security agencies.
A blizzard of recent legislation in the State Duma has made it harder to protest, easier to target opposition figures and activists and has given authorities broad scope to brand individuals as “foreign agents,” with five-year jail penalties for failure to meet reporting requirements. The government is also moving to curb foreign Internet sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
Under new laws, Putin has immunity from prosecution for life, and information about the financial and personal affairs of millions of members of Russian intelligence bodies, security agencies, the judiciary, law-enforcement and regulatory agencies and the military — and their relatives — is classified.
This elite, central to Putin’s power, has been targeted for corruption investigations by Alexei Navalny, Russia’s main opposition figure and Putin’s only political rival. Some of the new laws appear aimed at him and his colleagues at his Anti-Corruption Foundation.
“It’s a captured state. Putin is forever. He will not step down,” said Vladislav Inozemtsev, a political analyst with the Moscow-based Centre for Research on Post-Industrial Societies and an associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If you’re staying another 15 or 20 years in the Kremlin, you should tighten everything,
because protests are definitely not declining. And therefore this turn to authoritarianism was absolutely obvious, and it will go further and further.”
Putin maintains his grip by allowing loyalists in the military, intelligence, bureaucracy and law enforcement to guzzle Russia’s resources, Inozemtsev said. “This is a situation where this elite gang owns the country like private property and actually uses it for its enrichment.”
No event in 2020 encapsulated Putin’s alienation from the West as much as the Kremlin-directed poisoning of Navalny, apparently by the application of the deadly Novichok nerve agent to his underwear. The crime, and the government’s lies about the incident, shocked Western leaders and conveyed the new rules of the game in Russia.
“We’re seeing a shift to a more authoritarian stance, and obviously the poisoning of Navalny reflects that with a shift in the ground rules of how this regime works,” said Mark Galeotti, a London-based analyst and director of the Mayak Intelligence consultancy. “For a long time, it was a rather soft authoritarianism. It actually allowed a considerable amount of opposition activity, as long as it didn’t become threatening. I think they have decided to move the boundaries back of what is acceptable opposition activity.
“This is increasingly an aging leadership that feels increasingly beleaguered, increasingly uncertain,” he said.
The Kremlin ratcheted up its defiance after embarrassing evidence surfaced this month strongly suggesting that Russia’s domestic security agency, the FSB, had tracked Navalny from 2017, after he decided to run for president, poisoning him in August. On Tuesday, Moscow summoned the ambassadors of Germany, France and Spain to complain about European Union sanctions on Russia over Navalny and imposing tit-for-tat bans against European diplomats.
It has accused Germany of responsibility for the poisoning and demanded proof of Russian involvement in the use of Novichok, even though FSB agents in Russia destroyed the evidence left on Navalny’s clothing.
Putin did not deny that Navalny was “looked after,” apparently meaning he was followed by intelligence agents, and accusing him of collaborating with the CIA, although he added that did not mean he should be killed.
The message, analysts say, is that Navalny will not be allowed to operate as before.
“I think they won’t let him come back to Russia, or else he will pretty much be arrested on the tarmac,” Galeotti said.
Evidence of the underwear poisoning emerged when Navalny phoned a member of the FSB team involved in the attack pretending to be a senior Security Council official. Quizzed about the operation’s failure to kill Navalny, Konstantin Kudryatsev, an FSB chemical weapons expert, said it would have ended differently if the plane on which Navalny was flying had not diverted and he had not gotten timely medical care. Asked whether the poison dose had been miscalculated, he said operatives had “added a bit more” to be sure.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov retorted that Navalny had delusions of grandeur, paranoia and a “Freudian fixation” on his underwear.
Russia’s bellicose response suggests there can be no reset with NATO. But Putin last week blamed NATO for the increasingly chilly relations. Compared to the West, Russia was “white and fluffy,” a Russian idiom meaning harmless and squeaky clean, he said, accusing NATO of breaking a promise not to expand after the fall of the USSR and slamming Washington for leaving several key arms control treaties. (The United States argued Russia had been cheating.)
“Why do you think we are idiots? Why do you think we cannot see some obvious things?” Putin said at his marathon annual end-of-year news conference, addressing a BBC reporter. “We are forced to react to them.”
Putin’s rhetoric, escalating warnings of internal and external enemies, resembles an old Soviet ploy to justify internal repression and a hard-line military approach.
“As a KGB officer, he’s trying to simplify events and show that we are still under attack from the West,” Kolesnikov said.
But Moscow is leaving the door open a crack for arms control talks, if little else.
“The Biden team are not really giving signals that they’re likely to be particularly receptive to Russia, and therefore I think what the Russians are doing is to try to put a tough line on arms control, which is one of the areas where actually it looks like the Biden administration will want to make progress,” Galeotti said. “It’s fair to say it’s tough, but they’re keeping the door open for discussions.”
Robyn Dixon is a foreign correspondent on her third stint in Russia, after almost a decade reporting there beginning in the early 1990s. In November 2019 she joined The Washington Post as Moscow bureau chief.