Fears of Western ‘Hybrid Warfare’ and Suppression of the Russian Opposition

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 115

(Source: Reuters)

On September 8, Moscow residents will elect members of the Mosgorduma, or city council. Moscow is the richest, politically most important and most populous subject of the Russian Federation, but the Mosgorduma does not wield any real power: 45 deputies represent some 7,308,000 voters in the capital on a part-time basis without pay, gathering for a couple of days every given month to rubberstamp decisions made by the city government. Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, appointed by the Kremlin in 2010, was reelected to the position in September 2018 for five more years without encountering any serious challengers. Nonetheless, Moscow has always been a region with a sizable opposition constituency. Indeed, in 2013, prominent opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny was allowed to run for mayor against Sobyanin and, unexpectedly, received over 27 percent of the ballots cast. Navalny was able to secure this relatively strong result despite apparent systemic vote rigging, which allowed Sobyanin to win with some 51 percent. Since that fateful election, the Kremlin never again allowed Navalny to run for any public office (Vedomosti, July 29).

In 2019, several independent candidates supported by Navalny attempted to register for the Mosgorduma vote, but they were disqualified by the regional election committee because of allegedly failing to produce enough valid citizens’ endorsement signatures. The arbitrary refusal to register independent opposition candidates seems like an overreaction by the ruling establishment, and it triggered a public protest movement the authorities are now struggling to suppress with overwhelming brute force, mass arrests, police beatings and prison sentences (Kommersant, July 29; see EDM, July 29, August 5).

A textbook mass suppression operation is being executed in Moscow. The potential opposition movement has been effectively beheaded: practically all the leading opposition candidates, together with Navalny, have been imprisoned for 10–30 days on trumped-up charges of preparing or organizing illegal protest actions. Meanwhile, the seemingly leaderless mass of opposition activists, sympathizers and the general public are under assault by riot police and paramilitary National Guard (Rosgvardia) troops. On July 27 and August 3, up to 2,400 people were detained in the streets of Moscow (often at random), sometimes beaten by batons and kicked by police and Rosgvardiatroopers. The detained demonstrators and bystanders were later fined 10,000–300,000 rubles ($150–5,000) or given prison sentences of 10–30 days by Kremlin-controlled judges (Meduza, August 4). Additionally, the authorities seem to be preparing a series of show trials of activists and opposition leaders falsely accused of organizing mass riots in Moscow; their sentences could reach up to 15 years behind bars. To date, all of the recent protests in Moscow were peaceful: there was no rioting and no destruction of property of any sort. But the authorities are arresting suspects while the General Prosecutor’s Office has demanded a ruthless clampdown on the protests and dissent (Vedomosti, July 31).

Almost all of the injuries during the protests thus far have been to civilians beaten up by the police; one Rosgvardia trooper was hospitalized with a dislocated shoulder—apparently attained while assaulting a pedestrian. The Russian actor Pavel Ustinov, 24, was meeting a friend on August 3, in Pushkin Square, in downtown Moscow, evidently unaware that any forbidden protest activities were happening in the area. Both Ustinov and his friend were apprehended anyway, the former reportedly knocked down and beaten. It was during this violent arrest that the above-mentioned Rosgvardia trooper dislocated his shoulder. However, Ustinov has been charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer and imprisoned; he now faces a possible ten-year sentence. Ustinov’s sister Yulia, who previously served in the Interior Troops (which several years ago were transformed into the Rosgvardia), says their family, including Pavel, is absolutely non-political and not involved in the current protest movement (Newsru.com, August 7).

The Kremlin is treating the street rallies in Moscow as an unfolding “hybrid warfare” situation. State officials have accused the United States and its allies of fomenting, financing and organizing the Moscow election crisis as a prelude to a “colored revolution” or a Maidan (as in Ukraine in 2014) aimed at overthrowing President Vladimir Putin’s regime. The police, the Rosgvardia, prosecutors, judges, the military, state investigators and intelligence services seem to have been given explicit orders to treat opposition leaders, candidates, activists and general public sympathizers as enemy combatants in a war zone. The Federal Security Service’s (FSB) counter-intelligence-focused 2nd Department (2-ya Sluzba) is reportedly in the process of gathering “evidence” of a foreign plot to fund the Russian opposition actions (RBC, July 26). Foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the US embassy in Moscow of interfering in Russia internal affairs, of running covert activities, and publishing a warning to US citizens to avoid downtown Moscow on August 3, with a map of possible danger points that, according to Zakharova, in fact constituted surreptitious instructions to rioters (Interfax, August 5).

Ella Pamfilova, who chairs the Central Election Commission, met, on August 7, with Communist candidates to the Mosgorduma election. They demanded a swift reorganization of the Moscow election commission, an end to the prosecution of opposition activists, as well as an end to the mass arrests and beatings of “thousands of Muscovites.” The Russian Communist Party is represented in the State Duma (upper chamber of the parliament) and, therefore, was allowed to field 45 candidates in the Mosgorduma election. Its members clearly hope the public anger caused by the authorities’ heavy-handed oppression will help them at the polls; they seem keen to jump on the bandwagon of mass protests. Pamfilova expressed dismay at the Communists, “who are patriots,” embracing Navalny: “I receive lots of information from different sources about Navalny and his supporters (who are against Russia) getting lots of money to organize a revolution under the pretext of election irregularities” (Interfax, August 7).  The State Duma is planning to investigate foreign meddling in the Russian elections, while senators from the Federation Council (lower chamber of parliament) insist they already have evidence of Washington and its allies “providing the opposition with money and instructions” to rig the Mosgorduma election (Interfax, August 8).

The Kremlin and its ruler may seem incoherently paranoid, but their fear of a Moscow Maidan are not totally unreasonable. The Moscow protests are local in nature, involving politicized fractions of the capital city’s population. Outside Moscow, however, a much larger section of the Russian public is frustrated with a stagnant economy and household incomes that have been contracting six years in a row (Vedomosti, July 31). If this widespread social frustration begins to merge with opposition activism in the capital, the seemingly granite-solid structure of Putin’s political system may begin to crack.