Russian Authorities Expand and Tighten Clampdown on Opposition

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 153

(Source: Vestnik Kavkaza)

On September 28, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB—one of the main successor organizations of the Soviet KGB) published an official order, Number 376, that lists some 60 ambiguous reference points covering all possible information about the state of battle readiness, location, structure and operations of the country’s military, defense industry and space program (Roscosmos). The order specifically forbids the sharing of any such information with international organizations and foreign governments, entities, non-governmental organizations (NGO) or individuals. The crucial aspect of FSB order Number 376 is that it does not refer to the possible transfer to foreigners of classified defense and defense-related data, which could be legally considered treason (treason cases are multiplying in Russia); rather the order specifically forbids the sharing of unclassified, open-source defense and defense-related data, “which, when transferred abroad, may be used against the security of the Russian Federation.” Any Russian citizens who gather unclassified open-source defense and defense-related data with intent to let it be known abroad in any form may be officially labeled as a “foreign agent.” A draft version of FSB order Number 376 was first officially published on July 20, 2021. Now it will legally start being enforced (, September 28).

Many independent media outlets, organizations and NGOs have already been declared “foreign agents” in Russia; and recently, the Russian Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has been increasingly branding as “agents” individual journalists and human rights activists. Under current Russian law, any journalist who traveled abroad on a foreign-organized and -paid press tour or to attend/speak at a conference with expenses paid, or received any sum of money transferred from a relative or anyone abroad may (according to the MoJ) be branded as a “foreign agent.” Such individual “agents” are treated by the Russian authorities the same as if they were a media organization or NGO: after being categorized as such, they have one month to register a legal entity or company with the MoJ; must brand all their publications, including social media posts, as coming from a “foreign agent”; and must submit on a monthly basis copious paperwork, including detailed receipts-supported outlays of all incomes and personal expenses—a colossal burden for any individual. Failure to meet these strict rules controlling a “foreign agent” may result in hefty fines or a prison sentence. Media organizations or NGOs in Russia branded as “foreign agents” can, of course, close down and legally liquidate to avoid punishment and prosecution; and many in Russia have chosen that option. Bu an individual “foreign agent” in Russia seems to have only one viable option—to flee and become a political refugee (Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 23; Interfax, September 29).

A popular Russian proverb says, “The severity of Russian laws is excused by the selectiveness of their enforcement.” It was traditionally attributed to Mikhail Saltykov of the Saltykov noble house, a high-level civil servant and administrator in 19th-century imperial Russia and a famous writer/satirist under the pen name Nikolai Shchedrin. Saltykov-Shchedrin is still quite popular and often quoted in Russia, and much of his satire remains current because of how Russian ways of administration and repression seem to endure largely unchanged for centuries. But no one can specifically attribute the “The severity of Russian laws…” quote to any of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s many published texts or public lectures. Apparently, this proverb is more in use and popular in modern Russia than it ever was in the past. FSB order Number 376 more or less outlaws any defense analytical work in Russia. Foreign news outlets and embassies in Moscow have already begun complaining that well-known local defense/defense industry/space-connected sources are refusing to volunteer comment. President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary and deputy chief of administration, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters during an online briefing “not to fret” about the possibility that order Number 376 could threaten free speech: “We must consider any concrete cases on their merit and observe [future] law enforcement practices” (Interfax, October 1). Apparently, in the spirit of Saltykov-Shchedrin, the implementation of FSB order Number 376 may be rather selective against chosen malefactors.

It is not clear what the actual scope will be of the expanding repressions in Russia. The late-Soviet KGB tradition of pinpoint selective repression developed in the 1960s and 1970s. The present regime is led by people in their late 60s–early 70s (like Putin who has turned 69), who entered government service (the KGB) in the mid-1970s. Open opposition in Russia and what is seen as anti-government activity are suppressed, though preferably not by sending people to the gulag, but by pressuring them to emigrate. The de facto leader of the anti-Putin opposition, Alexei Navalny, is in prison, but he was incarcerated after voluntarily returning to Moscow from abroad, disregarding clear warnings not to. Many other opposition figures have fled to other countries. With Navalny and supporters suppressed, the authorities have focused on harassing the members of the Russian Communist Party (CPRF)—seemingly the last somewhat capable opposition force left. The CPRF’s Moscow chapter had, in the past, tactically cooperated with Navalny and today is being targeted. Communists protesting alleged vote fraud in the September 2021 State Duma elections in Moscow are being harassed, arrested and handed hefty fines (Kommersant, September 5).

The Kremlin apparently does not want to fully stop all publications or analysis of defense/defense industry/space-connected issues. In fact, Putin and the Kremlin have, since 2018, been actively promoting new Russian hypersonic and other nuclear superweapons, insisting Moscow is today the global leader in this field. The tests of the new, reportedly “unstoppable,” Tzirkon anti-ship hypersonic missile have been routinely advertised (Interfax, October 4). And the new super-heavy Sarmat inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM)—designed to carry up to tens of multiple-independently-targetable-reentry-vehicle (MIRV) nuclear warheads—is scheduled to take its maiden flight before the end of the year. State officials brashly insist a single “unstoppable” Sarmat missile could wipe out at least a quarter of the continental United States (, August 7). The Kremlin clearly wants to scare the West into agreeing to Moscow’s terms of peaceful coexistence, hoping that Western policymakers will internalize the belief that a confrontation with Putin’s Russia is too costly and risky. But to succeed, it is critically important for Russia to be fully consolidated. No dissent of any form in any field will be tolerated.