Russia’s deteriorating economic situation is exacerbating the various social problems in the country, and the authorities are apparently finding no other way to deal with such issues but to shut down all outlets for public debate. Last week (May 28), President Vladimir Putin expanded the definition of information constituting state secrets to include data on casualties sustained by the Armed Forces in the course of “special operations” in peacetime (Kommersant, May 29). The immediate reason appears to be the need to silence the voices that raise the sensitive issue of soldiers killed in the “hybrid war” battles in eastern Ukraine following the publication of the report “Putin. War,” prepared by the late Boris Nemtsov and completed by his comrades (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 29). It is, indeed, becoming difficult for the Russian government to sustain the “patriotic” mobilization of the population as the dirty war drags on, and the real reason behind the outlawing of discussion on its human costs may be the preparation for a new offensive that should re-energize Russians’ dissipating triumphalism.
Many reports have been written on the steady increase of Russian troops and armor on the border with Ukraine and inside the parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions controlled by Moscow-backed rebels (Newsru.com, May 28). With every passing week since the February 2015 ceasefire, artillery is growing louder along the nominal cease-fire line; but a probable tank attack will have no element of surprise, so Russia’s hard-to-hide casualties could ultimately number in the hundreds (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, May 28). German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande had yet another telephone conference with Putin last Friday (May 29), seeking to persuade him to stick to the February Minsk Two agreement while he again duplicitously complained about Ukrainian violations of the ceasefire accord (Kremlin.ru, May 29). However, Western warnings have only so much convincing power because the Kremlin tends to assume that there is scant support for enforcing new sanctions, which the G7 might discuss at the summit in Bavaria next week (Lenta.ru, May 30). Another subtle signal was delivered by the French negotiators on the frozen Mistral helicopter carrier deal: French officials cut short their visit to Moscow last week after making a thin offer of compensation (Rbc.ru, May 29).
What aggravates Western worries is not only the incessant war-mongering of official Russian propaganda but also Moscow’s increasingly harsh suppression of internal dissent. In fact, Putin’s decree on criminalizing any disclosure of casualties fits into the larger picture of banning debate on any themes deemed corrosive to “national unity”—as measured by President Putin’s dubiously high approval ratings (Gazeta.ru, May 28). The sharp increase in mortality in Russia in the first quarter of 2015 is explained away as a fluke in demographic statistics, and no discussion of this data in the context of the deteriorating health care system is allowed (Grani.ru, May 29). Moreover, reasons behind the rise in suicides among Russians are made into a taboo topic, and the dynamics of the country’s HIV epidemic is ignored (Meduza.io, May 15). Instead of prosecuting the spreading networks of narco-traffickers, the boss of the Federal Drug Control Service advances mind-boggling theories about special kinds of drugs manufactured in the United States, whose aim is to manipulate “color revolutions” (Forbes.ru, April 21).
The only area where meaningful debates are still possible is the economy. And forced official optimism about the allegedly inevitable recovery finds little support among experts, who see the deep contraction of investment activity as proof positive of a protracted recession (Rbc.ru, May 29). The government keeps producing forecasts for changes in economic fortunes, but each publication of raw data—for instance, on the fall in the net value of oil exports by 41.5 percent in the first quarter of 2015 compared with 2014—leads to another downturn in business expectations (Newsru.com. May 29). Economists are in no doubt about the further and deeper contraction of real incomes, but there is no way of knowing whether and when this trend might crystalize into public protests, for instance against the severe cuts in funding for the Academy of Sciences (Gazeta.ru, May 29). While the lower middle classes feel the most painful squeeze, it is the business elites that have lost fortunes as the value of their assets plunged and they stand to lose even more on account of diminishing state orders.
The visible disarray in the government reflects this hidden despair among the elites, who increasingly come into bitter conflicts with one another while positive business prospects fail to materialize in Russia’s rigidly set political course (Forbes.ru, May 28). Putin used to excel at manipulating elite squabbles. But presently, his capacity for redistributing financial flows has eroded, while his readiness to apply the fear factor is checked by worries about provoking a mutiny among his “loyal” lieutenants (Slon.ru, May 27). One popular belief among both the siloviki (security services personnel) and the oligarchs is that the struggle against corruption leads directly to and can trigger a “color revolution.” Therefore, non-governmental organizations (NGO) like Transparency International were included in the newly-approved list of “undesirable organizations” (Novaya Gazeta, May 26). International investigations of fraud and money laundering are seen as means of putting pressure on Russia, so the recent exposure of the culture of corruption in the international soccer organization FIFA has encountered loud protests from the Kremlin (Gazeta.ru, May 29).
These attempts at curtailing the flow of information and persecuting the disseminators of politically undesirable news (including bloggers) might appear old-fashioned and inspired by Soviet-era KGB practices, which are held dear by Putin and his henchmen. They are, nevertheless, more effective than the spread of Internet-based social networks would suggest—and not only due to the impact of their vicious propaganda but also because the mass production of “patriotic” illusions has left many people disoriented and averse to facts and figures that puncture these illusions and leave them with feelings of foreboding disaster (Slon.ru, May 28). The Kremlin exploits this disorientation and presents its curtailing of Russians’ access to public information as a response to social “demand.” But in orchestrating the stigmatization of dissidents, who persist in digging up the truth about Russia’s decay and corruption, the Kremlin becomes a consumer of its own propaganda. Living the lie of Putinism, Russia may appear strong and determined to defy the allegedly hostile West, but the falsity of this unity is revealed by the population’s indifferent acceptance of the supreme decision to deny honor to the country’s fallen soldiers.