The news coming out of Russia these days sounds taken from a particularly gloomy dystopian novel, or perhaps from the Soviet era. The state—far from a model of democracy to begin with—has deteriorated in a matter of weeks into a genuine dictatorship, punishing citizens not just for their actions, but for their thoughts.
Employees who refuse to support the invasion of Ukraine are fired. Students who do not support Putin’s “special operation” are expelled. Border control agents check the phones of Russians heading overseas for text messages expressing subversive opinions. A Russian priest was arrested for a sermon in which he spoke out against violence and in favor of peace, something that in present-day Russia is viewed as a challenge to the regime.
The more entrenched Putin’s military becomes in the Ukrainian swamp, unable to secure a clear victory and without a clear exit strategy, the more Russia’s domestic oppression will grow. A new law carrying a maximum 15-year prison sentence for issuing “false reports” on Russian military activity will be enforced to the fullest, to set an example. Those who remember a similar Soviet-era law that sent many people to camps in Siberia for small talk or jokes categorized as “anti-Soviet propaganda” understand that the time to flee Russia is now—before the Iron Curtain falls.
There has been a sudden spike of people looking to cross at the border stations for no particular reason, and thousands have bought one-way plane tickets out of Russia. As befits the social-media era, among those leaving are Russian celebrities—including those who swore allegiance to Putin, praised him, and made a fortune doing so. Their keen senses tell them things are about to change. The real test for the regime’s stability will come in a few weeks, when the economic sanctions will begin to bite. While they have already influenced morale, the sanctions will soon impact Russians’ wallets.
For the first time in his lengthy reign, Putin will face a crisis that genuinely threatens his continued rule. The form of government established in 2000 was based on an unwritten social agreement between Putin and the wider public. The people gave Putin the throne, and in return he provided stability, a reasonable quality of life and an intoxicating sense of imperial empowerment—all of which are now being undermined. Trust in Putin will also be undermined, particularly if the economic sanctions hit the energy sector.
Energy sales remain the lone ray of light for the Russian regime. Russia has sold around 10 billion euros ($11 billion) worth of oil, gas, and coal to European states since invading Ukraine. Should the West decide to cut off this lifeline, Russia could potentially go bankrupt, and that would push Putin into a corner.
Ariel Bulshtein is a journalist, translator, lecturer and lawyer.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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