Hours after Russia's state media regulator accused the popular news website Lenta.ru of extremism over a recent interview with a paramilitary commander in the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist group Right Sector, editor Galina Timchenko was fired and replaced with a man hailing from Kremlin’s mouthpiece, Vzglyad.ru. Most of Lenta's reporters have resigned in protest, writing in a farewell letter, “The trouble is not that we’ve lost our jobs. The trouble is that you’ve got nothing to read.”
This is not far from the truth. There are hardly any objective, professional media outlets left in a nation that possesses half of the world’s nukes. Lenta’s main competitor, Gazeta.ru, has already undergone a Kremlin-directed overhaul. The only independent TV station, Dozhd, was removed from all major cable networks in February and probably won't survive long. Multiple sources claim that the semi-independent Ekho Moskvy radio station is doomed. Three other news websites were officially banned on Thursday, along with the blog of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was placed under house arrest in February. Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov wrote on Friday, "The demise of lenta.ru ... heralds the introduction of comprehensive censorship on the eve of the Crimean referendum and the subsequent annexation of the peninsula. Twitter and Facebook are next in line."
Meanwhile, a draft law in the State Duma equates "anti-Russian" materials with espionage and betrayal of the state, which means editors may spend decades in prison for stories that contradict the official line. The bill has been shelved for now, but so were some of the most infamous ones of late—before they surfaced again and became laws.
One can clearly sense what's next by following government propaganda, whose main target these days is the "fifth column": journalists, opposition activists, and anyone else who dares to doubt the wisdom of President Vladimir Putin's decision to send troops into Ukraine. Here's how it works: First an "investigative" documentary appears on government TV, then the authorities launch criminal cases against those that the documentary targeted (as was the case with left-wing leader Sergey Udaltsov, now on trial on charges of organizing riots). It was the same in Stalin's times, when show trials were preceded by Pravda editorials pointing at "enemies of the people."
The occupied Ukrainian province of Crimea is now swarmed by international press that arrived in the anticipation of Sunday's referendum about its future status. But Crimea is a part of a bigger story: Russia is drastically changing course. Once a rather soft autocracy, it’s becoming a highly repressive and increasingly totalitarian state with an information firewall as efficient as the Iron Curtain. In a matter of months it will be a different country and only a tiny, extremely non-transparent group of people knows what the design is.
Trouble is, we—Russian and Western journalists working in Moscow—know nothing about these people. Yes, we knew about some members of Putin’s inner circle, but they have undergone an evolution behind Kremlin walls that we have been unable to follow. The extent of this moral and psychological transformation is a mystery.
We know from second-hand sources that the decision to invade Ukraine was adopted by a close-knit group of Putin's associates that doesn’t even include the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. Most worryingly, there are signs that what unites them is not greed or corruption, but a genuine desire to change the world order. Consider the criticism of the “Anglo-Saxon” civilisation by Russian railway chief and self-proclaimed philosopher Vladimir Yakunin, one of Putin’s closest friends. Speaking at an international political forum he had organized, Yakunin said that the idea of American democracy "seems to have already passed through the process of total devaluation and has acquired the status of a commodity that can be sold, bought or rammed into some kind of standard."
We know that these people control an arsenal of nukes sufficient to erase the human race. For the sake of our own sanity, we assume that they are completely sane (if sinister) and know exactly what they want to achieve and where to stop. But do we have any proof?
We used to know Putin as a fairly cool-headed, calculating politician, but everything he's done while tackling the Ukrainian crisis defies that image. In the buildup to the crisis, he sent the most unlikeable and thick-headed envoy, Sergey Glazyev, to campaign against Ukraine's integration with the European Union and in favor of the Russia-led alternative the Customs Union. In December, Putin threw a $15 billion lifeline to Viktor Yanukovych although massive demonstrations in Kiev had clearly showed that the Ukrainian president didn't control his own capital and wouldn't last for long. And, finally, Putin decided to invade Crimea, a move that ensures Russia has lost Ukraine forever. A nation that in many ways was Russia's Siamese twin—28 percent of Ukrainians claim they have close relatives in Russia—is now a sworn enemy that will never voluntarily return to the fold. More than that, the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan is at risk, as the autocratic rulers of both countries have been spooked by Russia's invasion of a core ex-USSR country without pretext (Georgia attacked first in its 2008 war with Russia).
There is a strong feeling that Putin has been acting on impulse, rather than according to plan—that the invasion into Crimea was merely a spontaneous and ill-thought reaction to the Ukrainian revolution. Some of his answers at the last press conference sounded plain weird, like the line about Russian soldiers planning to hide behind women and children in case Ukrainians open fire. What's going on in his head? What kind of emotional perfect storm is hiding behind this steely face? We simply don't know, and that’s the scariest part of this story.