Russia’s Isolation From the West Will Outlast the War
Restrictions on press freedoms are unlikely to be rolled back when the war in Ukraine finally ends.
While I was researching Russian investigative journalism a little over a decade ago, several of the people I interviewed used variations of the same metaphor to explain why Vladimir Putin had not stamped out the country’s independent media: They said that critical outlets—and they specifically referred to Russia’s most well-known investigative publication, Novaya Gazeta—were like credentials for Putin, allowing Russia to masquerade as a democracy. “Someone might be imprisoned in Russia for their articles, but Novaya Gazeta will continue to exist and showcase to the outside world that we do have freedom of speech in Russia,” a senior Russian journalist told me.
Until very recently, that characterization still rang true. Although Russia tends to be grouped with China in discussions of threatening authoritarian trends, the two countries have had very different media environments. In contrast to China, where social media is tightly controlled and all news outlets are owned by the party-state (though the stake of the ownership can vary), in Russia, social media remains less censored, and the state tolerated privately owned media, such as Novaya Gazeta.
These outlets produced courageous investigations, and were more explicitly critical of the authorities than their counterparts in China. Novaya Gazeta, for instance, investigated Putin’s amassing of personal wealth, war crimes in Chechnya, and the state’s coercive behavior against migrants as part of anti-terrorism operations, among other sensitive topics. This reporting garnered international attention, and last year, the newspaper’s editor in chief, Dmitry Muratov, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the space for investigative and critical journalism in traditional media has largely vanished. The regime has either banned or driven out all major critical outlets. On March 1, the websites of Russia’s only independent television channel, TV Rain (Dozhd), and the renowned liberal radio broadcaster, Ekho Moskvy, were blocked by the country’s telecommunications watchdog. On March 4, Meduza, a popular Latvia-based online outlet focused on Russia, announced that it had been blocked on the Russian web. On March 28, in response to warnings from authorities, Novaya Gazeta officially ceased its operations. On April 9, two more independent online outlets, Diskurs and Kholod, were banned as well. On April 15, a number of prominent journalists were marked as “foreign agents.” New legislation passed on March 4 by the Russian Parliament that punishes the spread of “fake” news about the military (and that has since been amended to include any state body) with a 15-year jail sentence is meant to foster widespread self-censorship.
This media crackdown is significant not only because of its practical implications—most Russians cannot now access independent news and analysis of a war being waged in their name—but for a deeper reason. It symbolizes Russia’s further estrangement from the West on a more subtle, ideological level: Putin’s regime has now dropped even the appearance of democracy and, by extension, its treatment of the West as a marker of political legitimacy.
This shift is not an isolated wartime measure, but appears to be part of a long-running systematic policy. It builds on a decade of mounting pressure on more independent media and extends to other actors that represent or collaborate with the West, including civil-society and research organizations. That means it is unlikely to be rolled back when the war in Ukraine finally ends.
The coexistence of critical news outlets and Putin’s regime was always riddled with frictions. Described by some Russia scholars as “islands of press freedom,” more critical media were initially tolerated so long as their readership remained relatively small and niche, unable to mount a serious threat to Putin’s rule. Since the large-scale protests in 2011 and 2012 against official corruption and electoral fraud, which were widely covered and, in part, mobilized by critical journalists, the regime has intensified its control over more independent outlets. Some, such as Kommersant and its sister publication Kommersant Vlast, as well as RBC Media Group—all owned by Russian oligarchs aligned with the Kremlin—underwent editorial changes over the past decade; leading editors quit or were fired, and many journalists left in solidarity.
Since 2012, the Russian Parliament has also passed a number of vaguely formulated punitive laws that, taken in sum, have helped muzzle journalists. The authorities implemented anti-extremism legislation and, more recently, rules that designate certain outlets, online publications, and even particular individuals as “foreign agents,” allowing officials to intimidate or shut down media organizations for allegedly inciting societal instability or for apparently compromising national-security interests. In 2014, for instance, Lenta.ru, Russia’s leading independent news site at the time, received an “extremism” warning for publishing an interview with a Ukrainian nationalist leader. The outlet’s editor in chief was fired, and the majority of its journalists resigned in protest. Meduza, an outlet that grew out of Lenta.ru, was labeled a “foreign agent” in 2021, and had its financial operations restricted, prior to being banned entirely in March 2022. In the latest wave of coercion, the authorities also resorted to familiar legal tools. Ekho Moskvy and TV Rain were declared foreign agents, and Novaya Gazeta’s halting of operations was preceded by regulators issuing a formal warning because it hadn’t labeled a particular NGO a foreign agent in an article.
Whereas in the past, recognition by the West could have served as a shield for some Russian media outlets, in recent years, and especially since the invasion, alleged associations with the West are now an excuse to dole out punishment. This deliberate detachment from the West is also notable in other sectors: In recent weeks, the Russian government has moved to close the offices of international organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which had operated in the country for 30 years, and the Carnegie Moscow Center, which houses many talented researchers and, since 1994, has produced in-depth analysis on Russian politics and society. (My own research on the Russian media was, in part, carried out while I was a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.) A number of Western media outlets have also been driven out of Russia, ceasing operations as a safety precaution.
While the banning of Russian independent media underscores one shift, in which Moscow no longer seeks approval from the West, the closure of these Western organizations points to another, in which any remaining connective tissue between Russia and the West that had facilitated Moscow’s engagement in the international community is torn apart.
In reflecting on the Putin regime’s crackdown, many observers have invoked the Iron Curtain, arguing that Putin has taken Russia back to the Soviet era. The regime’s deposition of the West as an aspiration is comprehensive and likely long-term, but we should nevertheless be wary of Soviet analogies.
For one thing, Putin’s efforts still face resistance from independent news outlets that have adapted to the new environment by deploying digital tools and using transnational platforms to continue to challenge official narratives about the war and, more broadly, Russia’s break with the West.
Some outlets, such as Meduza, publish extensive analysis and reporting about the war on Telegram—a popular social-media platform that, so far, remains accessible in Russia. According to Alexey Kovalev, an investigative journalist and an editor at Meduza who was forced to flee Russia for Latvia, Telegram has been instrumental in maintaining and even expanding their readership. The number of subscribers to the outlet’s Telegram channel has more than doubled since the start of the war. Meduza and smaller media outlets such as Kholod have also published detailed instructions to help readers keep up with their content, including following the outlets on social media and installing a VPN to avoid government censorship. In contrast to the Soviet era, the expansion of the internet in contemporary Russia makes the complete isolation and expulsion of critical, pro-Western views impossible.
While some independent Russian outlets have targeted Russian audiences from exile, others have taken on more global missions. Novaya Gazeta, for instance, has launched a European edition, Novaya Gazeta Europe. According to its editor in chief, Kirill Martynov, the new publication will be independent from the original Russia-based news outlet, but it will still focus on covering Russia for domestic and international audiences. Since its launch, the outlet has published a rare interview in English with the mother of a Russian sailor who survived the sinking of the Moskva warship.
Ironically, then, Putin’s strategy to turn Russia away from the West has forced his critics into greater integration with the West, partly as a survival mechanism. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s regime has discarded the notion of showcasing “credentials” for the West by tolerating critical voices, but its effort to vanquish Russian journalists’ motivation to hold Putin and his system accountable has failed. If anything, it has likely made their motivation stronger.