Why Putin Is Suddenly Jailing More Protesters

Feb 06, 2015 at 11:08 AM ET

If the West hoped economy-busting sanctions over the Kremlin’s apparent military support for rebels in Ukraine would spark mass protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long rule, then—so far, at least—it was sadly mistaken.

The Russian economy may be tanking and inflation may be rocketing, but discontent over the spiraling cost of living has been limited to online anger and small opposition rallies. Putin, however, is taking no chances. In an apparent bid to dissuade Russians from expressing their dissatisfaction in public, he’s criminalized peaceful protest.

A controversial new law that came into force in July but is only now being implemented stipulates prison terms of up to five years for anyone detained more than once in a period of 180 days at unsanctioned protests. Since the start of the year, three opposition activists have been charged under the new law. The three men facing years behind bars are Mark Galperin, a Moscow lawyer; Ildar Dadin, a veteran political activist who took part in last year’s Maidan uprising in Kiev; and Vladimir Ionov, a 75-year-old activist.

Galperin is currently serving a separate 30-day sentence for attending an unsanctioned rally in Moscow. Before that, he was in jail for eight days after being nabbed by Moscow cops while he held up a “Je suis Charlie” sign in support of the Charlie Hebdo victims. “Five years, execution by firing squad, a one ruble fine—it’s not important,” the defiant activist said in between jail sentences. “Our task is to bring about a change of regime.”

But that‘s easier said than done. Aside from the latest arrests, the Kremlin has launched a crackdown on dissent in recent months that Tanya Lokshina, the deputy director of Human Right Watch’s Moscow office, has called “unprecedented in post-Soviet Russian history.” Putin is tightening the screws preemptively—just in case the West’s sanctions spark mass protests over economic problems.

In late December, Russia jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s younger brother, Oleg, in a ruling that seems designed to keep up the pressure on Putin’s biggest foe without turning him into a martyr. On top of the Oleg jailing, a mother of seven was charged last week with treason after calling the Ukrainian embassy to report a conversation she had overheard about the possible deployment of Russian troops to the former Soviet republic—even though Russia denies its forces are in Ukraine. Other laws have cracked down on already shaky media freedoms.

In case all that isn’t enough to persuade Russians to stay off the streets, a new pro-Kremlin movement, Anti-Maidan, has been formed to counter any attempt to establish a Ukraine-style protest camp in Moscow. A coalition of the Moscow-based Night Wolves biker gang, veterans of Russia’s wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan, as well as Cossacks and mixed martial arts champions, the movement has already clashed with opposition supporters in Moscow. Anti-Maidan was formed by Dmitry Sablin, an ex-lawmaker from Putin’s United Russia party.

Putin, then, is clearly not a man who likes to be cornered. In fact, it seems to be something of a childhood fear for the ex-KGB officer, meaning that when he has nowhere to run, he strikes out—hard. “Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner,” he recounted in a particularly evocative section of his autobiography, First Person. “It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me.”

All of which is bad news for the West, as the United States and Europe push for concessions from the Kremlin on Ukraine, where fighting has recently intensified and the death toll in the almost-year-long conflict has risen to over 5,000. As for Russia’s opposition activists, they remain unbowed.

“I’ve thought a lot about leaving Russia, and trying to start a new life in Europe,” Denis Bakholdin, an anti-Putin activist who has frequently been detained at rallies, told me. “I’ve seen how much better things are there. But, look, if your neighbor has better wallpaper and nicer furniture, you don’t just move into their apartment. You try to improve your own home, right? So that’s exactly what I plan to do.”