Russia’s war and suppression of speech

The day after Prof. Konstantin Sonin finished a public lecture in Moscow, Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

A Russian citizen, the University of Chicago scholar has been a frequent critic of Putin’s autocratic regime. But the president’s attack on Ukraine was coupled with even more draconian restrictions on speech—clamping down on social media platforms, and even threatening imprisonment for dissidents. Facing the risk of arrest in Russia and dwindling options for his role as a public intellectual, Sonin returned to Chicago last week, cutting short a planned sabbatical year abroad.

A leading political economist, Sonin said that the ongoing war is not only exacting horrific brutality on Ukrainians; it is could also bring about “the end of Russia.”

The following is edited from a recent conversation with the John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, who discusses Putin’s isolation, the consequences of disinformation and censorship, and the bleak outlook for everyday Russians.

Russian incursions into Ukraine are not new, but why is a full-scale invasion happening now? What might this mean for the future of the two countries?

There is no fully satisfying explanation. Certainly, as my research has shown, part of it is that the leader of a kleptocracy—like Russia is today—blocks channels of information and surrounds themselves with incompetent loyalists. This is what we have seen with Putin. As a result, the Russian people have a very different (and wrong) view of what’s going on in Ukraine and in the United States.

Putin is in his 23rd year in power. After two years of isolation brought on by COVID-19, he is likely completely devoid of reality. The bottom line is that, even if we don’t fully understand why this is happening, we do know that it’s terrible for Ukrainians right now.

In the long term, it might also be the end of Russia. I could imagine a spiral of worsening economic situations. After that it could naturally disintegrate, possibly into several countries, like Germany did after World War II.

You have been on sabbatical for a year in Russia. Why did you leave early? 

In Russia, it’s now a crime to call the war a war. It’s criminal to call human suffering, human suffering. It’s criminal to say that Russian troops have killed peaceful Ukrainians. And all of this can be enforced retroactively, which means that statements I made weeks or months ago could lead to my arrest. Yet even if I could remove my previous statements from the internet, I would not do so. This makes it likely that I would have been arrested very soon.

Part of the reason I was in the country for the 2021-22 academic year was to stand in solidarity with my peers and to speak out against Putin and his anti-democratic activities, which have had a lot of negative implications beyond politics. Since the start of the war, my role as a public intellectual was effectively closed off with the government shutting down most non-state media, including public radio and television. Russia has also blocked access to Facebook, which has become my primary social media venue. What I have is my words. Since I had no ability to speak out any longer, what was left to be done?

What do everyday Russians know, and what do they think of the war? 

Remember that the vast majority of Russian citizens do not use sophisticated social media networks. So many do not know that there is a war. On the state media, they hear about border skirmishes. They hear rubbish about “de-Nazification.” They hear there are no casualties — even though if they were on Twitter or TikTok, they would see hundreds of Russian vehicles being burned, dozens of prisoner of war in Ukrainian custody, and all sorts of carnage.

Citizens are scared to tell the truth. It’s a totalitarian regime. When asked for a survey, they think that their loyalty is being tested and they feel threatened. I’m not surprised that they seem to be supporting Putin at this point based on polling data, but that may change and there will be signs when that happens.

What are the economic consequences that the war has wrought for Russia and its citizens? 

The short-term economic disruptions are significant, and they have been caused by the combination of war itself, sanctions, and the change in behavior of hundreds of major firms — including ExxonMobil, McDonalds, Starbucks — around the world. Most Western brands have either closed permanently, or at least closed their shops and stopped supporting digital platforms. Eventually the factories will be closed as well.

This will be felt very acutely around Russia. The ruble has depreciated more than 60%, and that, in turn, has caused the government to strictly limit the amount of dollars that can be withdrawn from banks. This of course hurts Russia’s poor, because dollars are the primary asset that protects against inflation, which is spiraling. This hurts the average citizen already and it’s likely to get worse. 

What signs of change, if any, should we be on the lookout for?

Watch what Russia’s citizens do, not what they say. For example, whatever Putin and the propaganda says says about the eventual demise of the United States and Western European, Russian people rushed to banks to withdraw dollars and euros before it was too late. They already started to ignore what the government says rather than obediently following Putin, which is e a sign that they know something is deeply wrong with  the state of affairs.

Are you surprised by the West’s response?

It was not difficult to predict that once people around the world saw the shelling of peaceful cities, millions of refugees, children and women being killed by indiscriminate bombing, that there would be sanctions to stop this war. The day before the war began, I was giving a public lecture in Moscow. When asked, I said that potential sanctions and the West’s reaction will depend on how far our tanks go. If they go to Mariupol, then it will be one thing. If they go to Kyiv, it’s a different thing. The West’s response isn’t surprising, given the scope and brutality of what we’re witnessing. At the same time, I think that the Biden government, which struggles on many domestic frontiers, has done a commendable job in both helping Ukraine and building a world-wide coalition to stop the aggressor. Even before the outbreak of the war, I was positively surprised how well-informed and attentive to what is going in Russia and Ukraine the Biden administration was.

How would you grade Biden’s response?

The administration has been impressive in their support for Ukraine. The Biden administration has been very effective at galvanizing other countries and taking a bold stand. Of course, Ukraine wants more help, more arms, a no-flight zone. But the current administration has been better than the Obama or Trump administrations in this respect. Middling responses to Putin’s provocations in Syria and Libya and annexation of Crimea in the past likely emboldened Putin. 

What do you think is going on in Putin’s head right now?

He doesn’t have a realistic picture of what’s happening; he can’t accept the reality. I don’t think he knows that the Russian casualty rate is so high. I doubt he understands that the Russian Army shells big cities and that the toll it’s taking on civilians is intolerable for the whole world. He likely does not understand the sanctions, how they make life miserable for Russians.  Even when he gets accurate information – and I am not sure that gets accurate information, he simply ignores it.

He’s not actually interested in what is going on in Russia. When he announced the invasion, he didn’t speak about COVID. He didn’t speak about economic difficulties. He didn’t speak about the burden of sanctions. He’s seemed far more interested in what happened 100 years ago during the first Russian Revolution.

I think that the eventual peace and decision to withdraw will be made by different people. I hope they’ll be made by different people.

How will you continue to make yourself heard?

I was one of three authors who circulated a letter for economists opposing the war, which was eventually signed by some 350 Russian economists working around the world. This may not sound like much, but it is when you consider that it is now a state crime in Russia to refer to the invasion as a “war” or to say that Russia is at fault. It’s hard to overstate the bravery of the 50 or 60 signatories who are continuing to work in Russia. As of now, they are not being persecuted and they cannot be fired yet. But still, this is extremely courageous, as we do not know what will happen next. Similar letters were written and signed by people of other academic professions.

If I return to Putin’s Russia, I could be sent to prison for 15 years for saying what I’ve said to you. As much as I’m happy to talk to Western audiences, I will continue to prioritize reaching average Russians and tailoring my message to those there who have the most impact and to do the most good.

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