Journalist’s Release Reveals Cracks in the Putin System

The Kremlin is growing nervous over rising public resistance to the Russian president’s long rule.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
The Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov leaves the head investigative department's office in Moscow on June 11.
The Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov leaves the head investigative department's office in Moscow on June 11. Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images

In an unprecedented climbdown, Russia’s Interior Ministry announced Tuesday that the respected investigative journalist Ivan Golunov would be released from house arrest and that the charges against him, which were widely thought to be bogus, would be dropped and two senior police chiefs would be fired.

“Mistakes can never be ruled out,” said Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press spokesman, in an extremely rare admission.

The surprise decision to release Golunov, who was arrested last Thursday and accused of dealing drugs, followed a massive outcry among Russian journalists, civil society, and the international community and suggested that the Kremlin is increasingly nervous about the government’s falling approval ratings.

While the reaction to Golunov’s arrest is unlikely to bring down the government, the episode offers a glimpse into how the authoritarian system that Putin has presided over for 19 years is beginning to fray in the face of a rising public appetite for protest and questions about what will happen after Putin, with Russia’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin due to step down in 2024.

“I do think these are symptoms of a system that is creaking and groaning under pressures that are internal and external,” said Mark Galeotti, an honorary professor at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

While Putin is known for his tightly controlled, top-down style of governance, he is not the omnipotent puppet master he’s often portrayed to be. “There’s a lot that happens underneath the surface. And all the things that are popular, he takes credit,” said Yuval Weber, an associate professor at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security. When things don’t go so well, Putin is forced to wade in and attempt to resolve the situation.

While Putin has created and presided over a system in which journalists, opposition politicians, and activists are routinely harassed, jailed, and even killed, Golunov’s arrest has all the hallmarks of being the work of a mid-level apparatchik whose interests were threatened by the journalist’s work. The outcry it provoked was such that it tipped the balance to outweigh the political capital of whoever ordered it, forcing a U-turn from the top, Weber said.

Ivan Kolpakov, the editor in chief of Meduza, the Russia-focused website where Golunov worked, said in a statement published online that for 13 months Golunov had received threats from the subject of an investigation he was working on. Kolpakov didn’t disclose who the subject of the investigation was but said Golbunov had filed a draft of the article to his editor hours before he was detained.

Golunov’s arrest prompted a mass display of solidarity and a rare instance of unity among independent journalists and those who work for the state-run media, which is tightly controlled by the Kremlin. On Monday afternoon, journalists from two of Russia’s main state-run channels called into question the charges against him. A spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, who once offered to send a Finnish journalist to Chechnya, where local leader Ramzan Kadyrov has been accused of targeting reporters, said on Facebook that she was “in tears” at the announcement that Golunov had been released.  

This very public display of support from people close to the state may have even been orchestrated by the Kremlin in a backhanded way to isolate the problem. “It’s very impressive, but again, they’re [journalists from state-run media] not entirely independent in their actions,” said Maria Snegovaya, an adjunct fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. In attempting to pin Golunov’s arrest on a couple of rogue actors, it lets off steam and distracts scrutiny of the Putin system writ large.

With the clock ticking on Putin’s time in office, and no clear signal as to who or what will come next, experts believe that these instances of mid-level officials acting on their own initiatives will become more common as officials and influential oligarchs try to shore up their power and resources in the face of an uncertain future.

“People are basically getting ready to prepare for the end of Putin. Until there is a clear sign from the top, you’re going to get more and more people finding themselves in the prisoner’s dilemma: They want to act first before someone does something to them,” Weber said.

The Russia analyst Tatiana Stanovaya has argued that the Russian system of power is slowly starting to cannibalize itself. A key barometer of this has been the uptick in arrests of former officials and high-profile individuals, including Michael Calvey, a prominent American investor who was arrested this year in the midst of a business dispute.

“Putinism has entered its period of zastoy,” said Galeotti, the author of We Need Talk About Putin, referring to a Russian word commonly used to describe the Soviet Union’s stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev.

“What’s happening is that, once upon a time, officialdom both feared the center, but there was a sense that your interests were best served by being a loyal foot soldier of the Kremlin,” Galeotti said. But with the system under pressure due to international isolation, sluggish economic growth, and a president who is distracted by foreign adventurism, the Kremlin is not only less able to reward those who remain loyal, but it’s limited in its ability to punish others for fear of sparking a rebellion, said Weber of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security.

While the Kremlin may have intervened swiftly to try to nip the situation in the bud this time, it has also taught Russians a powerful lesson: Protest works. It remains to be seen whether the anger surrounding Golunov’s arrest will dissipate, or be channeled into further action. A statement published by Meduza, the Latvia-based news site Golunov worked for, and signed by its chief editors and other heavyweights of Russian journalism struck a defiant tone: “This is only the beginning. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us if we are to ensure that what happened here will never happen again to anybody.”

Correction, June 13, 2019: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the circumstances of Golunov’s imprisonment prior to his release; he was under house arrest. This story has been updated to reflect this.


Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack