The Year of Living Dangerously (for Russians and Their Neighbors)

2021 was a year of crackdowns, COVID-19, and saber-rattling.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Police detain protesters in Moscow
Police detain protesters in Moscow
Police detain protesters gathered at Pushkin Square in Moscow on Jan. 23. Getty Images

The Kremlin began 2021 as it meant to carry on: by trying to stifle critics inside and outside the country. In late January, opposition politician Alexei Navalny returned to Moscow from Germany, where he was recuperating after being poisoned by the potent nerve agent Novichok. He was immediately detained at the airport and quickly sentenced to over three years imprisonment for violating the probation terms of a previous conviction widely believed to be politically motivated. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Russia to protest his detention, and several thousand were arrested.

Navalny’s near-lethal poisoning and later imprisonment were widely seen as a watershed moment, as 2021 became the year that the Kremlin began to squeeze out the last vestiges of dissent and independent voices. With each passing month more and more independent news outlets and nongovernmental organizations were slapped with the label “foreign agents” or “undesirable organization” in a bid to close them down or choke off their funding.

The Kremlin’s exasperation with the independently minded extended into its foreign policy as senior Russian officials voiced increasing impatience with Ukraine and the country’s NATO ambitions. Not once but twice this year, Russian troops massed along Ukraine’s eastern borders, with the latest buildup sparking fear in Ukraine and among its allies of a renewed Russian invasion.

The Kremlin began 2021 as it meant to carry on: by trying to stifle critics inside and outside the country. In late January, opposition politician Alexei Navalny returned to Moscow from Germany, where he was recuperating after being poisoned by the potent nerve agent Novichok. He was immediately detained at the airport and quickly sentenced to over three years imprisonment for violating the probation terms of a previous conviction widely believed to be politically motivated. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Russia to protest his detention, and several thousand were arrested.

Navalny’s near-lethal poisoning and later imprisonment were widely seen as a watershed moment, as 2021 became the year that the Kremlin began to squeeze out the last vestiges of dissent and independent voices. With each passing month more and more independent news outlets and nongovernmental organizations were slapped with the label “foreign agents” or “undesirable organization” in a bid to close them down or choke off their funding.

The Kremlin’s exasperation with the independently minded extended into its foreign policy as senior Russian officials voiced increasing impatience with Ukraine and the country’s NATO ambitions. Not once but twice this year, Russian troops massed along Ukraine’s eastern borders, with the latest buildup sparking fear in Ukraine and among its allies of a renewed Russian invasion.

A domestic crackdown, drumbeats of war—and that doesn’t even get into the ravages of the pandemic. Despite a head start as the first country to register a vaccine against COVID-19 last year, uptake of the Sputnik V vaccine has been slow, and just over 40 percent of Russians have been fully vaccinated, leading to a surge in infections in the fall and one of the highest per-capita global death rates.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first overseas trip of the pandemic in June to attend a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva. After taking office in January, Biden was the first recent president not to seek some sort of rapprochement with his Russian counterpart, but his administration has repeatedly expressed a desire to have a “stable and predictable” relationship with Moscow, diplomatic speak for hoping Putin behaves himself while Washington focuses on China. But the Russian leader appears to have missed the memo.

As the world enters 2022 on tenterhooks about Russia’s intentions, here are five of Foreign Policy’s top Russia stories this year.

  1. With Putin’s Latest Crackdown, Russia Is Going Dark

by Alexey Kovalev, May 6

Of all the canaries snuffed out in the Russian coal mine this year, the designation of the independent news site Meduza as a foreign agent was one of the more shocking. Founded in 2014 and based in Riga, Latvia, the publication quickly became one of the most popular independent Russian news sites, and English-language translations of its reports and investigations became an indispensable resource for the wider world. Until April, that is, when the site was branded a foreign agent under wide-ranging legislation that has increasingly been used as a cudgel to silence critics. Meduza’s investigative editor Alexey Kovalev described how the site’s business dried up almost overnight, and even the most hardened Russian journalists were starting to think twice about working in an increasingly hostile environment.

“There is a palpable sense of foreboding. It’s become clear by now that things will get significantly worse. The Kremlin has clearly signaled that it will no longer tolerate even token opposition or the hint of any threat to its rule,” Kovalev wrote.

  1. Why Is Putin Afraid of Jehovah’s Witnesses?

by Amy Mackinnon, March 26

One of the more baffling and terrifying subplots of the Kremlin’s crackdown in recent years is the unsparing ferocity leveled against the country’s Jehovah’s Witnesses, a nonviolent, apolitical Christian denomination with an estimated 175,000 followers in Russia. Relying on vague interpretations of sweeping legislation—there’s a theme here—the Russian Supreme Court designated the group an extremist organization in 2017, lumping it in with neo-Nazis and al Qaeda. Hundreds have been charged and convicted in the crackdown, which has swept up followers aged 19 to 90.

  1. The Kremlin’s Don’t-Get-Out-the-Vote Campaign

by Matthew Luxmoore, Sept. 16

Russians went to the polls to vote in parliamentary elections in September. Not that you might have noticed. Protests sparked by rigged presidential elections in neighboring Belarus offered a parable on the dangers of trying to pull too much wool over the electorate’s eyes. Instead, the Kremlin sought to make sure the election campaign was as tedious as possible in a bid to keep those pesky opposition voters at home.

“They’re ‘drying’ the turnout. If you make the elections boring, and limit discussion, people will think there is no agenda and nothing to decide, and their vote won’t change anything,” Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the political consultancy R.Politik, told Foreign Policy.

  1. Moscow Is Using Memory Diplomacy to Export Its Narrative to the World

by Jade McGlynn, June 25

“Who controls the past controls the future,” the novelist George Orwell wrote. Russia did not invent memory diplomacy, but it may have perfected it. In recent years the Kremlin has used an expansive toolbox around the world, including military history tours, dance competitions, and museum exhibits, to push selective interpretations of history and, in turn, advance contemporary geopolitical goals. The orange-and-black ribbon of St. George, synonymous in Russia with the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, took on a new meaning after it was adopted by supporters of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, thus conflating World War II with the war in the Ukraine, where Moscow has sought to cast pro-European Ukrainians as fascists.

“In this way, the ribbon became a symbol of two wars but also evidence of how the Kremlin uses the memory of World War II, at home and abroad, as a Trojan horse to smuggle in other, more contentious, geopolitical stances,” McGlynn wrote in this deep dive on the phenomenon.

  1. Biden Is Running Out of Time to Help Ukraine Fend Off Russia

by Amy Mackinnon, Jack Detsch, and Robbie Gramer, Dec. 6

Heading into the New Year, all eyes are on Ukraine as officials in Washington and Kyiv warn that Moscow could be preparing to invade as early as January. Russia has amassed 115,000 troops around the borders of Ukraine, in occupied Crimea, and in eastern regions controlled by Russian-backed separatists—and that number could swell still further. The buildup sparked a flurry of diplomatic activity among U.S. and European officials trying to find a way to deter Moscow and bolster Ukraine’s defenses. Foreign Policy spoke to nearly two dozen U.S., Ukrainian, and European officials as well as congressional aides for an in-depth look at the state of play.

“In the worst-case scenario, Russia may try to undermine the entire post-Cold War security architecture in Europe and redraw borders by force again,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters on Nov. 29.

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

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