Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Russia in Review: Domestic Discontent and Foreign Policy

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Authors: Nataliya Bugayova, Darina Regio, Mason Clark, and Michaela Walker with Alexandra McClintock

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is accelerating its parallel campaigns to suppress political dissent, create a viable option for Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay in power beyond 2024, and deepen Belarus’s integration with Russia. The Kremlin likely perceives a more urgent need to consolidate its gains domestically and internationally as internal pressures rise. 

The Kremlin will intensify its crackdown on peaceful political protests amid Putin’s falling approval ratings and a worsening economy. Thousands protested in Moscow on July 27 and on August 3 against the decision of Russian authorities to bar over a dozen candidates from the Moscow City Council elections scheduled for September 8.[1] The authorities likely have attempted to prevent anti-Kremlin candidates from running. The Kremlin used riot police and the National Guard to disperse the protests with an unprecedented level of violence.[2] Moscow authorities have arrested estimated approximately 2,000 protesters and several key opposition leaders – the largest number of arrests during a single protest wave in Russia since 2011.[3] The authorities opened an umbrella case for “inciting mass riots.”[4] Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who called for the protests, stated he was poisoned in custody.[5] Russian authorities failed to investigate the alleged poisoning; they instead announced an investigation into Navalny's anti-corruption foundation on August 3.[6]

Russian state-controlled media provided minimal coverage of the protests. Russian authorities raided the offices of independent television channel Dozhd after it made protest coverage available at no charge to non-subscribers.[7] Kremlin officials also tried to dispel the notion of discontent among Moscow’s residents, claiming “most of the riot members having no connection to Moscow whatsoever.”[8] The Kremlin accused the U.S. of interfering in Russia’s affairs after the U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued a demonstration alert for U.S. citizens identifying the publicly available protest route – a routine communication measure U.S. embassies use to ensure Americans’ safety.[9] This accusation aligns with Putin’s effort to redefine state sovereignty as forbidding even external commentary on events inside Russia.[10]

Forecast: The Kremlin will likely double down on its effort to isolate the protests.[11] Russia’s economy is worsening with declining salaries and supermarkets planning to sell food on credit.[12] New polls suggest that 38% of Russians do not want Putin to stay in power beyond 2024 – the highest number since 2013.[13] The Kremlin will attempt to make the protests irrelevant by restricting coverage and tarnishing the protesters as a small group paid by the West to destabilize Russia. The Kremlin will launch additional criminal cases and accelerate its efforts to expand control over the information space. The riots will further empower the security services, specifically the Federal Security Service and the National Guard. Police brutality will likely grow to show that no one is above the state machine. The Kremlin will further commit Russia to a path of isolation by sidelining or expelling opposing voices, trying to keep the broader Russian population blind, and framing Putin as the only viable option.

The Kremlin will likely manage to tame the protests in the near term. The Kremlin’s suppression of the 2011 anti-regime protests lasted for eight years. The Kremlin also subsequently escalated internationally. The recent protests may push the Kremlin to accelerate its global campaigns, but Putin can no longer expect to reap the same benefits in increased ratings as he did after his intervention in Ukraine. Russians are starting to question the cost-benefit ratio of his foreign adventures. The Kremlin’s control over the population is substantially stronger than in 2011, however. Putin has empowered hundreds of thousands of members of the security services – including police, the National Guard, and the intelligence agencies – who are now vested in the current system. The key indicator to watch is whether the protests expand beyond Moscow and occasional solidarity rallies in St. Petersburg.[14]

The Kremlin risks deepening the cracks within Russian society in the long run, however. The protests revealed a potentially growing wedge between the population and the security services. Select activists and members of the National Guard threatened to retaliate against each other’s families in social media.[15] Putin’s continued efforts to empower the security services on one side and frame any activism as anti-Russian on the other will only deepen this fissure.

The Kremlin is likely developing an option for preserving Putin’s power beyond 2024 through a constitutional change. Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament), advocated expanding the Duma’s authority to advise the President on cabinet appointees on July 17.[16] The Russian prime minister currently proposes the cabinet for the president’s approval without consulting with the Duma.[17] The Kremlin began introducing a narrative about constitutional change in 2018. Putin called the Russian constitution a “living [and] developing organism” in December 2018.[18] Volodin also proposed amending the Russian constitution on April 6.[19] Several other Russian officials publicly supported the idea of the constitutional change.[20]

Volodin’s proposal might be a contingency plan for the ruling United Russia party to preserve its influence after 2024 by allowing it to affect cabinet formation. The Kremlin might also be setting conditions to limit the power of the president if Putin becomes the prime minister. Finally, Volodin might be priming the information space for larger revisions, such as granting the Duma the authority to appoint the prime minister. This is likely one option in the broader set of possibilities the Kremlin is working on.

The Kremlin’s campaign to pressure Belarus to accelerate the Union Treaty process is succeeding. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced on July 18 his intent to finalize the terms of the Union State by December 8, 2019, the 20th anniversary of the Union Treaty.[21] The treaty calls for a federation-type state including Russia and Belarus that ensures the long-term allegiance of Belarus to Russia. Lukashenko has not previously specified any timeline for implementation and has worked to counter the Kremlin’s pressure.[22] Lukashenko’s statement likely indicates the success of the Kremlin’s aggressive campaign to integrate Belarus with Russia despite Lukashenko’s resistance.[23] Putin has personally engaged in an extensive meeting campaign with Lukashenko, including in-person or phone talks eight times since January 2019 – double the frequency of contacts in 2018.[24] The Kremlin has also used a variety of overt and likely covert pressures including cuts in economic aid.[25] Russia has notably lifted restrictions on the Belarusian sale of apples on July 23, days after Lukashenko’s July 18 statement.[26]

Putin’s and Lukashenko’s growing need to ensure continuity of their power amid domestic pressures is likely contributing to the acceleration of the Union State. Both likely seek the Union State as a source of post-presidency personal security and patronage. Lukashenko might also perceive more opportunity to shape the treaty to his advantage now, anticipating diminishing opportunities to leverage international partners and to negotiate with Putin, as well as a worsening economic situation in Belarus that heavily relies on Russia. Lukashenko continues to try to balance between Russia and other partners, however. He took out $600 million in loans from China to pay off Russian debts on July 10.[27] Belarus also put $157.4 million of Belarusian government bonds on the Russian market, nevertheless, underscoring Minsk’s continued dependence on Moscow.[28]

Lukashenko will continue to attempt to create long-term checks on Russian power in Belarus, but Belarus’ economic dependence on Russia and its geopolitical position limit its ability to counter the Kremlin.[29] Russia will likely reduce its economic pressure on Belarus in exchange for the implementation agreement. The Kremlin will likely attempt to establish a united currency and customs union, as well as expand its influence over Belarusian oil and gas infrastructure to control energy sales to Europe.[30] Belarus will likely retain nominal autonomy within the Union State, but Belarusian security structures would fall de facto under Russia’s leadership.

The West must prepare to face expanded Russian control over Belarussian security forces and additional Russian strategic basing that will threaten Ukraine and neighboring NATO members.[31] The West should reinforce its economic and military support of Belarus’ neighbors – Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia – to allow them to balance the Kremlin’s likely expansion. The West should also examine long-term conditions it can set to help Belarus achieve broader economic diversification and overall sovereignty.

[1] Mike Eckel, “Analysis: Why The Official Response to the Moscow Protests May Be a Turning Point,” RFE/RL, July 29, 2019,; Robert Coalson, “Russian Authorities, Opposition go Toe-to-Toe Over Moscow Duma Elections,” RFE/RL, July 24, 2019,; [“Independent Candidates are Disallowed Ahead of Russian City Council Elections,”], July 16, 2019, https(:)//; “Russian Police Detain Over 1,000 Opposition Protesters in Central Moscow,” The Moscow Times, August 4, 2019,; Matthew Luxmoore, “Police Detain Hundreds at Opposition Rally in Moscow,” RFERL, August 2, 2019,
[2] Nathan Hodge, “Protestors Are Taking to the Streets in Moscow. The Kremlin is Watching to See if Others Will Do the Same,”CNN, July 29, 2019,; Garbage Protesters in Russia’s North Brace for Showdown as Troops Descend,” The Moscow Times, April 30, 2019,; “Divisive Chechnya Deal Sparks Protest Calling for Ingush Leader’s Resignation,” The Moscow Times, March 26, 2019,; “Police Detain Navalny, Hundreds of Protesters At Anti-Putin Rally,” RFE/RL, May 5, 2018,; “Russians Protest Pension Changes,” Reuters, September 10, 2018,
[3] [“Head of the Fund of the Fight With Corruption Ivan Zhdanov Was Arrested For Fifteen Days for the Events of July 27,”] Novaya Gazeta, July 29, 2019, https(:)//; [“Vladimir Milov was arrested for Thirty Days for Actions in Support of Independent Candidates In the Russian City Council Elections,”] Novaya Gazeta, July 29, 2019, https(:)//; “Russian Police Detain Over 1,000 Opposition Protesters in Central Moscow,” Moscow Times,; Matthew Luxmoore, “Police Detain Hundreds at Opposition Rally in Moscow,” RFERL,; Vera Chelishcheva, [“The Limit of Detention is One Thousand Five Hundred,”] Novaya Gazeta, July 30, 2019, https(:)//
[4] [“Media: The Investigatory Committee has Opened Two More Cases Concerning the Violence Against the Russian National Guard at the Meeting at July 27,”] Novaya Gazeta, July 30, 2019, https(:)//; “10 ‘Mass Unrest’ Suspects Detained Ahead of Next Opposition Rally,” The Moscow Times, August 2, 2019,; Anton Bayev, [“The First Defendants From the July 27 Protests Were Sent to Jail,”] The Bell, August 2, 2019, https(:)//
[5] “Navalny Demands Official Probe Into Possible ‘Poisoning’ In Russian Custody,” RFE/RL, August 1, 2019,; “Police Beat, Detain Protesters and Opposition Figures at Moscow Rally,” RFE/RL, July 27, 2019,; Nataliya Vasilyeva, “Alexei Navalny, Face of Russia's Opposition, Hospitalized with Suspected Poisoning,” TIME, July 29, 2019,
[6] “Russia Probes Alleged Money Laundering by Opposition Leader Navalny,” RFERL, August 3, 2019,
[7] “Russia’s Independent Dozhd TV Channel Audited Amid Protest Coverage,” The Moscow Times, August 1, 2019,; Anna Kovalenko, [“Tax Inspectors Began Investigating ‘Dozhd’ Television Channel,”] The Bell, August 1, 2019, https(:)//
[8] [“‘They Compelled The Police to Use Force’: Sobyanin Comments on the Events of July 27 for the First Time,”] Novaya Gazeta, July 30, 2019, https(:)//; [“The Interior Ministry says that many of the July 27 protesters were newcomers. It looks like a propaganda trick,”] Meduza, July 29, 2019, https(:)//
[9] “Moscow to File Protests to US, Germany Over Interference in Russia’s Politics – Diplomat,” TASS, August 4, 2019, https://tass((.))com/politics/1071846; “Demonstration Alert: U.S. Embassy Moscow,” U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Russia, August 2, 2019,
[10] Nataliya Bugayova, “How We Got Here With Russia: The Kremlin’s Worldview,” Institute for the Study of War,
[11] Nataliya Bugayova, “How We Got Here With Russia: The Kremlin’s Worldview,” Institute for the Study of War,
[12] [“Railway Shipments Are Down as Before Recession,”] The Bell, July 2, 2019, https://thebell(.)io/perevozki-rzhd-snizilis-kak-pered-retsessiej/; Marina Karpova, “Russian Supermarket Starts Selling Food on Credit,” Russia Beyond The Headlines, February 12, 2016, https(:)//
[13] Alexander Pyatin, [“Almost Forty Percent of Russians Do Not Want To See Putin In Power After 2024,”] Forbes, July 30, 2019,
[14] [“On action in St. Petersburg - about 2,000 people. Speakers Reznik, Vishnevsky, Tikhonova,”] Fontanka, August 3, 2019, https(:)//
[15] [“Representative of the Russian Guard called threats to the children of security forces a lesson,”] Vedomosti, August 4, 2019, https://www.vedomosti((.))ru/politics/news/2019/08/04/808060-rosgvardiya; Ivan Belyaev, [“’Pay with the blood of children’: social networks on anonymous threats to the opposition,”] Radio Svoboda, August 5, 2019,; [“A premonition of a civil war: protests turned into threats of reprisals against children,”] Sneg, August 5, 2019, https://sneg((.))tv/22278-predchuvstvie-grazhdanskoj-vojny-protesty-obernulis-ugrozami-raspravy-nad-detmi.
[16] [“ Volodin Proposed to Change the Constitution Again to Include the Duma in the Formation of the Government,”] Novaya Gazeta, July 17, 2019, https://www.novayagazeta(.)ru/news/2019/07/17/153399-volodin-predlozhil-zafiksirovat-v-konstitutsii-uchastie-gosdumy-v-formirovanii-pravitelstva;
[17] [“The Constitution of the Russian Federation,”] Kremlin, December 12, 1993, http(:)//
[18] [“Putin: The Constitution of the Russian Federation is a living, developing organism that is the Foundation of the Legal System,”] TASS, December 12, 2018, https(:)//
[19] [“Volodin Proposed to Change the Constitution. He Wants the Duma to Participae in the Naming of Ministers,”] Meduza, April 6, 2019, https(:)//
[20] [“Volodin Proposed Changes to the Constitution,”] Ria Novosti, July 17, 2019, https://ria%28.%29ru/20190717/1556603942.html.
[21] [“VI Forum of Regions of Russia and Belarus,”] Kremlin, July 18, 2019, http(:)//; [“Meeting with the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko,”] Kremlin, July 18, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/61036, “Lukashenko Calls to Address All Issues Ahead of Belarus-Russia Union State Anniversary,”, July 18, 2019, https://www.belarus((.))by/en/press-center/news/lukashenko-calls-to-address-all-issues-ahead-of-belarus-russia-union-state-anniversary_i_101482.html.
[22] Mason Clark and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: May 9 - 13, 2019,” Institute for the Study of War, May 14, 2019,
[23] Mason Clark and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: May 9 - 13, 2019,” Institute for the Study of War,
[24] [“Meeting with the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko,”] Kremlin, June 19, 2018, https(:)//; [“Meeting with the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko,”] Kremlin, May 14, 2018, http(:)//; [“Telephone conversation with the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko,”] Kremlin, March 28, 2018, http(:)//;[“Vladimir Putin invited Alexander Lukashenko to Sochi,”] Kommersant, July 23, 2018, https(:)//
[25] “Russia Has Not Promised Belarus Help Over Oil Tax Overhaul: PM,” Reuters, January 14, 2019,
[26] [“At the IV Forum of Regions $550 million in contracts were closed,”] Belarus 24, July 19, 2019, http://belarus24(.)by/news/economics/na-vi-forume-regionov-zaklyucheno-kontraktov-na-550-mln/;
Sergey Izotov and Angelina Galanina, [“We will do everything we can,”] Izvestia, 19 July 19 2019, https://iz(.)ru/900846/sergei-izotov-angelina-galanina/budem-delat-vse-ot-nas-zavisiashchee; “Lukashenka Lambasts Moscow For 'Sanctions,' Threatens To Suspend Russian Oil Flow To Europe,” RFE/RL, April 11, 2019,
[27] “Belarus To Get Money From China To Pay Off Russian Debts,” RFE/RL, July 10, 2019,
[28] “Belarus Taps Russian Debt Market After a Decade,” Russia Business Today, July 31, 2019,
[29] [“Putin ‘uncovered’ data on trade with Belarus,”] Rosbalt, July 18, 2019, http://www.rosbalt(.)ru/business/2019/07/18/1792887.html.
[30] “Lukashenko Lambasts Moscow For 'Sanctions,' Threatens To Suspend Russian Oil Flow To Europe,” RFE/RL,; [“Apples and pears were banned, the oil pipe was threatened,”] Golos Ameriki, April 20, 2019, https://www.golos-ameriki(.)ru/a/russia-belarus-trade/4884370.html.
[31] Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019,; [“In Belarus the military doctrine of the Union State was approved,”] RIA Novosti, November 13, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/20181113/1532715720.html.