Putin tightens grip on Russian dissent behind a new Iron Curtain

Since the invasion of Ukraine the Kremlin has further stifled what little freedom Russians had to criticize the government. Garry Kasparov, prominent Russian opposition figure, a chess grandmaster, former world champion and now chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative, which promotes democracy in the U.S. and abroad, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has further stifled what little freedom Russians had to criticize the government.

    Under Russian law, describing the war in Ukraine as war can lead to 15 years in prison, and Russia recently forced international organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to close their operations in the country.

    Nick Schifrin takes a deeper look at the suppression of dissent.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Behind a new Iron Curtain that Vladimir Putin seems determined to build, there appears to be no irony. After a woman held up a poster that literally said "Two words," she was detained by seven officers in riot gear.

    This man arrested for holding up a blank piece of paper. On Sunday, police detained Konstantin Goldman for holding Tolstoy's "War and peace," or as it would be called under new rules, "Special Military Operation and Peace."

    And, last week, Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov, editor of one of Russia's few remaining independent newspapers, was attacked with red paint. Since the invasion, independent human rights activists say police have arrested more than 15,000 people for criticizing the war.

    This week, they detained prominent opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza. He's long oppose Putin and accuses the Kremlin of poisoning him twice. In 2017, we interviewed him and his wife, Evgenia, in the U.S. as he recovered from the second attack.

  • Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russian Opposition Politician:

    I felt just life slowly going out of the whole body. And I remember that distinct feeling: Well, this is it. This is the end. Now I'm going to die.

    Evgenia Kara-Murza, Wife of Vladimir Kara-Murza: It is terrifying. I'm not going to lie to you. But I want him to continue to do what he thinks is important, what he thinks is right.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The West has punished Putin with unprecedented sanctions and cut off access to American technology.

    This week, he admitted the sanctions have stymied Russia's vital energy industry. But on a Tuesday visit to a space center in Russia's far east, he claimed the sanctions also create Russia unity.

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    They wanted very much that everything that is happening would impact domestic political processes in Russia. They always make that kind of mistake, without understanding that, when faced with difficult conditions, Russian people always unite.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Putin has been preparing for this moment for years, building up reserves, destroying the opposition, silencing critical media.

    Director of Central Intelligence Bill Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, yesterday said Putin and his insular advisers are driven by imperial dreams and revenge.

  • William Burns, CIA Director:

    Putin has stewed in a combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity. An apostle of payback, his risk appetite has grown as his grip on Russia has tightened. His circle of advisers has narrowed, and, in that small circle, it has never been career-enhancing to question his judgment or his stubborn, almost mystical belief that his destiny is to restore Russia's sphere of influence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To talk about Putin's motivations and his restriction free speech, I'm joined by Garry Kasparov, a prominent opposition figure, former world chess champion and chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative, which promotes democracy in the U.S. and abroad.

    Garry Kasparov, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    The independent Levada Center says that, since the invasion, Putin's popularity has grown to 81 percent. Do you think that's an accurate reflection of Russian opinion?

  • Garry Kasparov, Chairman, The Human Rights Foundation:

    I don't know. And nobody knows.

    Poll means that you make a phone call to someone who most likely will not be happy to answer. So, I bet you that probably 90 percent immediately hang up, and the remaining 10 percent do whatever they think is safe for them.

    There is a genetic memory for people who were born and raised in the country controlled by KGB. Now, with KGB back in power, with Putin's ruthless dictatorship, I doubt that we will ever hear what people think by being asked by the stranger.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Because, of course, it is illegal for them to criticize Putin, even when a pollster calls.

  • Garry Kasparov:

    Yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Fifteen thousand, as — as — 15,000 detentions. As we talked about, international organizations, the few independent media outlets that used to be open have now been closed.

    How unprecedented, in your opinion, is this crackdown, even for Putin?

  • Garry Kasparov:

    I don't think he has much of a choice, because they have to hide the truth about war in Ukraine.

    It didn't go Putin's way. He failed to take over Kyiv in three or four days and to have a military parade on Khreshchatyk, the center of Kyiv. And now, with the mounting losses, it's probably about 20,000 Russian soldiers killed in action. I would probably say four times this amount is wounded.

    With massive losses of Russian heavy armor and now the Russian flagship in the Black Sea, he has to hide the truth. He's desperately trying to win the war. And he doesn't want Russians to receive any objective information. That's why he's trying to close every hole in the information space that he can.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, as you say, Russians are not receiving that truth that you just mentioned. Russian TV says that the West or Ukraine started this war. It says that there are no civilian casualties.

    Today, Alexey Navalny's organization called on the West to invest millions in online advertisements inside Russia to try and get that truth into Russia. How do you think the truth can be delivered to Russians inside Russia?

  • Garry Kasparov:

    I wish it can be done, but it's not easy, because they simply block one app after another.

    But propaganda is the most important, Putin's weapon. He increased the spending on military and security apparatus by 20 percent from the beginning of the war, and he added billions and billions of dollars for propaganda machine.

    So far, propaganda is the number one weapon Putin has been using to protect his power. So, that's why I agree with Navalny's team analysis that investing in propaganda can help us to offset Putin's poisonous influence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As we just heard, Bill Burns, director of central intelligence and, of course, the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, said that hubris and isolation led to Putin's decision to invade.

    What do you think led to Putin's decision to invade and his continuing to pursue this war and its goals?

  • Garry Kasparov:

    I would add to this list impunity, two decades of impunity, of no consequences.

    Vladimir Putin has a long record of war crimes, beginning with the Second Chechen war in Grozny in year 2000. And the list is simply too long. And I think he believed that he could get away with this invasion of Ukraine same way he get away with annexation of Crimea or carpet-bombing of Syrian cities.

    He made a mistake. And his biggest mistake was he underestimated, as every dictator before him, the will of free people, the Ukrainians that are fighting like heroes, fighting like hell, and inflicting heavy damages on Russian occupation forces.

    And the free world now understand that we have to help them, not just to survive, but to win this war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. estimates that more than 200,000 Russians have left the country since the beginning of this war. What's the impact of that brain drain?

  • Garry Kasparov:

    I think the number actually is much bigger.

    So, I would say that the number may be close soon to a million. Everybody's trying to leave. And it's the best the country can offer. We had brain drain, by the way, even before the war, if you look at the numbers, from Putin's return to power, official return to power in 2012. So the numbers kept growing.

    And in the year to 2020, we had more than half-a-million leaving. Now these numbers could be staggering. And that means that Russia will be a pariah and will be pushed back to a technological Stone Age. But we all hope that, with Ukraine winning the war and Putin regime crumbling as a result of that, we all hope that we can return, come back and rebuild our country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the flip side, though, we have seen students turn in their own teachers, for example, for questioning the war

    In about the 45 seconds that we have left, Garry Kasparov, is Putin right. Are there some Russians, are there many Russians who are indeed rallying around the flag?

  • Garry Kasparov:

    Yes, I'm sure.

    I would say 25 to 30 percent definitely are rallying behind the flag. I would say 20 percent at least are just against the war, and 50 percent are in the middle. That's normal. You always have people that can buy this propaganda. And they want — they want to get an advantage out of the government crackdown.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Garry Kasparov, thank you very much.

  • Garry Kasparov:

    Thank you for inviting me.

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