Self-Isolation 2.0: Consolidation of Power and/or Strategic Suicide?

For half a year now, and with every new day, Russian troops have been implementing the government’s strategy of self-isolation of the state: the leading suppliers of goods and services have left Russia and continue to leave, the most important banking systems have been turned off, many branches of the industrial industry are on the edge of survival… The power elites say that they were preparing for this in advance. Were they preparing or deliberately creating all the conditions for total self-isolation?

Throughout its modern history, the Russian state, judging by numerous international agreements and treaties, projects and programs, considered itself a part of the global world and globalization as well.  However, after the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, Russia’s participation in world integration has sharply slowed down, and in recent months it’s hard to imagine Russia as part of a united world community – a country occupying a sixth of the landmass, seemingly found itself on a separate island, bridges around which continue to actively  be burned.

Therefore, the question arises: what strategic opportunities does the new Iron Curtain open up for the Kremlin? Does it lead to unlimited power and/or push it to its collapse?

From sanctions to blackmail

There can be no doubt that the sanctions imposed by the West in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine have seriously shaken the prospects for the Russian economy, hitting a wide variety of industries and areas, and have also found a noticeable reflection in the lives of ordinary citizens. They have found and continue to find it at various levels —from domestic to logistical.

However, over the past 8 years, sanctions, as a concept of Russian propaganda, have been successfully processed by the Kremlin media, becoming an integral part of the narrative of a hostile West in their hands. The one-sidedness and one-pointedness of the coverage of events only reinforces this myth, which, nevertheless, has already taken root “among the people”.

For example, that sanctions “would have been imposed in any case,” Vladimir Putin said a few days after the invasion of Ukraine in March of this year. The unsubstantiated assertion of the President spread through the channels of government-controlled media, fueling the abstract ideologeme of a pre-emptive strike.  What is hushed up is the fact that any preventive war is a war of aggression, and international law classifies such wars as acts of aggression. However, with the iron curtain down, international law is not law for Russia.

The situation in international trade looks very contradictory, given its closely intertwined business chains and the principles of mutual cooperation. For example, the sanctions imposed to reduce (and ideally stop) the Kremlin’s funding for the offensive in Ukraine are detrimental to all parties to the conflict, both direct and indirect. In addition to the obvious consequences of sanctions (such as high inflation) and disrupted or frozen business operations, the Russian government is rattling sanctions in its favor, using the most obvious leverage — blackmail of energy supplies.

An eloquent example is the story of the gas turbine. Germany, under serious pressure due to the need to continue the “gas dialogue” with Russia, literally provoked Canada to make a “temporary and subject to cancellation” derogation from its own sanctions (a number of political figures and experts regarded such a decision as an unacceptable violation of the imposed sanctions) in order to  deliver the device to German soil. This development of events was met with condemnation and indignation on the part of Ukraine. However, the transportation of the turbine took place anyway, and it arrived in Germany. Its long stay in Germany was not planned, but now the Russian side is slowing down its return to the Russian Federation, referring to a number of sanctions already imposed, and at the same time mirroring Germany’s delays last year regarding the fate of Nord Stream 2 (at the time of writing, the turbine is still  remains in Germany —author’s note).

In a sense, the sanctions even play into the hands of the Kremlin, who are ready to use the “self-isolation” regime to strengthen control within the country. They are ready to use any means to destabilize the world order and global peace. Russian provocations, attempts at blackmail and escalation of the conflict demonstrate that the ruling elites have nothing to lose and nothing to fear: if the country’s isolation from the global world is already a given today, then “at home”, within its territorial borders, there is almost unified satisfaction, according to a survey by the “Public  opinions”, more than 80% of Russians support Putin’s work.  Naturally, the nature of this figure raises serious doubts, since in the context of a brutal repressive policy and de facto military censorship, the real proportion of those who support the war cannot be revealed. “The people are silent,” which suits the ruling elite, which can enjoy an unprecedentedly low level of public criticism and opposition since perestroika.

Another question is: how strong will this “unity” be if, in the long run, the consequences of sanctions become an unbearable burden for citizens?

Movements in this direction are being undertaken: let’s take one of the most discussed issues in August — the visa issue.  According to the Levada Center, in 2016, 28% of Russians had a passport for foreign travel, and there is no reason to believe that this share has become lower. On the contrary, in the first half of 2022, 45% more passports were issued than in the same period last year. Thus, the problem of the potential Schengen curtain concerns, according to the most conservative estimates, more than 40 million Russians.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a number of EU countries, including Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and the Czech Republic, have already suspended the issuance of Schengen visas to Russian citizens. The degree of restrictions varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction; there is still no single vision regarding the future visa policy for Russians, both already living in Europe and visiting Europe for tourism purposes.

At the same time, over the past three to four months, Russians who disagree with Putin’s policies and the war in Ukraine have repeatedly taken to the streets of 30 countries around the world.  These Russians are people who “have taken an unambiguously anti-war position” (from the statement of the Anti-War Committee of Russia), who share universal European values, who value democracy and freedom. The “visa blockade” and the talk itself is definitely fueling the Kremlin media, which is relentless about a hostile West that wants to weaken Russia and isolate its citizens.

So which side’s strategy will the visa ban strengthen — the Russian power elites that unleashed the war, or Ukraine and the West that oppose aggression?

Olaf Scholz, at a meeting with representatives of the Scandinavian countries, once again noted: “This is not a war of the Russian people, this is Putin’s war,” adding that the EU decisions “should not complicate the process of gaining freedom and leaving the country for them [critics of the regime] to rescue from a dictator in Russia.”

The time of “new technologies”

The external sanction pressure, as it is formulated in the Kremlin sources of information, has significantly shaken the Russian financial sector, setting extremely cunningly interwoven tasks for the banking structures. The situation affected everyone without exception: state-owned, Russian private, and foreign banks, as well as their clients.  Disconnection from the international payment SWIFT system, unstable ruble exchange rate, restrictions on foreign currency withdrawals, money transfers — all these issues have become a real puzzle since the end of February.

At the same time, such isolation strengthened the role of the Central Bank, endowing it with almost unlimited power in the industry, and even made it possible to create an artificially optimistic picture at some level — the ruble strengthened its position against the dollar and the euro, and inflation rates decreased. However, the foreign exchange intervention carried out by the Central Bank only testifies to desperate attempts to correct the financial situation in such a way that the Russian budget avoids irreparable losses.

Meanwhile, in many industries, losses are inevitable. The current scale of broken business chains is completely different than in 2014. Industries such as automotive and aircraft manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, logistics, and international trade have found themselves in completely new realities. Is it possible to make up for losses qualitatively and quantitatively? Perhaps the Moskvich project will shed light on this question — “the whole country is waiting for the results.”

At the same time, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Putin urged not to consider import substitution a “panacea”, but to move towards new technological solutions capable of setting “new international standards”.

As if there had never been such cross-platform companies as Tinkoff Bank, Sberbank, Yandex, etc., whose IT products have invariably expanded the understanding of modern business and its capabilities. Alas, the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine brought to naught the ambitious and far-reaching plans of the companies. Further independent development in a rigid, highly politicized framework turned out to be literally impossible, which means that a choice had to be made. Yandex and Sberbank accepted the terms, adapting their products to the new realities. Oleg Tinkov was forced to sell his stake in Tinkoff Bank after being pressured by his outspokenness against the war. In the first months of aggression, top managers left Russian companies in waves, including because of sanctions. Because of them, for example, SberBank closed 70 of its branches in May, and also “turned off the work” of the gambling division of SberGames.

In a situation where plans for prominent business projects in Russia were shelved, if not forever, the state took advantage of the situation by extending a “helping hand” to them.  For example, Yandex, VK and Ozon received “financial assistance” from the government to redeem Eurobonds. Naturally, such dependence of business on the state brings government control to a new level, giving rise to more and more leverage for “reverse curtsy”, and in the absence of such — blackmail.

Not everyone wants to work in such an environment. It is significant that even despite the approved preferences, the tense geopolitical situation has led to an impressive outflow of IT specialists, as Interior Minister Igor Zubov admitted. According to Zubov, now the “degree of need” is estimated at around 170 thousand specialists.

The so-called brain drain —researchers, academics, leading professionals in their fields — will be inevitable in the future as well.  What is even more dangerous: such self-isolation of Russia destroys the very essence of the scientific environment. Without international cooperation and exchange programs, science and education become weapons, thereby creating problems rather than offering ways to solve them.

Therefore, the creation of “new international standards” in the realities where the country closes in on itself is an oxymoron.

Where there are no us

The “preemptive rebuff to aggression”, which has been going on for more than 6 months, entailed not only a wave of sanctions and a break in business relations, but also, quite naturally, subsequent exclusions and suspensions of Russia’s membership in international organizations. What hardly seemed logical was a further escalation of the conflict caused by the Kremlin.

Those international platforms which Russia had access to, the Russian side left on its own. For example, it defiantly withdrew from the Council of Europe (after receiving a note on the suspension of rights in it). State Duma Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy described the decision as “weighted and considered.”  Such a step marked the legal withdrawal of Russia from the conventions and protocols of the Council of Europe, as well as from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.

In fact, under the guise of “unprecedented sanctions pressure on Russia and its citizens,” the Russian Foreign Ministry left Russians who disagree with the Kremlin’s policy alone with the legal system of the state, which is properly functioning in the hands of the ruling elites. Comprehensive state control and the absence of an international legal assessment create a necessary, easily manageable environment of supporters or allegedly supporters within the country.

Russia also announced its withdrawal from the Bologna educational system. At the same time, Russian universities were formally excluded from it — the reason was the appeal of the Russian Union of Rectors with support for military operations on the territory of Ukraine. Naturally, many of the Kremlin’s politicians took the news victoriously, once again mentioning Soviet standards. Irina Abankina, a professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, held a different point of view, saying that leaving the Bologna system “means dooming yourself to complete isolation and non-recognition.”

As we can see, there are quite a few arguments that show that the current policy of the Kremlin supports its own isolation — self-isolation. Another clear example is the withdrawal of the Russian side from the ISS development program after 2024. With the advent of the new head of Roskosmos, Yuri Borisov, goals were set for creating its own orbital station! Not all experts are enthusiastic about such plans, arguing about the risk of “forgetting how to fly into space.”

There is every reason to believe that in the very near future the number of press releases or statements from various government agencies and corporations about the termination of participation in international projects will only increase. Among the pretexts will be well-learned by Russian PR-employees “the acquisition of new, our own advanced and promising technologies”, designed to set the tone in the international arena. The very one from which Russia closes itself, lowering the iron curtain. Breaking off important ties — trade, scientific, political, legal and others.

Such actions lead neither to progress nor to truth. However, they allow the Russian elites to consolidate their power, their control over the public life of the country. They allow them to subjugate judicial and legal institutions. They allow the government to spread the agenda through the mouthpieces of the Kremlin. And most importantly, they allow with impunity to suppress objectionable and oppositional opinions, shutting down organizations and platforms, manipulating human fear of imprisonment.

The Iron Curtain is a metaphor for the lack of freedom. A reliable tool for dictatorial regimes. However, dictatorial regimes, especially those that last for decades, are accompanied by the development of guérilla movements, which, acquiring a popular scale, are capable of becoming a liberating force — a possible end to dictatorship. The 20th century saw more than one such example.

Of course, by “putting” the entire country on self-isolation, the Kremlin regime gains time and guarantees itself unlimited control by destroying external elements of influence and suppressing internal ones in every possible way.

Self-isolation can solve a number of pressing issues in the short term, and the Russian government has already taken advantage of this in the summer of 2020 by holding one of the most controversial referendums in the midst of the pandemic: more than 20 million suspicious votes, “zeroing out” V. Putin’s terms, an electronic voting format,  limited opportunities for independent monitoring… The results of the “popular approval” could not be challenged, since in many cities, as in Moscow, the organization and holding of public events were prohibited as necessary measures to combat the coronavirus. However, nothing prevented the holding of a referendum.

In the long term, the self-isolation of an entire country will naturally contribute to the growth of dissent, especially if the quality of life — or at least the usual way of life (until February 24, 2022) — of ordinary Russians worsens. The economic prerequisites for such a scenario are very real. And not only economic ones.

Will the Putin regime, in this case, be able to hold the reins of power in the country?

Not to be verbose — the answer to this question will shed the future. And at the same time, the pernicious essence of the Iron Curtain and no less disastrous consequences for the Kremlin “strategists” who encroached on the sovereignty of Ukraine, on the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination, to the freedom of their own people, will be exposed.