Other than ethnic Russians in the Donbas and slow-witted white evangelicals in red states, no one sees Vladimir Putin as a hero-- especially not in Russia. The whole world, on the other hand, sees Ukrainian Presidnet Volodymyr Zelensky as a hero and an inspiration. So it wouldn't be that much of a jump to have figured out that Putin would send hit squads to assassinate Zelensky. So far we know of 3 from 2 different sets of trained murderers that have tried and failed to kill him this week. There's no way of know how accurate anything is that comes out of Ukraine or Russia but "Ukrainian national security chief Oleksiy Danilov told a Ukrainian television network that double agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service or FSB warned them of the attempts. 'I can say that we have received information from the FSB, who do not want to take part in this bloody war,' Danilov said. 'And thanks to this, the Kadyrov elite group was destroyed, which came here to eliminate our president.'" The Times of London reported that "Wagner mercenaries in Kyiv have sustained losses during their attempts and are said to have been alarmed by how accurately the Ukrainians had anticipated their moves. A source close to the group said it was 'eerie' how well briefed Zelensky’s security team appeared to be." Accurate? No idea. It is accurate, though, that historically-- and in literature-- Russians have an incredible capacity to endure suffering.
Putin has been killing off the last vestiges of Russia's free press. We actually do know that both houses of the Russian parliament voted unanimously today to approve legislation criminalizing the intentional spreading of what Russia deems to be 'fake' news-- with prison terms as much as 15 years. Like with Trump, "fake news" for Putin is anything he doesn't agree with. Since foreign media outlets-- though not Putin-friendly Fox News-- are increasingly blocked, Russians will have no way of knowing what's going on in Ukraine-- or anywhere else-- other than what state propaganda outlets tell them. In describing Ukraine, words like "war" and "invasion" are strictly forbidden.
Vyacheslav Volodin-- basically, the Kevin McCarthy of Russia-- announced that he wants "society to understand, that we are doing this to protect our soldiers and officers, and to protect the truth." Of course. "Some well-known media outlets within Russia have chosen to close rather than face heavy restrictions on what they can report. News website Znak announced it was closing Friday morning, shortly after the parliament approved the draft bill. On Thursday, Russia’s top independent radio station Ekho Moskvy was closed and independent TV station Dozdh suspended operations after receiving a threat of closure from the authorities."
The NY Times reported yesterday that another TV station, "TV Rain, the youthful independent television station that calls itself 'the optimistic channel' said it would suspend operations indefinitely. And Dmitri Muratov, the journalist who shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year, said that his newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, which survived the murders of six of its journalists, could be on the verge of shutting down as well. 'Everything that’s not propaganda is being eliminated,' Muratov said... The crackdown on independent journalists-- many of whom fled the country this week, fearing that even worse repressions were to come-- added to the sense of crisis in Russia."
According to yesterday's Guardian, it isn't just Russian journalists who are fleeing. Thousands of ordinary Russians are also rushing to leave the country, fearful that Putin is about to declare marshall law and close the borders.
When I was in Russia in 2016, a dollar got you around 50 rubles. Today it was 124 rubles. Western sanctions are utterly wrecking the Russian economy.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, said it was expected that the country would see an exodus of its “quality working force” who will sense there is “no future” for them in Russia.
“This exodus will mean the degradation of the nation. The country doesn’t have a very large pool of talented people. Without them, Russia can’t develop itself,” Kolesnikov said.
...Flights to Yerevan, Istanbul and Belgrade were completely sold out for the coming days while a one-way ticket to Dubai was priced at over £3,000 ($4,006)-- compared with £250 ($334) in ordinary times-- according to the flight aggregator Skyscanner. Train tickets from St Petersburg to Helsinki were also sold out on Thursday and Friday.
Here in the U.S., in a not unrelated development, Variety reported yesterday that "Jack Hanick, a onetime director at Fox News, has been indicted on charges of working for a sanctioned Russian oligarch to establish TV networks in Russia and in other European countries. Hanick, 71, is accused of working for Konstantin Malofeyev, who since 2014 has been under U.S. sanctions that were imposed in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. The Department of Justice announced on Thursday that it had unsealed an indictment charging Hanick with violating the sanctions and with lying to the FBI... Hanick now lives in London and was arrested there on Feb. 3. U.S. authorities will seek to extradite him."
A trio of NY Times reporters posed a question many Americans are thinking about-- the consequences of cornering Putin. Will he lash out, even expanding the war beyond Ukraine? "In Situation Room meetings in recent days, the issue has come up repeatedly, according to three officials. Putin’s tendency, American intelligence officials have told the White House and Congress, is to double down when he feels trapped by his own overreach. So they have described a series of possible reactions, ranging from indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities to compensate for the early mistakes made by his invading force, to cyberattacks directed at the American financial system, to more nuclear threats and perhaps moves to take the war beyond Ukraine’s borders. The debate over Putin’s next moves is linked to an urgent re-examination by intelligence agencies of the Russian leader’s mental state, and whether his ambitions and appetite for risk have been altered by two years of Covid isolation."
Putin’s reaction to the initial wave of sanctions has provoked a range of concerns that one senior official called the “Cornered Putin Problem.” Those concerns center on a series of recent announcements: the pullout of oil companies like Exxon and Shell from developing Russia’s oil fields, the moves against Russia’s central bank that sent the ruble plunging, and Germany’s surprise announcement that it would drop its ban on sending lethal weapons to the Ukrainian forces and ramp up its defense spending.
But beyond canceling the missile test, there is no evidence that the United States is considering steps to reduce tensions, and a senior official said there was no interest in backing off sanctions.
...Putin’s effort to “sanctions-proof” his economy had largely failed. And at least for now, there is no discernible off-ramp for the Russian leader short of declaring a cease-fire or pulling back his forces-- steps he has so far shown no interest in taking.
...Biden’s policy, the official said, was not one of seeking regime change in Russia. The idea, he said, was to influence Putin’s actions, not his grip on power. And the sanctions, the official noted, were designed not as a punishment, but as leverage to end the war. They will escalate if Putin escalates, the official said. But the administration would calibrate its sanctions, and perhaps reduce them, if Putin begins to de-escalate.
...Putin’s views on Ukraine are fiercely held. He seems unlikely to accept any result that does not achieve his goal of bringing Ukraine closer to the Russian fold. And, especially after the Russian military’s poor performance in the first week of the war, he may be concerned that any whiff of failure could weaken his hold on power.
...If Putin wants to strike at the American financial system, as Biden has struck at his, he has only one significant pathway in: his well-trained army of hackers, and an adjacent group of criminal ransomware operators, some of whom have publicly pledged to help him in his battle.
...“If the situation escalates further, I think we are going to see Russian cyberattacks against our critical infrastructure,” said Representative Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who served as co-chairman of an influential cyberspace commission.
Another possibility is that Putin will threaten to push further into Moldova or Georgia, which, like Ukraine, are not members of NATO-- and thus territory that the American and NATO forces would not enter. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is making Moldova one of his stops on a reassurance tour that began on Thursday.
There are larger worries, involving potential nuclear threats. Last Sunday, as the fighting accelerated, Belarus passed a referendum that amended its constitution to allow for nuclear weapons to be based, once again, on its territory. American officials are expecting that President Aleksandr Lukashenko may well ask Putin to place tactical weapons in his country, where they would be closer to European capitals. And utin has shown, twice this week, that he is ready to remind the world of the powers of his arsenal.
But the next move for Putin is likely to further intensify his operations in Ukraine, which would almost certainly result in more civilian casualties and destruction.
“It wasn’t a cakewalk for Putin and now he has no choice but to double down,” said Beth Sanner, a former top intelligence official. “This is what autocrats do. You cannot walk away or you look weak.”