of “treason” and what brands a citizen as a “foreign agent” have been gradually expanding for several years in Russia. But a recent spate of unusual criminal cases amid the nearly 5-month-old war in Ukraine suggests that the trust that binds the Kremlin with the various elites who actually run the system may be starting to fray.

The cases are all different, and some observers insist that most have nothing to do with the ongoing war. But no one disputes that the number of treason-related prosecutions has jumped fivefold over the past decade as Russia’s geopolitical tensions with the West have exploded, and that some people formerly thought of as “untouchable” have suddenly found themselves behind bars.

While loyalists disagree, government critics speculate that the surge in treason-related cases is a sign that the Kremlin is afraid of losing control, and is looking for enemies to make examples of.

“Everybody is looking for enemies,” says human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov. “And while the external enemies are obvious, the task of finding internal ones falls to the security services. If there is political demand for such cases, it has the effect of creating supply.”

“If there is no actual treason, it can be invented”

Some cases, such as the NHL-contracted goalie Ivan Fedotov, who was accused of draft-dodging and sent to perform military service in the far north, have an easy, war-related explanation. Others, such as former military reporter Ivan Safronov, charged with high treason for alleged information-sharing during his time as a journalist, seem murkier. So does the early-July arrest of Siberian physicist Dmitry Kolker, alleged to have shared secrets with China, who was dragged from his sickbed and died in custody two days later.

And how to comprehend the arrest on strange embezzlement charges of staunch liberal Vladimir Mau, head of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, the country’s largest state university, who had recently signed a letter of support for the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine?

It may be, as the Latvia-based opposition outlets Meduza and The Bell recently reported, that tensions are growing inside Russia’s state institutions, such as the Central Bank. Many key people may be determined to continue doing their jobs, but the war has shaken their belief in the cause they are serving. The articles suggest that security services are escalating prosecutions, often on flimsy grounds, in order to set a stern example for all those who may be having doubts.

“It certainly seems like some people who were immune have now lost their immunity,” says Sergei Davidis, a lawyer with the now-banned human rights organization Memorial. “We shouldn’t exaggerate here, try to make this process look more primitive than it is, or compare it to mass repressions. But it is becoming clear that there is a general tightening of the system going on, and a lowering of the legal and conceptual bar [for treason]. It suggests that the whole system is collapsing, and amid the turbulence these cases arise.”

Such subterranean pressures are, as yet, hard to substantiate. On the surface, Russia has returned to an almost prewar state of normalcy. The initial public shock that hit when Russia invaded Ukraine in February appears to have largely worn off, and the early expectations of mass anti-war sentiment have diminished. Even the impact of massive sanctions on average Russians has been surprisingly minimal. Many Russians have accepted the Kremlin’s narrative about the war’s purposes, and polls show surging support for it.

Leonid Gozman, a longtime liberal opponent of the Kremlin, argues that the war itself is a symptom of the deterioration of elite unity as the era of Vladimir Putin begins to unwind.

“The Kremlin decided to launch this military operation because they realized their leadership was increasingly ineffective, and future prospects looked bleak,” he says. “It was a reaction to internal challenges they are not able to cope with. Strengthening the repressive instruments, cracking down, is just part of the effort to retain stability.”

Mr. Pavlov, who represents the journalist Mr. Safronov, says that the legal criteria for treason have been sliding steadily, making it less about provable criminal cooperation with a foreign government, and more about any suspicious contact with foreigners or disloyal-sounding speech.

“The law about ‘helping foreigners to conduct activities against Russia’ can mean almost anything,” he says. “If there is no actual treason, it can be invented. As a lawyer, I’ve taken part in cases against journalists, scientists, and housewives. Such cases are multiplying.”

“The potential for protests is actual”

The state’s intent, at least so far, appears more designed to intimidate potential protesters than to seek out and arrest large numbers of them. Mr. Pavlov, who is presently located in Georgia, cites a recent televised raid by FSB security forces on a Moscow apartment, where the tenant had allegedly donated money to a Ukrainian group. Since that’s not a crime, no charges were filed.

“There will be no legal consequences, but the action was clearly meant to warn public opinion,” he says. “There are too many such people. So the FSB rushed in, in the early morning, and read a warning to the citizen on camera.”

Sergei Markov, a former Putin adviser, argues that there is no campaign against “liberals” in Russian institutions, since elite groups – often referred to as “clans” – in Russia tend to be based in shared origins or interests, rather than ideology. He argues Vladimir Mau, a staunch veteran liberal, was probably targeted by a rival academic organization jealous of the resources he commanded, rather than persecuted for his ideological views.

“In the West people think simplistically that there is a ‘party of liberals’ and a ‘party of siloviki [security hardliners]’ in Russia,” he says. “That’s nonsense. They coexist inside the same clans. Our political processes are far more complicated than people think.”

But the war-related tightening of screws is very real, he adds.

“The Kremlin sees the threat from the West as our biggest danger. Even if the situation seems stable now, we have seen that they are out to destroy us. [U.S. President Joe] Biden has said as much,” he says.

“Some unofficial polls show that 70% of state journalists oppose the special operation, even if they seem to be doing their jobs properly right now. The potential for protests is actual; they will happen if the state shows any weakness at all. Putin and his colleagues are former intelligence operatives. They are very suspicious. They see threats emanating from the West and – you know what? – events have often proven them to be right.”

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