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Russia on the Second Anniversary of the Invasion of Ukraine

37:31February 15, 2024

Two years after Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine, Izabella Tabarovsky sat down with Maxim Trudolyubov, editor in chief of the Kennan Institute’s Russia File blog, to discuss where Russia is today. They discussed new trends in Russian emigration and the brain drain that never was, how the Russian economy has managed to defy predictions of immediate collapse, and who is actually running Russia. This is part 2 of our conversation about the second anniversary of the invasion. It was recorded on February 6. 

Show Notes:


Time Stamps: 

00:37—"A war that is both imminent and impossible.” 
06:33—New wave of Russian emigration.
09:49—Can independent Russian media remain relevant from abroad? 
13:00—Those who left versus those who stayed. 
14:44—The moral dilemmas of those who stayed.  
16:54—The West’s failure to support an outflow of educated Russians.
22:05—Who is keeping the Russian economy going? 
33:21—Upcoming presidential election.

Episode Transcript

  • The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

    Izabella Tabarovsky: From the Kennan Institute, I'm Izabella Tabarovsky, and you are listening to The Russia File. Today, we're continuing our conversation about the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. On the previous episode, we talked about what this moment looks like in Ukraine. Today, we'll be talking about Russia. My guest today is Max Trudolyubov, an independent Russian journalist, senior associate of the Kennan Institute, and editor in chief of Kennan's TheRussia File blog. Max, welcome to the program.

    Max Trudolyubov: Thank you. Thank you for having me. 

    IT: It's hard to believe it's been two years. Where were you two years ago as the war started? Do you remember that time?

    MT: I do. I was in Vilnius, where I kind of lived most of the time. But I was in Moscow in February. I left Moscow in early February. I went there for some meetings. And the interesting or eerie part of it was that I had this understanding, coming mainly from experts and from my colleagues, including from colleagues at the Kennan Institute, like Mike Koffman, who explained it to me in very plain terms that this thing didn't look like anything else. It was just an imminent invasion. Still—trusting these people, I would say, that's probably true—but my gut feeling would be to say no, it was so catastrophic, it would be mad to do that. 

    So I was kind of ambiguous in my head about it, although…I remember writing a piece for us, for the Kennan Institute saying that, I think it was something like, the war that is both impossible and imminent. And I still think that was that’s what it was. It was a catastrophic mistake or miscalculation, the way people in Moscow put it, but yes. 

    IT: Well, and I remember that time really well, too: even as the State Department or the US government was putting out intelligence saying that an invasion is coming, I think it was so hard to believe. So many of us—I remember texting with a friend who is also a Russia analyst, and we were like, “this is just crazy.” We just couldn't believe it would happen. And then, of course, it did happen. But I think, just as you said, it was so catastrophic that when it did happen, I don't think any of us expected that it would last this long. I mean, did you even expect that we would be having this conversation two years later? It feels so hard to believe that we're at this point. 

    MT: No. At the that time, no. I thought it would be over in months, to be honest. Mostly because, again, it was so crazy and so many people from every possible quarter, would say, “this needs to stop, this needs to stop.” And obviously, there were negotiations, but then they broke up, and there is still an argument over why. But there was a real chance in March, April 2022 that the war could stop. But it didn't. 

    IT: Well, that's right. And also, I think in those first weeks or months—I remember so many people expected that everything would also just collapse, because it seemed like such a massive overreach on Russia's part. And we'll get to that a little bit later. But I want to stay with that moment a little bit for now, right around the invasion, or following the invasion. And we already discussed what was happening in Ukraine [in the episode with Misha Minakov], but in Russia, it was accompanied by, of course, a massive ramping up of repressions. A lot of the people that both of us knew—but for you, there's really close friends—all of a sudden had to flee en masse: independent journalists, activists, all kinds of people, all of a sudden, were having to leave the country on the spur of the moment overnight, leaving everything behind. What was that like, for you, to watch that? 

    MT: Well, that was surreal and that was different from my own path, as it were. When I was leaving—well, first, I did not really think about it as a permanent move, irreversible. I enjoyed coming back to Moscow and meeting all of my friends. Most of the friends, I don't know, 80 percent roughly, stayed and I kind of moved about. 

    When I was leaving, it was roughly 2014–2015, that time. And when I was leaving, I felt so bad about my countrymen, about other Russians. During the Crimea episode, during the annexation, at one point, and I was in Moscow at the time, I realized that nine out of ten people walking with me—I was walking along a street in Moscow, in central Moscow—nine out of ten people think that this annexation is a good thing to do. 

    And in a way, I wanted to leave because of that—not because of Putin, not because of the government. I was still an active journalist, an editor at the time, publishing expert articles, writing editorials, writing my own stuff. But I couldn't believe my ears—that this move out of the blue, just to go and grab a piece of land—it somehow turned popular, and I couldn't believe it. I wanted to dissociate myself, to distance myself from this place in a way. Obviously, remaining Russian, part of that culture, I never questioned that. But I couldn't believe that my people, Russian society, turned out to be a lot different from what I kind of implied. That was the thing. 

    And when 2022 happened, in February 24, 2022, I, I just saw people leave and you know, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “well, what were you thinking?” It was so obvious that things are going this way. Again, I couldn't believe it would happen like this way, a full-scale invasion, this terrible war. But it was pretty clear [that] the Kremlin was hell-bent on doing this: some sort of disruption, some sort of war. They'd been waging war for years and years. So it was a lot of empathy, for me.

    And I realized that for me, everything—institutionally, Russian media collapsed at that time— institutionally….Before that, I felt I could go back and forth. Media existed. Education… A lot of institutions that I used to be part of, either media or educational, they existed. They were still in full swing. Everything was working. There were cases, obviously, of people being arrested. But in general, things were working, and I enjoyed that, and I thought that would continue.

    But in February–March 2022, it all collapsed with the help of the Kremlin, obviously. So, basically, they declared media and most of education—universities, colleges—effectively illegal in Russia. So people had to leave if they wanted to stay and to continue in their professions. 

    IT: Yeah. And I remember also those first weeks or couple of months, I think it was within weeks, that all of a sudden it became clear that Ekho of Moscow may be going off air. All these institutions that had survived for so long, that were built so painstakingly after the collapse of the USSR, and all of a sudden all of that was really disappearing. It was just really hard to watch. 

    And then, of course, all of this community—essentially all of the Russian independent media journalists—found themselves abroad. And I remember seeing a large group of them at a conference in May, so just a couple of months after it all happened, and people just being completely shell-shocked and realizing that—and of course, there were sanctions and so there were no payment systems that they could engage to get paid or take their money out and to legalize themselves in their new countries—just totally shell-shocked. But also, at the same time, thinking that this is probably temporary and will end very quickly, and being determined to continue in their profession. 

    And now, two years later—again, I've watched this community—you are part of it, and I've been watching it for these two years; I think there is a dawning realization that they are now abroad. Most of them, I think, have now found a way to legalize themselves and start new media projects, and they are determined to continue informing the Russian public in Russia and to continue reporting out of Russia. But there's also a realization that this is probably for a long time, that they're not going back anytime soon. Do you feel like there has been a shift like this over the last two years? 

    MT: Yeah, and it's not just media. A lot of people who left in 2022—there was this huge wave in March 2022—mostly they were leaving for a brief moment, believing that things will get back to normal. But not just media: activists, people in politics, social scientists, engineers, IT people. That wave combined people from the kinds of professions that were directly threatened by Russia's political situation, and people whose professions and backgrounds were kind of easier to convert, easier turned into possibilities outside of Russia, in the West or elsewhere.

    All those people are quite capable people. And by some accounts—there are different estimates— but it's between 500,000 and about a million people who left Russia in the past two years, so this is a new historic wave of Russian immigration. Obviously, this country, Russia, had been through many. Maybe it's the fifth, depending on how you count. This is also kind of an irony of Russia's history. We tend to do that. 

    IT: Right. And I think at that point, everybody was thinking about emigration right after, the forced flight following the revolution; a lot of people had that parallel in their minds. I think what makes this emigration different—you've touched on it a little bit—is that there are, of course, technologies that, in a way, certainly for people like journalists, that allow them to continue practicing their profession and to be heard and to be expressing their opinion. So many people have started new projects. 

    But at the same time, we know—and we just recently published an article in TheRussia File about it—we know that the Kremlin, of course, also uses new technologies to suppress these new projects. First of all, independent media websites are blocked, and then there are technologies that allow them to simply scan through every piece of content—not just text, but also video and audio—to find seditious content and block it, and then to go after the authors and producers of this content.

    So to what extent do you feel independent Russian media that's now abroad is able to get through to Russian audiences? Because my understanding is that there are still some—I believe there are some 20 million, that's the estimate—that there are still some 20 million Russians who consume independent Russian media from abroad. So to what extent is the community able to get through to them with alternative information that contradicts the propaganda and offers a different perspective from the Kremlin's propaganda? And to what extent—I know that a lot of journalists were worrying about, you know, becoming detached from Russian realities, becoming irrelevant to Russian audiences—do you think they're still able to—and you as well, to the extent that you also write in Russian—are you all able to reach Russian audiences inside Russia? And at the same time, do you feel that you're able to report accurate information from Russia for Western audiences? 

    MT: I do think that I'm still there, in a way. And I constantly develop ways of keeping in contact. First and foremost, I talk to people. I talk to all kinds of people, not just my friends. I talk to people in high places and middle places—all kinds of places, whenever I can. So, to a certain extent, to the degree that it's possible, I'm trying to be up to date. 

    As for reaching Russian society and people who remain in Russia—and again, let's not forget that the majority of Russians remain in Russia and will always remain in Russia. People who can leave, by definition, are a minority, and it will always be like this. There are historical cases like, I don't know, GDR (East Germany) when [a certain percentage] of the population left, but that was a very specific situation in history where you had a country divided and for a certain period people could simply cross the border, and they chose to leave. But these are rare. In this case, the kind of people who left, they could leave in the first place, or were threatened directly or indirectly.

    So, reaching out to our fellow Russians is actually possible. There's no Iron Curtain. There are curtains, obviously; there are all kinds of barriers. But reaching out is possible. Millions of people can still use YouTube, [and] they use the Telegram messaging app. But the thing is, it's not about technology mostly. It's about the kind of atmosphere that is created in Russia and the kind of atmosphere that’s created outside of Russia. 

    People who live outside, they live in a different media universe, an institutional universe. It's not just freedom of speech; obviously, yes, we do enjoy that. But we speak from the point of recognizing that this war is criminal, and we always remember about Ukraine and the fate of Ukraine and Ukrainians. Whereas people in Russia—it's not that they don't recognize this reality. They do, obviously. But they don't want to be lectured about their moral choices.

    So people who left, they enjoy the moral high ground that they've earned by the act of leaving the country—the aggressor country. People who remain don't want to be lectured about that. They say, “we are parents, we are sons and daughters. We have our professions, we have responsibilities.” And, you know, if you are a train driver or a meteorologist or you’re running a company that's providing some utilities or the internet—and there are lots of fields where it's neutral, it's completely outside of any connection to politics or war. But then, obviously, it crosses into that. If you're running an internet company that's a Yandex that is, on the one hand, responsible for providing internet infrastructure and people with all kinds of services, like [the ability to] order food. But on the other hand, they're responsible for propaganda as well, because they've been—this particular company, it's Russia's answer to Google, essentially; it’s a search engine originally, but then a company that built this entire ecosystem of services around it—and obviously it has Yandex News, just like Google has Google News. And, obviously, Yandex News is curated by now by the government. 

    So at some point you cross into politics, you cross into propaganda. And all those moral choices, they start to kind of blink: there is a possible red line that you're crossing. And when I'm talking to people, it's a subject, it's always there. People say, “okay, I can go up to this point.” Let's say I'm an architect. I will build in Yekaterinburg or Novosibirsk. But then if something happens and somebody comes up and says, “why don't you produce a design for Donetsk or Mariupol?” This is a no, this is a no go. This is a real conversation with somebody who’s running a school of architecture in Moscow.

    So people are constantly in this debate, including with their own conscience, because people have to—and again, the majority will always remain in Russia. They live with this. They must live with this. They will have to live with this. So this is complex; it's not straightforward. 

    IT: And this brings to my mind something that you and I have discussed before, something we've written about before on our blog. You've written about it, actually, and others have written about it. It's probably a futile question, and I know that it has been part of the very acrimonious discussions over the last two years, about why don't people leave? Why are they staying? Why have they not left? It's a very complex question. And it doesn't have to do—not necessarily, not always at all, and certainly not with the people you are talking about—with support or not support for the war. 

    And one of the factors here is that, I think, the West has failed to create the best possible conditions for a real brain drain from Russia. We've failed to make it attractive for educated Russians to leave and come in and become productive citizens here. I know this about scientists, for example. I've spoken to some science journalists who talk about how there were scientists who actually had invitations from American universities or British universities but couldn't get visas, so they had to turn around. Or maybe they came and couldn't find good enough positions.

    So some of them went back to Russia, and some of them were immediately bought out by China or by Middle Eastern dictatorships—essentially, to the point where you start to think, this is almost a question of national security for the United States, because if a Russian nuclear scientist or a biochemist goes to Iran or to China instead of the United States, well, that couldn't be good for us. So what do you think about this: that the West really should have done more to make it a, to bring educated Russians or make it possible for educated Russians to leave the country? 

    MT: Absolutely. And that was really weird to watch, to be honest, because this discourse—I think it emerged in Europe, mostly in Central Europe, immediately after the invasion—that crossing into the West is some kind of privilege for Russians. So we need to stop that, because Russians are enjoying these privileges. As if the West, and in this case Europe, is some kind of entertainment or an amusement park, which you're denying bad, bad Russians to enter. But the thing is that the people who can leave—don't get me wrong, but for the past 30 years, people who could actually leave Russia, they are the most able, educated professionals, all people with money.

    IT: And people with choices. 

    MT: That’s right. People who could afford it. People who could withstand competition with their peers outside of Russia. And these are the best of the best. And that has always been like this. And why not encourage that, particularly during the war? Because, again, Russia still has strong engineering schools and IT schools and general sciences—math, physics. And many of these people, they were thinking, they were thinking—well, before the war, but immediately after the invasion—a lot of those people were ready to pack and go. But they were discouraged within a few months; let's say, during 2022, many of them were discouraged. But judging by the experience of their peers, their friends who left and then bumped into all kinds of barriers, including these visa barriers, they just decided not to. 

    And we're talking about, again, IT people, engineers, people with oil and gas backgrounds, highly qualified managers. Most of them stayed. And by now, it would be very, very hard and very difficult to try and lure them. The thing is that—again, by now—they're sort of tainted; we also have to understand it. But many of the engineers had to stay because of all these issues. They had to stay and there are not many alternatives in Russia to working directly or indirectly for Russia's war economy. They may not be physically producing some kind of designs that are used for rockets, but indirectly they could be part of it. 

    So that, I think, was a huge mistake. It was a strange, existential kind of values-based mistake. Because people from the West were treating their own countries, their Western ecosystems—the institutional West, let's put it like this—as some sort of privilege, thinking about the migrants: we are afraid of migrants (people coming from all over the place), they want to enjoy our lifestyles, they are taking our jobs, this sort of thinking. Which obviously permeates Western politics. We all know about the constant battleground with this entire argument. But in this particular case, we were always talking about highly educated, highly capable people with skills and incredible adaptability. Russians of this sort are incredibly adaptable. Most Russians don't form diasporas, as we know. We all tend to infiltrate and just live. 

    IT: Integrate is probably the word. Become part of the environment.

    MT: Become part of the society, of the new home. And this is real. This is possible. I think this chance has been lost by now, mostly.

    IT: I agree with you. And I think, with regard to Russians, I don't even know if the discussion was about the increasing migration. It was really just a lack of thinking. Compared to the Cold War, when there was a clear understanding that you want to encourage Russians who can leave—Soviet citizens—you want to encourage them to leave, that was lost. I think it's partly our technocratic elites who think that, “well, we just solve everything technocratically. We impose the sanctions. They will do their work.” There is just this weird discounting of the human factor.

    And I think that human factor probably plays a role in what I do want us to now come back to: the fact that the Russian economy actually has not collapsed, as many expected. I do remember, again, in those first months actually interviewing somebody really prominent and respected (and the fact that he got this prognosis wrong doesn't make him less so), but he was very sure—and he wanted me to put it in the article I was writing—that within several months the regime will collapse. It will collapse economically, it will collapse militarily, will collapse morally. So by the fall of 2022, it was all going to be over. But the Russian economy didn’t collapse. And so what are you seeing in this regard, and what has happened? 

    MT: Well, actually, what we've discussed before is a huge factor: that lots of highly qualified managers of various kinds, including civil servants, remained. I mean, by now we have a new generation, an entire generation of highly capable professionals, including in government. But the general story, the big picture is like this: 2022, the beginning—Russia was on an amazing track. It was growing fast, recovering from the COVID pandemic, and it was 3.5 percent GDP in the first quarter of 2022. And then the invasion. And it was terrible. All of those officials, everyone, quasi-state companies, people running them, were in complete and utter shock. And everything was about to collapse. But the Central Bank, government, the finance ministry, this entire group of civil servants—rather than the military, rather than security specialists—they essentially saved Putin and saved the country. 

    The Central Bank acted swiftly and arguably very smartly. Essentially, they froze the ruble, the economy. They imposed some kind of—they stopped capital transfer. They banned nonresident companies from leaving Russia and the Russian market, etc., etc. And this allowed for some space; it allowed for some time. That prevented the collapse essentially. And then, of course, oil revenue—gas, but mostly oil—for the entire 2022, the first year of Russia's war against Ukraine, Russia was exporting record amounts of oil everywhere, because the West, and particularly countries in the West in general, they were afraid that a sudden embargo will lead to some sort of market collapse and will hurt the West rather than Russia. 

    So that was the thinking. But the result was this: that Russia got record amounts of cash in 2022, and that essentially helped it weather the year 2023, in very general terms. But by the year 2023, the economy was gradually being restructured for war, into a kind of half-war economy. It's not really a war economy even now, but it's much more a war economy than it used to be, obviously. And now—and the year 2023 actually was a growth year, 3 percent GDP plus in 2023. In 2022, it was a recession, about more than 2 percent minus, but 2023 was a growth year. 2023 enjoyed the fruits of the oil trade of 2022 plus this enormous, enormous growth in production, in manufacturing, which was mostly war manufacturing. And in some months in ‘23, we had growth of, like, 40 percent a month in industrial production. By now it's slowing. 

    Again, don't get me wrong, it's not like I'm praising this, but the year ‘23 was like crazy, basically, because of this sudden very fast restructuring for war. And so that allowed the Russian economy to stay afloat, to be resilient. Again, financial reserves drained, labor drained because of a lot of men of employable age leaving the country. 

    IT: Or fighting.                                                        

    MT: Or fighting. And again, all those things that the Russian economy is now producing, and a lot of it are nonproductive; it's a nonproductive economy. But at this point it's running, and funds are being channeled to places where there is military production of all kinds. So places like Tula or Izhevsk—mid-sized cities depressed for decades—they're now enjoying a renaissance of sorts. So we also have to realize it, that is a fact.

    Now, it's unclear whether this can continue for a long time. Russia has significant inflation, for example. The Central Bank is constantly keeping the key [interest] rate very high. It's in double digits and it probably will grow. So it keeps freezing the economy. This is one side of the picture. 

    The other side is that economic and financial management is capable to this day. It's very important to understand that it's not the military, it's not the security specialists, who saved Putin. It's civil servants. It's all those civilians who don't speak up, who just do their quiet work. It probably would sound strange, but look at people like, starting from the prime minister, somebody named Mishustin—who even knows this name? But he's Russia's prime minister. He’s said almost nothing about the war for the past two years, maybe some muted things. Very rarely he appears in any gathering that has anything to do with the war. Most of his other government ministers are silent as well. Most of the people who are running huge government-owned or quasi-state companies like Aeroflot or Gazprom, they don't say much. They just run things, they just do things. And they've been incredibly active in sanctions circumvention of various kinds, of evasions of various kinds. They've been incredibly creative. 

    Most of these companies have been operating at high capacity and doing well. We have to realize that. For a combination of reasons, basically Russia enjoyed and still enjoys a large inflow of revenue from its oil trade, and also, which I think, to my judgment, is even more important: Russia enjoys a large pool of highly educated and capable managers who are actually running the country. It’s not Putin and the crazy types who are waging the war, people like Nikolai Patrushev (who is believed to be sort of the godfather of this war) or some kind of guy like Yuri Kovalchuk (who's also believed to be one of the people who inspired Putin into making this fateful decision). But it's not them. They're not running the country. They're just the face. They're just sitting on top of it. But there are actually real people who are—for reasons that remain to be explored, by the way—working like hell. They've been mobilized. They mobilized themselves probably, and are working really well. It still remains to be understood: what is this? Is this just fear? Or some kind of patriotism? Or something in between? But that’s what it is. 

    IT: Well, and what's interesting, you said to me before, that you talk to a wide variety of people, across the spectrum. And you said that everyone essentially agrees that the war was a terrible mistake. But they fear a defeat.

    MT. Yeah. I've yet to talk to a person—I mean, people in Russia, in Russia who are running things, who, let’s say, feel it—who would say: “oh that was cool, that's exactly what Russia needed, this war.” Not a single one. They vary in terms of whether they say it was a mistake or crime or a miscalculation. Some even said: “it was actually a crime, that was terrible.” But after that, once they recognized this, they went through all kinds of—all the stages of grief, but they remained there, most of them, 99 percent. I know a few people and talk to th[ose] who left. I mean, senior officials or top managers. This is actually a single group. They're all watched by the FSB, Russia's security agency, so it's very hard to leave. But some did. But they are silent. There are two or three people who said something, of those who left.

    But the majority, the bulk, 99 percent, they remained, and they started working. And I think they were kind of inspired by being contrarians to all those who were outside Russia and were calling for a collapse. And these people—again, they're highly educated, many of them with Western degrees, by the way (for example, people who are running the Central Bank, there are many people with PhDs from MIT)—and they just said, “why? I mean, why would I collapse the ruble? Who would benefit from it?” 

    Okay, it's complex. It's not an easy thing, right? You say, “okay, I go outside and protest with a slogan. I get arrested. My relatives—probably the entire family—will have to suffer the consequences, one way or another. The institution collapses. Some idiot security colonel is installed or some kind of a general is installed in my place, or some idiot”—I heard that, I was told this—"and what? The ruble collapses. I am in jail. My relatives are in fear. I cannot leave. I mean, who benefits from this, right?”

    So that's the kind of logic, and it's hard to argue. I mean, we all want for this to end, and we all want Ukraine to get back to peace, on Ukraine's terms, obviously. But for people who remain back [in Russia], they have a very different moral logic. They think in different terms, and this logic that we accept, that is acceptable to us, the kind of moral high ground that we enjoy, saying that the war is wrong, that this is evil, and this is an aggression, and Putin is a political opportunist of the worst kind. It's not that they don't share it. They may just keep silent about it, but they have this other moral logic within their heads that says: “we want to keep the institutions running, we want to keep the trains running, we want to keep hospitals functioning, etc.—the schools, the universities, even without the best professors, who left. There are still institutions to run this. This is where we are.” 

    IT: What about the upcoming elections? On the one hand, there is sort of like, eh, “elections,” where Putin is going to be reelected anyway, [so] why even pay attention? But on the other hand, some interesting dynamics have emerged. What is there for us to consider in the upcoming elections? 

    MT: Well, my thinking still is that these are no elections, and thankfully, I'm not a politician. So in my conversations with my friends who are, I enjoy not being in politics, because they have to be optimistic, by definition. It's like running a business start-up. You cannot be pessimistic. You have to be optimistic. So they have to be optimistic, and they have to say that, “okay, okay, there is an opening, there's a window, we can do this, we can do that.” There is this promising candidate, a person nobody expected to be one—one Boris Nadezhdin, who is kind of a liberal, but with a history. He was a friend of Boris Nemtsov, the murdered politician. He was invited for a TV show, so everybody thought that he was a government-approved liberal. But he put on a good show, amazingly, and he started—according to Russian law, you have to collect signatures [to be] registered as a candidate. So he collected lots of [them]: people came, and there were lines and lines of people. And now the drama is they probably won't register him. I don't believe they will. [Note: On February 8, Russia’s election commission barred Nadezhdin from taking part in the election.

    But the interesting part is that, yes, lots of people wanted to support him. But this so-called election, which is not an election, it’s an orchestrated affair. It's something that, I think, will be presented as a kind of trap for the opposition because the one tactic the opposition has been using for years and years—they've been trying to consolidate their effort and try and make sure that people who listen to them vote for somebody else, not Putin. Ideally for some one person. So this is typical tactical voting, basically; it's something that Navalny called—Alexei Navalny, the oppositionist—calls smart voting. Well, it's tactical voting, right? [Note: Navalny was found dead at his prison colony on February 16.]

    The Kremlin has a team of very capable campaign managers. And basically what they do, I think, is they will make sure that all of the, let's say, four or five candidates on the ballot will be pro-war, but then Putin will start saying things about peace: “We want the peace. We want to stop the war. We are the peaceful ones.” And you know, Putin keeps doing that. He says that it's not we [who] wage this war. We are being attacked. And he keeps saying and saying it, ad nauseam. It may sound crazy at first, but, as we know from history, the lie repeated a thousand times kind of sticks, right? 

    And basically, he keeps saying that. And I'm sure that once this campaign starts in earnest, he will just say that “I'm a pro-peace candidate. Look at all of these guys—the communists, this idiot, you know, some other idiot. They're all pro-war.” Which will mean that the people, the good people of the opposition who all gather to try and not unseat—they are unable to unseat Putin—but at least to call for some kind of action, some kind of tactical voting (vote for somebody else), and this somebody else will be a pro-war candidate and Putin will be a pro-peace candidate. That’s the kind of thing that these people do in the Kremlin. They are very smart, but they're evil at the same time. So there you have it. 

    IT: Yeah. Max, I could continue this conversation for hours and I realize we haven't even touched on so many crucial issues I was hoping we would touch on, such as mobilization and the opinion polls in Russia. So we'll just have to come back, and we'll keep writing on The Russia File. Max, thank you very much for joining us. 

    MT: Thank you!

    IT: This concludes our conversation reflecting on the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This Izabella Tabarovsky. Thank you for listening, and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of The Russia File. 

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