Amplified U.S. Support for Russian Civil Society Is Key in the Fight for Ukraine

The United States’ support of Ukraine following the Russian invasion has been a glimmer of solidarity and bipartisanship in an otherwise increasingly polarized political environment. Even five months into the conflict, 6 in 10 Americans supported continued weapons and financial aid to Ukraine amid the ongoing conflict. However, the question that seems to be missing from the conversation is U.S. support for Russian civil society and those challenging the authoritarian rule of Russian president Vladimir Putin inside Russia.

A steady stream of assistance continues to flow into Ukraine with broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Congress recently approved nearly $40 billion in aid for Ukraine , $7 billion more than the $33 billion the administration requested for military and humanitarian aid. This is on top of the $13.6 billion that was appropriated by Congress in March through the Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act. In the president’s Fiscal Year 2023 Budget Request , the Biden administration asked Congress for $682 million in new Ukraine democracy-related funding that would be used to “counter Russian malign influence and to meet emerging needs related to security, energy, cyber security issues, disinformation, macroeconomic stabilization, and civil society resilience.”

In addition to the aid flowing to Ukraine, the administration and Congress moved quickly to approve a slew of sanctions against Russia that have crippled the Russian economy in an effort to alter Putin’s calculations in Ukraine. So far, that strategy has borne little fruit, as Putin has continued to dig in on Ukraine despite the widespread economic suffering experienced by ordinary Russians. Policymakers in the United States and other like-minded countries are currently focused on implementing a barrage of sanctions against Russia designed to punish the Kremlin and coerce Putin to shift course in Ukraine. Despite the crippling toll of sanctions on Russia’s economy, these actions do not appear to be having a major impact on Putin’s calculus in Ukraine. The international community should simultaneously focus on increasing both financial and moral support for Russian civil society and independent media.

It is important that in the wake of policymakers’ desire support Ukraine to punish Putin and his cronies for his regime’s egregious actions in Ukraine that the United States continue to support—both rhetorically and financially—Russian civil society and pro-democracy activists. This is particularly critical as the abuses Putin is committing in Ukraine have deflected attention from the abuses Putin continues to commit at home. History has shown that internal pressure from grassroots citizenry is far more effective in achieving political change than external pressure. Those that desire to see a change in Putin’s calculations in Ukraine, should not only continue supporting the Ukrainians, but double down on their support of Russians seeking change from within.

As much as Putin fears defeat in Ukraine, he seems to be even more fearful of opposition from within Russia. This is evident as in the midst of the assault on Ukraine, a Russian judge sentenced prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny , to nine years of imprisonment in a maximum security facility for fraud and contempt of court. Navalny was already serving three years on trumped up charges at the time of his sentencing. This effectively sidelined Navalny from posing a serious challenge to Putin’s rule for the next decade.

Putin has strategically used opposition to the conflict in Ukraine to further crack down on dissent within Russia’s borders. According to OVD-Info—a Russian independent media and human rights monitoring group—as of March, more than 15,000 Russians have been detained in 147 cities across Russia for taking part in anti-war protests. Accurate numbers of those detained are difficult to ascertain, but that number has undoubtedly increased substantially at this point. In April, opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was initially arrested and sentenced to 15 days in jail hours after appearing on CNN criticizing the invasion of Ukraine. His pretrial detention has been repeatedly extended and he has remained imprisoned while he awaits a trial on the more serious charge of spreading “false information” about the Russian military, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years of imprisonment if convicted.

The landscape for independent media in Russia has been bleak for quite some time. At the end of 2021, over 40 independent journalists and news outlets had been declared “foreign agents” under a law which has been used to target individuals that challenge Putin’s carefully crafted narrative. On March 4, Russia intensified its repression of independent media with the passage of two new laws that criminalize reporting on the war in Ukraine and make it illegal to spread “fake news” about the Russian military. Violation of these laws carries a penalty of up to 15 years of imprisonment.

The crackdown on independent media and channels of informal communication have been further stifled since the invasion of Ukraine. Civil society faces the one-two punch of Russian censorship forcing the shutdown of independent media, the departure of international media, and difficulties accessing social media , while U.S. and European sanctions have forced TikTok and other companies to cease operations in Russia. At the December 2021 Summit for Democracy, the Biden administration launched two new initiatives to support independent media : the “liability fund,” to support news outlets facing litigation due to their reporting, and a “Media Viability Accelerator,” to help financially sustain independent media. These initiatives should prioritize support of independent Russian journalists.

The implications of strangling the free flow of information and crackdown on independent civil society can be seen in recent polling done by the Russian-based Levada Center, which shows 58 percent of Russians support the invasion of Ukraine. While public polling in authoritarian countries should not be taken at face value, it should not be disregarded either. These numbers reinforce the need for the United States to double down on support for the few independent news sources and civil society organizations that are left in Russia, as they undoubtedly will come under additional pressure in the weeks and months to come. Policymakers should also work with tech companies to find creative ways to allow Russians to continue to access the internet and social media platforms where information can be exchanged and disseminated.

Sanctions have complicated efforts to support civil society within Russia as access to the international banking system has been all but completely cut off. While the Treasury Department and the Office of Foreign Assets Control have issued special licenses aimed at allowing groups to continue to push money into Russia under certain circumstances, the reality is often more complicated. International banks, weary of violating sanctions laws, often refuse to handle such “risky” transactions. The Treasury Department should designate an office to deal with such issues expediently as they arise. The department currently lacks dedicated personnel and resources to deal with these matters, and subsequently financial support to activists and civil society can be delayed for months upon months during times where they need it most urgently.

The United States should increase support for those Russian activists under threat of the regime that chose to leave. The Lifeline Fund is run by a consortium of NGOs and receives funding from 19 governments, including the United States. The fund helps embattled civil society organizations and individuals by providing emergency assistance and grants. With a growing number of crises in the past year, ranging from Afghanistan to Myanmar to Ukraine, this type of assistance is more important than ever, and the United States should commit to doubling its current contribution of $10 million to $20 million. Beyond emergency assistance, it is critical to support organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy, Scholars at Risk, and others that seek to help those who have fled not only acclimate to life in exile, but continue their activism and work from abroad.

The United States should continue to provide robust and timely support for Ukraine. However, it should couple this with support for independent Russian civil society and journalists. An educated and informed Russian public that questions the legitimacy of Putin and his regime and desires a more open and democratic Russia is in the national security interest of the United States. Support for Russian civil society also serves to counter the narrative pushed by the Putin regime that the United States and the West seeks to suppress a strong and powerful Russian Federation and is hostile to the Russian people. Support to Ukraine and the Zelensky government will help the United States and likeminded partners win this battle against Putin and his authoritarian expansionism. Ultimately, to win the war, the United States should also invest in the Russian people.

Elizabeth Hoffman is the director of congressional and government affairs and fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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