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Cotton Must Bloom
An explosion over the Kremlin invites us to wonder what Russia's opposition is up to.
In March, residents of Rostov-on-Don were greeted by an unnerving sight: Black plumes of smoke emanating from brutalist beige slab of a building.
There had been an explosion, residents told local media. Then the fire.
The building was a warehouse for the FSB’s border control agency, the media outlets reported. The Russian media explained that the explosion occurred when “ammunition detonated in the warehouse, which caused a fire.”
Not everyone was buying it.
One Telegram channel, optimistically named ‘Provisional Government,’ sarcastically opined: “Maybe someone smoked unsuccessfully in the warehouse where the ammunition was stored, or maybe it was a sabotage.”
When the idea of the self-exploding ammunition fell flat, Russian media worked quickly to normalize a new narrative. The fire was caused by “a short circuit on the second floor,” another Russian news outlet reported. It wasn’t ammunition after all, it was “10 tons of fuel, lubricants and paints.” It would be inconvenient for anyone to believe that the domestic opposition was skilled enough to plant a bomb inside the very offices of the security apparatus tasked with neutralizing domestic opposition.
A few days later, a the Telegram channel of a group calling itself “Black Bridge” published a lengthy statement. In it, they claim “co-responsibility” for the bombing at the FSB building.
"Officials said that the wiring there shorted out and fuel tanks exploded,” they wrote. It was almost true. “But there are nuances.”
According to the Black Bridge, a supporter — codename Escobar — had planted a package inside the FSB building. The package contained 3 kilograms of ammonia (probably ammonium nitrate) and, inside that, a smaller container with a type of acetone peroxide: An explosive popular in improvised explosive devices, nicknamed “mother of Satan.” Next to it was a 3.5V lightbulb. When the bulb burnt out and burst, it ignited and sent a massive explosion ripping through the building. (It was, Black Bridge wrote to me in an email, “nothing special in terms of technology.” It cost $800.)
Black Bridge posted the letter sent from Escobar:
“The FSB is a bastion of hypocrisy, violence and injustice,” they wrote. “It is the staff of this structure that fabricates criminal cases against the unwanted, snatches business from entrepreneurs, carries out diversions against civilians, tortures dissidents and physically eliminates ‘competitors.’”
Escobar made an impassioned plea to their fellow rebels: “Don’t be afraid.” They pointed to a rash of bombings targeting recruitment centres and vehicles bearing the pro-war insignia: Z. Go bigger, they implored. Target the federal buildings which crush dissent and prosecute war. “Take your time,” they cautioned. “Check all the materials. Develop a strategy and tactics.” But dream big.
Black Bridge closed their missive with a thought about “taking responsibility.” It sounds “silly,” they wrote, as though they ought to be owning up to a mistake. “It is the FSB who are guilty and responsible, and the guerillas are retaliating against the guilty. Doing the right thing.”
Certainly, that Telegram channel had been issuing calls for attacks against Russian state infrastructure, but like everything inside Russia, it can be impossible to tell real from fake, opposition from state.
Is Black Bridge even real? They would rather you not ask.
Black Bridge is “a non-existent structure without participants who do nothing to make the revolutionary partisan movement grow and develop in Russia, which, as everyone knows, does not exist and cannot exist.”
They receive their donations through cryptocurrency and communicate with their supporters through encrypted communications. They do not deal in explosives, they deal in “cotton.” And, as their motto goes:
Cotton must bloom.
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Earlier this week, extraordinary images emerged from Moscow: Two drones, flying low towards President Vladimir Putin’s offices inside the Kremlin. One, exploding into a ball of fire in the night sky.
Russia was quick to blame Ukraine.
Pro-Kremlin news sources downplayed the attempted attack, cited intelligence sources proving the drones were sent from Ukraine, and promised there would be retribution.
The statements hardly invited confidence. As one pro-Kremlin channel wrote, about the official response, Moscow “did not explain why the existing air defense systems failed. We hope Putin will ask [Defence Minister] Sergei Shoigu about this.”
Indeed, it is some 600km between the edges of Ukraine to Moscow. Certainly, Ukraine has launched drone attacks into Russian territory — but, thus far, its targets have largely been grouped in areas near the border, or in Crimea. Indeed, the longer the flight path into Russia, the better the chances are that an anti-air system will down the drones. (“Do you believe in the ‘almighty’ air defense that missed the UAV for several hundred kilometers?” One opposition Telegram account asked, rhetorically.)
While the footage is grainy, it looks like it was a relatively common multi-rotor drone: Meaning its maximum distance is probably well below 600km.
Some have claimed, with some basis, that this was a false flag attack. An excuse for Russia to escalate further, claiming that this is now a struggle for the survival of their state. Over on his excellent newsletter,makes this case:
The Russia propaganda response is a reason to believe that this was a Russian maskirovka [a false flag]. Over the course of the fourteen months of this war, a number of embarrassing things have happened to Russia. Battles have been lost. Installations have exploded inside Russia. They are exploding right now, in the days before and after the Kremlin incident. In most cases, the Russian response has been to ignore the setbacks. When a response was forthcoming, it was usually late and confused. In the case of the drones over the Kremlin, Moscow produced a crisp press statement. That suggests policy.
It makes sense, to a point. Except Moscow has not, thus far, announced any kind of retaliation for the strike. The never-satisfied milbloggers were quick to pounce on that as a sign of weakness.
That cheeky ‘Provisional Government’ channel, which correctly identified the FSB attack, made a similarly snarky observation about the apparent drone operation. “The authorities have taken the promised retaliatory measures against the Kremlin drone attack,” They wrote. Officers in the capital “were given binoculars. Now they will peer into the sky around the clock to prevent a recurrence of the attack.”
But what if the drone came from within Russia, but it wasn’t a false flag? What if they had heeded calls from Black Bridge and Escobar to dream big?
I had been communicating with Black Bridge in the preceding days, so I figured I would ask.
They, like me, did the quick math on the drone's possible range and concluded it cannot have come from Ukraine. “It was launched somewhere in Moscow,” they wrote. Anti-Putin agitators were more likely culprits than Ukrainian partisans, they wrote “but who knows.” Other opposition groups, while not taking responsibility, were inclined to think opposition groups had gotten the drones in the air. “This is just the beginning,” one promised.
Such an operation certainly fits in with the emerging doctrine of these opposition groups.
The actions taken to date have been about instilling fear, not hope. “One propagandist is killed, and everyone else is discussing how scared they are, asking for FSB protection,” they said, pointing to the assassination of Maxim Fomin a.k.a Vladlen Tatarsky, a pro-Kremlin milblogger who was killed by an exploding statuette in a St. Petersburg in April.
Certainly, the low-level attacks have helped foment some chaos behind Russian lines. There have been a series of bombings of military recruitment centers, oil refineries, and rail lines has wreaked havoc on various parts of Russia’s war effort. There have been dozens more thwarted bombings. Some attacks were likely Ukraine, some were likely domestic opposition groups, and some are entirely murky. At the site of a recent rail bombing, police discovered the flag of the “Russian Volunteer Corps,” according to local media.
It’s impossible to say whether this partisan activity will amount to a real threat to the Russian state, or whether it amounts to little more than an annoyance.
“The state of the [opposition] movement is disorganization, lack of a plan of action, vague goals, lack of resources, or wasted resources,” they wrote. Most of these opposition figures are out for media attention, they said, having abandoned any hopes of a political victory against Putin.
Black Bridge, however, is determined. “We are systematically expanding our capabilities, raising money, developing technology, and training people,” they wrote. “Slower than we'd like, it's always very individual. But it's a work in progress.”
What’s next? “Let's just say there will be actions,” the unnamed Black Bridge source said. “When, where - only the direct participants know.” They signed off:
I’ve been curious about the state of Russia's domestic opposition for some time.
There is, of course, little reason to be optimistic. In his excellent book The Story of Russia, historian Orlando Figes surveys the field of a millennia of Russian history and concludes:
The autocratic state has many times survived long periods of discontent. Society has been too weak, too divided, and too disorganized to sustain an opposition movement, let alone a revolution, for long enough to bring about a change in the character of state power.
Core to that failure is a fundamental weakness in the public sphere. Putin has been exacting in his ability to shut fora where dissident would foment.
Part of that efficacy comes from the potemkin opposition, which exists inside the Duma: There is the Communist Party; the quasi-left A Just Russia; the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which is neither liberal nor democratic; and a smattering of others. In practise, every single party is of the loyal opposition. This is hardly new. When the third Duma was struck in 1907, it was dubbed the “Duma of Lords and Lackeys.” It is still an apt title.
Even that amount of faux-opposition is too much for many Russians. Putin may have presided over chaos on the world stage, and the bite of international sanctions may be felt, but for many poorer Russians, Moscow’s social welfare is enough of a reason to stay put. Last year’s pension hikes are a clear sign that Putin knows when to open the taps.
For their book Putin vs. the People, Samuel Greene and Graeme Robertson spoke to regular Russians in the lead-up to Putin’s foregone re-election in 2018.
“In my view, God forbid the opposition should come to power,” [Natalya] went on. “It would be chaos…Let us continue developing, and let Putin be in power. We’re developing. Gradually. And let there be less of all this democracy.”
Some of Putin’s loyal opposition comes via the Wagner Group. Notionally private, the fighting force is — or, perhaps, was — entirely beholden to the Kremlin agenda. Its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has become a darling of the ultra-nationalists who believe that Russia’s prosecution of this war is too meek. Prigozhin has, recently, railed against Putin’s generals, if not Putin himself. He has announced a withdrawal of his forces from the meat grinder in Bakhmut. He has even snagged a defection, in hiring Putin’s former deputy defence minister. It looks increasingly like Prigozhin’s shadow military is becoming a shadow state.
It’s fundamentally unclear how much of Prigozhin’s independent streak is sanctioned, how much of it is testing the limits of his power, and how much of it is a direct challenge to Putin’s leadership. If Prigozhin does manage to seize power, a prospect which still seems exceedingly unlikely, there is a feeling amongst the Russian diaspora that it could be catastrophic: Not, necessarily, because of Prigozhin’s brutal tactics, but because Putin’s fabergé state may simply shatter.
Black Bridge doesn’t see much of a future for Prigozhin: “Doubtful he'll live long enough to play politics in future Russia.”
Of course, the public can be convinced in the need for change — and peace. And Moscow’s ability to continue the kind of generous welfare spending is being undermined by this costly and brutal war. The state can barely pay its soldiers, to say nothing of those who return in body bags, if they return at all.
If any kind of opposition does emerge in Russia, they will need to build an alliance with these nationalists. Navalny understood that. It’s an uncouth idea for those of us in the West, but it’s one we may need to get used to.
But to find the real opposition in Russia, you need to look beyond the Duma — to the graveyards and prisons. You need to look at Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead in the shadow of the Kremlin in 2015; or Vladimir Kara-Murza and Alexei Navalny, popular figures who have been poisoned, arrested, and tortured.
Their movements have been inherently hobbled by the scope and unpredictability of the Russian security state. What was acceptable low-level opposition on February 23, 2022 suddenly became sedition a day later, after Putin’s special military operation began. Soon, the word “war” itself was outlawed.
To dispatch with the masses — from the ones who come to Red Square to protest to those who are caught organizing underground — Putin’s network of neo-gulags are a systemic effort to suppress the threat. Reuters has investigated the barbaric nature of Russia’s new concentration camps.
But if we only look at Putin’s security regime as a defensive measure, we’re missing half the picture. Historically, Russia’s prison system has been a tool of production and colonization. Many citizens from Russia’s north are the descendants of the gulag’s former prisoners. In some cases, as Figes writes, the gulag’s prisoners literally make up the foundations of the Russian state.
The prototype of the Gulag system was the White Sea Canal (Belomorkanal). 227 kilometers of waterway between the Baltic and White seas, which employed 100,000 prisoners by 1932. It was a utopian project on a scale unseen since the building of St. Petersburg. Prisoners were given primitive hand tools — crudely fashioned axes, saws, and hammers — and were worked to exhausted in the freezing cold. An estimated 25,000 prisoners died during the first winter. Their frozen corpses were thrown into the waterway’s foundations where their bones remain today.
Today, Russia’s gulags are used as a tool of conquest. OSINT group Molfar has documented the nature of the “filtration camps” designed to take in captured Ukrainian civilians. Prisoners are barely fed. Tuberculous runs rampant. Men are told that they will be sent to work or fight. The Russian Orthodox Church is used to resettle these prisoners of war, under the guise of “humanitarian” aid.
Those who know the impossible nature of this fight have become the diaspora. I’ve spoken to some of them: They admit that their work from the outside is frustrated by the information iron curtain installed around Putin’s state. Their most effective work will come from organizing fellow Russians to sweep in once Putin’s corrupt regime falls.
When will that fall happen? The Russians behind Black Bridge are circumspect.
“There is no future, the state is falling apart, and chaos and uncertainty only increase with time,” they write. But, they admit, Putin could be toppled tomorrow, or he could reign for another decade.
“It is very difficult to predict anything in Russia.”
That’s it for this week’s dispatch. Expect more on the state of the Russian opposition in the coming weeks.
For my Canadian subscribers: I took to the Globe & Mail this week to lament the likely dire consequences of Ottawa’s sort-of well-intentioned internet regulation plans; and I went toto underscore the disconnect between the country's problems and the Trudeau government's efforts to enact solutions:
I was also chuffed to be honored by World Press Freedom Canada with a certificate of merit for my work on misinformation and radicalization, on top of other things. It was a real honor.
Until next week!