The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new iron curtain descends on Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine

Sanctions, airspace closures and departures of international companies threaten to cut off Russians to an extent unseen since the Soviet era

A woman walks near the window of a closed Louis Vuitton store in Moscow on March 7. (Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
9 min

An economic and cultural iron curtain is descending on Russia as President Vladimir Putin proceeds with his invasion of Ukraine, reversing decades of integration with Western economies and threatening to isolate Russians to an extent unseen since the Soviet era.

The dramatic severing is the result of punishing restrictions put in place by the United States and Europe, including bans on Russian aircraft flying in Western airspace and sanctions on the central bank. It has been compounded by a voluntary exodus of international companies from the Russian market.

But the isolation is also a function of the repressive measures Putin has taken at home. Those moves have curbed the free flow of information online, contained public protest and sent thousands of Russians fleeing abroad, fearing the possibility of martial law, conscription or closed borders in a country careening toward a more severe form of authoritarianism.

“As Putin tries to reduce Ukraine to rubble, he is also turning Russia into a prison,” Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said during testimony to Congress on Tuesday.

Seemingly stuck Russian convoy hides mysteries

The result is the rise of a pariah state version of Russia, which has swiftly become a place many of its own citizens don’t even recognize — one where money is subject to capital controls; where the radio and television stations of the Russian intelligentsia no longer broadcast; where TikTok won’t accept video uploads; and where the Russian team can’t compete for the FIFA World Cup.

On March 6, antiwar protesters were beaten with batons as they were arrested by Russian police in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (Video: Reuters)

Some supermarkets are even limiting the amount of flour and sugar customers can purchase, and shoppers are hoarding items from Ikea, H&M and Zara before they become relics of a bygone era. Hollywood studios are stopping the release of films, while Europe is no longer a nearby stomping ground but an ever-more-inaccessible universe, brimming with anger at Russians.

“For the average person who is less economically integrated with the rest of the world, they are going to feel it first when it comes to prices. They are going to see things disappear from the shelves,” said Kristy Ironside, a historian at McGill University who focuses on Russia. “For the younger professional class, this is going to be devastating to them. Their lives are really going to change quickly.”

As the ruble plummets and companies retreat, Russians won’t be able to get items they have become used to, and even if those items are available, many won’t be able to afford them, Ironside said.

On Tuesday, even McDonald’s — a symbol of the Soviet Union’s opening to the West when it set up shop in Moscow in 1990 — announced that it would temporarily shut down its 850 restaurants in Russia, while still paying the chain’s 62,000 employees.

Steps such as the closing of McDonald’s and the blocking of Russian athletes from sporting competitions will make it clear to regular Russians that the invasion comes with a steep cost, even if Russia’s state-controlled media hides the truth, said Konstantin Sonin, a Russian economist at the University of Chicago.

“For decades even rogue countries like North Korea and Iran participated in the Olympics and World Cups, and teams from the Soviet Union participated in European soccer cups even in the years of worst tensions,” he said. “Now this is all gone. This is how Russian people know that something is going terribly wrong.”

Putin has long presented his rule as a stable antidote to the economic turmoil and crime that afflicted Russia in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Significant increases in living standards during his first two terms fueled much of his popularity among Russians.

Russia entered the World Trade Organization and brought businesspeople every year to a Davos-like forum in St. Petersburg to tout the country as an enticing emerging market. Foreign car companies, retailers, restaurants and consumer goods giants made more items and services available to Russians.

But now a great severing is reordering that world.

The list of international companies cutting ties with Russia has continued to snowball, with accounting firms KPMG and PwC announcing they are leaving the country and Mastercard and Visa saying they will stop supporting cards issued by Russian banks. According to a list compiled by the Yale School of Management, some 300 companies had suspended operations or left the market since Putin announced the invasion.

BP, Shell and ExxonMobil have said they will abandon multibillion-dollar investments in energy. Banks and insurance companies worldwide are cutting transactions with Russian counterparts. Computer chip manufacturers, shipping companies and a host of exporters are halting deliveries to Russia to comply with sanctions. Western nations are closing their ports to Russian vessels. European retailers are shuttering shops in Russia, and Microsoft and Apple are suspending sales in the country. Starbucks said Tuesday it would pause all business activities in Russia, and Coca-Cola also suspended its business in the country.

Mapping the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s cultural collaboration with the West is also being cut off. Cultural elites from Moscow and St. Petersburg in many cases have fled abroad. Moscow’s Garage Museum stopped work on its exhibitions due to the war in Ukraine. The artistic director of the V-A-C Foundation, which oversees Moscow’s new GES-2 arts center, resigned, as did the deputy director of the Pushkin Museum.

Putin’s biggest critics in Russia — who tend to be from the urban upper class — may, ironically, experience the isolation more keenly than other Russians, as the country increasingly finds itself cut off from the West, said Richard Connolly, a professor who studies the Russian economy at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

“The constituency that is most aligned with our world view is the one [that] is going to suffer the worst,” Connolly said. “The average person who works in a Chelyabinsk tractor factory is still going to be working and have access to the things they had before.”

He noted Russia isn’t being cut off from the world but rather relegated to a trading bloc led by Beijing. China hasn’t announced sanctions on Russia and could step in where many international companies have fled, but will also “extract a price” for supporting Russia with goods and investment, Connolly said. Turkey also has not joined in on the sanctions.

The mass retreat from the Russian market by international companies has come alongside increased repression from the state.

Authorities have arrested thousands of Russians who have attempted to protest the war. On Friday, Putin signed a law threatening up to 15 years in prison for anyone who publishes “fake” news about what the Kremlin calls the “special military operation” in Ukraine, dealing a devastating blow to the last vestiges of Russian independent media and prompting many journalists to leave the country.

Russia’s communications regulator has been bearing down on tech giants, announcing last week that it would block access to Facebook altogether. Twitter has reported Russian users facing difficulty accessing its services, but the company says its platform has not been fully blocked, and YouTube remains available. TikTok, which is hugely popular in Russia, suspended live-streaming and video uploads due to concerns about the new law on what the Kremlin considers “fake” news about the war.

“In the Soviet Union, this isolation was developed through years if not decades. It took a lot of time,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist who focuses on the country’s security services and Internet. “Now what makes this unique is that Putin wants to build information control in a matter of days.”

Just as contraband is likely to flourish as the Russian market reels, sophisticated Internet users are likely to find ways to continue accessing blocked content. Already, many are turning to virtual private networks, or VPNs, though it’s unclear how long that approach will work.

The three most-downloaded nongame applications in Russia from Apple and Google from Feb. 24 to Mar. 6 were two VPN applications and the messaging service Telegram, according to digital intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

Between those dates, Telegram was installed more than 1 million times in Russia, while the secure messaging application Signal saw 223,000 installations, according to Sensor Tower.

In videos and photos, a timeline of Russia’s war on Ukraine

A sizable contingent of Russians has fled the country. Between 20,000 and 25,000 Russians have entered Georgia in recent days, the country’s economic minister, Levan Davitashvili, said Monday.

A Western executive at one European company that is closing its Moscow office said several of his Russian colleagues have grabbed little more than their coats and passports in recent days and headed to the airport to catch any international flight they could.

Some have landed in Dubai or Istanbul with a few hundred dollars in their pocket and little idea how they will get by, he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for personal safety reasons.

“They are aghast at what is happening to Ukraine. Some are leaving because they just don’t want to have anything to do with it,” the executive said. Rumors of the Kremlin declaring martial law and shutting the borders, he said, has also “absolutely terrified people.” So far, Moscow hasn’t prevented Russians from leaving.

One young professional woman from Moscow was visiting Dubai when the invasion began. Instead of returning home as planned, she and her family traveled to Italy, where they plan to stay indefinitely. They already had residence papers and a place to stay in Italy through their small business, the woman said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she hopes to return to Russia someday.

She said she knows about 50 other Russians who have fled in recent days. Many of them, she said, lack sufficient financial resources to live abroad.

She is worried about her parents back in Russia and advised them to buy a year’s worth of their medication in case there are shortages.

“I am lucky. I had foreign [bank] accounts,” she said. “My thought was I would be prepared for the future, and then the future comes in a rush, in one click.”