AT THE start of his rule over Russia more than a dozen years ago, Vladimir Putin seized control of the broadcast television networks that spanned the country’s many time zones and reached the largest audiences. In later years, he imposed his will on other news media, using intimidation and backroom pressure to make sure they did not step out of line.
It added up to a soft authoritarianism. Some small outlets were left more or less alone as long as they didn’t target Mr. Putin or push other limits too far. The Internet was less controlled than in China. Russia’s online community grew fast and thrived as the country was increasingly wired. The first big demonstration in 2011 against Mr. Putin was sparked by an RSVP button on a Facebook page. Even so, he seemed to keep his hands off Internet outlets.
Until now. Amid the crisis over Ukraine and Russia’s seizure of Crimea, Mr. Putin has begun to suck the oxygen out of this last open space in Russian society. It is no accident that this internal crackdown comes at the same time as the external power play against a weakened Ukraine.
A few weeks ago, TV Dozhd, a progressive television and Internet channel that has reported courageously and honestly on events in Ukraine, was abruptly switched off by cable providers around the country. Now the purge is spreading. On Wednesday, Galina Timchenko, editor of the popular news site Lenta.ru, which has attracted millions of users, was summarily dismissed. Ms. Timchenko, who had worked at Lenta.ru since its founding a decade ago, was replaced by the former editor of a pro-Kremlin publication. The pretext was that she had posted a link to an interview with a Ukrainian ultranationalist figure. Hardly a firing offense in a free society.
On Thursday, it was announced that Internet platforms used by opposition figures Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov were being blocked on orders from the general prosecutor because they had encouraged “illegal activities and participation in public events held in violation of the established order.” A law passed this year allows the authorities to shut down sites for publishing “extremist” content or calling for unauthorized public gatherings. Several other Web sites were also closed.
Many in the West watched without much alarm as Mr. Putin gradually stifled civil society. Now the connection between dictatorship at home and adventurism abroad is all too clear. Those who might have spoken out against war are silenced. Mr. Putin’s fictional version of Ukrainian events, replete with monstrous fascists and suffering ethnic Russians, is unchallenged at home. Aggression and repression are easy bedfellows.