MOSCOW — Russia banned a popular messaging app, threatened to pirate U.S. goods, and claimed Great Britain had orchestrated a staged chemical attack in Syria — all on the same day.
Friday’s rapid-fire series of events underscored the intensity with which Russia’s estrangement from the West and its rollback of domestic freedoms continues to play out. Analysts warned that rock bottom is still far off.
Pro-Kremlin politicians blamed the United States and its allies for the rising tensions and said that the West should stay out Russia’s domestic affairs. Even opponents of the regime said that President Trump’s tweet this week telling Russia to prepare for a missile strike on its ally Syria didn’t help reduce tensions, and warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin has many ways of increasing them even more.
“From the Kremlin’s point of view, they’re the good guys right now,” said Konstantin Gaaze, a liberal political analyst here. “Despite the rather intense pressure from abroad, the Kremlin for now is controlling the situation and not allowing full anti-Western hysteria to take hold.”
But the way Friday unfolded showed how Putin is girding for an escalating battle on multiple fronts — from tamping down the opposition at home to engaging in an expanding economic — and potentially even military — conflict abroad.
“If we keep getting these kinds of signals from Washington, then all of this will keep moving closer and closer toward hell,” Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the upper house of parliament, said in an interview. “The Russian Federation has long tried not to react harshly or strongly to these attacks essentially in our direction.”
The opening salvos came Friday morning. At the Tagansky District Court in eastern Moscow, a judge heard the state telecommunications watchdog’s request to block access to the Telegram messaging app because it had refused to provide its encryption keys to authorities.
The app, founded by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, is one of the country’s business success stories, with 200 million users worldwide. The app’s “channels” function allows users to broadcast lengthy messages to their followers and forms a key part of Russia’s political culture, especially for Kremlin critics, who are finding traditional media more and more inaccessible.
Telegram can be used by “terrorist organizations and extremist organizations,” the regulator, Roskomnadzor, said in court, according to the Interfax news agency. With Telegram’s lawyers boycotting the hearing, the court quickly upheld the regulator’s request and ordered the messaging service blocked.
“One of our own created an international messaging app,” opposition leader Alexei Navalny posted on Twitter. “Of course we should be proud of such a person and help him. Let him develop his business, create jobs and wages for people. But no. The idiots in the Kremlin see such a person as an enemy.”
A 15-minute subway ride away, at the State Duma, members of the lower house of parliament were detailing proposed new legislation to retaliate against U.S. sanctions. While the sanctions announced by the Treasury Department in Washington this month target certain people and companies close to the Kremlin, the Russian lawmakers’ proposed response was much broader. They said Russia could curb U.S. food, drug, medical and services imports, and even pirate U.S. goods without regard for intellectual property rights.
“We’ll hit the Americans in the gut,” Mikhail Emelyanov, first deputy chairman of the Duma’s legislative committee, told Interfax. “The successes and, especially, the domination of the Anglo-Saxon, Western world is grounded in intellectual property rights, and we will strike a blow against these rights.”
The Kremlin stopped short of endorsing the specifics of the legislation, and some analysts said they expect the measure to be softened in its final version. But the move showed that Moscow was looking for creative ways to hit back against U.S. sanctions, given Russia’s relative economic weakness compared to the United States.
In the afternoon, Russia further dug in as tensions remained high over Syria. The Defense Ministry’s chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, told reporters in Moscow that Western assessments of a Syrian government chemical weapons attack in the town of Douma last weekend were a fabrication. Instead, he doubled down on Russia’s previous claim that the attack was staged — by Great Britain, he said, in concert with the Syrian volunteer aid group known as the White Helmets.
“We are aware with certainty that from April 3 to 6, representatives of the so-called White Helmets were under intense pressure from, specifically, London to carry out a previously prepared provocation as quickly as possible,” Konashenkov said, according to Interfax.
Officials in Washington, Paris and London said they are increasingly certain that a chemical attack did take place.
Another source of contention is the case of poisoned former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom. While the British government made public intelligence findings Friday that it said offered further evidence of Russian culpability in the poisoning, Russia’s ambassador to London staged a news conference and repeated his government’s insistence that Russia never even produced the nerve agent that Britain says poisoned the Skripals.
Amid the escalating tensions, opposition leader Navalny announced plans for nationwide protests against the Kremlin to be held the weekend before Putin’s May 7 inauguration for a fourth term. But in the past, tensions with the West have helped shore up Putin’s support domestically. And to his supporters, Putin’s assertive stance merely represents a long-overdue response to years of Western encroachment on Russian interests.
“We were sitting here not responding, not responding, and when we started responding just a little bit, our partners across the ocean suddenly got the feeling that there’s mutiny on the ship,” said Klimov, the lawmaker. “If we truly start to respond, then it will be very painful for the United States. We are not Liechtenstein, and we are not North Korea.”