Hesitance mixed with fear—that’s the feeling the Trump-Putin meeting was met with by the liberal circles in Moscow, or what was left of them by now. The country has been hemorrhaging its best and brightest ever since Putin returned triumphantly to the Kremlin in 2012.
Since then, the liberal middle classes have steadily lost influence in the face of powerful Kremlin propaganda. Democratic values and fighting corruption didn’t sound as appealing as the resurgence of the great Russian empire. The horrors of the Syrian war were played skillfully against protesters in Moscow: “We know what the revolution is like—do we want bloodshed on our streets?” was a constant refrain on Russian TV. The propaganda was supplemented by selective repression; the government had learned back in the Soviet times that patriotism is a meal best served with fear.
But the liberals and Western-oriented intellectuals also lost because a set of rational arguments suddenly ceased to work. They argued that a country with a relatively weak economy couldn’t start a war and get away without consequences. But Putin started a war in Ukraine, and the Western sanctions didn’t achieve their desired effect on the Russian economy. Putin simply gave businesses more contracts from the military-industrial complex, securing their loyalty and tying them with secrecy.