President Vladimir Putin warned he would cleanse Russia of the “scum and traitors” he accuses of working covertly for the U.S. and its allies, as the government steps up pressure on domestic critics of his war against Ukraine.
Facing economic meltdown three weeks into the invasion, the Russian leader accused the West of wanting to destroy Russia in a televised video conference laced with dark undertones.
“Any people, and particularly the Russian people, will always be able to tell the patriots from the scum and traitors and spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths,” Putin said. “I am convinced that this natural and necessary self-cleansing of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion and readiness to meet any challenge.”
Asked how such a cleansing would operate, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that people “are disappearing from our lives by themselves,” including by resigning from work positions or leaving Russia. “This is how this purification happens,” he told reporters on a conference call, adding that many people “show themselves to be traitors” at difficult times.
Putin’s threat came two days after a producer at Russia’s state-run Channel One TV interrupted the news with a rare public protest against the war in Ukraine. Marina Ovsyannikova briefly held up a sign behind the news anchor saying: “They’re lying to you.” After she was given a small fine, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament denounced her protest as a “betrayal” and called for her to be punished “with all strictness.”
Nearly 15,000 people have been detained at anti-war protests in Russia since Putin ordered the Feb. 24 invasion, according to the OVD-Info rights organization. In a further effort to clamp down on criticism, Russia adopted a harsh new media law this month that threatens prison terms of up to 15 years for spreading “fake news” about its military or calling for sanctions against the country.
Tens of thousands of Russians have fled abroad to escape the deepening crackdown, seeing little future for themselves as the sanctions cast the country deeper into isolation. Many abandoned homes and careers to seek shelter in countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and Israel.
Russia calls its assault on Ukraine a “special military operation” to protect breakaway Ukrainian regions from what it claims is a fascist regime in Kyiv and insists it’s only targeting military installations. Still, Russian shelling in Ukraine has hit residential areas of cities and caused civilian casualties, with the southern city of Mariupol under a virtual siege for several weeks now. –Bloomberg