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Putin's moves to escalate the war in Ukraine has sparked panic and protests in Russia

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

What should we make of Vladimir Putin's recent moves to escalate in Ukraine - from calling up additional troops, to doubling down on nuclear threats, to these so-called elections happening in four provinces in Ukraine? And what should we make of the fact that dissent against these policies may be growing inside Russia?

Protesters took to the streets across Russia last week with the announcement that 300,000 reservists, at least, would be pressed into military service in the war. And critics of the Kremlin are raising their voices online, even, in rare instances, on state TV. Well, we're going to put all of this to two of Russia's most prominent investigative journalists, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan. Welcome to you both. You're in our studios today. It's nice to see you.

ANDREI SOLDATOV, BYLINE: Great to be here. Thank you.

IRINA BOROGAN, BYLINE: Thank you for inviting us.

CHANG: I want to start with a little background on why you are here, why you were not in Russia today.

Andrei, people should know you and I first met six years ago in Moscow.

SOLDATOV: Right.

CHANG: We had coffee. I interviewed you. Today you are on Russia's wanted list. Your Russian bank accounts were frozen over the summer. How did you find this out?

SOLDATOV: Well, we were at some conference with our friends, investigative journalists from Russia. And in the morning, I started getting text messages from my Russian bank. One, two, three - all of them saying basically the same thing, that now I owe a lot of money to this bank. And I thought, well, maybe it's some sort of phishing attack.

CHANG: Yeah.

SOLDATOV: Oh, maybe I'm targeted because I'm a journalist, so you expect to be targeted by these kind of attacks. But eventually, another bank, my second bank, came up with a new message which says that there is a criminal case against me. And thankfully, it provided a number of this case. So I was able to check this number with other Russians on the list. And that helped us to establish that, yes, indeed, there is a criminal case against me, and we know who is investigating the case, who initiated the case, and it was the FSB, the Russian security service. And it's about spreading fake news about the war.

CHANG: Spreading fake news about the war - that's what you have been charged with?

SOLDATOV: Yes. And I'm facing up to 10 years in prison if I ever get back to Russia.

CHANG: Huh. Irina, have you been charged as well?

BOROGAN: Not so far.

CHANG: Not so far.

BOROGAN: I am kind of Andrei's accomplice.

CHANG: Accomplice.

BOROGAN: I mentioned in the criminal case, but I wasn't put on the wanted list.

CHANG: Now, you wrote about this in a column, and the headline was, Bad News for Me Is Good News for Russia. Why? Why is this good news for Russia?

SOLDATOV: Well, thanks to the war, a lot of Russian journalists are out of the country. All of them continue to do their job. And the good news is that Russian propaganda inside the country is so straightforward. So people in the country, they do not trust it. And we have lots of people who want to know what is going on in Ukraine. And also, of course, we have to face recent developments about mobilization. Now they rely on the news provided by people like me and Irina. And that is probably the very first time in the Russian history when you have the Russians living in the country relying on the information provided from the outside.

CHANG: By Russians living outside the country - so let me put to you a few of the recent developments. We have seen people willing to risk arrest by protesting, crowds shouting - send Putin to the trenches - in Russia just these last few days, a famous Russian pop star who has criticized the war to her Instagram followers, and she has 3.4 million of them. Is it the mobilization that has changed things?

SOLDATOV: Mobilization changed everything because it's not only about some distant regions; it's also about big cities. And it's not only about ordinary people; it's about people working for big corporations. And we know from our sources that some really big companies are trying to find a way how to protect the personnel. And it's not easy because nobody knows who might be drafted next.

CHANG: Irina, does this suggest that the Kremlin is not able to control everything that gets said online or even on state-controlled TV in Russia?

BOROGAN: Unfortunately, Putin and the Kremlin still control all official channels of information. But in the time of crisis, you don't need TV channels because nobody believes TV channels.

CHANG: Do you think people all over in the provinces really don't believe?

BOROGAN: Everybody now feel in danger, and they need independent information. Before this, people were OK with this official narrative because they have to follow this, and it's OK. But now, people don't believe the Kremlin anymore, so they need to know how to avoid mobilization. What does it mean for them? How to survive? So they jumped to the alternative sources of information.

SOLDATOV: We have this numbers that 80% of the Russians are supportive of the war. That was before mobilization. But I think now it's changing. We have friends - we have people who are trying to leave the country as we speak.

CHANG: Trying to get on planes and get anywhere that is not Russia.

BOROGAN: Anywhere - they try to leave country any way. Some of them try to cross Kazakhstan, Russia-Kazakhstan border by force. Some of them try to buy tickets on the plane. Two hundred sixty thousand people, man, already cross the border. So - and it will be much more people who are willing to do this.

CHANG: So where does this go? Does it pose any real risk to Vladimir Putin continuing?

BOROGAN: I mean, I don't want to be excessively optimistic because, you know, Putin and the Kremlin, they have a huge security, Chavez's apparatus. And the people are intimidated to very much extent in Russia because for the last 10 years, people have not felt free in Russia for even for a moment.

CHANG: Last thing, the U.S. is warning Russia against using nuclear weapons - kind of terrifying that such a warning would need to be issued - but Putin has made veiled threats to use tactical nukes. How seriously do you take those threats?

BOROGAN: Well, we don't know, but unfortunately he didn't - he's threatened to the West many times before, and he never did what he told. But for the last seven months, we saw that he follow his threats, so it's very, very terrifying.

CHANG: Russian independent journalists Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov. They are also fellows at the Center for European Policy Analysis. That is a pro-democracy think tank. Thanks to you both. Good to see you.

SOLDATOV: Thank you.

BOROGAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.