MOSCOW -- The closure of Russia's top independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, this week marks a grave turn in the Kremlin's information war on its own people and in the greater Russian-media landscape, analysts say.
Novaya Gazeta on Monday (March 28) announced it was suspending publication until the end of Moscow's military action in Ukraine.
"For us and, I know, for you, this is a terrible and difficult decision," chief editor Dmitry Muratov said in a statement.
"But we must save each other," he said, indicating that it was necessary to avoid a complete shutdown of the newspaper.
Co-founded by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1993, Novaya Gazeta was the only main newspaper left voicing criticism of President Vladimir Putin and his tactics in and outside the country.
The shutdown announcement came just over a month after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with thousands of people killed and millions displaced.
Last year, Muratov received the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Maria Ressa of the Philippines for their efforts "to safeguard freedom of expression".
Muratov said last week the newspaper had decided to donate his gold medal to a fund to help Ukrainian refugees.
'Censorship and systemic intimidation'
Earlier Monday, Novaya Gazeta staff learned of a formal warning from Roskomnadzor, the state communications watchdog, its second since last week.
If a media outlet receives two warnings from the media regulator in the space of a year, a court can shut it down.
"We have received another warning from Roskomnadzor," the newspaper said.
"We are suspending publication of the newspaper on our website, on social networks and in print -- until the end of the 'special operation in Ukraine'," it added.
Journalists in Russia are ordered to use official statements and are banned from using the words "war" and "invasion" in reference to Ukraine. To avoid hefty fines or jail time, journalists must use the Kremlin's preferred "special operation".
"If we don't stop, we will be stripped of our licence through court," Nadezhda Prusenkova, a Novaya Gazeta spokeswoman, told AFP.
The formal warnings were payback for Novaya Gazeta's coverage of the conflict and its efforts to estimate "losses and destruction", both in Russia and Ukraine, said Muratov Monday.
Josep Borrell, the European Union (EU)'s top diplomat, decried the move, saying Novaya Gazeta had had to suspend its operations as a "result of censorship and following years of systematic intimidation by Russian authorities".
"The EU will continue to counter the Kremlin's disinformation campaigns and support Russian independent media and journalists in their important work," he said in a statement.
The newspaper got into hot water with Russian authorities even after it said it would have to work "under conditions of military censorship".
'Journalism has been defeated'
In early March, the media outlet said it would have to comply with newly adopted legislation after lawmakers introduced jail terms of up to 15 years for publishing "fake news" about Russia's army.
But it still published stories from Ukrainian cities including Kyiv, Mykolaiv and Odesa.
The cover of the print edition of the newspaper on March 9 shows ballet dancers silhouetted in front of a mushroom cloud -- references to increasing nuclear tensions and a performance of "Swan Lake" broadcast continually on Russian state TV during an attempted KGB coup in 1991.
The headline, "An issue of Novaya, created in accordance with all the rules of Russia's amended Criminal Code", refers to the Kremlin's newly amended "fake news" law.
"When the law on fake news came into effect, almost 30 media outlets were blocked, closed or destroyed," Prusenkova said in an interview with Voice of America (VOA)'s Russian Service published March 11.
"Journalism has been defeated in Russia -- it just doesn't exist anymore. Independent journalism, to be exact."
VOA's Russian language website was among those Roskomnadzor ordered to be blocked.
Crackdown on dissent
Russia is seeing an unprecedented crackdown on dissenting voices and independent journalism, which has included dubbing non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and media outlets "foreign agents" -- a label that carries strong pejorative connotations and implies increased government scrutiny.
Last week, Roskomnadzor said Novaya Gazeta had failed to mark an NGO mentioned in one of its stories as a "foreign agent" in accordance with Russian legislation.
Novaya Gazeta itself has not been declared a "foreign agent".
Even in the current conditions, the newspaper's announcement came as a jolt.
"That's it; there are no more independent media in the country," wrote StalinGulag, an opposition blogger. "Complete censorship."
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders urged the Russian authorities "to stop these policies of censorship".
In early March, Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio was disbanded while independent TV channel Dozhd TV decided to suspend operations.
Since 2000, six of Novaya Gazeta's journalists and collaborators have been killed in connection with their work, including investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya.
'Lies and deceit'
Consumers of Russian news in Central Asia have long been wary of Kremlin propaganda and the Russian regime's attempts at censorship.
The United Kingdom on Thursday announced new sanctions against Russian "propagandists", including television presenter Sergey Brilyov, and two Kremlin-funded media operations (TV-Novosti and Rossiya Segodnya) accused of spreading "lies and deceit" about the invasion of Ukraine.
The 14 latest sanctions follow several previous rounds of penalties against more than 1,000 Russian and Belarusian individuals and entities.
Kremlin-backed media last month put free speech in Uzbekistan on blast after Uzbek media refused to toe Moscow's line on its invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has entered a new phase of its propaganda-filled information war and psychological war, according to Kamoliddin Rabbimov, a political analyst from Tashkent.
Its main enemy is Ukraine, along with the West as a group, he said. At the same time, the Kremlin is keeping tabs on opinions about the invasion in the post-Soviet region, including Central Asia.
Russian media outlets, including journalists who specialise in the region, are signalling to the Uzbek authorities as well as bloggers and journalists that "if you criticise any more, you'll have huge problems", said Rabbimov in March.