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Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia

Friday 9 June 2023

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Homes in a flooded area of Ukraine’s Kherson region on June 7, a day after the Kakhovka dam was breached.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

The destruction of a massive Dnieper River dam in occupied territory added another line to the list of calamities unleashed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Moscow's propaganda machine let a trial balloon fly amid signs that Kyiv's counteroffensive has begun, while the clampdown continued at home.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.


Russian President Vladimir Putin called the breach of the Kakhovka dam a "barbaric act" and suggested it was terrorism.

But unless the Kremlin can come up with hard evidence that Ukraine destroyed the dam, chances are good that Russia is responsible: The huge hydroelectric power plant spanning the Dnieper River upstream from Kherson has been controlled by Russian occupation forces for about 15 months. And while Putin pointed the finger at Kyiv and what he called its "Western handlers," Russian officials have not said how Ukraine could have caused the breach.

On June 9, Ukraine's security service said it had intercepted a telephone call in which a Russian soldier said a Russian "sabotage group" had caused the breach. The authenticity of the recording could not be independently verified.

Arguably, any talk about who or what exactly caused the damage is beside the point. It wouldn't have happened had Russia not launched a full-scale, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Regardless of the details, that seems to hand the bulk of the blame on Russia for what Putin called the "large-scale ecological and humanitarian catastrophe" that ensured when water from Ukraine's main river came pouring over the busted dam, flooding fields, forests, towns, and the city of Kherson while fish flopped and died as the water levels in the wide river upstream from the dam fell fast.

The breach added a catastrophic new twist to the diverse variety of destruction, suffering, and death unleashed by Putin when he ordered the invasion -- a list that, among other things, includes the abuse, torture, rape, and murder of civilians and the dispatch of tens of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia and the territory it occupies, which has made Putin the subject of a war-crimes arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court.

European Council President Charles Michel called the destruction of the dam a war crime, while French President Emmanuel Macron called it an "atrocious act." British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that "if it does prove to be intentional, it will represent a new low. It's an appalling act of barbarism on Russia's part."

On The Move

In the days after the dam breach, Russia continued to target Ukrainians in affected areas, shelling Kherson as residents struggled to survive on flooded streets or to leave the city for safer, dryer areas farther from the front.

The collapse of the dam came amid increasing signs that a long-expected and potentially crucial Ukrainian counteroffensive may be under way, with heavy fighting reported on at least two sections of the 1,000-kilometer front line stretching from the area near Kherson in the south to the Donbas and the Kharkiv region in the east.

A major military push would be a chance for Ukrainian forces to regain more of the territory Russia has occupied not just since the February 2022 invasion but since 2014, when it seized control of Crimea and backed anti-Kyiv forces who took parts of the Donbas, including the eponymous capitals of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

It also coincided with intriguing indications that Putin and the Kremlin may be considering cutting Russia's losses and seeking to freeze the conflict in place – or, alternatively, trying to make Kyiv and Western governments think they're considering it.

The main point of such a feint, presumably, would be to increase calls in the West for Ukraine to negotiate with Russia -- though Russia has given no convincing sign that it's interested in good-faith talks -- and step back from its stated goal of driving Russian forces out of all of Ukraine, including Crimea.

After retreating from northern Ukraine in the spring of 2022 following a failed attempt to take Kyiv, and then losing swaths of land it had occupied in Ukrainian counteroffensives in the east and south later in the year, Russia has continued to struggle on the battlefield, making few gains other than a partial victory in the extremely costly battle for the Donbas city of Bakhmut. The Kremlin has also been rattled by attacks and apparent drone strikes inside Russia.

'Deepening Gloom'

Against that backdrop, direct or veiled calls for Russia to scale down its objectives -- essentially abandoning the goal of seizing or subjugating Ukraine, and instead seeking to hold the territory it has occupied and turn the war into a "frozen conflict" -- have been made by prominent and consistently bellicose figures including Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group, and Margarita Simonyan, a state media executive and propagandist.

"A mood of deepening gloom is gripping Russia's elite about prospects for President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine, with even the most optimistic seeing a 'frozen' conflict as the best available outcome now for the Kremlin," Bloomberg News wrote in an article published on June 8, citing multiple "people familiar with the situation" without naming them.

"Many within the political and business elite are tired of the war and want it to stop, though they doubt Putin will halt the fighting," it said.

"The most favorable prospect would be negotiations later in the year that would turn it into a 'frozen' conflict and allow Putin to proclaim a Pyrrhic victory to Russians by holding on to some seized Ukrainian territory," Bloomberg cited two of its sources as saying.

Do these statements and signals mean that Putin -- who prefaced the invasion with repeated assertions that Ukraine has no right to exist as a sovereign state -- is ready to halt efforts to seize more of its neighbor's territory and bring Kyiv to heel?


For one thing, Bloomberg wrote that according to five of the people it spoke to, "Putin shows no indication of wanting to end the war."

Make No Mistake

Author and analyst Sam Greene, in a Twitter thread about comments from Simonyan that caused a stir, wrote that "it's worth taking a moment to reflect on how Russian propaganda works."

Simonyan's logic "reflects the views of some in the Russian establishment. Maybe even many or most," Greene wrote. "It would be a mistake, however, to assume that it reflects the Kremlin's position in any meaningful way."

Instead, he suggested it had three objectives: to "disrupt Western strategic narratives," to "maintain domestic constructive ambiguity," and to "conduct reflexive public opinion research" -- in other words, in the last case, to send up a trial balloon in an effort to find out what the Russian populace thinks of the idea.

The particular Western strategic narrative that the Kremlin may want to disrupt is "the current Western consensus is that Russia will keep fighting until it either wins or loses outright."

"As a result, when arguments are made that the West should push Ukraine towards a negotiated settlement, they fail to resonate: most analysts and policymakers do not see a negotiating partner in Moscow," Greene wrote. "Simonyan's statement is meant to complicate that assumption."

As the calamity unfolded on the Dnieper in Ukraine, the Russian state's sweeping clampdown on dissent, civil society, and independent media at home continued. On June 8, a Moscow court began the trial of Oleg Orlov, 70, a senior leader of Memorial, a prominent and highly respected human rights organization that was outlawed in December 2021.

The charge against Orlov, who is accused of repeatedly discrediting the armed forces, stems from his condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, called his trial a "travesty of justice."

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

Ukrainian air defenses fire to stop drones in a wave of bombardments targeting Kyiv on May 30.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

An apparent drone attack on Moscow fits President Vladimir Putin's narrative about Russia's war on Ukraine. But more than 15 months into what was meant to be a "special operation" to swiftly subjugate the neighboring nation, it's still another piece of bad news for the Kremlin.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Aerial Attacks

In terms of optics, imagery, and propaganda, Putin must have been pleased, at least on some level, to see headlines like "Drone Attacks Target Moscow And Kyiv" after unmanned aerial vehicles slammed into three apartment buildings in the Russian capital on May 30.

Putin and other officials swiftly blamed Kyiv for the strikes, slotting the incident into a false narrative that the Kremlin has used increasingly in recent months: the claim that Russia, far from fighting a war of aggression against a sovereign neighbor, is defending itself from an assault by the United States and NATO in which Ukraine is merely a weapon in the hands of the West.

The drone strike and other attacks on Russian soil that Moscow has ascribed to Kyiv may serve to bolster that narrative domestically and even abroad. It hands an argument to people in the West who call for peace with little consideration of what that could mean for millions of Ukrainians in Russian-occupied territory or for the wider world -- or of the repercussions of rewarding a land grab.

That may be heartening for Putin. At home, he is seeking to solidify backing for the invasion he unleashed on Ukraine in February 2022, through both the propaganda of patriotism and a persistent clampdown on dissent in general and criticism of the war – and even just questions about it -- in particular.

Long after the start of a "special military operation" that he hoped would bring Ukraine to its knees in a matter of days or weeks, Putin's main hope of success in the war now hinges on Western support for Kyiv flagging substantially, analysts say.

If Ukraine is behind the strikes, as is widely believed despite denials, Kyiv is blurring lines that many believe would be wiser to keep clearly defined by refraining from attacks on Russian territory -- even though their effects cannot be compared to the death and devastation that Russia has wreaked on Ukraine.

Nobody was killed by the drones in Moscow. In the month of May alone, Russia launched 17 waves of aerial attacks on Kyiv, using drones and firing ballistic and hypersonic missiles. Three people, including a child, were killed in a Russian strike on the capital on June 1, and Russia has targeted other cities and towns across Ukraine as well.

Putin's Narrative

Even in propaganda terms, the negative effects of the Moscow strike may outweigh positive effects for Putin and the Russian state. For one thing, there's no sign that the drone strike on Moscow has engendered an upsurge of support for the war or for Putin among Russians, or that it has had a substantial effect on attitudes in the West.

And while they may further Putin's narrative of the war, the drone strike on Moscow and one in which two drones targeted the Kremlin on May 3 suggest that Russia -- even at its very heart -- is more vulnerable than he might like citizens to believe.

All in all, it's not a good look for Putin and the Kremlin, political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, wrote of the May 30 Moscow strike and the state's muted reaction.

"People want to see strong leadership, but right now, that leadership is looking increasingly helpless and confused," she wrote.

The strikes also underscore the wide gap between Putin's apparent goals in the invasion of Ukraine and the reality of the situation.

'A War Within The War'

In a Facebook post, journalist Mikhail Shevelyov contrasted the drone strike on Moscow apartment buildings with a time when Russia was telling NATO to "pack up its things and go back to the 1997 borders," a reference to one of the demands Moscow made of the alliance in the months before the February 2022 invasion.

It may also be a sign that Kyiv has the upper hand in the competition between Russian and Ukrainian military intelligence agencies -- what Mark Galeotti, a Britain-based Russia analyst and expert on its security services, called "a war within the war."

In an article in The Times of London, published before the May 30 Moscow drone strike, Galeotti wrote that the drones targeting the Kremlin on May 3 in were "probably launched by [Ukrainian military intelligence] officers in Russian territory or guided in by agents with a line of sight to the target."

While Ukraine's HUR and Russia's GRU both have roots in Soviet military intelligence, the contest has been lopsided since the invasion, Galeotti suggested, writing that "for now at least, Ukrainian imagination and initiative is running rings around Russian discipline and hierarchy."

Meanwhile, Russia's military itself faces problems on and off the battlefield that will affect the course of the war and the future of the country, which has already been badly clouded -- along with the present -- by Putin's decision to launch the large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

"The Russian military's problems go beyond casualties and equipment losses," Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, a U.S.-based think tank, wrote in a summary of an article she published in The Economist.

"It faces two looming crises in retention and veteran PTSD and other disorders," she wrote, "when its soldiers are allowed to leave Ukraine."

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

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The Week In Russia

If you're interested in Russia, you'll love Steve Gutterman's The Week In Russia.

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