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Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during an interview with Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin on February 6.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during an interview with Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin on February 6.

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.

Familiar narratives and a severely skewed version of history were on display once again in President Vladimir Putin's interview with Tucker Carlson. There were also some moments that shed additional light on his motives in the invasion of Ukraine and other matters.

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

'Largely Fictional'

For some, the biggest takeaway from Tucker Carlson's interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin could be summed up in a single word: Boring.

Partly because Putin started off with a long history lecture riddled with falsehoods and factual errors that did little, for many ears, to make it more interesting. It spawned multiple memes mocking what one commentator called a "largely fictional" account that stretched back to the 9th century. Ninth -- that's not a typo.

At one point, Carlson reassured Putin that his lengthy sojourn into the past was "not boring," but many who watched the interview -- or wrote about it -- disagreed.

Another potential source of tedium: Putin's re-reiteration of several of his well-worn narratives -- most of them, in this case, meant to justify Russia's aggression against Ukraine over the last decade, from the seizure of Crimea in 2014 to the full-scale invasion that will hit the two-year mark this month.

Carlson and the Kremlin posted the interview on the Internet on February 9. In addition to what Bloomberg Opinion columnist Marc Champion described as Putin's "usual string of half-truths and outright falsehoods about the war in Ukraine," it featured some of his familiar bugbears, from Lenin to NATO.

But while there was nothing much new -- as there often isn't in Putin's interviews, speeches, and other public statements -- there were some revealing remarks, comments that seemed to shed light on Putin's motives in the war against Ukraine and other matters.

Resentment And 'Obsession'

Despite Putin’s criticism of NATO and its enlargement, for example, his focus on the past added to the already voluminous evidence that he is obsessed with Ukraine and that, as Champion put it, he invaded the country "out of the apparently sincere belief that he's retaking lands that rightfully belong to Russia."

One could argue with the suggestion that Putin sincerely holds that belief, but it may not matter much -- in any case, the remarks seemed to throw the thinking behind the invasion into sharper relief. "Resentment over NATO's expansion played a part for sure, but it was a supporting role," Champion wrote.

Also of note: Resentment over the Western alliance taking in former Warsaw Pact states and ex-Soviet republics is not the same as a genuine belief that it poses a threat -- let alone an imminent threat -- to Russia's security.

'Hitler Had No Choice'

Another telling remark -- one that seems particularly striking in the context of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine -- came in his comments on World War II, which began when Germany invaded Poland days after reaching an agreement with Moscow to carve up parts of Eastern Europe in a secret annex to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939.

By refusing to cede territory that Hitler wanted to Germany, Poland "forced Germany to begin the Second World War," Putin said, adding that Poland "turned out to be intractable. Hitler had no choice in implementing his plans other than to start precisely with Poland."

"The idea that the victim of the attack serves as its instigator by forcing the hand of the aggressor is central to all of Putin's explanations for Russia's war in Ukraine," Masha Gessen wrote in The New Yorker. "To my knowledge, though, this was the first time he described Hitler's aggression in the same terms."

Striking, particularly given the enormous focus Putin has placed on the Soviet role in World War II, and given the Russian state's refusal to countenance any comparison between Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany.

Jailed Journalists

Another moment that seemed revealing came near the end of the two-hour interview, when Carlson asked about Evan Gershkovich -- who, along with Alsu Kurmasheva of RFE/RL, is one of two American journalists jailed in Russia last year and still being held on charges that they and their employers say are unfounded.

Asked whether he was prepared to free Gershkovich as a "goodwill gesture," Putin repeated the Russian claim that the U.S. journalist was "caught red-handed" in an act of espionage, without providing evidence, and said Russia was open to -- and involved in -- negotiations with an eye to a prisoner swap.

Nothing new there. But Putin also clearly identified one Russian held in the West as a desired candidate for an exchange -- a former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who is in prison in Germany after being convicted of fatally shooting a Georgian former separatist fighter in Russia's North Caucasus in a park in Berlin in broad daylight in 2019.

And of Gershkovich, the only American journalist arrested on espionage charges in Russia since the Cold War and the Soviet collapse, Putin said that it "makes no sense, more or less, to hold him in prison in Russia."

The comments were seen as the clearest sign yet that Putin and his government view U.S. and other Western citizens held in Russia as bargaining chips for potential prisoner swaps.

"Russian President Vladimir Putin is using Gershkovich as a pawn, holding him hostage in order to gain leverage over -- and extract a ransom from -- the United States," The Wall Street Journal’s parent company said in September.

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).

Yours,

Steve Gutterman

P.S.: Consider forwarding this newsletter to colleagues who might find this of interest. Send feedback and tips to newsletters@rferl.org.

Rows of fresh graves multiplied as Russian forces pressed to capture the strategic Azov Sea port city of Mariupol in early 2022.
Rows of fresh graves multiplied as Russian forces pressed to capture the strategic Azov Sea port city of Mariupol in early 2022.

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.

An anti-war candidate is barred from the presidential ballot, and two detailed reports shed grim new light on the fate and future of Mariupol -- the devastated port city where Russia is seeking to "erase Ukrainian culture."

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

Horror And Hope

Nearly two years into Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a handful of place names stand out as grim emblems of the death and destruction Moscow's forces have wreaked on the neighboring country since the unprovoked assault.

The most prominent of these may be Bucha, the suburban Kyiv city whose name is now synonymous with evidence of atrocities and accusations of war crimes by Russian troops in the first few weeks of the onslaught.

But Bucha is in the northern part of Ukraine from which Russian forces withdrew early on after failing to take the capital or force President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his government to capitulate. So it's also a symbol of hope for justice: the hope, shared by many Ukrainians and their supporters abroad, that Russia will face consequences for its actions.

Mariupol is a different story. After withstanding attacks over the years of the war in the Donbas, which erupted in 2014, it fell to Russian forces in May 2022 after a devastating siege and remains in Moscow's hands -- one of the biggest Ukrainian cities occupied by Russia.

As a result, it is a symbol of another kind: of the lengths to which Russia is prepared to go using brute force to seize Ukrainian territory, even areas whose pre-invasion populations were largely Russian-speaking residents whom President Vladimir Putin baselessly claims the onslaught was intended to protect, and of the suffering still in store for residents of areas that are occupied by Russia or may be in future.

The fate of those people figures prominently in the arguments of those, both inside and outside Ukraine, who say driving Russia's forces out of all of Ukraine must be the goal and any agreement that leaves Russia in control of Ukrainian territory would keep millions of civilians in Russia's thrall and invite further and even direr disaster.

For now, the war seems sure to continue for many months or more and there appears to be no chance Ukraine could recapture Mariupol anytime soon, let alone push Russian forces out of the country entirely. A Ukrainian counteroffensive fell far short of its goals last year, and Russia is pressing at several locations on the front line.

'One Of The Worst Chapters'

For all that's unknown about Mariupol, where Russian control hinders access to accurate information about the past and present, horrifying stories have emerged from a city where many buildings were razed by Russian attacks and rows of fresh graves multiplied as Russian forces pressed to capture the strategic Azov Sea port.

Some of them are linked to the bombing of a theater where hundreds of adults and children were taking shelter, others to the siege of the steelworks where Ukrainian forces made their final stand, Azovstal. Still others are on a far smaller scale, such as a video showing a woman slumped in a hospital corridor, sobbing and clutching her sleeping son after a bombardment that killed her other child.

This week, two extensive new reports shed stark new light on developments in Mariupol both before Russia's takeover and since.

One is a Human Rights Watch report on an investigation, conducted in cooperation with two other organizations, into what the group calls "one of the worst chapters of Russia's atrocity-ridden invasion and occupation of Ukraine so far."

"The operation, which included Russian forces pounding Mariupol for weeks with explosive weapons, left thousands of Ukrainian civilians dead and injured. It trapped hundreds of thousands for weeks. And it turned a thriving city into a wasteland of charred buildings and shallow graves," HRW says.

Given what it describes as "Russia's continued efforts to erase Ukrainian culture" in Mariupol, a vibrant city of 540,000 not long ago, the chapter is far from over.

The other new report is from the Financial Times. It focuses on Russia's rebuilding of Mariupol, describing the city as a "Potemkin village" whose residents "live in perilous conditions while Russian companies profit from contracts worth millions."

"With investigators unable to access the city, and with Moscow racing to plaster over the horrors of the war, it's feared [that] more Russian atrocities may remain undiscovered," the report says after citing the bombing of the theater and a strike on a maternity hospital.

"Russia is trying to destroy all evidence of its war crimes," it quotes Ukraine's human rights commissioner, Dmytro Lubinets, as saying.

Barred From The Ballot

Mariupol is in Donetsk Province, one of five Ukrainian regions that Russia baselessly claims as its own.

In the real Russia, a decade-long clampdown on civil society, independent media, and dissent that intensified after Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine shows no sign of flagging ahead of a March 15-17 election that is set to hand him a new six-year term.

Prosecutions on extremism charges that critics say the Kremlin uses to silence opponents and quash perceived threats have risen sharply since the February 2022 invasion.

Putin's most prominent foe, Aleksei Navalny, is serving a prison sentence that was extended to 19 years after he was convicted of extremism last August. On February 6, his spokeswoman said he had been placed in solitary confinement several days earlier for the 26th time since his incarceration three years ago.

Navalny has been an opposition leader for many years, but his biggest troubles with the state began after he sought to challenge Putin on the most recent presidential vote in 2018. He was barred from the ballot and in 2020 survived a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on Putin and the Federal Security Service.

As in 2018, the Kremlin's grip on politics, government, and the media means Putin is certain to win the election next month barring some massive, unexpected development.

But once again, Putin appears to be taking no chances: Boris Nadezhdin, a little-known former lawmaker whose would-be campaign quickly turned into a magnet for Russians who are tired of the war in Ukraine, or of Putin, or both, was denied a place on the ballot in a decision handed down by the Central Election Commission on October 8.

Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin offered a simple explanation for the decision to bar Nadezhdin from the ballot.

The Kremlin initially saw him as a nonthreatening figure who would receive 2 or 3 percent of the vote, demonstrating "the wretchedness of the European, anti-Putin and anti-war alternative," Oreshkin told RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities. But after Russians lined up in droves to sign the petitions he needed to qualify for the race, it became clear he might attract a larger number of votes.

"If suddenly an opponent of the war, oriented toward the West, who defends liberal values, gets 10 to 12 percent, this is a completely unthinkable situation" for Putin and his circle, Oreshkin said. "And so, sometime in mid-January, Nadezhdin moved irrevocably from the ranks of acceptable…candidates to the ranks of the unacceptable."

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).

Yours,

Steve Gutterman

P.S.: Consider forwarding this newsletter to colleagues who might find this of interest. Send feedback and tips to newsletters@rferl.org.

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About This Newsletter

Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

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.

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