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Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia

Firefighters work at a site where production facilities were damaged during a Russian drone strike in the Kyiv region on January 30.
Firefighters work at a site where production facilities were damaged during a Russian drone strike in the Kyiv region on January 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.

At least for now, Russian President Vladimir Putin is probably not interested in a cease-fire in Ukraine -- but sending signals to the West about such an interest is a different matter.

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

Mixed Signals

Since late December, at least two major Western media outlets have reported that Putin is sending signals he is open to a cease-fire or talks on halting Russia's war against Ukraine.

The reports, citing anonymous sources, have made waves in the West and provoked ire in Ukraine for a number of good reasons including this: Both in public statements from Putin on down and in its actions on the battlefield, Russia has given no indication that it is willing to let up on its assault or abandon its maximalist goals.

Case in point: Nine days before The New York Times published a story with the headline Putin Quietly Signals He Is Open To A Cease-Fire In Ukraine, Putin said something close to the opposite in a high-profile end-of-year appearance on state TV.

"There will be peace when we achieve our goals," Putin said, adding that those goals have not changed and include the "de-militarization" of Ukraine as well as its "de-Nazification" -- which is widely seen as meaning the ouster of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the installation of a puppet government. In short, the subjugation of Ukraine.

In Ukraine, in the wake of a major Ukrainian counteroffensive that failed to bring a breakthrough, Russian forces are on the offensive along much of the 1,200-kilometer front line from the Kharkiv region in the northeast to Kherson and the Dnieper River in the south. Civilian deaths are mounting as Russia continues to target cities and towns across the country.

Kyiv got good news this week on financial support from the European Union. But tens of billions of dollars in proposed U.S. military aid is stymied in Congress, deepening concerns about Ukraine's ability to hold Russian forces back, let alone drive them out of the country.

On January 31, Putin told official supporters of his sure-thing campaign for reelection in March that Russia would seek to control enough Ukrainian territory to ensure Ukraine cannot target Russian cities with its own weapons or those provided by the West.

This is not a new goal for the Kremlin, but by emphasizing it Putin seemed to be suggesting Russia will continue its efforts to gain more ground in Ukraine -- and may step them up if it has the capacity.

'Let Them Negotiate'

Near the top of its December 23 story on what it called back-channel diplomacy in which Putin has indicated that he is "ready to make a deal," The New York Times noted that Putin had dismissed the idea of talks days earlier, saying, "We won't give up what's ours," adding dismissively, "If they want to negotiate, let them negotiate."

For many, such remarks make it hard to believe Russia is interested in a cease-fire or talks, even if the most ambitious goals Putin has repeatedly described since before the full-scale invasion of February 24, 2022, seem out of reach.

"The idea that a war against Ukraine could result in the installation of a pro-Russian puppet government in Kyiv -- clearly that hasn't happened, and it doesn't look remotely feasible now," Ruth Deyermond, senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, said on an RFE/RL podcast on January 15.

"All of the original Russian aims are unachievable: Russia cannot win on those terms," she said.

But there are plenty of reasons Russia might be interested in putting out word that it is interested, which is something else almost entirely. The overarching reason: In doing so, it has nothing to lose and potentially quite a lot to gain.

'So Secret'

For one thing, the Kremlin might feel the suggestion Russia is open to a cease-fire that would leave the current battle lines in place could weaken the already beleaguered efforts to win the approval of the proposed U.S. aid package for Ukraine. If Putin wants peace, opponents of the support might say, why send Kyiv more weapons?

"Hints of Russian openness to talks -- even if disingenuous -- could help sow division among Ukraine's allies, isolating Kyiv and undermining President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's efforts to win support for his own peace formula, which calls for full Russian withdrawal," Bloomberg News wrote in a January 25 article.

And while the chances such overtures could actually lead to a cease-fire anytime soon are extremely small, a truce could also play into Russia's hands, giving it time to make more weapons and mobilize more men -- though as author and analyst Mark Galeotti has pointed out, that would also buy time for Kyiv.

Meanwhile, the very idea that Russia and the United States are communicating in secret about Ukraine's fate, however distant from the actual leadership of the two countries such conversations may be, could advance Moscow's narrative that Ukraine is a mere pawn and cause jitters in Kyiv.

"It benefits [Russia] for everyone to think that there's a back channel and it's so secret no one can figure it out because it scares the hell out of the Ukrainians," Bloomberg News quoted Fiona Hill, a senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, as saying.

"The Russians want us to create this idea that the channel is there and that everything depends on the U.S. so no one or nothing else plays a role," said Hill, who was senior director for European and Russian affairs on the U.S. National Security Council from 2017 to 2019 under President Donald Trump.

'Testing The Waters'

The Bloomberg News article said that Putin is "testing the waters on whether the [United States] is ready to engage in talks for ending Russia's war in Ukraine."

Citing "two people close to the Kremlin," it said Putin has "put out feelers to the U.S. via indirect channels to signal he's open to discussion, including potentially on future security arrangements for Ukraine."

The New York Times article said "Putin has been signaling through intermediaries since at least September that he is open to a cease-fire that freezes the fighting along the current lines, far short of his ambitions to dominate Ukraine." It cited "two former senior Russian officials close to the Kremlin" as well as U.S. and international officials "who have received the message from…Putin's envoys."

Bloomberg News wrote U.S. officials "say they are not aware of the supposed overtures, which may amount to a trial balloon, and see no indication the Russian president is serious about looking for a way to end the fighting."

Russia may not want a cease-fire now, in part because it may be confident it can take more territory – and may hope that dwindling Western aid and the possibility of a second Trump presidency will improve its position in the coming year.

'Measure Of Control'

But Deyermond said she believes "an agreement like that is something that the Russian government will be seeking in due course, because it's a formula that has worked very well for Russia in this region in the past.

"Since the early 1990s, the Russian government has used so-called frozen conflicts as one of the key instruments of its coercive power over its post-Soviet neighbors: Sign an agreement, freeze the fighting, move Russian troops into contested territory" or retain them there, she said. "That then gives Russia a very large measure of control not only over the territory that it occupies, but also the country affected, the capital affected."

Such a deal "would allow Russia simply to consolidate its position -- potentially with a view in the future to then launching another war, taking more territory," Deyermond said.

"The calls that you hear in some quarters in the West for negotiations, I think, fundamentally misunderstand what that would mean -- and don't understand that this could only ever be a temporary pause in fighting," she said, "and a temporary pause in fighting that would really do nothing more than reinforce Russia's position."

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.

A rescue worker surveys the site of a Russian military plane crash in the Belgorod region on January 24.
A rescue worker surveys the site of a Russian military plane crash in the Belgorod region on January 24.

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.

Nearly a decade after the downing of MH17, a military transport plane that Moscow says was carrying 65 Ukrainian POWs crashes in a region bordering Ukraine. Meanwhile, one of the Russians convicted of murder in a Western court over the MH17 disaster is sentenced in Russia – but not for that crime.

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

10 Years, Two Crashes

When a passenger jet carrying 298 people blew to pieces in the air over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, there was a flood of disinformation and competing claims about the case, but the facts ultimately came to light.

MH17 was shot down by a missile from a Russian launcher that was brought into territory held by Moscow-backed anti-Kyiv forces three months into the Donbas war and spirited back into Russia shortly afterward.

It’s unclear how much the world will ever know for sure about a plane crash on the other side of the border on January 24, when a Russian military transport jet slammed into the ground in the Belgorod region.

Russia said that there were 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war on board, along with six crew members and three guards. It said there were no survivors, something that footage of the fiery crash strongly supported.

But the veracity of some of Russia’s other assertions about the plane – such as the claim that it was carrying POWs and the claim that it was shot down by Ukraine -- may never be established.

Why not?

For one thing, unlike MH17, the Il-76 crashed in Russia. There is zero chance that Moscow will heed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s call for an international investigation -- with the possible exception of a scenario in which the Kremlin would agree to such a probe for the purpose of imagery but set about to thwart it in various ways.

Claims And Blame

If any of Russia’s main claims about the crash is shown to be false, the whole narrative – the assertion that Ukraine killed its own citizens in a reckless attack on Russia -- would fall apart.

The Russian narrative would be severely undermined if Kyiv’s claim that Moscow had not given Ukraine proper notification of the flight in advance, as it said has been done for previous prisoner swaps, proves to be accurate. That would suggest that Russia – deliberately or negligently – put the plane and everybody on board at risk of a Ukrainian attack.

Regardless of the cause, there are obviously many differences between the Il-76 crash and the downing of MH17, which killed all 298 passengers and crew on board the commercial flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur – men, women, and children from the Netherlands and nine other countries.

One difference is that while a single, coherent Russian narrative took shape very soon after the crash this week, Russia presented an array of sometimes conflicting claims and insinuations after MH17 crashed in an area held by Russia-backed forces.

Eventually, they all fell apart. In terms of efforts to bring people involved in the shoot-down to justice, the main results so far are the murder convictions and life sentences handed down in absentia to two Russians and one pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatist by a Dutch court in November 2022.

That ruling came nine months after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine – which, in turn, followed almost eight years of war fomented by Moscow in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The downing of MH17 drew the world’s attention to the Donbas war, which had started three months earlier.

Given the enormity of the war in Ukraine since the full-scale invasion -- the biggest in Europe since 1945 -- the events of 2014 can seem distant and are sometimes forgotten, despite their direct link to the current phase of the conflict.

'Cowardly Mediocrity'

But a key figure in Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the start of the Donbas war was in the news again this week: Igor Girkin, who is one of the two Russians convicted of murder by the Dutch court for the downing of MH17.

Girkin, who was better known at the time by his made-up name, Strelkov, was convicted by a Russian court on January 25 – not in absentia this time, as he has taken refuge from international justice in Russia – and sentenced to four years in prison.

But not for MH17.

Girkin -- a Russian nationalist who supports Russia’s war on Ukraine but has criticized the way Putin has waged it, calling him a “nonentity” and a person of “cowardly mediocrity” -- was convicted of making public calls for extremist activities.

The conviction was a signal to other nationalist hawks whose criticism of the Kremlin comes from the opposite side as that of the much-persecuted liberal opposition. It suggested that Putin felt it could be dangerous to leave Girkin without punishment.

But the relatively moderate statute and sentence may indicate that the Kremlin does not want to come down on Russians who are in favor of aggression against Ukraine.

The Clampdown

By contrast, critics who oppose the war have received longer sentences – in some cases much longer.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition politician who accused what he called the “dictatorial regime in the Kremlin” of committing “war crimes” in Ukraine shortly after the full-scale invasion, was convicted of treason and sentenced 25 years in prison last April.

The trials of Kara-Murza and other critics of the war are part of a clampdown that has intensified in the last decade and has been ramped up still further by the state since February 2022.

The state has targeted opposition activists, civil society, independent media, and all forms of dissent – and in some cases, Western journalists.

Alsu Kurmasheva, an RFE/RL journalist and dual U.S.-Russian citizen who was prevented from leaving Russia last June and was arrested in October, spent her 100th day behind bars on January 25.

Kurmasheva has been charged with failing to ask the Russian government to register her as a “foreign agent” and of spreading falsehoods about the Russian military. She and RFE/RL deny the charges – which carry maximum prison terms of five and 10 years, respectively -- and say Moscow is punishing her for her journalistic work.

One day later, a Moscow court denied a request for U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal correspondent held in pretrial detention since March 2023 on an espionage charge that he, the newspaper, and the U.S. government reject, to be released to house arrest. He could be sentenced to 20 years in prison if convicted.

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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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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