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Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia

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.

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.

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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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