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The Week In Russia: Wavering In The West, Horror In Ukraine

Flowers and a teddy bear are left at the site of the deadly strike in Hroza in Ukraine's Kharkiv region, which killed at least 51 people, including a child.
Flowers and a teddy bear are left at the site of the deadly strike in Hroza in Ukraine's Kharkiv region, which killed at least 51 people, including a child.

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.

Boris Yeltsin's fateful decision. Vladimir Putin's last hope. A deadly missile strike in Ukraine.

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

Political Animal

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin seems to have little use for politics, or at least for the kind of politics that is driven by actual competition and open debate over domestic and foreign policy.

When Boris Yeltsin handed him Russia's reins on New Year's Eve in 1999, Putin inherited a system that had been compromised by some of the watershed events of the previous decade: Yeltsin's decision to end a standoff with opponents 30 years ago this week by shelling the parliament building, for one, and the 1996 election that handed the hard-drinking leader a new term despite flagging stamina and heart trouble that led to a quintuple bypass operation that November.

Armed with the powers of a strong presidency under the constitution that was adopted in December 1993, in the wake of the violence that October, Putin proceeded to consolidate power and suppress dissent, increasing state control over the broadcast media and moving to push genuine opponents out of legislatures and government offices at all levels.

Nearly 24 years after his rise to the highest office, Putin presides over a political system in which all branches of government do his bidding and the once-raucous State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, has long been in something close to lockstep with the Kremlin.

Boris Gryzlov, the former interior minister who served for years as Duma speaker and head of the ruling United Russia party, once said parliament was no place for "political battles."

When it comes to Western countries, it's a different story: Putin's Russia clearly welcomes political battles -- and seeks to provoke them when the Kremlin believes it can benefit. A Washington Post report from 2018 said that Russia had tried to influence 16 elections in the West since 2015, including Britain's Brexit vote, but that it was "not at all clear that Russia's efforts made any difference."

Russia's march to war in the weeks and days before Putin launched the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 showcased the scale of the suppression of dissent. In televised meetings with senior officials, Putin made clear that misgivings about what many analysts outside Russia say was a decision that went sharply against national security interests would be ridiculed, ignored, or both.

Almost 20 months later, after failing to seize Kyiv, suffering numerous battlefield setbacks, and losing large swaths of the territory its forces had overrun, Russia is still fighting a war that Putin is widely believed to have expected would be over -- in Moscow's favor, with Ukraine subjugated -- within weeks. And now, many analysts say his best or only hope of achieving a victory of any kind is a substantial decrease in Western support for Ukraine.

While the Kremlin's response has been muted and the future is hard to predict, in part because of the unpredictability of those very same political battles, signs suggesting the chances of that happening have emerged in recent days in both Europe and the United States.

Both Sides Now

In Slovakia on September 30, voters handed a party that has promised to stop military supplies to Ukraine a plurality of the vote in an election that is likely to return former Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has employed anti-Ukrainian rhetoric, praised Moscow, and questioned the logic of European Union sanctions against Russia, to power.

Near the end of that same day, in Washington, funding for financial, military, and other aid to Ukraine was abandoned in a push to pass last-minute legislation on spending and avert a shutdown of the U.S. government -- though that threat will return in mid-November.

Adding to the uncertainty, the Republican now-former speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy -- whom Democratic U.S. President Joe Biden said he was counting on to come through and deliver legislation extending supplies of air defenses and arms to Ukraine soon -- was ousted on October 3 in a bitter political battle that cast the lower legislative chamber into chaos this week.

McCarthy's removal -- instigated by hard-right Republican lawmakers and supported by Democrats when it came to a vote -- left the House without a speaker for an unknown amount of time, leaving the fate of further aid to Ukraine even more uncertain that it had been the day before. Biden said the disarray was source of concern when it comes to the $24 billion in additional aid to Ukraine he has been seeking.

"It does worry me...but I know there are a majority of members of the House and Senate in both parties who have said that they support funding Ukraine," Biden said.

The White House said on October 3 that current funding levels would last about two more months, Reuters reported.

'A World Of More War'

Biden moved to assuage concerns among allies in a call to other Western leaders the same day. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who visited the United States and Canada last month, met with European leaders at a summit in Spain on October 5 in an effort to shore up support ad secure more military aid.

At home, Biden indicated he would deliver a speech soon in which he would "make the argument that it is overwhelmingly in the interests of the United States of America that Ukraine succeed" -- something analysts have said is important as concerns about popular support rise and the campaign for the November 2024 presidential election, which could well be a rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump, draws closer.

Biden should "make the national-interest case" for the continuation of robust support for Ukraine, and "that case is clear," Sam Greene, a professor of Russian politics at King's College London, wrote in a blog post on October 1.

"A world in which Ukraine loses this war is not just one in which big powers can invade their neighbors with impunity: it is also one in which smaller powers will feel increasingly insecure, sparking arms races and militarized competition around the globe," Greene wrote. "It will be a world of more war and more forced migration, less trade and less prosperity."

'Absolutely Horrifying'

In Ukraine, meanwhile, the Russian onslaught continued, underscoring what Kyiv and its backers say is a starkly clear moral case for strong international support. Ukraine's goal is to push Russian forces out of the country, including the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

Ukrainian authorities said at least 51 people, including a 6-year-old child, were killed in a Russian attack that struck a village in the eastern Kharkiv region where dozens were gathered for what eyewitnesses said was a memorial ceremony for a soldier from the area on October 5.

Zelenskiy called it a "deliberate missile strike...on an ordinary store and café."

It was one of the deadliest single incidents since the start of the full-scale invasion -- and also since the beginning of the war against Russian-backed forces in the Donbas in 2014, when Moscow seized Crimea and stoked anti-Kyiv sentiment across Ukraine's east and south.

"I am appalled by the reports of a Russian strike that...ripped apart the village of Hroza, in the Kharkiv region, killing dozens of civilians," said Denise Brown, the UN humanitarian envoy for Ukraine. "The images arriving from the locality -- home to just above 300 people -- are absolutely horrifying."

At the scene of the strike, dead bodies lay strewn on the ground.

Tetyana Lukashova, a local resident, said that her daughter and son-in-law were killed, along with her son-in-law's mother.

"We heard explosions and came here," she told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. "My grandson came and said there's no one alive here."

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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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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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.

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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