Six months after the February 24 invasion, a deadly rocket attack on Independence Day throws the horror of Russia’s war on Ukraine into stark relief -- again. A pair of apparent car bombings underscored the vulnerabilities of the state that’s on the offensive, and the clampdown sweeping Russia continues.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
Sovereignty At Stake
For the victims of a Russian rocket attack that Ukrainian authorities say killed at least 25 people at a train station in the southeast, of course, it makes no difference that the missile strike came on Independence Day, August 24. And for grieving relatives, it probably doesn’t matter much, either, if at all.
But the attack, which was one of the deadliest since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, served as a sickening reminder of what may be his primary goal: to end the country’s independence and, in doing so, turn back the clock and reverse a crucial element of the Soviet collapse in 1991.
It’s an aim that is particularly striking in light of the fact that Russia not only accepted Ukrainian independence but effectively withdrew from the Soviet Union simultaneously with Ukraine back then: Both republics, along with Belarus, signed the December 1991 deal whose preface declared that the U.S.S.R. would now “cease to exist.”
That agreement, the Belavezha Accords, came a week after Ukrainians, voting their support following an August 24 declaration by the legislature, overwhelmingly approved independence in a December 1 referendum.
The February invasion followed numerous warning signs from Putin making clear that he does not believe Ukraine has the right to sovereignty -- or at least wants the world to think he does not believe it. These included a series of published articles and remarks about the country in the months before the assault, as well as similar comments going back more than a decade.
For about three months before the invasion, Putin appeared to attempt to get what he wanted by threat of force or perhaps to justify an invasion he already knew he would launch. Russia amassed tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s borders and issuing sweeping demands to the United States and NATO that, if fulfilled, would have deprived Kyiv of a large measure of its sovereignty.
The demands went far beyond Ukraine and, among other things, would have restricted the freedom of former Warsaw Pact countries now in NATO to make their own decisions on military policy. Moscow was abruptly calling, in effect, for a rollback of the some of the main results of the Soviet collapse and the Cold War.
After weeks of diplomacy during which the United States and NATO signaled that they could discuss some of the issues at hand but that some of the demands were unacceptable, and in which Washington warned that Russia might be about to invade Ukraine, Russia did just that.
Six months later, there’s no end in sight -- despite Putin’s apparent expectation that it would be over, in Moscow’s favor, in a few days.
Blows To Russia
Meanwhile, recent weeks have brought persistent concerns about the situation surrounding the largest nuclear power plant on the European continent, in the Zaporizhzhya region, as well as several reminders of some of Russia’s vulnerabilities.
On August 9, explosions at a Russian air base on the occupied Crimean Peninsula dealt a fresh blow to Moscow. It came four months after the sinking of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and amid questions about whether Russian forces can hold the territory they have seized in southern Ukraine.
Earlier this week, the Moscow-imposed mayor of the Russian-occupied town of Mykhaylivka, in the Zaporizhzhya region, was killed by a car-bomb blast, according to another pro-Russian figure.
Ivan Sushko’s death appeared to be evidence of the resistance Russia is facing as it seeks to consolidate control over parts of the Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions that it has taken control of since the February 24 invasion.
In what Russian authorities say was also a car bombing, Darya Dugina, the daughter of prominent far-right ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, was killed outside Moscow on August 20.
Both father and daughter have been vocal supporters of Russian aggression against Ukraine, and both have been hit with sanctions by the United States and other Western countries.
Putin has sometimes echoed Aleksandr Dugin’s aggressive language ----- about Russian expansion and the fate of Ukraine going back to 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and helped separatist forces seize control of parts of the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas.
‘The Kremlin’s Myth Of Competence’
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) swiftly announced that that it solved the case and, as expected, pointed the finger at Ukraine. But there were holes in the FSB’s story, and numerous analysts focused on the possibility that it could have been the result of infighting among rival factions within Russia.
R.Politik, an analytical organization headed by Russian expert Tatyana Stanovaya, wrote on Twitter that Dugina’s death would “increase dissatisfaction with the authorities in conservative circles” whose members believe Putin is not radical or aggressive enough.
“Putin's future decisions may look weak and less legitimate to a shocked conservative part of the elite and society,” R.Politik wrote. “Dugina's assassination creates conditions in which a political demand for a more radicalized political leadership than Putin himself is formed. And the Kremlin will not be able to meet it.”
Analyst and author Mark Galeotti also suggested that Dugina’s death and the FSB’s claim about how it occurred would add to the ire of nationalists who are unhappy with Putin and his government, saying that allowing the suspect to carry out the attack and flee to Estonia without a hitch “would suggest a pretty major failure” on the part of the Interior Ministry and the FSB.
“This is, after all, central to the nationalist critique of Putin -- that for all his macho managerialism, he is actually a poor champion of Russian interests, irresolute, corrupt and incompetent,” Galeotti wrote on Twitter, adding that he suspects Dugina’s death and the aftermath will be “corrosive for the Kremlin's myth of competence and narrative of victory.”
The state’s efforts to quash any other narrative continued.
‘You Are An Outcast’
On August 24, the popular former Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Roizman, one of the most prominent Kremlin critics who has not been jailed or fled the country, was detained and accused of discrediting the armed forces, facing charges under legislation the state has used to quash public opposition to the war and stifle other dissent since shortly after the invasion.
Roizman was released on his own recognizance a day later in a court decision that may reflect Kremlin concern that his jailing could spark protests, but he was barred from using the Internet, telephones, or mail and from attending public events as his case proceeds.
Opposition politician Konstantin Yankauskas, a member of a Moscow district council, faces a similar charge, apparently over a post in March in which he mentioned a prayer by Pope Francis for peace in Ukraine.
Among Russian opponents of the war, hopes for substantial protests by like-minded people have all but disappeared under the onslaught of the authorities. More than 16,400 people have been detained for expressing anti-war views since February 24, according to the monitoring group OVD-Info, a large majority of them in the first few weeks following the invasion.
In 2021, during demonstrations in support of now-imprisoned Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny, there was “some vague hope” that activism could make a difference, a 19-year-old student in the southern city of Astrakhan who asked to be identified only by the name Dilara for fear of repercussions, told RFE/RL.
"But now, I don't see anything like that,” she said. “There is a complete sense of helplessness, that we have no rights, no influence. If you are against the war, you are an outcast."
Editor's Note: The next edition of The Week In Russia will appear on September 9.