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The Week In Russia: Mud, Blood, And An 'Empire Of Spite' 

Emergency service personnel work at the site of a destroyed building in Odesa on July 20 after Russia pounded the Ukrainian port city with drones and missiles for a third consecutive night.
Emergency service personnel work at the site of a destroyed building in Odesa on July 20 after Russia pounded the Ukrainian port city with drones and missiles for a third consecutive night.

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.

Scuttling a deal that helped feed the hungry, Russia attacked Odesa and a Ukrainian port 200 meters from NATO territory. President Vladimir Putin mixed threats against Poland with twisted history. Aleksei Navalny, already imprisoned, faced a verdict that could hand him two more decades behind bars.

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

Horrible Histories

In the months before he launched the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin stepped up his efforts to denigrate that country in the eyes of the world, twisting centuries of its history and suggesting that it should not exist at all unless it is roped tightly to Russia.

Putin’s remarks, including a July 2021 article with the sweepingly presumptuous title On The Historical Unity Of Russians And Ukrainians, coincided roughly with an increasingly massive military buildup on Ukraine’s borders.

Seven months after its publication, Putin moved to seize what he falsely claimed had essentially been stolen, sending the military across the border to subjugate Ukraine -- a campaign that failed spectacularly in its first months, as Russian forces were driven back from Kyiv’s outskirts, but is still continuing today with no sign of an end anytime soon.

While Putin seems obsessed with Ukraine above all, his penchant for bending history goes beyond its borders. Lately he has turned his attention to Poland, a NATO member that borders Russia and -- despite a history of tense ties with Ukraine -- has staunchly supported its defense against Moscow’s onslaught.

At a meeting of his Security Council on July 21, Putin said that in 1939, Poland “was thrown to the German war machine and formally lost its independence and statehood, which were restored in large part thanks to the Soviet Union” – neglecting to mention that the Soviet Union invaded Poland that year as well, after Stalin and Hitler forged a pact paving the way for attacks from the west and east.

Putin said that “western Polish territories are Stalin's gift to Poland” and threatened to give Warsaw “a reminder” of this nonfact. He also repeated a baseless claim that has been made numerous times by Russian officials and lawmakers in recent years, suggesting that Polish leaders want to “tear off a good chunk of Ukraine for themselves” and that “they dream of Belarusian lands, too.”

He added that any attack on Belarus would be considered an attack on Russia, which would respond with “all means at our disposal.”

Putin’s remarks were echoed by a chorus of Kremlin-connected pundits and public figures, and Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka got into the act. As if on cue, he claimed that Wagner fighters who have apparently traveled to Belarus since the mercenary group’s short-lived mutiny in Russia last month were eager to push across the border into NATO member Poland.

Big In Belarus

"The Wagner guys have started to stress us. They want to go west…on a trip to Warsaw and Rzeszow'," Lukashenka said on July 23.

What does all this mean? Maybe not much, despite appearances, though it does seem to point to the possibility that Moscow could stage a false-flag operation to test NATO, whose members have provided increasingly powerful weapons to Ukraine but have avoided direct involvement in the war.

It also could be a way -- on top of sending tactical nuclear weapons and Wagner mercenaries -- for the Kremlin to tighten its grip on Belarus, which is the closest thing Moscow has to an ally, and to warn Lukashenka that he has little freedom of movement.

And it could be intended to divert Ukraine’s attention – and maybe some of its troops – away from the front lines in the south and east, where Kyiv’s forces are pushing ahead with a crucial counteroffensive they launched in early June.

Meanwhile, amid the Kremlin’s evidence-free talk of potential mayhem on Poland’s borders with Belarus and Ukraine, Russia has repeatedly attacked Odesa, Ukraine’s main Black Sea port, after scuttling a UN-brokered corridor agreement that for a year had allowed for the safe shipment of Ukrainian grain across to the Bosphorus and then to destinations around the world.

Using missiles and drones, Russia has attacked port installations and grain storage facilities in and around Odesa and Mykolayiv, further east. Early on July 24, Russia unleashed a massive drone strike on the Danube River port of Reni, about 200 meters from NATO member Romania on the opposite shore.

'Odesa Hates You'

But the attacks have not been limited to targets linked to the grain trade. Russia has hit residential areas and numerous cultural sites in Odesa, whose historical center is a UNESCO World Heritage property. An overnight attack on July 23 badly damaged the Transfiguration Cathedral, Odesa’s largest Christian house of worship and part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church branch long affiliated with the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church.

The attacks have rendered Putin’s claim that Moscow is protecting Russian-speakers even more ridiculous than it already was and have fueled increasing anger at the attackers in a city where connections with Russia have traditionally been strong.

“If you only knew how much Odesa hates you,” the city’s mayor, Hennadiy Trukhanov, who was highly sympathetic to Russia in the past, said in a video posted on Telegram. “You are fighting against small children, Orthodox churches…. You will not break us, but only make us angrier."

“An Empire of Spite” was how Eugene Finkel, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in the United States, described Russia following the attack that damaged the cathedral.

The near-daily strikes over the past week are far from the first Russian attack on Odesa since the full-scale invasion began on February 24, 2022. Two months after that, a Russian missile attack on Odesa killed eight people in an apartment building including a 28-year-old woman, her mother, and her 3-year-old daughter.

Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain deal did further damage to the country’s image, which was already badly harmed by the death and destruction it has inflicted in the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on July 17 that Russia’s decision would “strike a blow to people in need everywhere” at a time when “hundreds of millions of people face hunger and consumers are confronting a global cost-of-living crisis.

On July 25, the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund said that grain prices could increase by 10-15 percent following Russia’s pullout.

'Stupid And Senseless'

Putin sought to court support among African nations at a summit in St. Petersburg on July 27-28, but the outcome was unclear. Far fewer heads of state and government were in attendance than at the previous summit, in 2019.

At the summit, Putin claimed that Moscow seeks to “actively participate in building a fairer system of distribution of resources,” asserted that said Russia is capable of replacing Ukrainian grain exports to Africa, and said it would be ready to start supplying grain for free to six African countries in three or four months.

Guterres was unimpressed, saying that process will rise as “millions and millions of tons of grain” are taken out of the market. He said that “a handful of donations to some countries would not "correct this dramatic impact that affects everybody, everywhere."

In Russia, meanwhile, the clampdown on dissent that was intense for a decade but gathered more force following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine continued.

In a trial behind closed doors on extremism and other charges that supporters dismiss as politically motivated and absurd, Putin’s most prominent foe, Aleksei Navalny, heard the state prosecutor call for a conviction and a 20-year sentence.

Navalny, 47, is already serving prison sentences of nine years and 2 1/2 years on previous convictions that he also rejects. He has been behind bars since he returned to Russia in January 2021 after treatment in Germany for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on Putin and the Federal Security Service.

In a “last word” in court that was posted on social media as the trial wound down, Navalny said that Russia “is floundering in a pool of…mud or blood, with broken bones, with a poor population that has been robbed, and [with] tens of thousands who have died in the most stupid and senseless war of the 21st century.”

The verdict is expected on August 4.

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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