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The Week In Russia: Carnage And Clampdown 

It's been three years since Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was arrested upon his arrival at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport after recovering abroad from a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning. He's been behind bars ever since.
It's been three years since Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was arrested upon his arrival at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport after recovering abroad from a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning. He's been behind bars ever since.

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.

It’s been three years since Aleksei Navalny’s arrest and almost two since Russia launched an invasion aimed at subjugating Ukraine. Price woes and protests puncture the veneer of stability as an election set to hand President Vladimir Putin six more years in the Kremlin draws closer.

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

Airport Arrest

Three years ago this week, opposition politician Aleksei Navalny returned to Russia after recovering abroad from a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on President Vladimir Putin -- and was quickly detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.

He has been behind bars ever since, and last month was shipped off to a harsh prison above the Arctic Circle to serve a 19-year sentence following convictions on extremism and other charges that he and supporters say are Kremlin-engineered punishment for his political activity.

Anniversaries are arbitrary, of course. But a glance back provides a glimpse of what Putin may have hoped Russia, the region, and even the world would look like today: A Russia in which dissent does not exist, a world in which Moscow controls Ukraine, keeps NATO defanged on its eastern flank, and -- through a variety of levers -- has a major say in matters across Europe and beyond.

The Russian state had been cracking down increasingly hard on the opposition and independent voices for over a decade -- since Putin’s decision to return to the presidency in 2012 after a stint as prime minister became one of the catalysts for a wave of peaceful street protests in 2011-2012.

But Navalny’s arrest on January 17, 2021, marked the start of a new phase in the Kremlin’s clampdown on dissent -- one that kicked into overdrive with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine the following winter, on February 24, 2022.

Navalny’s return to Russia was not inevitable: It seems likely that once he was airlifted to Germany for lifesaving treatment following the poisoning in Siberia in August 2020, the Kremlin wanted him to remain abroad.

But he did return. And there’s speculation that the intensified clampdown that ensued -- encompassing Navalny’s associates and his now-outlawed political network across Russia but also targeting civil society, independent media, and all forms of dissent both real or perceived -- was part of a concerted effort by the state to erase potential sources of opposition to an invasion that was already being planned or at least considered by Putin and his close confidants.

'Impossible To Achieve'

Whether or not that’s the case, once it launched the large-scale invasion, the Russian state also turned the screws even tighter at home, using increasingly repressive legislation to silence criticism as it set about seeking to subjugate Ukraine.

Putin apparently thought that goal could be achieved within days or weeks -- a massive miscalculation.

“[T]he Russian government’s objectives were unrealistic from the start and impossible to achieve almost as soon as the fighting started,” Ruth Deyermond, a senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London,” wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on December 31.

Nearly two years later, the war grinds on. Each side has suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties, but neither has made a substantial advance in recent months along the 1,200-kilometer front line running through eastern and southern Ukraine.

Russia controls Crimea and substantial parts of four other Ukrainian regions -- in all, about 20 percent of the country. Moscow had already held much of that territory before the full-scale invasion, however, and over the course of 2022 its forces retreated from much of the land they had taken in the initial onslaught.

Meanwhile, Russian war goals such as establishing a pro-Moscow government in Kyiv and ending NATO military activity in Eastern Europe -- a reversal of some of the main results of the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s collapse -- are further from reach than they were before February 2022.

The War At Home

Domestically, the Kremlin seems to have made more progress toward its apparent goals -- at least when it comes to suppressing dissent.

The government has gutted civil society, outlawing or ordering the closure of such respected outfits as the Moscow Helsinki Group and Memorial, a highly respected human rights and historical truth advocacy group. It has chased opposition politicians and independent media outlets out of the country. It has persecuted LGBT Russians, stepping up restrictive laws and declaring what it describes as the "international LGBT social movement" an extremist organization. It has jailed prominent Kremlin opponents for years on what critics say are woefully unjust charges of treason, extremism, and other crimes. Lesser-known Russians who oppose the war have also been imprisoned for years -- like Aleksandra Skochilenko, a St. Petersburg artist who received a seven-year sentence for replacing tags in a grocery store with information about the invasion of Ukraine.

There were no major anti-war or anti-Kremlin protests in 2023, and Russia has weathered Western sanctions imposed over the invasion more successfully than many expected, at least for the time being.

But a wide array of incidents and developments has poked holes in the veneer of stability applied strenuously by the state, exposing potentially deepening problems as the country heads toward a March presidential election that, given the Kremlin’s sway over the media and its choke hold on politics nationwide, Putin is certain to win barring some massively unexpected development.

Last summer, Putin faced a major challenge when Wagner mercenary group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin staged a mutiny in late June, accusing Russia of mishandling the war against Ukraine, and his forces marched to within 200 kilometers of Moscow before a murky agreement ended their advance. Prigozhin was killed two months later in a plane crash that many believe was a Kremlin-organized assassination, but the mutiny pointed up problems posed by his decision to invade Ukraine and by the continuing war.

Colossal Costs

The cost of the war to Russian citizens is colossal, ranging from economic problems to the death of family members at the front and a surge in violent crimes committed by former inmates who have been pardoned and released in exchange for fighting in Ukraine, among other effects.

Both the Wagner mutiny and high casualty count underscore the consequences of a war that will require hundreds of thousands more soldiers unless it is halted soon, something that seems highly unlikely. Demonstrations by Russians who want their relatives to be sent home from the front point up potential political troubles for Putin if he orders another military call-up like the massive mobilization he decreed in September 2022, which prompted many to flee the country.

More mundane problems also plague Russia.

At an end-of-the-year press conference and question-and-answer session that was televised live in December, Putin began with an glowing assessment of the economy, as he often does, but later found it necessary to apologize for the high price of eggs, a reflection of inflationary pressure on Russians’ pocketbooks.

In the New Year, cold winter weather and crumbling infrastructure have combined to cause dangerous water-main breaks, power cuts, and heating problems in a country that the Kremlin has put on a war footing at the expense of quality of life for its citizens.

And while protests are rare, thousands of people rallied repeatedly this week in the Bashkortostan region in defense of Fail Alsynov, the former leader of a now-banned group that advocated for the rights of ethnic Bashkirs and the preservation of their language and culture.

On January 17, police forcibly dispersed a protest outside the courthouse where Alsynov was convicted of inciting hatred and sentenced to four years in prison in a trial that followed an investigation initiated by the Kremlin-backed regional leader, Radiy Khabirov.

Activists from the Bashkir community and other minority groups in Russia say the Kremlin and regional governments are violating their rights and have increasingly sought to marginalize their languages and cultures.

Navalny, three years after his airport arrest, was characteristically defiant and upbeat.

“Putin’s state is not viable” and eventually “will collapse and crumble,” he said in a thread on his X account. “One day we will look at its place and it will be gone.”

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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The Week In Russia

If you're interested in Russia, you'll love Steve Gutterman's The Week In Russia.

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