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The Week In Russia: Lies And Legitimacy


Police officers cover a dead body after two guided bombs hit a large construction supplies store in Kharkiv on May 25.
Police officers cover a dead body after two guided bombs hit a large construction supplies store in Kharkiv on May 25.

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.

The Kremlin sought to undermine Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s legitimacy. Moscow mounted more strikes on Kharkiv, killing more civilians. And the White House reportedly gave Kyiv the green light for limited attacks on targets inside Russia.

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

A 'Tortured Article'

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long acted as if he’s an expert on the history of Ukraine – or, as he has wrongly asserted many times, its lack of a meaningful history distinct from Russia.

He has used this inaccurate version of history to justify the full-scale invasion of Ukraine both before and after he launched it in February 2022, particularly in what one commentator called a “lengthy, tortured article” published seven months earlier. It was part of a series of spoken and written statements in which he used a false version of the past to seek to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Ukraine and its leadership.

Putin has also bent more recent history to serve his argument against Ukraine, falsely claiming that the downfall of Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 – to which Russia responded by seizing Crimea and fomenting war in the Donbas – was the result of a Western-backed coup d’etat.

Now Putin is casting himself as an expert on Ukraine’s current affairs and its constitution as well: At least twice in the past week, he asserted that Zelenskiy is illegitimate because, under normal circumstances, a presidential vote would have been held two months ago. And, he claimed, the incumbent’s authority is not prolonged when elections are canceled under martial law.

So, here’s the formula: First, invade a neighboring nation without provocation, starting the biggest war in Europe since 1945, a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people and devastated a country. Next, say the president of that country is illegitimate because the war you started led to the cancellation of elections.

Absurd, perhaps, and a jaw-dropping piece of attempted gaslighting. Putin, meanwhile, started his fifth Kremlin term this month and has been president or prime minister since August 1999. In 2020, he engineered a change in the Russian Constitution that could keep him in power into 2036.

Mission Accomplished?

But he may have gotten what he wanted: Western media articles treated Putin's remarks in a remarkably straightforward way, as if he was simply airing his opinion on a debate in another country – and as if his opinion on the matter was one that should be taken into account.

Putin’s comments may have also been part of an ongoing effort by the Kremlin to suggest that Russia is potentially open to peace talks but that Ukraine is creating obstacles.

They may also have been meant to play into discussions of the issue in Ukraine, where struggles on the battlefield are causing political tension, and to draw attention away from Russia’s actions in the war itself.

In the last few weeks, those actions include persistent, intensified air attacks on the city of Kharkiv and an offensive on a new front that Russia has opened up by pressing across the border north of the city and seizing territory on the Ukrainian side.

A Policy Shift

In both cases, these attacks are killing soldiers and civilians. In one of the deadliest strikes on a civilian target since the start of the full-scale invasion, a bomb attack killed at least 19 people at a Kharkiv home goods hypermarket full of shoppers on a Saturday.

It was another reminder of how Putin has turned back the clock, erasing years of efforts by people in Ukraine to live normal lives in peace more than 30 years after the country threw off Moscow’s yoke when the U.S.S.R. fell apart and the disastrous Soviet experiment ended after seven calamitous decades.

The attacks in the Kharkiv region turned up the pressure on U.S. President Joe Biden to let Ukraine use U.S. weapons to strike targets inside Russia, something the White House long opposed, citing concerns about potential escalation.

On May 30, multiple media outlets cited U.S. officials as saying on condition of anonymity that the Biden administration has given Ukraine the green light to strike inside Russia, but only near the Kharkiv region.

Politico was the first to report the policy change. Biden “recently directed his team to ensure that Ukraine is able to use U.S.-supplied weapons for counter-fire purposes in the Kharkiv region so Ukraine can hit back against Russian forces that are attacking them or preparing to attack them,” a U.S. official told RFE/RL. “Our policy with respect to prohibiting the use of ATACMS or long-range strikes inside of Russia has not changed.”

The limits to the decision mean it may not be a game changer.

“For this relaxation to have a wider impact on the war, the geographic limitations of the current decision would have to be removed,” military analyst Mick Ryan wrote.

Still, he said, Putin and his advisers “now have just a little bit more uncertainty to consider in their strategic decision-making about their brutal invasion and occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine.”

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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    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.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country and in its war against Ukraine, 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 Apple Podcasts.

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