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Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out repeatedly at the United States and the European Union in a speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 17.

At an annual economic forum in St. Petersburg, President Vladimir Putin sought to justify the invasion of Ukraine and portray Russia as a constructive force in the world. But the destruction and death continued, Moscow faced accusations of exacerbating world hunger, and Ukraine took a step toward joining the European Union.

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

Behind The Scenes

St. Petersburg is Putin’s hometown, and it’s also the site of some of his most assiduous image-making -- at once stage, set, and prop for events he has used, over nearly 23 years as president or prime minister, to showcase Russia and his rule.

The columns, churches, and canals of the city at the eastern edge of the Baltic Sea, and its history as Tsar Peter the Great’s “window on the West,” make a beautiful backdrop for Putin’s efforts to portray Russia as a modern country that is open for business – and as a power that deserves a say, or even sway, in European and global affairs.

But over the years, the showcase events have been marred by what is not on show, by what is happening offstage, behind the scenes.

In May 2003, Putin hosted foreign leaders at tricentennial celebrations that aimed, an Associated Press reporter wrote at the time, “to promote Russia as a cornerstone of the international community and restore St. Petersburg's glory after decades of Soviet-era decline.”

But behind the freshly painted facades, another Russia lurked: Invisible from the street, the courtyards of the city’s apartment buildings remained a mess, and squalor persisted in the communal apartments in the stately old structures downtown and in the dilapidated Soviet-era housing projects further out.

Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia was still in an early stage of development. For example, this was five months before the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose imprisonment was one of the most prominent symbols of Putin’s rule. It was about nine months before a brutal hate crime that showed an ugly side of the country: the fatal stabbing of Khursheda Sultanova, a 9-year-old girl of Tajik ethnicity, in one of the courtyards of St. Petersburg. And it was a more than a year before Putin, after suicide bombers brought down two passenger jets and militants staged a deadly attack on a school in the southern town of Beslan, curtailed civil rights and political pluralism in what would turn out to be a step in a clampdown that has continued -- and escalated, in many ways -- to this day.

Ten years later, in September 2013, Putin hosted a Group of 20 (G20) summit at an Imperial-era palace outside St. Petersburg.

Ten Years After

The tenor of ties with the West was much changed from 2003: U.S. President Barack Obama’s “reset” with Moscow had soured amid a growing number of disputes over issues including NATO strikes on Libya in 2011, the war in Syria, and the further curtailment of rights and democracy in Russia.

Putin, who publicly accused the United States of inciting a wave of street protests among Russians angry over evidence of election fraud and dismayed at his return to the presidency, was back in the Kremlin after a four-year stint as prime minister.

Putin’s government was pursuing charges against alleged participants in a protest at which police clashed with protesters on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on the eve of his inauguration in May 2012 -- a wave of prosecutions that set the stage for the mounting clampdown that has marked Putin’s last two terms.

Opposition politician Aleksei Navalny had been sentenced to five years in prison that July after a politically charged trial, but the sentence was suspended hours later, enabling him to run in the Moscow mayoral election in September, a few days after the G20 summit.

Over the years, meanwhile, the main event Putin has used to court investment and portray Russia as a leading player in the world economy and the global community has been the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, which he has attended every year since 2005.

He did so again last week, lashing out repeatedly at the United States and the European Union in his address on June 17 and asserting that Russia is building a “new world order,” but hitting some of the same notes he has at past editions of the event -- this time courting countries outside the West.

Russia’s “first principle is openness,” he claimed, adding that it will “never follow the road of self-isolation” and, on the contrary, is “expanding cooperation with all those who are interested in it, who want to work with us, and will continue to do so.”

This time, the other Russia that remained off stage, behind the curtain, went far beyond the courtyards of St. Petersburg: It extended across the country, where the state stepped up its clampdown on civil society, independent media, and all forms of dissent in 2020 and has ramped it up further since Putin launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine four months ago.

Navalny, arrested upon his return to Russia in January 2021 following treatment abroad for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin, is now serving a nine-year sentence on what he calls absurd, politically motivated charges, and was moved this month to a high-security penitentiary where his relatives and supporters fear for his life.

Altered States

The war on Ukraine has swiftly changed Russia, resulting in unprecedented Western sanctions and the withdrawal of countless companies such as McDonald’s, Nike, and Ikea, and economic troubles that promise to be lasting and severe. Tens of thousands of Russians have left the country, fearing for their future in their isolated homeland, disgusted by the war, or both.

And, of course, the other Russia has extended to Ukraine itself, where the unprovoked invasion has killed thousands of people, forced millions from their homes -- many of them now destroyed as Moscow’s military has bombarded cities and towns nationwide -- and caused incalculable suffering, with more to come.

Putin mentioned the war in Ukraine in his address at the forum, but only to repeat his attempts to justify it without providing evidence to support his arguments -- and in some cases relying on outright falsehoods, such as his claim that Kyiv has been committing genocide in the eastern Donbas region.

Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has left a trail of devastation in its wake.
Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has left a trail of devastation in its wake.

Starting with his insistence on calling the war a “special military operation to liberate the Donbas,” there was a deep disconnect between Putin’s remarks and the reality of the devastation Russia has wreaked upon Ukraine.

Mariupol, a largely Russian-speaking Donbas city of 450,000 people before the February invasion, has been razed by Russian bombardments and street battles. Fierce fighting is now ravaging other parts of the Donbas as Russia presses to advance in the region. Some residents have been forcibly evacuated to Russia, and survivors have given numerous accounts of the horrors of the assault.

Trail Of Destruction

The same is true of other areas that have been attacked or held by Russian forces, whom Ukraine has accused of committing war crimes in various parts of the country including towns and cities around Kyiv and to the north, where the invading army left a trail of destruction and alleged atrocities as it retreated after failing to take the capital.

Russia is accused of blocking exports of grain from Ukraine, exacerbating what many call a global food crisis. A war against a country whose people Putin has claimed are “one” with Russians has brought Ukrainians together as never before and is likely to leave ties between the two countries in tatters for decades or more.

Ukraine, along with Moldova, was granted European Union candidate status on June 23, at an EU summit. Sweden and Finland, which shares a long border with Russia, have applied for NATO membership and may join the Western military alliance this year.

And Russians, three decades after the life-altering turmoil of the Soviet Union’s collapse, face a protracted period of deep uncertainty -- economic and otherwise -- once again.

A Strange Showcase In St. Petersburg
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At an annual economic forum that was once his window on the West, President Vladimir Putin lashed out at Washington and repeated baseless claims in an effort to justify the invasion of Ukraine. Irina Lagunina, associate standards editor at RFE/RL, joins host Steve Gutterman to discuss.

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About This Newsletter

Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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