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The Week In Russia: Word Games, War Games

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow on February 7.

Once again, Russian President Vladimir Putin displayed his ability to offend by uttering a controversial remark about Ukraine. Regardless of how he intended it to come across, his comment added to the pressure Moscow is piling on Kyiv -- and pointed to a possible pretext for a new military offensive against Ukraine, a neighbor Putin seems determined to pull back into the Russian fold.

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

Rhyme And Reason?

Over more than two decades in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been known for his frequent use of punchy, often risqué or off-color wording, sometimes to underscore a point or amplify a threat, and sometimes seemingly just to impress anyone within earshot -- whether it's a group of men at a table or a much larger TV audience.

In September 1999, just weeks into what has turned into more than 22 years as president or prime minister, there was his vow to "rub out" terrorists "in the outhouse."

Seven years later, he praised Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who was accused of raping several staff members and was later convicted on two counts of rape as well as indecent assault and sexual harassment: "What a mighty man he turns out to be! He raped 10 women," Russian media quoted Putin as saying after microphones were switched off at a Kremlin meeting. "We all envy him."

"We all envy him."
"We all envy him."

The issue of rape came up again this week, when Putin used the following words at a Kremlin meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, who was in Moscow as part of a flurry of diplomacy aimed, from the Western side, at averting what intelligence agencies fear could be a new and potentially large-scale Russian offensive against Ukraine: "Like it or not, my beauty, [you must] put up with it."

A number of Russians immediately recognized a variation on a line from a 1990s punk-rock song that clearly references a violent act of necrophilia. Others saw a far less sick or sinister interpretation, saying it was a phrase teachers and parents sometimes used -- including long before the 1990s -- to tell children that they would have to do something they would rather not do.

The Donbas Factor

That's how the Kremlin soon began spinning it. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 8 that he was pretty sure Putin, 69, was unaware of the punk song, and that the band probably borrowed the phrase from Russian folklore. Putin himself came about as close as he ever does to issuing an apology, saying on February 10 that there was no "personal" connotation in his remark -- while accusing Ukraine of foot-dragging on a deal to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

And that's the thing. The brief rhyme may speak volumes about Putin's mindset, his attitudes, and his personality -- though much of that may already have been pretty obvious from his remarks about Katsav more than 15 years ago. But what matters most in the end is the substance behind it: Putin's intentions toward Ukraine, not his choice of a phrase or a signaling strategy.

While his true intentions cannot be known, Putin made clear that at least on the surface, he meant to convey something that he and other Russian officials have conveyed many times: That Moscow wants the Minsk 2 agreement -- a February 2015 pact aimed at ending the war between Kyiv and Moscow-backed separatists who hold parts of the Donbas -- to be implemented in accordance with the Kremlin's interpretation of the agreement.

A Ukrainian soldier mans a heavy machine gun at a frontline position in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, where the conflict continues after almost eight years.
A Ukrainian soldier mans a heavy machine gun at a frontline position in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, where the conflict continues after almost eight years.

The Kremlin's interpretation of the deal and the sequencing of the steps it calls on Russia and Ukraine to take clashes with Kyiv's in a fundamental fashion.

While Moscow says that the United States and European countries must pressure to Kyiv to implement Minsk 2, Ukraine and the United States say the onus is on Russia, which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, in an interview with RFE/RL late last month, has reneged on its commitments under the agreement "to a much greater extent than Ukraine has."

Russia could potentially use that deep disagreement as another potential pretext for a new offensive against Ukraine, should it decide -- or already has decided -- to launch one.

Russian officials have repeatedly said they have no plans to invade Ukraine. But surrounding the country on three sides with more than 100,000 troops while demanding that NATO shut its doors to Ukraine, Georgia, and other former Soviet republics forever -- and pull back any forces deployed in Central and Eastern Europe after May 1997 -- represents an implicit threat.

Putin made it more explicit on December 21, when he said that if Russia's wishes were ignored it might take "military-technical" measures.

Creating Options

That comment came in the context of the "security concerns" laid out in the form of draft treaties that the Russian Foreign Ministry sent to the United States and NATO in December, setting in motion a tense diplomatic dance that Moscow could abruptly end at any moment by declaring it is displeased with its partner's steps and replacing words with the use of force.

While the diplomacy continues, Putin has already set the stage for that potential shift by declaring that the West has ignored Moscow's core concerns.

Meanwhile, with the Russian military piling more pressure on Ukraine almost every day now, including by staging joint military exercises just north of Ukraine in Belarus, the Kremlin has been drawing increasing attention in the past two weeks to Minsk 2 and the unresolved conflict in the Donbas -- the subject of inconclusive nine-hour talks in Berlin, in the so-called Normandy Format, on February 10.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left to right), German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a joint news conference after a Normandy Format summit in Paris in December 2019.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left to right), German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a joint news conference after a Normandy Format summit in Paris in December 2019.

It's as if Moscow, having focused for weeks on dramatic geopolitical demands levelled at the United States and NATO, is now opening a second front -- giving itself the option of citing a lack of progress toward implementation of Minsk 2, accusing Kyiv and the West of recalcitrance, and asserting that it is being forced to resort to force. An attack, in other words, cast as reaction rather than aggression.

That's how Moscow portrayed its seizure of Crimea and support for separatists at the start of the war that has killed more than 13,200 people in the Donbas since 2014. And it's an approach that Russian officials, in their repeated statements that no invasion of Ukraine is planned, have seemed careful not to rule out in 2022.

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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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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.

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