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The Week In Russia: Who's The Extremist?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov near Moscow in June 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov near Moscow in June 2018.

With the threat of a major military escalation still looming, the United States and NATO have responded to Russia's demands for sweeping restrictions on the Western alliance -- but how will Russia respond to the response?

Also, COVID cases skyrocket, Aleksei Navalny is put on a list of "terrorists and extremists," and an apparent abduction casts a stark spotlight on President Vladimir Putin's man in Chechnya -- again.

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

War Or Peace

During the flurry of diplomacy that ensued after Moscow leveled sweeping security demands at the United States and NATO last month, Russian officials have repeatedly warned the West not to drag out the process of talks.

Six days after Russia announced its demands in the form of draft treaties with Washington and the Western military alliance on December 17, President Vladimir Putin said they must be addressed "immediately."

But while the United States has made clear it wants to keep the diplomacy going given the possible alternative, Russia -- which has amassed an estimated 100,000 troops or more near Ukraine's borders, implicitly threatening to use them to get its way while denying it has any intention of doing so -- also appears in no hurry to stop talking, at least for now.

Earlier in January, the end of a series of meetings between Moscow and the West seemed like a likely time for the question haunting a wide swath of the world for months -- will Russia launch a new offensive targeting Ukraine? -- to be answered.

Later, it seemed like the answer could come after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on January 18, or after the United States and NATO provided written responses to the Russian demands, as Moscow insisted they do.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before their meeting in Geneva on January 21.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before their meeting in Geneva on January 21.

After those responses were handed over on January 26, however, it soon became clear that the elusive moment of truth -- if there is to be one -- was not a hand.

"I maintain that the only person who can tell you what the Kremlin endgame is is President Putin. I don't think anyone else knows," Blinken told RFE/RL in an interview the following day. "And he may not even know at this point because what he's done in the past, and what I believe animates the way he approaches things, is to create as many options as possible."

Russian officials and diplomats gave the U.S. and NATO responses a tentative thumbs-down, with Putin's spokesman saying the responses provided "not too much cause for optimism," but they made no move to close the door on diplomacy.

Lavrov, in fact, suggested talks could continue. He panned Washington's refusal to give in on the "main question" -- Moscow's call for binding guarantees that NATO will never expand further to the east and will reverse deployments made since 1997. At the same time, he said the U.S. response "enables us to count on a serious discussion, but [only] on the secondary issues."

'Twisted, Grousing'

Given concerns that Moscow might use the formal rejection of its demands on NATO expansion and deployments as a pretext for military action, some observers saw such remarks as a relatively good sign.

"There was no chance the Kremlin would welcome US/NATO proposals short of surrender," Daniel Fried, a retired U.S. diplomat who is now a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, wrote on Twitter on January 27. "So this twisted, grousing initial Kremlin response is the most positive we could have expected."

But it was only an initial response. Russian officials will study the U.S. and NATO responses and report to Putin, who will then "make a decision on our further steps," Lavrov said. He gave no time frame, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it "would be foolish to expect it as early as next week."

And in new comments on January 28, Lavrov stopped far short of ruling out military action: "We don't want wars, but we also will not allow our interests to be rudely trampled upon or ignored," he said.

Russian T-72B3 main battle tanks take part in drills held by the armed forces of the Southern Military District at the Kadamovsky range in the Rostov region on January 27.
Russian T-72B3 main battle tanks take part in drills held by the armed forces of the Southern Military District at the Kadamovsky range in the Rostov region on January 27.

Meanwhile, talks involving Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany aimed at resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which is closely tied to Russia's abruptly escalated dispute with the West over the future of Ukraine and the region as a whole, yielded an agreement to meet again around February 9.

"The good news is that advisers agreed to meet in Berlin in two weeks, which means that Russia for the next two weeks is likely to remain on the diplomatic track," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said following the January 26 talks.

And numerous observers have speculated that Putin would be unlikely to launch a major offensive against Ukraine during the Beijing Olympics, to be held on February 4-20, out of deference to China.

So once again, there are several indications that diplomacy will continue for a while.

How long a while is unclear. And some analysts argue that it makes little sense to frame it as matter of either/or -- talks or military action by Russia.

"There is no firm line between war and diplomacy in such a conflict," Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation think tank, wrote on Twitter on January 27. "Moscow is likely to seek a negotiated settlement even if it goes to war."

Others suspect that Russia may not launch a major offensive -- not in the near future, at least.

"Putin is known to be emotional about Ukraine. He is, however, also experienced and crafty; he hasn't made a statement on the crisis in weeks," commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote in a Bloomberg Opinion article published on January 27.

"It's almost as if he's decided to wait out the invasion hysteria and then go on calmly weighing his options -- and waiting for pro-Western Ukrainian governments to run out of rope as they struggle ineffectively with the country's seemingly incurable corruption."

For nearly two months now, Russia's military buildup near Ukraine and its demands for what amounts to a substantial rollback of the results of the Soviet Union's downfall 30 years ago have drawn attention away from domestic developments.

Going Viral

One of them is the current surge of COVID-19 cases and the potential consequences for a country in which a majority of the people -- nearly 52 percent, according to the Coronavirus Research Center at Johns Hopkins University, which tracks the official government numbers worldwide -- are not fully vaccinated.

The number of new cases recorded per day has skyrocketed this month with the advent of the omicron variant, rising from 15,316 on January 6 to 98,040 on January 28, according to the state task force for combatting the virus.

That number is more than double the previous high, recorded in early November 2021, and more than three times the record high before that, in December 2020.

Aleksei Navalny speaks via video link from prison during a court session in the Vladimir region east of Moscow on December 28, 2021.
Aleksei Navalny speaks via video link from prison during a court session in the Vladimir region east of Moscow on December 28, 2021.

Meanwhile, just over a year after Aleksei Navalny was arrested upon his return to Russia following treatment in Germany for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin, the state's campaign against the opposition politician and anti-corruption crusader continued.

On January 25, the government put Navalny and 11 of his associates, including lawyer Lyubov Sobol, on a list of "terrorists and extremists," equating them with alleged members of outlawed far-right groups and foreign organizations such as Islamic State.

Earlier this month it had added two other top allies of Navalny, Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov, to the same list.

The designations are part of a persistent clampdown on Kremlin critics, independent journalists, and civil society groups that rights activists and Western governments see as a sweeping attempt to stamp out opposition to Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999 and may seek a new six-year term in 2024.

Navalny emerged as the most prominent opposition figure over the past decade, leading or participating in numerous peaceful protests against Putin's government and overseeing the production of a series of investigative reports exposing evidence of corruption at the highest levels.

He sought to challenge Putin for the presidency in 2018 but was barred from the ballot on the basis of convictions on financial-crimes charges he and supporters contend were fabricated. Since his arrest and imprisonment a year ago, his organizations have been outlawed and many associates have fled the country.

The listing of Navalny and his associates came as an alleged abduction case shone a spotlight on a Russian political figure who Kremlin critics and rights activists say is an actual extremist -- Ramzan Kadyrov, the former rebel Putin picked to lead the North Caucasus region of Chechnya nearly 15 years ago, in 2007.

'Unjustly Detained'

Dozens of relatives of critics of Kadyrov were abducted in late December, according to Amnesty International, including members of the family of Abubakar Yangulbayev, a lawyer for the Committee Against Torture, a Russian rights groups that has exposed alleged abuses by security forces controlled by Kadyrov.

On January 20, Yangulbayev's mother, Zarema Yangulbayeva, who also goes by the last name Musayeva, was taken from her apartment in Nizhny Novgorod, hundreds of kilometers from Chechnya, by masked men who said they were Chechen police.

Zarema Yangulbayeva
Zarema Yangulbayeva

The following day, Kadyrov said that Yangulbayeva would be imprisoned, alleging that she attacked a law enforcement officer. The Kremlin-backed regional leader also said that Chechen authorities "will take care of" her son Abubakar and that her entire family could find themselves "either in jail or underground."

Yangulbayeva is now jailed in Chechnya.

Yangulbayev, who is no longer in Russia, aired a video message in which he urged Putin to replace Kadyrov with a "normal" person.

Putin has not mentioned the matter in public. His spokesman, Peskov, said on January 21 that the Kremlin had no information about what relatives said was Yangulbayeva's abduction and "prefer not to believe" it occurred.

Amnesty International also urged Russian officials to take action, asking, "Will Russia's federal authorities again ignore the developments in Chechnya and pretend that they are not aware of attempts by the Chechen authorities to muzzle their critics by criminal acts and abductions of their relatives?"

Rights groups charge that Kadyrov frequently flouts Russian law, rules Chechnya through fear and oppression, and should be held responsible for widespread abuses carried out by forces he controls. Kremlin critics say that Putin is unwilling or unable to rein in Kadyrov -- or both.

In a statement on January 27, the U.S. State Department condemned what it said was the forcible transfer of Yangulbayeva to Chechnya, as well as "dozens of reported abductions and arbitrary detentions in recent weeks targeting the relatives of Chechen human rights defenders and dissidents," and called for "the immediate release of all who have been unjustly detained."

"We call on Russian federal authorities to refrain from enabling repressive acts...originating in Chechnya and to bring those responsible for continuing egregious human rights violations in Chechnya to justice consistent with the law of the Russian Federation and Russia's international human rights obligations," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

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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

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.

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