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The Week In Russia: At Daggers Drawn

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) attends a meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow on April 17.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) attends a meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow on April 17.

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.

Russia tries hypersonic missile attacks in Ukraine and treason accusations at home. And in the battle for Bakhmut, the "culture of mutual suspicion, cannibalistic competition, and opportunistic self-interest" President Vladimir Putin has created to maintain power is backfiring, an analyst says.

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

Missile Offense

For the past 15 years or more, Putin has repeatedly warned the West about missiles Russia had built or was developing, frequently saying they could penetrate any missile defense system, and urging the United States and NATO to hear his grievances and heed his stated security concerns.

One of the missiles Putin has frequently mentioned is the Kinzhal, whose name means dagger. In an annual state-of-the-nation speech in March 2018, shortly before he secured his current term, Putin boasted about that system and others and said the West must "listen to us now."

In the annual address a year later, he rattled off the names of at least five missile systems, including the Kinzhal, and asked whether U.S. policymakers could count -- then answered his own question.

"I'm sure they can," he said. "Let them count the speed and the range of the weapons systems we are developing."

Despite rising tension between Russia and the West and Russia's involvement in the wars in Syria and in Ukraine's Donbas region, such warnings had a strange dissonance to them, ringing wrong to some ears. The Cold War was over, after all, and the United States had no designs on Russia despite Putin's insistence that it was out to "hold Russia back" from successful development, at the very least.

Fast-forward to 2023, and Russia is using missiles including the Kinzhal in its war on Ukraine -- a war of aggression that Putin, who massively escalated the Donbas conflict by launching the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, has nonetheless tried to cast as a defensive war against Western countries that he baselessly asserts are bent on tearing Russia apart.

And in the event, the Kinzhal may not be living up to the hype.

Ukraine said its air defenses intercepted six Kinzhal missiles fired by Russian aircraft during one of the biggest aerial assaults in months early on May 16. And while Moscow dismissed that claim and asserted that a Kinzhal had hit a Patriot missile battery -- one of at least two provided by the United States and Germany, according to reports -- the Pentagon said on May 18 that it "has now been fixed and is fully back and operational."

The conflicting claims left questions, but Russia has fired Kinzhal missiles before and the hypersonic weapon does not appear to be a game-changer. It may end up being an example of the way Russia's offensive -- from the first few weeks of the invasion, when Moscow's forces were stopped outside Kyiv and failed to push President Volodymyr Zelenskiy from power, subjugate Ukraine, or win any concessions from its government -- has fallen short of expectations in the Kremlin.

Battle For Bakhmut

The Kinzhal strike this week was part of a series of major aerial attacks on Kyiv and other cities -- part of a Russian campaign that has killed thousands or tens of thousands of Ukrainians, including many in areas where Putin claims to be trying to protect the lives of Russian-speakers, as heavy fighting persisted on the ground along front lines in the east and south -- particularly in and around Bakhmut, a once-thriving city in the Donetsk region that has been virtually destroyed in many months of fierce fighting.

The Russian forces' failure to take Bakhmut so far is almost certainly another example of the offensive not living up to Putin's expectations, and it has brought tension between rivals close to the Kremlin bubbling up to the surface -- mostly in the form of diatribes from Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and the top military brass.

Once nearly silent but now wildly outspoken, Prigozhin has also come close to criticizing Putin -- but has used wording that enables him to deny it.

And now, indications that Prigozhin may have offered Kyiv information about regular Russian Army positions in exchange for a Ukrainian retreat from Bakhmut shows how "Putin's style of managing the elite has proven dangerously dysfunctional when transplanted to the battlefield," author and analyst Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia's military and security agencies, wrote in The Spectator on May 15.

"A culture of mutual suspicion, cannibalistic competition, and opportunistic self-interest has kept Putin in power for more than two decades. It has allowed him to play individuals and interests against each other and forced the members of his court constantly to seek his ear and favor," Galeotti wrote. "In war, though, the need is for unity, discipline, and mutual support -- something the Ukrainians are displaying and the Russians clearly lack."

'Become Russian Or Suffer'

While most of the attention is focused on the fighting, reports from Russian-occupied territory behind the front lines are chilling.

Ukrainian officials displaced from Russian-occupied parts of the Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions say Russia is forcibly removing civilians from towns and settlements close to the front as Ukraine gears up for a long-anticipated counteroffensive.

And in Russian-held parts of those two regions as well as Donetsk and Luhansk, in the east, the occupation authorities are using threats and pressure to persuade residents to accept Russian ID documents, Human Rights Watch said -- meaning Russian citizenship.

Those who do not do so by July 2024 "will be considered foreign nationals in their own country," the New York-based organization said in an article titled Become Russian Or Suffer. "This means they could be forced from their homes and deported -- an egregious violation of international law."

Additionally, the Russian State Duma approved legislation paving the way for Moscow to stage elections later this year in the Russian-occupied portions of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson regions -- votes that would have no legitimacy internationally and are sure to be condemned by Kyiv and the West if they take place.

In Crimea, 79 years after Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's government forced the Crimean Tatars out of their homeland in 1944, persecution that began after Russia occupied and seized control over the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula persisted.

And in Russia, meanwhile, the state's clampdown on its own citizens continues.

Scapegoating Science?

In an open letter published on May 15, scholars at a scientific institute in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk said that three leading physicists there had been arrested on treason charges in the past year.

The signatories said they were certain their colleagues are innocent and suggested that if the state treats scholars who participate in conferences, deliver reports, and share open-source information abroad, Russian science is headed for "catastrophe."

Separately but relatedly, the chairman of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences said on May 18 that Russia had "lost 50,000 people" in the sciences in the last five years.

"Now, when everyone is talking about technological sovereignty and the future depends on science-intensive technology, the issue is that Russia as a state is missing those who can do this," said Valentin Parmon, who is also vice president of the academy.

The letter also mentioned Dmitry Kolker, who was arrested last summer at a Novosibirsk clinic where he was being treated for late-stage pancreatic cancer and died two days later, after being transferred to the Lefortovo prison in Moscow and then to a hospital. Kolker, 54, was being investigated on suspicion of treason for purportedly sharing state secrets with China.

Attorneys and activists say the number of treason cases opened so far this year by the Federal Security Service (FSB) is unprecedented in modern Russian history.

But the clampdown has focused heavily on Russians who have criticized the war on Ukraine.

On May 17, a Moscow court sentenced activist Mikhail Kriger, who was arrested in November 2022 over Internet posts condemning the invasion, to seven years in prison after convicting him of justifying terrorism and inciting hatred.

In a statement in court ahead of the verdict, Kriger said that he had been accused of "allowing myself to dream publicly of Putin's hanging," and that he did indeed hope to live to see that happen.

"With Putin there are rivers of blood, without Putin there is no bloodshed," he said.

After the judge pronounced the sentence, Kriger, a native of the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, sang a song in Ukrainian and voiced confidence that Putin, a KGB officer in the Soviet era, would be out of the Kremlin before his prison term is over.

"I think that rotten KGB louse won't last in power for seven years," he said.

That's it from me this week.

NOTE: The Week In Russia will next appear on June 2.

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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