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The Week In Russia: 'Murderers' In Mariupol, Putin In Minsk, Zelenskiy In Washington

The theater in Mariupol is seen in April after the Russian bombing on March 16, in which hundreds of civilians, including children, were killed.
The theater in Mariupol is seen in April after the Russian bombing on March 16, in which hundreds of civilians, including children, were killed.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy went to Washington, Russian President Vladimir Putin went to Minsk, and Moscow's war against Ukraine went on with no end in sight 10 months after the February invasion. And as Moscow's forces erase potential evidence of war crimes in Mariupol, images of the now-destroyed city lit up for the holidays a year ago evoke a world that is gone forever.

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

Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine 10 months ago tomorrow, on February 24. Since then, President Vladimir Putin's effort to subjugate the neighboring country has produced a relentless series of horrific stories, photos, and video.

In a way, though, some of the most heart-rending images come from several weeks before that date: Photos of the Azov Sea coastal city of Mariupol around Christmastime, lit up with holiday decorations.

At the time, the Kremlin had already delivered over-the-top ultimatums to the United States and NATO about Ukraine's future, among other things, and U.S. President Joe Biden's administration was warning that the growing Russian military force gathered at Ukraine's borders could be about to invade. But to many it still seemed unlikely, almost unthinkable: an eight-year-old war was simmering in the Donbas, where Mariupol is located and had escaped capture by Russian-backed forces throughout the conflict, but Kyiv had done nothing to provoke an escalation.

Some of the images and drone footage show Mariupol's drama theater, a large central landmark and cultural hub in what was then a city of nearly half a million, with residents milling around a big fir tree on the square before the colonnaded facade.

The holiday season passed without an invasion, but on February 24, Russian forces rolled in -- or, in the case of the Donbas, rolled forward. And on March 16, a Russian air strike hit the theater, where hundreds of people had sought refuge and the word "children" was painted in block letters, in Russian, on the ground at both ends of the building.

Theater Attack

In a journalistic investigation published on May 4, the Associated Press reported that evidence suggested about 600 people were killed. Russia captured Mariupol later in May, after a weekslong siege of a steel plant where Ukrainian forces were holed up along with civilians.

And this week, Russia began demolishing the bombed-out theater and clearing the ruins -- or at least part of them -- in what Ukrainian official Petro Andryushchenko said was "clearly an attempt to hide, forever, the physical evidence of the...premeditated murder of Ukrainians."

He said the Russian occupation authorities planned to remove the central and rear portions of the theater but leave the façade in place.

"Eight months after Mariupol fell into Russian hands, Russia is eradicating all vestiges of Ukraine from it -- along with the evidence of war crimes buried in its buildings," the AP said in a new report on December 23.

The AP investigation published in May noted that "the Russian bombing of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol on March 16 stands out as the single deadliest known attack against civilians to date."

That is still the case. But there have been countless Russian bombardments that have killed smaller numbers of civilians old, young, and in-between -- and, since October, a series of attacks targeting energy and other infrastructure in what Kyiv, rights groups, and Western organizations say is terrorism.

There is no sign that it will end anytime soon. Neither side has signaled any interest whatsoever in negotiations toward an agreement that would leave the current front lines in place, with Russia controlling not just Crimea, which it occupied in 2014, but also parts of four regions in mainland Ukraine: Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wants to regain all the Ukrainian territory that Russia now holds, restoring control over the entire country, whose borders were set with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and formally accepted by Moscow at the time. Putin's territorial goals may be less clear, in part because he may be adjusting them based on the course of the war, in which Russian forces have suffered numerous setbacks on the battlefield.

But his overall goal of subjugating Ukraine hasn't changed a bit, analysts say.

"It's not our assessment that the Russians are serious at this point about a real negotiation," was how CIA Director William Burns, who met in Turkey last month with the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) chief Sergei Naryshkin, put it on December 16 when asked whether winter weather might slow fighting and open up the possibility of talks.

Others have used stronger wording.

"Every single official statement of the last couple of weeks indicates the following: Russia will be investing 'as much as needed' in the war for as long as capacities allow it: productions, imports, recruitment," Anton Barbashin, editorial director of the media outlet Riddle Russia, wrote on Twitter on December 22.

As each of them struggles to get the upper hand over the winter, both Putin and Zelenskiy travelled abroad this week to secure support that could potentially help them prevail -- with results that appeared substantially different.

Putin made his first visit to Belarus in more than three years and met with its autocratic leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who is the closest thing he has to an ally even though the two men's ties are perennially strained, with the Belarusian strongman wanting to get the most out of Moscow but wary of becoming a mere provincial leader if the two countries merge into one.

They Won't Go

Putin and Lukashenka have met repeatedly in the last three years -- but until December 19, always in Russia or third countries. The fact that Putin came to Lukashenka this time was seen by analysts as evidence that he wanted something pretty badly.

If what he wanted was for Lukashenka to send Belarusian troops into Ukraine to fight alongside Russian forces, all signs suggest he didn't get it. At a joint news conference, the pair made vague remarks about continuing military cooperation and reinforcing joint efforts "in all areas," as Putin put it.

Russia used Belarus as a staging area for part of the force that crossed into Ukraine from the north in February and drove toward Kyiv but faced staunch resistance and withdrew within weeks -- leaving a trail of destruction, death, and alleged atrocities behind them.

Retreating Russian forces also received medical care in Belarus, and Russian forces are training there. But so far, Lukashenka has not sent Belarusian forces to fight in Ukraine.

In power since 1994, one of Lukashenka's biggest sources of support from Belarusians early in his rule was that the country's young men -- unlike Russians sent to battle separatists in Chechnya -- were not being dispatched to combat zones.

More recently, Lukashenka may have calculated that doing so would still be too risky for him, even given the stepped-up clampdown since 2020 that has put many opponents in prison and prompted many others to flee the country.

The Patriot

Zelenskiy, for his part, left Ukraine for the first time since the Russian invasion in February, making a one-day visit to Washington, D.C., in which he met with Biden and addressed the U.S. Congress at a time when continued Western support is crucial for Kyiv.

From Biden, Zelenskiy got a $1.85 billion security assistance package for Ukraine -- including a Patriot air-defense battery -- and an assurance that the United States is "committed to ensuring that the brave Ukrainian people can defend their country against Russian aggression as long as it takes."

He faced little public pressure to seek negotiations with Russia, with Biden asserting that Zelenskiy is "open to pursuing a just peace" but suggesting it is a moot point at the moment because "Putin has no intention...of stopping this cruel war."

Pressed by a Ukrainian reporter on what he sees as a "fair way to end this war," Zelenskiy replied: "What do you want me to say? .... I don't know what [a] 'just peace' is. It's a very philosophical description."

"For me, as the president, [a] just peace [means] no compromises as to the sovereignty, freedom, and territorial integrity of my country, [and] payback for all the damages inflicted by Russian aggression," he said.

'Murderers, You Bombed It To Rubble'

In Russia, meanwhile, the clampdown on dissent, free speech, and civil society reached a new landmark: The Justice Ministry asked a court to order the closure of the country's oldest human rights watchdog, the Moscow Helsinki Group, and outlaw it.

First established in 1976, the Moscow Helsinki Group fought for rights in the Soviet era and in post-Soviet Russia, where Putin has rolled back democracy and freedoms in over 23 years as president or prime minister.

Lyudmila Alekseyeva, a founding member of the organization, led it from 1996 until her death in 2018.

The Moscow Helsinki Group's mission statement includes these words: "We are convinced that Russia will be a democratic state in which laws are respected and the person, his rights, and his dignity are the highest value."

And in St. Petersburg, a 17-year-old girl was charged with discrediting the armed forces after allegedly scrawling this rebuke on an art installation in the central Palace Square symbolizing the city's "friendship" with Mariupol: "Murderers, you bombed it to rubble yourselves!"

RFE/RL intern Ella Jaffe contributed to this report.
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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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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.

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