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The Week In Russia: A Schism, A School Attack, And Putin’s Talk Of Nuclear War

A memorial to those who died in the school shooting in Kerch, Ukraine.
A memorial to those who died in the school shooting in Kerch, Ukraine.

The Russian Orthodox Church reacts to a serious blow in Ukraine, and a school shooting in Crimea leaves 21 people dead, most of them teenagers.

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

Orthodox Rift

When Moscow was hit with its latest affront on the international stage, the mouthpiece for a major Russian institution promised an “adequate and tough” response.

If you think that sounds like Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov or Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, you’re right – but think again. The warning came from the spokesman for Moscow Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, after a synod led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople – the “first among equals” in Orthodox Christianity – said it would grant autocephaly, or independence, to the Orthodox church in Ukraine.

The temporal tone of the vow to retaliate was one of several reminders that the spiritual rift widening at the heart of one of the world’s great religions is also – and perhaps predominantly -- a gloves-off geopolitical scrap with potentially far-reaching consequences for at least two countries, and maybe more.

The Russian Orthodox Church did respond swiftly, announcing a “complete break in communion” with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Lavrov did weigh in shortly afterward, calling the steps toward autocephaly in Ukraine a “provocation” staged “with the direct encouragement and public support of Washington." Its “obvious” motive, he said, was to "take another step towards tearing Ukraine away, not only politically but also now spiritually, from Russia."

The Russian Orthodox Church response was announced at a synod in Minsk on October 15, less than 72 hours after Putin discussed the situation surrounding Orthodoxy in Ukraine with members of his Security Council.

One of the Kremlin’s goals in publicly announcing that the church situation was discussed may have been to portray it as a security matter – an issue that requires the attention of the Russian defense chief and senior security officials.

Words Of Warning

That fits in with persistent warnings from Russian clerics, officials, and lawmakers that Ukrainian authorities or the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate may try to take over churches and monasteries long controlled by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is an affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on October 12 that if the historic church rift in Ukraine leads to “illegal actions” or violence, Russia will “defend the interests” of Orthodox Christians there.

While he said it would use “exclusively political and diplomatic” means to do so, the remark drew attention in Ukraine and the West – as it may have been designed to – because it echoed one of Russia’s explanations for its military interference in Ukraine since 2014, when it seized Crimea and helped start a war that has killed more 10,000 people in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

At the time, Putin spoke of the need to protect Russians and Russian-speakers from what he claimed was a threat of violence.

Patriarch Filaret
Patriarch Filaret

Patriarch Filaret, head of the Kyiv Patriarchate, said in June that two major monasteries belonging to the Moscow-controlled church should change hands after autocephaly is secured. With the war in the Donbas ongoing and candidates seeking to prove their patriotism ahead of a presidential election in March, tension over the church rift is unlikely to decrease.

So far, though, there has been no violence, and it may be in Ukraine’s best interests to keep it that way.

In its October 11 announcement of the autocephaly decision – which was a big step but not the final one for the Kyiv-based church in its independence drive -- the Ecumenical Patriarchate urged “all sides” to avoid the appropriation of property “as well as every other act of violence and retaliation, so that the peace and love of Christ may prevail.”

At a news conference that day, Filaret said that "Moscow wants a conflict but we Ukrainians do not."

School Shooting

For several hours on October 17, it looked like another incident would pile still more tension into the tattered ties between Russia and Ukraine: an attack at a college in Kerch, Crimea – the city at the Crimean end of the new bridge Putin opened in May linking Russian territory to the Black Sea peninsula Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

After initial reports that an explosion at the college was caused by gas, Russian authorities said it was a bomb and a suspected terrorist act.

That shift unleashed speculation by the usual suspects – such as Russian state TV channels, commentators, and lawmakers who shape the narrative by stating things some time before they solidify into the official Kremlin line – that Ukraine could have been behind the attack.

Frants Klintsevich, a member of the upper parliament house, said he doubted that “the hand of Islamic State (IS) is capable of reaching Kerch” – a surprising assertion, given that IS has claimed responsibility or been blamed for several attacks and alleged plots in Russian cities much further from the Middle East.

Instead, the attack more likely left a “Ukrainian footprint,” Klintsevich said, according to his office. Behind it, he said, could stand Ukrainian state authorities or “rabid nationalists who are ready to anything out of hatred for Russia.”

School Attack

But talk of a terrorist act gave way swiftly to a new account from the Russian authorities, who said the suspect was a student at the college and apparently had acted alone. Eyewitnesses said that after a bomb went off in the cafeteria the suspect stalked around the second floor, opened classroom doors and “just shot everyone he saw.”

Putin, meeting with the Egyptian president in Sochi – less than 500 km southeast of Kerch on the Black Sea coast – called for a moment of silence for the victims and their loved ones. But talk of a presidential visit to the gruesome scene in Kerch, where 21 people died including the attacker, was not borne out.

A day later, before playing some ice hockey and flying to Uzbekistan, Putin made his first major public comments on the bloodbath – by far the deadliest school attack blamed on a student in any of the former republics of the Soviet Union since its collapse in 1991.

The attack was the result of "globalization," he said, and of a lack of positive Internet content that prompts young people to “grab for this surrogate heroism” instead.

“It all started with the well-known tragic schools in the United States,” Putin said, referring to numerous school shootings that have occurred there since the 1990s. School attacks are far less frequent in the former Soviet Union, but several have occurred in Russia in recent years.

Valentin Konovalov
Valentin Konovalov

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Find Another Way To Beat ‘Em

In other news this week, the saga of the September regional votes that have exposed weaknesses in Putin’s system of control over electoral offices across Russia continued – with a twist.

Almost by definition, a runoff election is a contest between two candidates. But when voters in the Khakasia region finally go to the polls for a twice-postponed second-round election, it will look more like referendum: Electoral officials say the ballot will have one name – that of Communist Party candidate Valentin Konovalov – and the option of voting for him or against him.

The bizarre ballot is the result of a strange series of events that started when incumbent Governor Viktor Zimin came in a not-so-strong second to Konovalov in the initial vote.

Zimin then pulled out of the runoff, citing poor health, and two other candidates bumped up in turn to fill out the ballot also withdrew, sparking speculation that Putin and the ruling United Russia party were fearful of a Communist win in a legitimate-looking election.

Making the vote into a plebiscite on a single candidate – a development that may be unprecedented in a Russian gubernatorial race – opens up the possibility that the Communist could fall short, turning an embarrassing Kremlin defeat into a victory of sorts.

The vote in Khakasia is now scheduled for November 11, but it’s unclear whether that date is final so there is still time for second thoughts – or fourth or fifth thoughts -- on the part of the Communists and the Kremlin. Out of 21 Russian regions that held elections on September 9, Khakasia is one of four in which the Kremlin favorite was forced into a runoff.

In two of those four, Vladimir and Khabarovsk, candidates from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) have won the runoff. A new election in Primorye -- where authorities threw out the September 16 result after the Communists cried foul when their candidate was overtaken by the Kremlin’s man in the final stages of the count – is to be held in December.

Aleksei Navalny (right) and Viktor Zolotov
Aleksei Navalny (right) and Viktor Zolotov

Duel Or Debate…

The result of a different kind of showdown between an ally of Putin and a Kremlin foe may never be known, because it seems unlikely to take place.

Not long after his release following 50 days in jail, opposition politician Aleksei Navalny responded to National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov’s eyebrow-raising challenge to a “duel” in which he warned he would “make mincemeat” out of the anticorruption crusader.

In a video released on October 18, Navalny accepted the challenge and proposed a duel in the form of a debate on state TV, a venue in which the rare coverage he gets is invariably negative. If Zolotov were to agree, the showdown could be a chance for one of Putin’s fiercest critics to engage the president’s former chief bodyguard in a battle of wits in front of an audience of millions.

But Zolotov does not seem eager to take him up on it. On October 19, he told reporters that he would respond later, but said a debate was not what he had in mind so “our approaches differ.”

Or Nuclear War?

Putin, meanwhile, pricked up some ears in Russia and abroad when he spoke of a showdown on a larger scale: a nuclear war.

In the latest in a long series of statements in which he has boasted of new arms that he claims give Russia an edge over potential opponents including the United States, Putin told an audience that Moscow has “run ahead of the competition” in developing “precision hypersonic weapons."

He said that while Russia’s military doctrine does not foresee the use of a preemptive nuclear strike, it would retaliate quickly and forcefully to an incoming nuclear attack.

“The aggressor should know that retribution is unavoidable and he would be annihilated,” Putin said, using language more biblical than technical. “We would go to heaven as martyrs and they would just croak because they wouldn’t even have time to repent."


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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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