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The Week In Russia: Crossing To Crimea, Stumbling On Sanctions


It was typical, maybe quintessential, Putin.

Editor's Note: To receive Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia each week via e-mail, subscribe by clicking here.

President Vladimir Putin got some extra mileage from Moscow's takeover of Crimea by opening a bridge to the peninsula, while Russia struggled to respond to the latest U.S. sanctions without harming itself at a time when it can ill-afford further damage to its fragile economy.

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

All I Need Is A 'Miracle'

It was typical, maybe quintessential, Putin: After driving a truck across a new bridge to a piece of land his country took from Ukraine by force, the Russian president hopped out of the cab in blue jeans and addressed a waiting crowd. Putin mixed a Soviet-style focus on figures and allegedly ahead-of-schedule projects with the mythical, quasi-religious vocabulary he often turns to when talking about Crimea, saying the builders performed a "miracle" and referencing the "tsar father" of a long-gone era.

For Putin, opening the automobile lanes of the only bridge linking Russia to the annexed Black Sea peninsula was a chance to bask again in the "Crimea bump" -- the surge in popular support he experienced when Moscow took control of the Ukrainian region in March 2014 after sending in forces, seizing key facilities, and staging a referendum considered illegitimate by most of the world.

Shown live on state TV, Putin's stint at the wheel of an orange Kamaz on May 15 echoed the many televised stunts he has used to create an image of an action man who is in control and moving forward -- literally. It came eight days after Putin was sworn in for a fourth stint as president amid widespread talk that he is bringing the country into what may be his last term without a clear vision or a unifying theme like what the Kremlin called the "return" of Crimea in 2014.

Putin Unveils Crimea Bridge
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The performance may have played well for many in Russia and Crimea. The independent, often-critical newspaper Novaya Gazeta spoke to a man in the Crimean city of Kerch who was waiting with a friend to cross in a car when it opened to the public a day after Putin's visit.

"I personally have nothing to gain from the bridge," he said, but added that "there's something in the soul, you know? The whole world is against us, and we went ahead and built the bridge. Pride, I guess."

For the wider world and primarily Kyiv and the West, it once again sent the message that Moscow will never cede control of Crimea, which Putin has called Russia's Holy Land -- a description that is deeply disputed by historians.

Isolated Case

By design or not, Putin added a few trolling twists to the ceremony, eye-pokes for Kyiv and the Western countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia over a series of aggressive actions abroad -- starting, of course, with its seizure of Crimea.

Putin chatted and laughed with tycoon Arkady Rotenberg, the former judo partner whose company built the bridge, while Kamaz trucks are made by a state-owned company headed by another longtime associate, Sergei Chemezov.

As The Washington Post pointed out, the United States has imposed sanctions on both men.

Meanwhile, the repression that rights groups say Russia has carried out against Crimean opponents of the takeover rolled on. On the same day that Putin opened the bridge to Crimea, a Russian court on the peninsula opened a new trial of Volodymyr Balukh, an activist who was arrested in 2016 after flying a Ukrainian flag at his home and started a hunger strike in prison two months ago.

Ukrainian activist Volodymyr Balukh
Ukrainian activist Volodymyr Balukh

Also on hunger strike is Crimean film director and annexation opponent Oleh Sentsov, who scrawled a letter from prison in far northern Russia saying that he will not halt his protest until "all Ukrainian political prisoners held on Russian territory" are freed.

Putin said that the $4 billion bridge should be ready for regular truck traffic this fall and that the railroad section will open in 2019. The span, he said, will enable Russia to "develop Crimea's economy...at a new pace" and "raise people's living standards."

That's exactly what he has promised to do across Russia in his new term -- and exactly what he has struggled to do in Crimea since seizing control.

And while the Crimea Bridge opens up transport links, it will not bring down all the barriers that isolate the region, some of them thrown up by Western sanctions. Big state lenders Sberbank and VTB, for example, have branches on countless street corners across Russia but none in Crimea. Operating on the peninsula, Sberbank chief German Gref said in 2017, would mean being "hit by the entire pool of sanctions."

Putin's drive across the bridge to Crimea in a convoy of trucks drew strong if predictable condemnation from the United States and the European Union. Just as predictable is that Russia will, at least on the surface, be unmoved by that criticism.

But amid shows of defiance and statements by senior officials that Moscow will offer no concessions to the West in the name of lifting sanctions, Russia has stumbled in its effort to retaliate against the latest punitive measures imposed by the United States.

On April 6, Washington imposed asset freezes and financial restrictions on more than two dozen Russian individuals and organizations, including tycoons close to Putin, over what the U.S. Treasury called Moscow's "malign activity around the globe."

Bombing Voronezh

The Kremlin promised a powerful response to what Putin's spokesman called a salvo in the "sanctions war." But six weeks later, two pieces of retaliatory legislation are still making their way slowly through Russia's parliament, which is notorious for acting fast when it knows what it -- or Putin -- wants.

One of them, which would give Putin the power to ban the import of almost anything from countries deemed unfriendly to Russia, was passed in the second of three required votes in the State Duma on April 17 -- but only after it was watered down significantly due to fears it could end up harming the Russian citizens it ostensibly aims to protect.

Around the world, that kind of backfiring is often called shooting oneself in the foot. But fears of it happening amid the continuing confrontation between Russia and the West are so commonplace that a more country-specific term has been coined in Russia: Bombing Voronezh.

Concerns about such an own goal have also prompted the Duma to hold off for now on a second "countersanctions" bill, under which Russians found to have promoted or adhered to foreign sanctions could be imprisoned for years.

The legislation had been headed for a second Duma vote on May 17, but the former Putin aide who chairs the chamber announced that it was postponed and that lawmakers would consult with business leaders about it on May 23.

If passed, the legislation could technically be used to punish Sberbank or VTB for steering clear of Crimea due to worries about Western sanctions -- though that would be highly unlikely. But as Leonid Bershidsky wrote in a Bloomberg opinion article, it could also be used against executives of foreign companies operating in Russia if they refuse to do business with sanctions-hit Russian firms.

With the economy struggling despite emerging from a two-year recession in 2017, a downturn that was worsened by the Western sanctions imposed over Russia's aggression in Ukraine, Bershidsky pointed out that "this isn’t a great time to tell investors they could be prosecuted for applying Western sanctions."

Navalny Jailed

To back off entirely and scrap the bill would be embarrassing for the Kremlin. But Putin, who has set the ambitious goal of bringing Russia's economy into the world's top five by the end of his new term, may be wary of punishing foreign companies.

But if the bill does not chill investors, it could end up deepening the chill in Russia's beleaguered opposition camp. Like many laws that Kremlin foes say are applied selectively, another potential target of the legislation is those very foes -- and while the bill has not been passed, there are already signs that may happen.

Ruling United Russia party lawmaker Andrei Isayev singled out Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent Putin critic who has lobbied for Western sanctions against Russian human rights violators and alleges he has been poisoned twice in retribution for his activism.

"I am warning him as a State Duma deputy: If the bill is passed and becomes law, such activities will be considered a crime," Isayev said on May 16.

State Duma deputy Andrei Isayev
State Duma deputy Andrei Isayev

A Moscow court handed down a more straightforward signal about what Putin's opponents face in his new term on the same day that Putin crossed the bridge, sentencing activist Aleksei Navalny to separate jail terms of 30 and 15 days over nationwide protests he organized two days before the inauguration of his nemesis to a new term.

Navalny, who was one of more than 1,600 people detained during the demonstrations dubbed "He's Not Our Tsar," was hauled away from the Moscow protest by police who held his arms and legs.

"Thirty days...for the right to go out into the streets of your city and tell those in power: 'I'm not a slave and never will be. I don't need a new tsar," Navalny tweeted. "There's little that's pleasant about this arrest, but I'm ready to go out and say this as many times as it takes.... And I know I'm not alone."

Editor's Note: The Week In Russia will not appear on May 25 or June 1. It will resume on June 8.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is news editor of RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He has lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union off and on -- mostly on -- since 1989, including postings in Moscow with the Associated Press and Reuters.

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