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A harrowing video of an inmate’s beating shone a bare-bulb spotlight on Russia’s prison-torture problem. And a second summit meeting between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin was pushed into 2019 while the United States reaffirmed its rejection of Moscow’s takeover of Crimea, raising further questions about Russia’s concrete gains from the Trump-Putin talks in Helsinki.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward.
After hammering an inmate’s heel with a truncheon while others hold him down with his legs splayed and beat other body parts, the camouflage-clad prison guard steps back to take a break, grunts, and jokes: “Changing of the guard.”
With other officers milling around the room as the prisoner moans and cries out, the harrowing video shot at a prison in the sleepy city of Yaroslavl makes torture look routine.
Other reports from Russia over the past week also make it look that way: One says that a lost iPhone 6 at a student party in Voronezh led to the police torture of several young men whom officers bound to a chair with handcuffs and questioned after tying ammonia-soaked plastic bags over their heads.
In the Bryansk region, meanwhile, a prison guard was charged with murdering an inmate whom authorities said he asphyxiated with a piece of cloth.
Accounts of torture in Russian prisons, jails, and police precinct houses are nothing new.
Supporters of whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow jail in December 2009, say he was denied medical care in what amounted to torture, and the Kremlin human rights council said there was evidence that he was beaten to death.
And as Putin was preparing to return to the presidency in 2012 after four years as prime minister, the death of a man who told relatives he had been beaten by four police officers and sodomized with a Champagne bottle fueled demands for reform and the rule of law.
The newer cases suggest there has been little change since Putin – who started a six-year, fourth term in May – came back to the Kremlin more than six years ago.
In a submission to the UN Committee on Torture on July 6, Human Rights Watch said alleged violations of Moscow’s “most basic obligations” under the International Convention Against Torture are taking place “against the backdrop of a broader deterioration of the human rights climate in Russia, with detrimental effects in particular on freedom of expression, assembly, and association as the authorities have moved to narrow the space for dissent.”
At a hearing on Russia’s record on July 25, UN experts said Russia has one of the highest rates of prisoner death from torture among Council of Europe members and urged the authorities to prosecute alleged widespread cases including beatings, electric shocks, and suffocation.
"Torture is practiced widely," UN committee Chairman Jens Modvig said, yet "there is no rule ensuring that punishment for torture corresponds to the seriousness of the crime.”
The concerns about abuse and torture of inmates and others in state custody in Russia come at a time when more attention is arguably focused on Moscow’s actions abroad than on developments at home.
Putin’s July 16 summit with Trump was widely seen as a big success for the Russian president, and the White House said three days later that Trump had asked his national security adviser, John Bolton, to invite Putin to Washington in the fall.
Mr. Putin Doesn't Go To Washington
In some ways, such a visit could have been a victory lap for Putin, flying into the U.S. capital and heading to the White House despite persistent concern about what U.S. intelligence agencies say was an “influence campaign” -- ordered by Putin himself -- targeting the 2016 election won by Trump, the underdog and the clear Kremlin favorite.
But plans for an autumn meeting fell apart fast, their demise suggesting queasiness on both sides about a relationship that was already as toxic as Novichok for some in Washington – and became more so after the summit press conference in Helsinki, where critics said Trump came down on Putin's side on the issue of election meddling.
First, the Kremlin responded to word of the invitation with a marked lack of enthusiasm. Putin’s foreign policy aide, Yury Ushakov, made clear on July 24 that Russia was not ready to accept it, saying it would be “wise to let the dust settle” after the Helsinki summit.
“You know what kind of atmosphere there is around its outcome,” he said.
The next day, Bolton said that Trump wants to meet with Putin “after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we’ve agreed that it will be after the first of the year .”
The “witch hunt” is Trump’s term for U.S. Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Moscow’s alleged meddling and whether his campaign colluded with Russia in a bid to influence the vote. There is no set time limit on the probe, but Trump – who argues adamantly that there was no collusion – has repeatedly called for it to end.
For Trump, the postponement of a second summit could be a chance to avoid the potentially unappealing optics of hosting Putin shortly before or after the November midterm elections, in which his Republican Party will be seeking to retain control of both houses of Congress – and any accusations that he is seeking or getting help from Putin in the polls.
Trump has tried to turn any such notion on its head by saying he fears Russia will try to meddle – in favor of the other side.
“Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats,” Trump tweeted on July 24.
The next day, at about the same time Bolton said that Trump wants to meet with Putin again in 2019, rather than this fall, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an announcement reaffirming the U.S. “refusal to recognize the Kremlin’s claims of sovereignty over territory seized by force in contravention of international law” – Crimea.
For Putin, steering clear of Washington in the fall could be a way to avoid wading too deep into turbulent U.S. political waters at an uncertain time.
Russian political analysts have said that Putin’s comment at the summit press conference, when he stated publicly for the first time that he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election, marked a new and risky step toward open involvement in U.S. politics. He took another step, Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Frolov said, when he suggested to Russian diplomats days later that Trump's efforts to improve ties were beset by unnamed "forces" ready and willing to "sacrifice Russian-American relations to their ambitions in the domestic political struggle in America."
Wading In Or Waist-Deep?
Putin's statements mark a shift to "a direct political alliance with Donald Trump personally in the fight against his domestic foes" -- the Democratic Party, the intelligence and foreign policy establishment, the "deep state" -- Frolov wrote in an opinion article for the Russian media outlet Republic.
"This is already not so much interference in elections...as it is Moscow joining openly joining the domestic political battle on one of the warring sides.
Stepping back from a fall summit could lessen the risks of going all-in.
But the postponement of a second meeting also leaves the question of what concrete gains Putin can claim from Helsinki even less clear than it was in the days after the summit.
That question cuts both ways, though. And even after Pompeo moved to dispel concerns that Trump might recognize Russia's claim to Crimea as part of some deal with Putin, it remains largely uncertain -- with Russian claims of "agreements" left unconfirmed by U.S. officials -- what they might have agreed upon.