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The Week In Russia: Unprovoked War And 'Unspeakable Suffering'


Vladimir Putin has turned back the clock in his own country by decades -- and, with an onslaught that the deputy mayor of Mariupol (pictured after recent shelling) called "medieval," seems intent on casting Ukraine back several centuries.

Civilian casualties mounted and outrage spread as Moscow's unprovoked war on Ukraine entered its third week with no clear end in sight. Russia's isolation deepened, with Western businesses from McDonald's to IKEA shutting up shop and the Kremlin turning the clock back toward Soviet times.

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

'Medieval Siege'

In December, when Russia presented the United States and NATO with sweeping demands for changes in the security architecture along its western borders and beyond, it was clear that President Vladimir Putin was out to turn back the clock by more than 30 years across Eastern and Central Europe.

If he got his way, Ukraine would be stripped of its sovereignty to a large degree and yoked to Russia, as it seems to be in Putin's mind despite a rich history of its own and three decades of independence.

From Tbilisi to Tallinn and from Chisinau to Prague, other countries that threw off Moscow's dominion as communism and then the U.S.S.R. collapsed would be cast back into a kind of no-man's-land, transformed into little more than buffer states between what Putin appears to see as the only countries with a real right to exercise free will in the region: Russia and the United States.

Instead, two weeks and a day after Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, premised clearly if informally on the refusal of Washington and NATO to accede to those demands and others, it looks more like Putin has turned back the clock in his own country by decades -- and, with an onslaught that the deputy mayor of a bombed and besieged city called "medieval," seems intent on casting Ukraine back several centuries.

In Ukraine, the death and destruction from the unprovoked assault is staggering -- hard for many people to imagine and yet undeniably real. Images of apartment buildings and hospitals across much of Ukraine gutted by bombardments, homes in flames, civilians young and old killed by rockets or shells while seeking refuge -- and the tearful stories of incredulous survivors whose lives have been torn apart.

Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city; Mariupol, a strategic Azov Sea port that has been in Moscow's sights since the war that broke out in the Donbas after Russia fomented separatism in 2014; Chernihiv in the north; once-quiet Sumy near the Russian border: All have been hit hard, as have several suburbs of Kyiv and many other towns and cities in a Russian military campaign that appears to be at once bogged down and increasingly deadly for civilians, with shells and bombs hitting "homes, schools, and evacuation routes -- despite the absence of clear military targets in some areas," as a video analysis by The Wall Street Journal found.

An apartment building damaged by shelling in Kharkiv
An apartment building damaged by shelling in Kharkiv

The death and destruction in a constellation of cities where many speak Russian as a first language seems to once and for all expose one of the Kremlin's chief narratives about its actions in Ukraine starting with the seizure of Crimea and the backing of anti-Kyiv forces in the Donbas -- that he is protecting ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers -- as an indefensible argument, a fraud.

That leaves an explanation that has come out in sharp relief from Putin's writings and remarks over the past year, and particularly in the past few weeks: He wants to subjugate Ukraine.

Nuclear Threats

How he can possibly do that is increasingly unclear -- even if the current pace of the Russian offensive gives way to a faster advance and greater gains from the Russian military, which has encountered stiff resistance in a country that evidence suggests Putin expected to fold in a few days.

Now, every shell blast and civilian casualty may only add to the defiance of millions of Ukrainians and the ire of the West.

Also stoking anger at Moscow are its military operations affecting nuclear power plants in Ukraine and its threats -- sometimes thinly veiled, sometimes barely veiled at all -- that it could turn to its nuclear arsenal if need be.

The latest of those came from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on March 10. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov issued one the day before, saying the United States was waging "economic war" against Russia by imposing sweeping new sanctions against Moscow over the invasion of Ukraine.

Since Putin launched the offensive on February 24, there has been no evidence that a single shell has landed in Russia. And yet the country has already been transformed in those two weeks, as citizens come to grips with their government's actions in Ukraine, the economic effects of the war and the Western response, and the state's ever tighter clampdown -- or flee if they can.

Time Travel

Russia may not have become unrecognizable in the past two weeks. But in their efforts to suppress dissent, control information, Putin and the state could perhaps be described as drawing a caricature of themselves, with the most prominent features given additional accentuation -- and making for a frightening picture.

An unknown number of Russians have fled a country that many of those hoping for a better future see as headed at breakneck speed toward some point in the past --the chaotic 1990s, some say, or the 1930s, known for dictator Josef Stalin's murderous Great Terror, or 1917, the year the Bolshevik Revolution brought bloodshed and upheaval.

Hospital patients are evacuated after the attack in Mariupol on March 9.
Hospital patients are evacuated after the attack in Mariupol on March 9.

Or 1983, a Cold War year when the momentous changes that would come within a decade may have been as unthinkable as a Russian bombardment of Kharkiv or Kyiv was not long ago. A year opposition activist Pyotr Verzilov described as one of "no shops, no money, no food, no cars, and no appliances -- only compote and records from Melodia" -- the Soviet state music distributor.

He was exaggerating the situation on both ends of the historical arc, of course -- but the Western response to the invasion of Ukraine, and Moscow's efforts to respond to that response, are changing the economic situation and the fabric of life dramatically as the country's isolation increases and the state cracks down harder than ever on all forms of dissent.

The value of the ruble has been cut in half in days, and the state has slapped restrictions on the purchase of foreign currency. The automobile and aviation industries, among others, are struggling.

The U.S.-based Institute of International Finance said on March 10 that it was now forecasting Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) to shrink by 15 percent this year, instead of growing by 3 percent as predicted earlier. "The speed and severity of sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine is remarkable. They have led to a drastic and unprecedented tightening in financial conditions, which signals a deep recession," the organization said.

If the war gets even worse, so will the economic decline, it said, because "further escalation...may bring more boycotts of Russian energy, which would drastically impair Russia's ability to import goods and services, deepening the recession."

In addition to the sanctions, outrage over the invasion has prompted many of the Western companies that flooded in during and after the Soviet collapse to pull out or suspend their operations. In many cases, the Russian state may move in to take over their assets -- to nationalize them, in effect.

Heading For The Exits

The most symbolic participant in the exodus or operations freeze may be McDonald's, whose opening of a restaurant in central Moscow in January 1990 was a watershed event in the shift from communism to capitalism.

"The conflict in Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis in Europe has caused unspeakable suffering to innocent people," McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski said in a statement obtained by RFE/RL.

A more recent icon that's also shutting up shop in Russia at least for now is IKEA, whose stores on the outskirts of major cities -- with their storage solutions, stuffed toys, and Swedish meatballs -- quite literally made Russia more like the West than it had been before.

Now many Russians are fleeing that changing landscape while they can -- to Europe, to the United States, and to other former Soviet republics such as Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

Thousands of anti-war protesters were detained by police on March 6 as demonstrations against the invasion of Ukraine were held across Russia.
Thousands of anti-war protesters were detained by police on March 6 as demonstrations against the invasion of Ukraine were held across Russia.

In Ukraine, of course, the landscape is changing in a far more horrific fashion, and the flight of citizens -- in this case, from the mortal danger of an unprovoked invasion -- is occurring on a far larger scale.

More than 2 million people had left the country less than two weeks after the invasion began, Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said on March 8 -- numbers that other parts of the world have seen, he said, but "in Europe, it's the first time since the Second World War."

Some have died trying to reach safety.

Carrying backpacks and wheeling suitcases though the streets or the Kyiv suburb of Irpin on March 6, Tetyana Perebyinis, 43, her son Mykyta, 18, and daughter Alisa, 9, were killed when a mortar shell landed near them. Anatoliy Berezhniy, a church volunteer who was helping residents evacuate, was also killed.

'I Will Get Out'

Tetyana's husband, Serhiy, was in the Donbas caring for his mother, and had been in frequent contact with his wife and children, discussing their evacuation plans in detail. But he could not teach them that day -- and then he saw a Twitter post saying a family had been killed there, according to The New York Times.

Then there was another post, this one with a photograph. "I recognized the luggage and that is how I knew," he told the Times.

When they had spoken the previous night, Perebyinis said, Tetyana had told him, "'Don't worry, I will get out.'"

On March 10, four days after the deaths in Irpin and one day after Ukrainian authorities said three people were killed in a Russian strike on a hospital complex in Mariupol, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked by a journalist whether Russia would attack other countries in addition to Ukraine.

"As for your question about whether we plan to attack other countries: We do not plan to attack other countries," he said with a little laugh.

"And we did not attack Ukraine," he lied.

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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. 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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Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk, Steve Gutterman.

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