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The Week In Russia: Civilian Deaths And 'A New, Dark Page Of Repression'

A baby stroller lies by a road after a deadly Russian missile attack in Vinnytsya on July 14. At least 23 people were killed, including three children.
A baby stroller lies by a road after a deadly Russian missile attack in Vinnytsya on July 14. At least 23 people were killed, including three children.

Civilian casualties mount as Russia strikes Ukrainian cities, some close to the front line and some far away. Moscow faces more war crimes accusations, this time over forced deportations and “filtration” centers. And at home, those who dare speak out against the war face prison terms.

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

Russian Rockets

Since Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, civilians have been suffering the consequences: They are dying almost every day, regardless of what the Kremlin says about its targets in the unprovoked war.

This past week offered plenty more proof of that obvious fact, with attacks on several cities and towns in Ukraine killing dozens or possibly hundreds of men, women, and children.

On July 9, Russian rockets destroyed a large section of a five-story apartment building in the town of Chasiv Yar in the Donbas, where fierce fighting has raged for weeks, prompting a frantic search for survivors buried beneath the rubble. The death toll rose to at least 48 as the days passed.

On July 11, a barrage of Russian rockets killed six people in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city. Russia asserted that the attacks were "pinpoint" strikes on Ukrainian military personnel and "foreign mercenaries," but provided no specific evidence to support that claim.

On July 14, three Russian missiles apparently fired from the Black Sea hit buildings in the heart of the west-central city of Vinnytsya, hundreds of kilometers from the front lines in eastern and southern Ukraine, killing at least 23 people and wounding dozens of others, authorities said.

There were three children among the dead, officials said. Images from the scene appeared to show a dead or badly wounded mother and her small daughter lying in the street. Media reports said the girl was killed and her mother was hospitalized with severe injuries.

Those were only a few of the many attacks in the week after President Vladimir Putin said Russia had not “really started anything seriously yet” in Ukraine.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that as of July 13, it had recorded 4,432 civilian deaths since the invasion on February 24, including 277 children, but that it believes the actual figures are considerably higher.

“Most of the civilian casualties recorded were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems, and missile and air strikes,” it said.

​Of course, deaths, injuries, and physical harm and abuse are far from the only forms of suffering being inflicted on Ukrainian civilians in the war, which had first raged and then simmered in the Donbas for nearly eight years before Putin ordered the large-scale invasion nearly five months ago.

Millions of people have been driven from their homes, many of which have been destroyed. The city of Mariupol has been largely razed to the ground by Russian attacks, and many other cities and towns in the Donbas, in southern Ukraine, and in areas near Kyiv in the north have been partially destroyed.

According to the UN refugee agency, more than 5.6 million refugees from Ukraine have been recorded in Europe since February 24, while more than 7.1 million people are believed to have been displaced within Ukraine.

'A War Crime'

Combined, that’s more than one-quarter of the population. And it does not include Ukrainians who have ended up in Russia -- many of them under pressure, entirely against their will, or because escaping from places like Mariupol to Ukrainian government-held territory was prohibitively dangerous or impossible.

On July 13, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that an estimated 900,000 to 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, have been interrogated, detained, and deported from their homes to Russia, including to isolated areas in the Far East, through "filtration" operations.

"The unlawful transfer and deportation of protected persons is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians and is a war crime," Blinken said, calling the Russian actions “an apparent effort to change the demographic makeup of parts of Ukraine."

A day later, Human Rights Watch and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued reports condemning forced transfers to Russia.

“Russian forces in Ukraine have forcibly disappeared civilians and illegally transferred them to Russia,” HRW said.

The New York-based group said it had “documented the detention of nine civilian men by Russian forces while they occupied Ukraine’s Kyiv region, and their apparent transfer to detention facilities in Russia’s Kursk and Bryansk regions when the forces rotated out or withdrew.”

An expert mission dispatched by the OSCE in June to examine human rights abuses and the humanitarian effects of “Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine” found “clear patterns of serious violations of international humanitarian law attributable mostly to Russian armed forces,” the U.S. State Department said.

The mission’s report expressed "grave concerns" over the alleged mistreatment by the Russian authorities of tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have been forcibly deported from their country and sent to so-called "filtration centers," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

'Forced Deportations'

Like an earlier expert mission’s report, this one “documents evidence of direct targeting of civilians, attacks on medical facilities, rape, torture, executions, looting, and forced transfer of civilians to Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and forced deportations to Russia itself,” Price said.

“It further identifies two new ‘alarming phenomena,’ namely the establishment and use of so-called filtration centers’" and the “tendency of the Russian Federation to bypass its international obligations by handing detained people over” to its proxies in eastern Ukraine to let them “engage in problematic practices, including the imposition of the death penalty,” he said.

Russia-backed separatists in the Donetsk region have sentenced two Britons and a Moroccan who were captured while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces to death. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has said Moscow would not interfere in the decisions of the separatists, whose self-styled state was recognized by Moscow as an independent country three days before the February 24 invasion.

Kremlin critics and Western governments, none of which recognizes the Russia-backed forces that hold parts of the Donbas, say Moscow's claim of detachment is artificial and have called for the release of the men, who rights groups say must be treated as prisoners of war.

Russian actions in Ukraine have naturally overshadowed the actions of Putin’s government and the apparatus of the state in Russia itself. While it may not have seemed possible, the months since the invasion have brought a further intensification of a clampdown that began with his return to the presidency in 2012 but had been ramped up in the past two years -- roughly since the near-fatal nerve agent poisoning of the now imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

This past week has been no exception.

For one thing, Putin signed legislation that further expands the reach of Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation -- one of the main tools the Kremlin has used to weaken civil society, quash independent media, and silence dissent -- a decade after adopting the initial law.

Speaking Out

Meanwhile, the state made ample use of a law that Putin signed in early March, days after the new invasion of Ukraine, that allows for prison terms of 10 and in some cases 15 years for distributing “false information” about the Russian military and its activities.

On July 13, a Moscow court sent Ilya Yashin, a former Moscow district council chief, to pretrial detention after he was charged with violating the “false information” law in statements opposing the war on Ukraine.

The charge apparently stems from a YouTube livestream in April in which Yashin spoke about the killings of civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, outside Kyiv, where survivors have delivered chilling accounts of alleged atrocities and investigators are uncovering evidence of what Ukrainian authorities say were war crimes.

Yashin is one of the few prominent opposition politicians who had remained both in Russia and out of prison -- aside from short stints in jail -- as the clampdown mounted in the wake of Navalny’s arrest upon his return to the country in January 2021 following treatment for the poisoning.

Yashin called his jailing and the charge against him “absurd,” arguing that it is Putin who is harming Russia, not those who have spoken out against the war.

“With my statements, I defended Russia. Its interests are being damaged by Putin, who dragged my country into the war, created a dictatorship of thieves, and intimidates everyone who disagrees with him," Yashin wrote on Facebook.

'A New, Dark Page'

On July 8, a colleague of Yashin’s in Moscow’s Krasnoselsky district council, Aleksei Gorinov, became the first elected official to be convicted under the “false information” law and the first defendant to be sentenced to prison under it. He was handed a seven-year term.

At a legislative session in March, Gorinov had criticized the invasion, suggesting it was inappropriate to be holding a local children’s art competition while “children are dying every day” in Ukraine. At a court hearing in June, Gorinov held up a sign that read: “I am against the war.”

"Seven years in prison for words,” Andrei Pivovarov, a prominent opposition activist who could be sentence to five years in prison on July 15 on a charge of heading an “undesirable organization,” wrote in a Facebook post condemning the verdict against Gorinov.

“A new, dark page of repression in Russia has officially opened,” he wrote.

It’s a page that may also include a reference to Maria Ponomarenko, a journalist who was arrested in St. Petersburg in April -- also on a charge of spreading “false information” about the military.

Ponomarenko, now in pretrial detention in the Siberian city of Barnaul, wrote in an open letter published on July 13 that she was forcibly injected with unknown substances at a psychiatric clinic where she was ordered to undergo a mental-health evaluation.

"Three Federal Penitentiary Service officers held my legs and arms, pushing me down on the bed, while a nurse injected me against my will," Ponomarenko wrote. "I have no recollection of three whole days."

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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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