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The Week In Russia: A Long Prison Term And A 'Risky Path' For Putin

Vladimir Kara-Murza at his sentencing in Moscow on April 17.
Vladimir Kara-Murza at his sentencing in Moscow on April 17.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

Vladimir Kara-Murza is sentenced to 25 years in prison, the longest term handed down to an opponent of President Vladimir Putin or a critic of Russia's war on Ukraine. As fighting persists, Putin is "tethering his future to that of an unpredictable conflict," an analyst and Kremlin expert says.

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

A 'Monstrous Sentence'

In addition to deadly wars and a retreat from democracy, Putin's long rule has been defined in large part by politically charged trials in which the verdict -- guilty -- is never in doubt, but in which the severity of the sentence is used by the state to send signals to audiences at home and abroad.

Often, judges in high-profile cases have handed defendants prison terms that are a little bit shorter than those sought by prosecutors, presumably as part of an effort by the state to suggest that the trial is fair and that the sentence has not been delivered from inside the Kremlin walls.

Sometimes, judges have suspended the sentence, allowing the defendant to avoid prison for whatever reason -- in the early trials of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny a decade ago and more, for example, the reason was to avoid provoking street protests by creating a martyr.

Those days are long gone, though: Navalny, behind bars since January 2021, is serving very real and very dangerous prison time after being sentenced to terms of nine years and 2 1/2 years in separate cases widely seen as the fabrications of a vengeful state.

And at the April 17 verdict hearing in the trial of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a vocal Putin foe who has spoken out against the war on Ukraine and has lobbied hard in the West for sanctions against Russians who violate human rights, there was no pretense of a carefully reasoned decision on the severity of the punishment.

Within about 10 minutes of the start of the hearing -- hours, even days faster than some interminable verdict-readings in past trials of prominent Kremlin opponents such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- the judge pronounced Kara-Murza guilty of treason and two other crimes and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. It was the term requested by prosecutors and the longest prison sentence handed down to an opposition figure in post-Soviet Russia, by far.

It was also a sign of the times, in several ways.

For one thing, it was a crude display of the state's power to do what it wants. For another, it was a warning to the West: Kara-Murza has both Russian and British citizenship, has spent much of his time in recent years in the United States, and is probably best known outside Russia for his advocacy of the 2012 Magnitsky Act -- which gives the U.S. president the authority to freeze the U.S. assets of Russian government officials and businessmen accused of gross violations of human rights -- and similar legislation in other countries. He had a close relationship with John McCain, the late U.S. senator from Arizona who was one of Putin's fiercest critics in Congress, and he served as a pallbearer at McCain's funeral in 2018.

Mainly, though, it was part of an effort to underscore the idea that no opposition to the war will be tolerated, and that anyone who criticizes it is not just a criminal -- an accusation covered by a now much-employed law that Putin signed days after launching the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 -- but a traitor.

'War Crimes'

If the message wasn't clear enough, it was amplified by Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. Asked about U.S. and British criticism of the verdict, she was unwilling or unable to limit herself to a simple claim that the court had issued its verdict independently of the executive branch, instead stating that "traitors and betrayers…who are applauded in the West will get what they deserve."

Kara-Murza was arrested in April 2022, about two months after the invasion began and shortly after he returned to Russia following a speech to lawmakers in the U.S. state of Arizona in which he accused the "dictatorial regime in the Kremlin" of committing "war crimes." A year later, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin over what it says has been the illegal deportation of children from Ukraine -- a war crime.

The charges against Kara-Murza have been the object of derision and anger among supporters, Western governments, and rights groups. He was facing "a monstrous prison term for no more than raising his voice and elevating the voices of others in Russia who disagree with the Kremlin, its war in Ukraine, and its escalating repression within Russia," Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said ahead of the verdict.

Kara-Murza is the most prominent Russian to be convicted of treason since the invasion, but he is not the only one: In 2022, 22 cases of treason were opened in Russia, while at least 20 cases have already been announced this year -- and human rights lawyers say there may be dozens more that are being kept under wraps.

The increase in publicized cases of treason seems to coincide with a growing effort by Putin and the government apparatus he controls to bind citizens together and keep them from challenging the state by convincing them that Russia's "special military operation" is not a war of aggression against Ukraine but part of a struggle for survival against a "collective West" that, with Washington at the helm, is bent on tearing the country apart and erasing it.

To some extent, this propaganda push may have succeeded, at least for the time being. Hundreds of thousands of Russians who oppose the war, are afraid of being sent to die, or want a brighter future have fled in just over a year -- many of them after the invasion, many others after Putin announced a "partial mobilization" that was actually a massive military call-up last September. So, some of the Russians most likely to resist government narratives and government pressure are gone.

"The Kremlin has managed to transform the ‘special operation' into a ‘people's war,' a shared task that should unite the nation," Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, wrote in an April 10 article. "Anyone who is against the Kremlin -- ‘national traitors,' in Putin's words -- must be fought against."

But it would be easier for Putin to mold the country into a monolith if it were winning the war. Instead, Russia has suffered numerous setbacks -- from the failure to subjugate Ukraine within days or weeks of the invasion, as he apparently expected, to the trouble its forces have had trying to seize just one small city, Bakhmut, the focus of extremely deadly fighting for at least eight months.

That means that Putin may have to turn to another major mobilization before long.

'High Levels Of Discontent'

The stage has just been set for that: Putin signed a bill into law last week that digitalizes the draft, potentially making it much harder for Russians to avoid service -- until now, something that could be done by physically avoiding receipt of a call-up notice.

Whether and when it might be used for a big new call-up is uncertain, for reasons that involve Putin's political calculations.

Putin is expected to seek a fifth term in a presidential election next March and will want to engineer as commanding a victory as he can. He could complicate that goal if a big escalation or major new mobilization deepens concerns among the Russian elites and brings what analyst Tatyana Stanovaya called their "high levels of discontent" -- now largely hidden – out into the open.

"Russians are aware that Putin could remain in power for a long time to come…. Yet if the conflict drags on and Moscow continues to flail, it is possible to imagine that the country's elites could start to seriously consider choosing a successor themselves," Stanovaya wrote in an April 11 article in the journal Foreign Affairs.

"That does not mean Russia's elites will attempt any kind of coup in the immediate future; for now, Russia's leader reigns supreme," she wrote. "But the war is remaking Russia, and Putin's willingness to commit ever-greater resources to avoid defeat has set him on a risky path, tethering his future to that of an unpredictable conflict. Putin may not be likely to lose power, but a historically large reelection victory is by no means guaranteed."

Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky, meanwhile, suggested that it would take more than a major escalation or a series of new setbacks to shake Putin's grip on power.

For now, at least, he "appears to be digging in and hoping that Russia's moneyed elite will adapt itself to the new order, as it's done repeatedly in the past -- just give it time," Bershidsky wrote in an April 19 article.

Putin will "only allow even partially dissenting voices if they sing harmony with each other and, ultimately, with him," he concluded. "Only a massive military defeat could, in theory, change that."

Kara-Murza, for his part, voiced confidence that change is on the way.

The day will come "when a war will be called a war, and a usurper a usurper;" he said in a final statement in court on April 10, "and when those who kindled and unleashed this war, rather than those who tried to stop it, will be recognized as criminals."

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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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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About This Newsletter

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.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

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