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The Week In Russia: A Junta, A Hunger Strike, And Rumblings In The Donbas 


Ukrainian servicemen walk along a snow-covered trench at the front line near Vodiane in eastern Ukraine on March 5.

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Aleksei Navalny started a hunger strike in prison, while the father of a top ally of the Kremlin opponent was arrested in a move that one political analyst said echoed the Stalin era. The war in Syria passed the 10-year mark, the Kremlin tried damage control following a full-throated expression of support for Burma’s junta as it massacred protesters, and tensions rose amid fresh questions about Russia’s intentions in the Donbas.

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

'Getting Worrisome'

So far in 2021, the biggest Russia news has come from inside the country -- certainly since January 17, when Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny was arrested at the airport upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months in treatment after a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on President Vladimir Putin and the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Since then, events have rushed along at a rapid pace -- but at the same time may seem almost like they are occurring in slow motion, a nightmare sequence that one might like to stop with the push of a button but is powerless to affect. Almost every day brings a new development that seems worse than the last, or at least equally bad.

There have been large protests, a harsh crackdown, and a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for Navalny, who charges that he is being denied adequate medical treatment in what he called a “deliberate strategy” of harm -- and is essentially being tortured in his cell through sleep deprivation.

A screenshot of an Instagram post published on March 31 shows a photo of a handwritten statement in which Navalny declared a hunger strike.
A screenshot of an Instagram post published on March 31 shows a photo of a handwritten statement in which Navalny declared a hunger strike.

On March 31, Navalny announced a hunger strike to protest his treatment, demanding that his jailers adhere to the law and that a doctor of his choice be allowed to visit him.

“I have the right to invite a doctor and to receive medicine. They are not allowing me either one,” Navalny said in an Instagram post. “The pain in my back has spread to my leg. Parts of my right and now also my left leg have lost sensation. All joking aside, this is getting worrisome.”

Another Kremlin opponent, Vladimir Kara-Murza, expressed concern in more concrete terms, writing in The Washington Post that after the nerve-agent poisoning in August, which Navalny and many others say was an assassination attempt, “the Kremlin is trying to kill him again -- this time slowly, painfully and in the confinement” of the prison where he is being held.

The situation contains echoes of the fatal plight of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blower whose death in jail in 2009 has played a substantial part in defining Putin’s rule and souring Russia’s relations with the West.

Navalny himself is not the only one under pressure: Many of his associates and allies across Russia have been prosecuted, mainly on administrative charges linked to the protests held in January, and jailed, fined, or placed under house arrest in what Kremlin critics say is a concerted campaign to curtail Navalny’s reach from behind bars, blunt the challenge he poses, and reduce the chances of fresh protests ahead of parliamentary elections expected in September.

'Fathers And Sons'

Associates, allies -- and also their relatives, in at least one case. On March 27, the father of Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), was detained and jailed on an abuse-of-office charge stemming from a matter related to his preretirement job as a small-town official.

Zhdanov said he had “no doubt” that the arrest of his father was Kremlin-orchestrated punishment for his own work at FBK, which has produced several investigative reports revealing evidence of high-level corruption -- including an exposé, published two days before Navalny returned to Russia, on a sprawling Black Sea estate that it called “a palace for Putin.”

Yury Zhdanov, 66, faces up to four years in prison if tried and convicted. Pretrial detention puts “what remains of his health” in jeopardy, said Ivan Zhdanov, who blamed the Kremlin and said Putin’s administration had reached a “new level of villainy and turpitude.”

Pretrial detention puts “what remains of [my father's] health” in jeopardy, says Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Pretrial detention puts “what remains of [my father's] health” in jeopardy, says Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.

The elder Zhdanov’s arrest was “in keeping with Soviet-style ‘justice,' in which not only were parents made to pay for the ‘sins’ of their children and vice versa, but also siblings and other relatives were punished for each other’s ‘misdeeds,’” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, head of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“By arresting family members of persecuted individuals, today’s authorities openly declare themselves to be the direct successors of Stalin’s repressive system,” Kolesnikov wrote in an opinion article in The Moscow Times under the headline: Fathers and Sons: A Kremlin-KGB Remake.

The Kremlin’s main focus seems likely to remain on domestic events through the end of summer, given the test that United Russia -- the party that serves as one of Putin’s main levers of power nationwide but is deeply unpopular -- faces in the State Duma elections, which must be held by September 19.

The timing of the vote means there is little chance of a letup in the pressure on Navalny, his allies, and anyone inside Russia who is seen as threat to the Kremlin.

But there’s plenty happening beyond Russia’s borders.

For one thing, the month of March marked a decade since the start of the war in Syria -- and a decade of Russian support for President Bashar al-Assad’s government in a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven millions from their homes.

Moscow’s involvement in the war is often described as having begun in September 2015, when Russia launched a campaign of air strikes targeting Assad’s foes and also stepped up its military presence on the ground, helping turn the tide in his favor when his back was against the wall.

A fresh reminder of Moscow’s role since 2015 came on March 30, when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a humanitarian aid package for Syrians in their own country and abroad.

In a statement, Blinken said that the Syrian people "have faced atrocities, including Assad regime and Russian air strikes, forced disappearances, [Islamic State] brutality, and chemical-weapons attacks."

Aiding Assad

Concerns about Russia’s actions in Syria are mainly focused on the last half-decade as well. Among many other reports, they were underscored by an October 2019 report in The New York Times about an investigation that found that Russian pilots had bombed hospitals four times in the space of 24 hours that May.

But Moscow has been behind Assad since the war started in 2011 with a government crackdown on protests, lending him military support -- albeit on a smaller scale before 2015 -- and crucial diplomatic backing in the UN Security Council and other forums.

Moscow’s backing for Assad -- not to mention Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, and others -- might make a recent incident in Burma seem unsurprising. But the timing was such that the Kremlin, which rarely if ever admits to much of anything, let alone apologizes, appears to have felt the need to distance itself in this case.

Visiting Burma to mark the Southeast Asian country’s Armed Forces Day, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Fomin met on March 26 with General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the junta that took over after a military coup on February 1.

Fomin called Burma a reliable ally and strategic partner and said that Russia “is committed to a strategy aimed at bolstering relations between the two countries."

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Fomin meets with Burmese military officials on March 26.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Fomin meets with Burmese military officials on March 26.

The following day, the junta chief called Russia a “true friend” -- and, amidst lavish cerebrations of Armed Forces Day, security forces killed 114 people, according to local media, in the deadliest violence since mainly peaceful protests erupted after the military coup.

Even given Russia’s other relationships, the Kremlin’s tendency to shrug off accusations of violating human rights at home or condoning such actions abroad, the military official’s visit left observers wondering what the Russian state thought it had to gain with an expression of strong support for the junta amid the bloodshed.

'Really Worried'

In any case, the Kremlin climbed down -- or sought to soften the damage to its image amid outrage over the deadly violence -- two days later.

"We are really worried by the growing number of civilian casualties," Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters in a regular phone briefing with Russian and foreign media outlets. “It is a source of deep concern and we are following the unfolding situation in [Burma] really closely.”

Peskov, Putin, and other Russian officials have also voiced concern about the prospect of a new flare-up in the seven-year-old war in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has given military, political, and financial backing to anti-Kyiv forces who have held parts of two provinces in the region known as the Donbas.

The sincerity of such remarks has been questioned in Kyiv and the West, where an escalation of fighting in the Donbas and Russian troop maneuvers near the Ukrainian border -- as well as in Russian-controlled Crimea -- have sparked concern about Moscow’s intentions at a time when its ties with the United States and the European Union are severely strained.

Kyiv has accused the Russia-backed forces in the Donbas of stepping up cease-fire violations, and four Ukrainian servicemen were killed on March 26 in what the Ukrainian military said was a mortar attack -- the highest single-day toll since 2019.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited the front line in the eastern Donetsk region on February 11.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited the front line in the eastern Donetsk region on February 11.

The war in the Donbas has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014, when it erupted after Russia fomented separatism across eastern and southern Ukraine and seized the Crimean Peninsula after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed from power by a pro-Western, anti-corruption protest movement known as the Maidan.

Observers are wondering whether Russia may be gearing up for a new offensive in Ukraine or sending signals to the West, making a show of force to warn Washington and the EU against imposing new sanctions or other forms of pressure on Russia over its treatment of Navalny and other issues.

That seems to be just what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was doing -- sending a signal, a warning, a threat -- when he said on April 1, quoting what he described as remarks by Putin, that “anyone who tried to start a new war in the Donbas will destroy Ukraine."

Putin spokesman Peskov, commenting on the reported movements of Russian military forces near the Ukrainian border and in Crimea, said that Russia "moves its troops within its own territory as it sees fit” and that these movements “pose no threat to anyone.”

“That’s not exactly going to assure anyone,” Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote on Twitter.

It probably wasn’t meant to.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia 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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