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The Week In Russia: 'The Worst Is To Come'

Putin’s war on Ukraine will have long-lasting repercussions in Russia, which one journalist said “has already suffered a crushing moral defeat.”
Putin’s war on Ukraine will have long-lasting repercussions in Russia, which one journalist said “has already suffered a crushing moral defeat.”

President Vladimir Putin pushed ahead with a deadly, devastating offensive against Ukraine. His unprovoked war on the neighboring country and unprecedented crackdown on his own compatriots has put Russia in uncharted waters -- and clouded his own future like never before.

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

Putin's Wars

As fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine mounted over December, January, and February, one major question was this: If Putin were to launch a new assault on the neighboring nation, how far would he go and with what result for the target country? In short, what would happen to Ukraine?

On Day 9 of an already devastating war unleashed without provocation -- with towns torn apart by rockets, hundreds or thousands of soldiers and civilians dead, and more than 1 million people fleeing for safety -- the answer is far from clear. And a pair of related questions has emerged with increasing insistence: What’s in store for Russia? And for Putin?

Live Briefing: Russia Invades Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

It has been obvious all winter that an invasion would have major repercussions for Russia. As U.S. officials warned the world for weeks that an onslaught could begin at any moment, they also warned the Kremlin that the West would respond with tough and unprecedented sanctions. It was also clear that a new Russian escalation in Ukraine would come with yet another escalation at home -- a further intensification of an already intense clampdown on independent media, civil society, and dissenting voices across the board.

But the scope of the effects on Russia of Putin’s war on Ukraine, while also still unknown, has already pushed past the bounds of what was widely expected, casting the country into the deepest uncertainly since the Chechen wars and the debt-default crisis of the 1990s, for sure, and probably since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.

The greatest uncertainty of the Putin era, in other words -- and the greatest uncertainty over when that era might end.

Perhaps more than at any other time in the 22 years since his first election, the question of whether he can withstand the effects of the catastrophe he created is being asked -- if not answered with much confidence at this point.

There are at least two reasons for the surge of uncertainly about the future of Russia and its longtime leader, who in 2020 choreographed constitutional changes allowing him to seek another term in 2024 and yet another in 2030, potentially prolonging his stay in the Kremlin until 2036.

Both of them involve what appear to have been at least two major miscalculations on Putin’s part: One about the international response to the invasion -- including unprecedented sanctions that threaten to isolate Russia from the global economy and create problems for the elites as well as the broader population -- and the other about Ukraine’s response.

Or more precisely, about the widely held attitudes toward Russia in a country that, in 2014, saw Moscow seize control of the Crimean Peninsula and back separatists in the eastern Donbas region, helping ignite a war that had killed more than 13,200 people the before the new invasion began last week.

Many pieces of evidence suggest that Putin expected almost immediate success -- that Russian forces would move in, welcomed by many Ukrainians, and quickly subjugate the country, probably by pushing President Volodymyr Zelenskiy from power and installing a Moscow-friendly regime.

That evidence includes Putin’s own startlingly overambitious call for the Ukrainian military to seize power, the publication and subsequent withdrawal of a state news agency commentary that was essentially a celebration of triumph, and footage of burned-out Russian military vehicles, captured Russian soldiers lamenting that they were sent to Ukraine, and other images from a campaign that almost certainly has not gone the way Putin had hoped.

“What appears to have been a plan for the rapid and relatively bloodless decapitation of the Ukrainian state has turned already into a long and deadly slog,” Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at Kings College London, wrote in a blog post on March 2.

After initially saying nothing at all about its own casualties and then acknowledging that some had been suffered but giving no numbers, the Russian military said on March 2 that 498 of its soldiers had been killed. There was no way to verify the figure.

Going in, Putin may have been counting on a quick and easy victory not just because of what it would mean for Ukraine, but because it would make the war -- which the Kremlin may soon make it a crime to call a war -- more palatable to the Russian public.

The “recognition that this war would be unpopular was the key factor determining Russia’s opening gambit. The only way to mitigate that risk was to win the war as cleanly and quickly as possible,” Greene wrote. “That is now no longer an option.”

So, what are the options?

So far, Putin does not seem to see any, aside from pushing ahead with war in Ukraine and repression in Russia.

At home, startling developments suggest he has decided -- maybe in the past few days, maybe weeks or months ago -- to crack down even harder than he has since his prominent political foe, Aleksei Navalny, returned to Russia in January 2021 and was immediately arrested.

The ensuing clampdown, which was already building on an existing clampdown, gathered force over the past year. It has gone into overdrive in the past week, with some of the last remaining independent media outlets forced to shut and any opposition to the war in Ukraine stifled, if possible -- developments that one observer called the “collapse of the last shreds of democracy inside Russia.”

'There Was Nothing That Should Reassure Us'

As for the war itself, there is no sign that Putin plans to let up unless Kyiv delivers swiftly on massive demands that Zelenskiy and Western governments have said are unacceptable, including abandoning Crimea, the Donbas, NATO aspirations, and any weapons that Russia claims to believe threaten its security.

And there are plenty of signs that he will continue to wage war -- including his own vows to do so, in a March 3 address in which he said the campaign was “going according to plan” and in a 90-minute phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron the same day.

Putin told Macron that "Russia intends to continue the uncompromising fight against militants of nationalist armed groups," the Kremlin said, echoing Moscow’s false and baseless claims that Zelenskiy’s government is fascist.

The report from Macron, who seems to have been trying to talk some sense into Putin in a series of exchanges in recent weeks, was chilling.

"There was nothing in what President Putin told us that should reassure us. He showed great determination to continue the operation," an aide to Macron said, according to the French news agency AFP.

Macron fears "the worst is to come" in Ukraine following his conversation with Putin, who appears intent on seizing "the whole" of the country, the aide said.

But if that happens, the result may be something close to the opposite of what Putin has made clear he wants: A friendly, compliant Ukraine that is under his control to the greatest degree possible -- or, in any case, gives Moscow no trouble and serves, like Belarus, as a buffer between Russia and the West.

WATCH: Fires could still be seen smoldering in what used to be a row of high-rise apartment buildings on the main street of Borodyanka on March 3. The small town northwest of Kyiv came under Russian air strikes and artillery shelling the previous day.

Aerial Footage Of Ukrainian Town Reveals Devastation After Russian Attack
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Putin’s main argument aimed at justifying the invasion -- and the sweeping demands that Moscow made of Kyiv, NATO, and the United States as it built up troops near Ukraine’s borders in recent months -- has been that the neighboring country poses a threat to Russia’s security.

But as a result, he may have on his hands a rebellious land in which millions of people who remain will chafe angrily under Moscow’s thumb.

He will also have earned the lasting opprobrium of the West, uniting many of its disparate and often feuding camps against him after years of efforts to sow divisions, and may make countries more well-disposed to Russia, including China, wary of getting too close.

'A Cornered Rat'

At home, meanwhile, the invasion of Ukraine has plunged Russia into what could be a prolonged new era of uncertainty, economic hardship, and isolation.

“Whatever military ‘victory’ Mr. Putin might find acceptable in his twisted mind, Russia has already suffered a crushing moral defeat,” Aleksei Kovalyov, investigations editor at the Russia-focused media outlet Meduza, wrote in a March 3 opinion article in The New York Times.

Despite the ongoing clampdown, which has driven many Kremlin opponents out of the country and put others behind bars, demonstrations against the war have erupted across the country. As of March 3, more than 8,000 people had been detained for protesting against the government’s war on Ukraine, according to OVD-Info, a nongovernmental organization that monitors political repression.

How big the protests will get, and how big an impact they will have, is unclear.

And the Kremlin will find some purchase among the populace by blaming the United States and the European Union both for the war and for the economic turmoil rocking the country, painting the West as an aggressor out to eliminate Russia -- or to “cancel” its government, as the director of the Foreign Intelligence Servce, Sergei Naryshkin, asserted without evidence on March 3.

“Even if his hold on power is precarious, he can still convince Russians that the whole world is conspiring against them,” Masha Gessen wrote of Putin in a March 1 article in The New Yorker.

But economic troubles and isolation could foment dissatisfaction and anger at many levels -- from the poor to the rich and those in-between -- potentially changing the political atmosphere gradually, or even in an instant.

In theory, the pressure on Putin from both inside Russia and outside could prompt him to halt the onslaught in Ukraine and take other steps to ease the tension with the West.

But he has said and done nothing to suggest he might choose that course. On the contrary, he has sent increasingly aggressive signals, reminding the world of Russia’s nuclear weapons and warning he could level even more sweeping demands at Kyiv.

In a Twitter thread on March 2, Berlin-based commentator Leonid Bershidsky asked himself what Putin could do if he were to realize “the extent of economic damage, Ukrainian military resistance, and discontent in Russian society.”

One thing he might be likely to do would be “step up the military action in Ukraine by putting pressure on the military to be more ruthless and increasing payouts,” Bershidsky wrote. “He is a cornered rat now that must fight dirty and fast in the hope of ending the war in his favor fast.”

He added: “Putin needs to be stopped -- he won't stop on his own even if he suddenly becomes rational.”

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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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