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The Week In Russia: A Lethal New Year

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an Orthodox Christmas mass at the Kremlin on January 6.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an Orthodox Christmas mass at the Kremlin on January 6.

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.

With tens of thousands of soldiers killed or wounded and internal tensions rising following a year of battlefield struggles and setbacks, President Vladimir Putin reshuffles the military command for Russia’s war on Ukraine. At home, his imprisoned opponents remain defiant as the oppression persists.

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

War Is Not Over

By tradition and by the calendar that was used until 1918, tomorrow is New Year’s Day in Russia -- known now as the Old New Year. And while Russians rang in the New Year along with the rest of the world on January 1, there’s a sense that it doesn’t really begin until January 14.

What 2023 will bring for Russia and its people may be less clear than at any time since around 1918, or World War II, or the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. By ordering a large-scale invasion of Ukraine last February, Putin cast dark clouds over Russia’s future, short-term and long.

For now, of course, Russia's unprovoked invasion has had a far more momentous effect on Ukraine, destroying cities and towns, killing tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians, torturing, raping, and abusing peaceful citizens of all ages, and driving millions of people from their homes -- some of them, including children, taken to Russia against their will. It has also strengthened the unity and national identity of Ukrainians -- clearly an undesired effect for Putin, who has repeatedly and groundlessly suggested that Ukraine is not a real country, and who launched the assault to subjugate it.

For both countries, one thing seems grimly certain: The war will continue well into 2023 and possibly into 2024, or longer. There is no sign that it will end soon, as a result of either negotiations or battlefield victories -- and Putin’s shake-up of the military command this week, while it may seem aimed to bring Russia a breakthrough after numerous setbacks in 2022, is further evidence that the war will persist for the foreseeable future.

In what U.S.-based military analyst Dara Massicot called “a story that has it all: infighting, power struggles, jealousy,” the longtime chief of the Russian Armed Forces’ General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, was named to replace General Sergei Surovikin, who had been overall commander for what Moscow calls the “special military operation” in Ukraine for just over three months.

Surovikin -- whose appointment in September had been seen as both an effort by Putin to turn the tide after a series of setbacks and to assign responsibility for the imminent Russian retreat from the southern city of Kherson squarely on his shoulders -- becomes one of three deputies to Gerasimov, who will be under pressure to produce results.

A 'Creeping' Loss

A big part of Putin’s strategy, Russia analyst Mark Galeotti suggested, is “demonstrating to the West that Russia is in this for the long haul, and hoping that we will lose the will and unity to continue to support Kyiv.”

“I think Putin will be disappointed, but he has to believe this -- it's his only real shot at some kind of victory,” he wrote on Twitter shortly after the shake-up was announced on January 11.

Galeotti wrote that the reshuffle provided “confirmation, if we needed it, that there will be serious offensives coming,” and that he suspects “Putin has unrealistic expectations again” about what Russia can achieve in the war -- in which he is widely believed to have expected to bring Kyiv to heel within days of the February 24 invasion.

“With Gerasimov in charge, if this is indeed permanent, I think the possibility of the Russians asking their tired force to do something that it cannot handle rises exponentially,” Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, wrote in a thread on January 11.

And Russian political expert Tatyana Stanovaya also indicated that the shake-up is unlikely to produce the results Putin would like to see.

The conclusion is that Putin is looking for effective tactics in the conditions of a ‘creeping’ loss,” R.Politik, the analysis firm Stanovaya founded and heads, wrote on Twitter following the Russian Defense Ministry announcement.

“He is trying to reshuffle the pieces and is therefore giving chances to those who he finds persuasive. Today, Gerasimov turned out to be persuasive. Tomorrow it could be anybody else,” R.Politik wrote. “But in reality, the problem is not with the people, but with the tasks at hand.”

Russia Behind Bars

If the war in Ukraine seems certain to persist for months or more, so does the oppression inside Russia, where a clampdown that can be traced back at least 12 years was ramped up early in 2021 and again last February, when Putin ordered the large-scale invasion and moved to further crush dissent.

With the next presidential election due to be held in March 2024, Putin will want to maintain as much control as he possibly can, whether he runs for a fifth term -- as is widely expected, barring changes even bigger than those the war has brought -- or not.

On January 11, associates of Aleksei Navalny, whose return to Russia two years ago following treatment for a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin precipitated a further tightening of the screws, said that prison authorities have refused to transfer the opposition leader from punitive confinement to a prison infirmary despite flu symptoms.

A day earlier, dozens of Russian physicians published an open letter urging Putin to “stop torturing” Navalny, who is serving sentences of nine years and 2 1/2 years following convictions at trials he contends were politically motivated.

The doctors who signed the letter wrote that Navalny’s state of health is worsening and that the refusal of prison authorities to pass medicine along to him is threatening his life.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Kremlin opponent and critic of Russia’s war on Ukraine, has been jailed since April and could be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison if convicted of treason, one of several charges that he dismisses as politically motivated.

In a January 11 announcement of an initiative titled Without Just Cause, aimed at raising international awareness and to advocate for the release of people worldwide who are detained unfairly, the U.S. State Department called on Moscow to free Kara-Murza and “more than 500 other political prisoners in Russia.”

A day earlier, Human Rights First and other groups urged U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to impose sanctions on people involved in Kara-Murza’s detention.

Kara-Murza “has been unjustly detained for nine months and faces a growing list of unfounded charges for his courageous advocacy and criticism of the Putin regime’s war of aggression in Ukraine and its utter disregard for human rights,” Human Rights First President and CEO Mike Breen said in a statement.

Ilya Yashin, an opposition politician who was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison in early December for remarks on what he has called Russia’s “monstrous” war in Ukraine, was sent by train from Moscow to a jail in Udmurtia, a region known for bleak, tough prisons, shortly before the New Year.

In a Telegram post on December 30, Yashin said he’s doing fine and made clear he hasn’t changed his views.

“I’d like to remind you that the criminal war with Ukraine must be stopped, Putin must go, and Russia must be free and happy,” he wrote.

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

RFE/RL intern Ella Jaffe contributed to this report.
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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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