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The Week In Russia: Theater Of War

Russian President Vladimir Putin's Victory Day address on May 9 seemed particularly detached from the facts of both World War II and the war he has inflicted upon Ukraine -- the biggest war in Europe since 1945.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's Victory Day address on May 9 seemed particularly detached from the facts of both World War II and the war he has inflicted upon Ukraine -- the biggest war in Europe since 1945.

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.

There's Red Square, and there's reality. Russian President Putin Vladimir Putin rehearsed grievances and repeated falsehoods at a Victory Day military parade as the war ground on in Ukraine. Farther from the Kremlin, the clampdown continued.

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

'A Real War'

Any military parade is probably more theater than reality -- a display of pomp, pride, and power that glosses over the pain, death, and deprivation of war.

But Putin's Victory Day address on Red Square on May 9, when Russia celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, seemed particularly detached from the facts of both that conflict decades ago and the war he has inflicted upon Ukraine -- the biggest war in Europe since 1945.

The parallels he drew between those wars were also badly flawed, observers of the annual event pointed out.

Whether the parade and his remarks served their purpose for Putin is another question. It's one that numerous analysts answered in the negative, saying they underscored his distortions of events past and present and gave additional exposure to the problems Russia is facing on the battlefield.

One major distortion came almost at the very start of the short speech, when he said that "a real war has once again been unleashed against our homeland."

This is false. Russia is the aggressor in the war in Ukraine, where Putin dramatically escalated a conflict that had persisted in the Donbas region since 2014 by launching a large-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.

Not Happening

Since then, there have been a number of artillery and drone attacks on Russian territory that Moscow has blamed on Kyiv. But these are minuscule compared to the Russian assault on Ukraine, where tens of thousands of civilians and combatants have been killed and millions of people driven from their homes. Russian forces control Crimea in its entirety, occupy parts of four other Ukrainian regions, and have laid waste to several cities and towns including Mariupol, a Sea of Azov port with a pre-invasion population of nearly half a million.

Putin's claim is false, but it fits in with a narrative he has turned to frequently as time has passed: that Russia is fighting not a war of aggression against Ukraine but rather a defensive effort against Western nations bent on tearing Russia apart. As he put it in the Red Square speech, "Their aim…is to achieve the collapse and destruction of our country."

This, too, is untrue. While plenty of people in the West would like to see what the domestic opposition describes in protest chants as "Russia without Putin," and some believe the war in Ukraine could bring that about, the prospect of Russia's disintegration or demise is a widely seen as a cause of concern, not enthusiasm, for the United States and many other governments.

Falsehoods aside, did this piece of military theater work for Putin?

As a show of strength, Russia's and his own, probably not.

The parade was modest compared to previous years in the Putin era. Fewer goose-stepping soldiers, fewer pieces of military equipment trundling across the square, and the absence of warplanes overhead might make sense when the country is fighting a war. But it may also have suggested that Russia's military -- built up over years in which Putin has warned the West to take notice -- needs everything it can get at the front and, after major losses in a war that Putin apparently hoped would be over in days or weeks but is now in its 15th month, has little to spare.

Prigozhin And Putin

The struggles on the battlefield and sharp disagreements among Russia's military leaders were on stark display in a series of angry video statements by Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the ostensibly private mercenary group Wagner, who accused top generals and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of badly mishandling the war and particularly the bloody and protracted fighting over Bakhmut, a once-thriving city in the Donbas that is now the scene of horrors that seem out of place in this century -- or did before the Russian invasion last year.

In one video, Prigozhin stood before piles of corpses of what he said were Wagner soldiers and accused the generals of causing their deaths by withholding supplies of weapons and ammunition. In another, in a remark whose target he may have deliberately left vague, he came close to calling Putin a "prick."

Putin, addressing the parade from the grandstand near Lenin's tomb, was no doubt pleased that leaders from seven of the other 14 former Soviet republics attended -- up from zero in 2022. State TV made that clear by cutting to shots of them, one by one, during Putin's speech.

And the 70-year-old president "looked and sounded in good form, belying claims of his worsening health and imminent demise," author and analyst Mark Galeotti wrote in the Spectator shortly after the parade. He noted that Putin "exchanged remarks with…Shoigu, also bringing into question assertions of a rift between the two men."

"Yet there was also no escaping the way that the parade, for all its rousing tunes and geometric choreography, signaled a military locked in an unexpectedly tough war," Galeotti wrote. "Russia is a nation losing its international status, and its president has nothing to offer his people but false claims of victimhood."

The Immortal Regiment

Beyond Red Square, a different kind of parade was conspicuous in its absence. For years, Russians have held marches called the Immortal Regiment, walking the streets carrying signs with photographs of relatives who gave their lives or otherwise contributed to the Soviet war effort in World War II.

A grassroots initiative at first, the new tradition was swiftly appropriated by the state authorities under Putin, who over his years in power has become increasingly wary of what he cannot control, particularly when it involves large crowds of people in the streets.

This year, the Immortal Regiment marches were canceled. Security concerns were the official reason, but analysts say the Kremlin was concerned that Russians might carry portraits of men killed in the war in Ukraine and also, more simply, is afraid of large demonstrations.

"There is a fear that people will carry portraits of people who have been killed in Ukraine and the real casualty figures -- not the ones presented by the Defense Ministry -- will be visible," historian Ivan Kurilla told RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities. "That is the most likely reason. But more generally, the authorities are afraid of any mass demonstration by the people in public. The authorities are obviously afraid."

And in prisons, jails, and courts, the repression that Kremlin critics say is driven by that fear ground on.


On May 11, imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was sent to a punitive solitary confinement cell for the 15th time since August 2022, according to his Telegram channel.

Navalny said he was released from such a cell the previous evening but ordered back less than 14 hours later. He said he has spent 165 days in solitary confinement since he was jailed upon return to Russia in January 2021, after recovering in Germany from a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin.

The Telegram post came a day after the UN special rapporteur on torture, Alice Edwards, called on Russia to provide Navalny with "urgent and comprehensive" medical care amid reports that his health is deteriorating.

Edwards also cited the cases of three political supporters of Navalny who are also in detention -- Liliya Chanysheva, Vadim Ostanin, and Daniel Kholodny -- saying they should be released "without delay" if prompt, thorough, impartial investigations find that they "are being arbitrarily deprived of their liberty."

In the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, popular former Mayor Yevgeny Roizman is being tried for his criticism of the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, under legislation signed by Putin days after it began. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted of discrediting the Russian military.

Roizman says he's being tried for calling the invasion of Ukraine what it is: the invasion of Ukraine. Russia officially calls the war a "special military operation," and officials including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have falsely stated that Russia has not invaded Ukraine.

'Powerful, Beautiful Anti-War Poetry'

On May 4, police detained the director and author of Finist -- The Brave Falcon, a play about Russ ian women who married Muslim men and moved to Syria that won Russia's Golden Mask national theater award in 2002.

Director Yevgenia Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriichuk are accused of the justification of terrorism and have been sent to pretrial jail for at least two months while prosecutors assemble their case.

The accusation over the play is a pretext and Berkovich is really being prosecuted "for her powerful, beautiful anti-war poetry," Konstantin Sonin, a political economist and a professor at the University of Chicago, wrote on Twitter. "This is [about] her anti-war stance, her poetry, her bravery and independence."

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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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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