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The Week In Russia: 'If You're Wondering When This Will Stop...'

Russia-backed fighters take part in a training exercise outside the separatist-controlled city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine in September.
Russia-backed fighters take part in a training exercise outside the separatist-controlled city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine in September.

Military movements raise questions over Russia's intentions toward Ukraine, once again, and the Kremlin’s attitude toward the border crisis seething in Belarus adds to tension between Moscow and the West. At home, the state targets the revered human rights group Memorial, diminishing the chances of a reckoning with the past.

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

Looking Back

Thirty years ago next month, the Soviet Union fell apart. Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus -- the three republics whose leaders sealed the country’s fate by creating a smaller, looser union during a meeting at a resort in the woods not far from the Polish border -- parted ways amicably.

There was not too much tension between them or, for that matter, with their neighbors to the west, themselves freed from Moscow’s yoke two years earlier, when the Berlin Wall fell and communism collapsed across Central Europe.

Today, there is plenty of tension on some of those same borders.

In Ukraine, a seven-year war that has killed more than 13,000 people simmers on in the Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists hold parts of two provinces that border Russia. The frontier has been a funnel for Russian troops and weapons headed into Ukraine -- including the Buk missile complex that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in July 2014, killing all 298 people aboard, before being hustled back across into Russia.

Fighting was fiercest in the first year of the war, and the front lines have remained roughly the same since Minsk 2, the February 2015 agreement that produced a very, very frequently violated cease-fire and a step-by-step plan -- still largely unimplemented -- to resolve the conflict.

Russian troops disembark from a landing boat during drills in Crimea.
Russian troops disembark from a landing boat during drills in Crimea.

But the hostilities continue. And in recent weeks, Russian troop movements -- both on its own territory and in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia occupied and seized from Ukraine in March 2014 -- have raised fresh questions and concerns about Moscow’s intentions.

Sound familiar? Similar concerns surged last spring, only to subside as no major offensive by the Russia-backed fighters materialized.

This time, it’s different, some experts say -- or at least evidence suggests it might be.

The buildup was at least one reason for a rare visit to Moscow by CIA Director William Burns earlier this month, which included a phone call with President Vladimir Putin. And U.S. officials “have briefed EU counterparts on their concerns over a possible military operation,” Bloomberg reported on November 11.

Moreover, military analysts who are not alarmist and take pains to avoid stoking fears of war have said, in short, that there is cause for concern.

“It does appear that the Russian military has been ordered to position itself for a possible operation in the coming months,” Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the U.S.-based think tank CAN, wrote on Twitter on November 9.

"I don't see indicators that a Russian military offensive is imminent. Hence this is not a situation likely to unfold in the coming days or weeks,” Kofman tweeted. “I would look to the winter, maybe after the holidays.”

“Either way, I doubt a political decision has yet been made,” he wrote, adding that “only [the] Russian leadership knows if they intend to use force, on what scale, and when.”

That could be the point, of course: Russian President Vladimir Putin may trying to keep his options open -- as he does in domestic politics as well -- and keep Kyiv, NATO, and the West guessing about whether Russia will try to shift the status quo in Ukraine.

'Possibly Torture'

Northwest of the Donbas, meanwhile, a crisis is unfolding along the borders between Belarus -- the closest thing Russia has to an ally -- and the countries that joined the European Union and NATO in the years that followed the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union.

In recent months, thousands of migrants from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa have attempted to illegally enter Poland and fellow EU members Latvia and Lithuania from Belarus, many of them after arriving in Minsk on the proliferating flights from those regions to the Belarusian capital.

Some have been physically forced across the frontier by Belarusian border guards, and Human Rights Watch says the conduct of the Belarusian authorities toward the migrants “amounts to ill treatment, and in some cases possibly torture.”

Hundreds of migrants camp on the Belarusian side of the border with Poland near Kuznica Bialostocka, Poland, in this photograph released by the Polish Defense Ministry on November 10.
Hundreds of migrants camp on the Belarusian side of the border with Poland near Kuznica Bialostocka, Poland, in this photograph released by the Polish Defense Ministry on November 10.

Among other spots along the border, the crisis is playing out in forests near Belavezhskaya Pushcha, the woodland resort where Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, and Stanislau Shushkevich of Belarus signed the December 8, 1991, deal that declared the U.S.S.R. to be in its death throes and hastened its demise by creating the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Angela Merkel has accused the authoritarian Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka of practicing “state-backed human trafficking.” On November 10, she urged Putin to use his influence with Belarus to halt its "inhumane and unacceptable" use of migrants as a geopolitical instrument.

Putin’s response: Talk to Lukashenka.

Predictable, perhaps, given the Kremlin’s tendency -- on display to varying degrees as regards the forces it backs in the Donbas and in Syria, where it has given crucial military and diplomatic support to President Bashar al-Assad’s government -- to insist that it holds no sway.

In Ukraine, Moscow denies even being a party to the war, despite the overwhelming evidence. It’s a claim almost nobody believes -- and one that is periodically undermined by remarks from the Russia-backed separatists themselves and from Russians who have led them.

Meanwhile, accusations that Russia is behind the Belarus border crisis have sparked lively debate, with some analysts who closely watch both countries saying it’s more likely that Moscow is out to capitalize on the confrontation.

Cue the bombers.

Putin’s ability to control Lukashenka is certainly not limitless. If it were, Belarus might be something closer to a Russian province than to an independent state.

But it seems certain that Lukashenka's dependence on Moscow has increased as his isolation from the West has deepened in the past two years -- first over the brutal crackdown that followed his claim of victory in a deeply disputed August 2020 election, and now over the mayhem on the EU border.

The enormity of the postelection clampdown in Belarus, which Lukashenka has ruled since 1994, has sometimes overshadowed the clampdown in Russia, which has gathered force since the return of Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny to the country in January, following treatment in Germany for a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin.

But the clampdown in Russia continues -- and this week it took two substantial turns for the worse.

Following his arrest and imprisonment last winter, Navalny’s organizations -- including his Anti-Corruption Foundation and his nationwide network of political offices -- were targeted by the state, deemed extremist, and outlawed.

Now the authorities have set a new precedent, using the extremism designation retroactively -- to go after people who were part of Navalny’s network before it was branded with the extremist label.

Lilia Chanysheva
Lilia Chanysheva

On November 9 in Ufa, the capital of the Bashkortostan region, police arrested Lilia Chanysheva, who supporters said is newly pregnant, after they searched her home. The next day, a court ordered her jailed in pretrial detention for at least a month.

Chanysheva headed Navalny's regional office in Ufa until his team disbanded the nationwide network after a Moscow prosecutor went to court to have it branded extremist -- but before that designation was approved by a court and applied.

Forget Stalin

On November 11, something even more momentous happened: The Prosecutor-General’s Office asked the Supreme Court to shut down part of Memorial, Russia’s most prominent human rights group, accusing it of failure to comply with the controversial "foreign agent” legislation that has been one of the main instruments of the clampdown.

In addition to rights advocacy, Memorial has doggedly pursued a related effort: seeking to uncover and document the crimes of the state committed against its citizens in the Soviet era, particularly during dictator Josef Stalin’s “Great Terror” of 1937-38.

It’s a goal some Russians consider absolutely crucial to the future of their country, which they say cannot thrive without a comprehensive reckoning with the past.

Increasingly, though, this mission has run up against hurdles and hostility under Putin -- a former KGB officer who has brought many people with similar backgrounds into high positions. It will now have an even smaller chance of being fulfilled.

In a tweet on the move to shut down International Memorial, Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, added a grim remark on the Russian state’s persistent clampdown on the political opposition, independent media, civil society groups, and more.

“If you’re wondering where this will stop, it won’t,” 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).

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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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