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The Week In Russia: The Sound Of Rattling Sabers

A Russia-backed separatist is seen during during combat exercises near Horlivka in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region. (file photo)
A Russia-backed separatist is seen during during combat exercises near Horlivka in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region. (file photo)

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Military movements and bellicose talk on state TV raise concerns about the Kremlin’s intentions regarding Ukraine again, seven years after the seizure of Crimea and the start of a war in the Donbas. Meanwhile, the condition of Russia’s most prominent prisoner, Aleksei Navalny, causes growing concern.

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

Talk Of War

Two buildups in Russia are raising concerns about a new flare-up in the seven-year war in the Donbas this spring. One is the movement of military forces toward the Ukrainian border and into Crimea, the other is a rash of bellicose reports and rhetoric on state TV.

A sample: an exchange in which a guest told prominent political talk show host Vladimir Solovyov that Russia could halt any hostilities “by threatening the use of tactical nuclear weapons, at least,” and suggested that to show that the warning had teeth, Moscow could “conduct a nuclear explosion somewhere in empty ocean waters -- but not so empty that it wouldn’t be seen.”

Solovyov had asked how quickly a Russian “battle against NATO forces in Ukraine” would “lead to a nuclear conflict.”

Russian airborne troops during military exercises in Crimea last month
Russian airborne troops during military exercises in Crimea last month

With the military movements, Russia’s ultimate purpose is unclear, presumably by design. And there may be several Kremlin goals that fall short of an intention to launch a major offensive and seize control of more territory in Ukraine -- where Moscow has occupied the Crimean Peninsula since March 2014 and has helped separatists take and hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since that April, in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 civilians and combatants.

The intent of the barrage of bellicose programming seems clearer: to justify any offensive or increase in hostilities, mainly in the eyes of the Russian audience, and to blame Kyiv and the West. As analysts say of the military movements themselves, it may also be aimed as a warning to Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States that Russia is ready, willing, and able to take action whenever it sees fit.

Senior Russian officials have also advanced those goals. Amid the TV talk of demonstrative nuclear explosions, Nikolai Patrushev, a close Putin ally who heads his Security Council, told the newspaper Kommersant that it’s the United States that needs to show “common sense.”

And Dmitry Kozak, a deputy chief of Putin’s staff, said on April 8 that if Kyiv initiated major military action, it would mean “the beginning of the end of Ukraine.”

Ratings And Risks

The mention of nuclear weapons and existential threats may be a way of making -- at least on the level of propaganda -- what is on the ground a regional conflict into a major potential test for Washington and a warning that if the United States and Europe are going to support Kyiv with words, they may need to be prepared to do so with actions.

War scare in [the Donbas] will pass. This time. But the threat of war will remain.”
--- Dmitry Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center

Despite the growing tension, continuing Russian military moves , and reports of increased fighting in the Donbas, there are plenty of reasons to believe a major Russian offensive is not in the cards.

For one thing, the Russian populace may have little appetite for it, despite the propaganda on TV. With the COVID-19 pandemic still hitting the economy and real incomes falling, there are other things to worry about.

Putin got a boost from Russia’s takeover of Crimea seven years ago, but a new offensive against Ukraine now “is less likely to boost [the] Kremlin's ratings,” analyst Maria Snegovaya wrote on Twitter on April 8. “My study shows that under economic decline, Russians are much less inclined to support the authorities' aggressive military rhetoric.”

“This is based on logic: [The] Kremlin should be solving internal problems instead of going to war against other countries,” she wrote.

From Russia With…

And many Russians have no desire to see relations with the United States sour still further, whatever state TV says about Moscow’s former Cold War foe as relations continue to plumb the depths but never seem to find a bottom. A recent poll by the independent Levada Center found that 65 percent of Russians aged 18-24 and 51 percent aged 25-39 viewed the United States positively. Those reporting a negative view of the United States exceeded 50 percent only in the 55-and-over age group.

Also, analysts say the Ukrainian military has improved markedly since 2014, when Russian forces who occupied Crimea helped the separatists in the east -- whose actions were fomented by Moscow -- seize parts of the Donbas.

So, for the time being at least, Russia may be in it more for the signals it is sending -- saber-rattling, almost in the literal sense -- than anything else.

“War scare in [the Donbas] will pass. This time,” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter on April 5. “But the threat of war will remain.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) is accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left) and General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces, during military exercises in September 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) is accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left) and General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces, during military exercises in September 2020.

The Kremlin may want it that way -- and be keeping its intentions cloudy deliberately.

“Russian forces are on the move around Donbas and into Crimea, and the unsettling thing for the outside world is that we don’t know why,” author and analyst Mark Galeotti wrote in an article published by BNE Intellinews on April 6.

The current crisis,” he wrote, is “a case study of what happens when nations lie, bluff, and posture.”

One cause for concern is the fact that in 2014, few predicted that Russia would seize Crimea and push into eastern Ukraine, changing Europe’s borders and making part of eastern Ukraine into a platform for constant pressure on Kyiv.

'Severe Test'

Another is the notion that with the world still reeling for the coronavirus pandemic and U.S. President Joe Biden saddled with multiple priorities at home and abroad less than three months into his term, Putin thinks he sees an opportunity to weaken the West.

Emboldened by inconsistent EU responses to its actions in several areas, Russia is posing a “more severe test,” Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, wrote in an April 7 article in the English-language Moscow Times. “This is a dangerous moment for Europe and the transatlantic alliance.”

“The risk now is that a major Russian offensive against Ukraine splits the continent from the Anglo-American world,” he wrote.

“Russia may believe this is the right moment to attempt a decoupling of the Atlantic alliance that the Soviet Union never achieved,” Gould-Davies added. “If it waits, Biden will heal the damage done by his predecessor to the alliance and Europe will recover from COVID-19. The stakes are high not only for Ukraine but for the West.”

Bad Medicine

Another test for the West is the Russian state’s treatment of Aleksei Navalny, the Kremlin opponent who survived a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin and is now suffering from worsening health problems in prison 100 kilometers east of Moscow.

Navalny, who declared a hunger strike on March 31 after accusing his jailers of denying him adequate medical treatment and effectively torturing him through sleep deprivation, has been losing about 1 kilogram a day, his lawyer Vadim Kobzev said.

Police officers guard an entrance to the notorious Correctional Colony No. 2, where Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny is imprisoned, in Pokrov, some 85 kilometers east of Moscow, on April 6.
Police officers guard an entrance to the notorious Correctional Colony No. 2, where Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny is imprisoned, in Pokrov, some 85 kilometers east of Moscow, on April 6.

Navalny, 44, has complained of severe back pain and leg numbness for nearly three weeks. On April 8, another lawyer for the opposition politician, Olga Mikhailova, said that an earlier MRI showed he had two herniated disks in his back -- and also that he has started to lose feeling in his hands, as well. She said he refused treatment with two outdated drugs that have not been used by doctors in Russia for 30 years.

He is also being trolled.

Meanwhile, the government crackdown that gathered force following Navalny’s return to Russia in January persisted.

On April 8, a Moscow court kept Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, under house arrest and issued the same ruling in hearings for Pussy Riot protest group member Maria Alyokhina and two other people detained in connection with the protests sparked by the jailing of Navalny, who was arrested at the airport on return after treatment in Germany, and other grievances against the government.

On April 7, the same court ended house arrest and imposed milder restrictions on four other people in the case, including Navalny's brother, Oleg; a lawyer for Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, Lyubov Sobol; and Moscow city lawmakers Lyusya Shtein and Konstantin Yankauskas.

'Grotesque Fables'

All eight and two others face up to two years in prison if convicted of violating public health rules during the pandemic, but they dismiss the charges, and the prominent Russian human rights group Memorial has recognized them as political prisoners.

Vladimir Kara-Murza
Vladimir Kara-Murza

Kremlin opponent Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was detained at a forum in Moscow on March 13 at which all of the nearly 200 attendees were rounded up in a police raid, wrote in The Washington Post that “the most grotesque fables” in Franz Kafka’s The Trial “pale in comparison with the reality of the judicial system under Vladimir Putin.”

Like all those arrested, many of whom were municipal lawmakers, Kara-Murza faced an administrative charge of “participating in the activities of an undesirable organization.” As expected, he wrote, he was found guilty at a hearing he described as “an exercise in absurdity” -- in part because the organization in question never existed.

Navalny’s ordeal has brought back memories of the fate of whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow jail in November 2009 after accusing the authorities of denying him medical treatment.

April 8 was Magnitsky’s birthday: He would be 49 years old now.

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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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