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The Week In Russia: The 'New Normal'

People participate in a "Stand With Ukraine" rally outside the United Nations in New York on February 17.
People participate in a "Stand With Ukraine" rally outside the United Nations in New York on February 17.

New COVID-19 cases shot above 200,000 a day; Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny went on trial again, this time in prison; and tension over Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine’s borders receded briefly but returned swiftly -- and looks likely to remain high for a long time.

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

Climb Down, Ramp Up

For a few fleeting moments this week, it seemed that what some call the Ukraine crisis and others call the Russia crisis -- the tension caused by Russia’s buildup of troops near Ukraine’s borders and its demand that Ukraine be kept out of NATO forever, among other things -- might be over, or at least beginning to pass.

A more realistic assessment: It’s here to stay. It’s not going away any time soon -- and could flare up at almost any moment, either by Moscow’s design or as the result of an unplanned, unfortunate sequence of events.

The initial impression came from a confluence of factors: Signals from Moscow that it might be pulling back some troops and remarks that made clear Russia was not shutting the door on diplomacy, despite being told that its breathtaking main demands -- no more eastward expansion for NATO, ever, and the rollback of the security arrangements built up since the Soviet Union lost its dominion over Eastern Europe and then collapsed -- were, as it must have known from the start, nonstarters.

But more telling, perhaps, was a series of taunts from officials and others close to the Kremlin mocking the United States and its repeated warnings that Russian could invade Ukraine at any time. Suggestions from U.S. officials that it could happen this week provided Moscow with a fat target for what has become a substantial aspect of Russian foreign policy: trolling.

“February 15, 2022 will go down in history as the day the Western war propaganda failed,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Telegram. “Humiliated and destroyed without a single shot fired.”

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, joked about appealing to the United States not to attack Canada.

Beneath the crowing was the suggestion of a climbdown.

Russia had already won, officials and other figures in the Kremlin orbit said, by forcing Washington and the West to hear Moscow out and take its stated concerns into account.

Russia’s demands had the effect of “shaking up” the United States and NATO, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Putin during a stage-managed meeting at a long table in the Kremlin on February 14.

Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of state broadcaster RT, pointed to the series of senior Western officials who have come to Moscow for talks amid the crisis.

“Before, nobody wanted to talk to us about security, but now there is a line of people wanting to admire the views of Moscow in February,” she wrote on Telegram.

Putin’s meeting with Lavrov, as well as the remarks by Zakharova, Simonyan, and others, sent two clear and interrelated signals: that diplomacy could continue, for the time being, and that there would be no invasion in the coming days.

That messaging allowed Moscow to ease the tension, at least temporarily. It appeared aimed, at least in part, to dispel any impression in Russia or the West that after sending more than 130,000 troops close to Ukraine’s borders and then not invading would be a sign of weakness or lack of resolve -- proof that Putin had been bluffing.

Same Crisis, New Phase?

But the tension surged back up before the week was out, for several reasons.

For one thing, Western governments and open-source intelligence outfits said there was no sign that Russia was pulling military forces back from positions near the Ukrainian border -- and there were strong indications the opposite was true.

On February 17, U.S. President Joe Biden said the threat of a Russian invasion was "very high." When asked how high, he said: "My sense is this [attack] will happen in the next several days."

If it does happen, there’s likely to be a pretext: After all, Russian officials have said repeatedly that Moscow has no intention of invading Ukraine -- wording that leaves plenty of room for an attack that is framed as the natural, necessary response to some alleged provocation, large or small.

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Fears that could be occurring emerged on February 17 after shells damaged two schools in government-held territory in the Donbas, and Kyiv and the Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of two provinces exchanged accusations.

And more broadly, Russia appears to be laying the groundwork for a potential escalation of the conflict in the Donbas, where more than 13,200 people have been killed since April 2014.

At least twice in recent weeks, Putin has made the false claim that Ukraine is committing “genocide” or something close to it in the Donbas, prompting concerns that Russia could launch a new offensive based on a claim that it must protect ethnic Russians or Russian speakers -- one of the pretexts for its actions in the region since 2014, when it fomented separatism and backed anti-Kyiv forces that seized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, as well as for its seizure of Crimea, following the downfall of a Moscow-friendly president in Kyiv.

Moscow has also stoked tensions by setting in motion a process that enables Putin, at the drop of a hat, to recognize the territory claimed by the Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.

Putin is holding off on that for now. Instead, Russia has stepped up its push for the United States and the European Union to persuade Kyiv to implement the 2015 Minsk 2 peace deal for the Donbas in the manner and sequence that Moscow wants it implemented, which would hand the Kremlin a lever of power over Ukraine.

'Not Yet Over'

Given the deep disagreements about what needs to be done to fulfill Minsk 2, that’s highly unlikely to happen. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told RFE/RL last month that Russia had reneged on its commitments under the agreement "to a much greater extent than Ukraine has."

Nonetheless, the Russian Foreign Ministry pressed that demand in a combative statement on February 17 -- a response to the U.S. response to Moscow’s calls for what it says are security guarantees, including a binding pledge that Ukraine, Georgia, and other countries close to Russia will never be allowed to join NATO.

It also pressed those demands -- the nonstarters -- and said that if the United States and its allies are unwilling to discuss them, Russia “will be forced to react, including through the implementation of measures of a military-technical character.”

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That was wording Putin used in December, and while it usually refers to the development and deployment of weapons, it's hard to escape the feeling that it is also meant as a threat of potential military action.

“There are no grounds to believe that the threat of war has lessened in comparison with yesterday,” Russian opposition politician Leonid Gozman wrote on Facebook on February 17.

“Unfortunately, the ‘sigh of relief’ is based on nothing but a natural desire to believe in the good and not believe in the bad,” he wrote. “And the Foreign Ministry’s response to the Americans, just like the news from the Donbas, only confirms that official Russia has no plans to refrain from an attack.”

Attack or no attack in the coming days and weeks, the crisis -- the Russian threat -- is likely to last, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on February 16.

“I regret to say that this is the new normal in Europe,” he said.

In a blog post the same day, Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at Kings College London, predicted a “protracted strategic confrontation” and wrote that he was “seeing more deep breaths than sighs of relief.”

“Whatever this is, it is not yet over,” he wrote.

Domestic Disturbances

And as long as it’s not over, it continues to draw attention away from domestic affairs in Russia, where the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a grim toll in a country where just under half the population is fully vaccinated.

The number of new cases recorded in a single day exceeded 200,000 on February 11 and February 12, before dropping back below that mark. The official number of deaths has been rising again after falling from a high mark three months ago, and reached 790 on February 17, according to official figures that have been widely questioned.

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With Putin focusing on applying pressuring to Ukraine and the West, his opponents in Russia remain under intense pressure, as do civil society groups and independent media.

The latest in a series of trials of Navalny, Putin’s most prominent political foe, got under way in the prison east of Moscow where he is serving a 2 1/2-year term on a parole-violation charge.

For nearly a decade after he helped lead large protests over election fraud and Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 after four years as prime minister, the Russian authorities maintained constant pressure on Navalny with an array of levers but refrained from putting him in prison for long periods of time.

Behind bars since his January 2021 arrest at a Moscow airport upon return from Germany, where he was treated for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin, Navalny is now due for release in 2023.

But he could be sentenced to more than 10 additional years in prison if convicted at the current trial, in which he is accused of embezzling money from his own organization -- another charge that, like those he has faced in the past, he has dismissed as part of a Kremlin campaign to prevent him from challenging Putin.

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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.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country and in its war against Ukraine, 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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