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The Week In Russia: 'Lies, Darkness, And Isolation'

Ukrainian flags fly over the graves of fallen Ukrainian soldiers at a military cemetery in Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine, on February 22.
Ukrainian flags fly over the graves of fallen Ukrainian soldiers at a military cemetery in Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine, on February 22.

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.

As Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine enters its second year, U.S. President Joe Biden visited Kyiv and promised that Western backing will not flag. Russian President Vladmir Putin turned to his go-to topic -- his country's nuclear arsenal -- in a bid undermine that support.

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

'As Long As It Takes'

If the invasion he launched a year ago today had gone the way he apparently expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin could probably have walked the streets of Kyiv this week with the leader of Ukraine -- one installed by the Kremlin.

Instead, it was U.S. President Joe Biden who traveled to Kyiv, where he met with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 20 and promised that Washington and the West will support Ukraine for "as long as it takes."

Putin, in a long-delayed state-of-the-nation speech the day after Biden's surprise visit to Ukraine, indicated that Russia has no intention of easing up on the invasion in which Kyiv, rights groups, and Western governments say its forces have committed atrocities on a horrific scale.

Full of false narratives, outlandish claims, and vitriol directed at the West -- same old, same old -- the address contained only a few remarks that might be described as newsworthy, or at least as potentially significant signals.

One of the latter was a statement that Russia would conduct what the Kremlin calls the "special military operation" in Ukraine "step by step, carefully, and consistently."

Translation: We're not close to winning.

In fact, for the domestic audience, one of the chief aims of the speech seemed to be the normalization of war, an effort to get Russians who have not fled the country used to what could be years of conflict and isolation.

Putin promised soldiers two-week leave twice a year, for example, and support for the families of soldiers killed, and spoke at length about how businesses and industries should adjust and assist.

Despite all that, Putin did not actually tell Russians that Russia will win the war in Ukraine; he did not even say what would constitute a win. He used the word "victory" four times, all in one paragraph that was about putative future businesses, schools, and scientific discoveries -- not the invasion.

Killed In Action

A result that Putin could claim as a victory, even grudgingly, is not at hand. After several major battlefield setbacks last year, a new Russian offensive in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, is going slowly as the casualty toll -- not disclosed by the Russian state but estimated at 200,000 Russian combatants killed or wounded since the invasion on February 24, 2022 -- rises fast.

The high casualties are exacerbating tension between factions and individual figures in Russia's government and the elite. The head of the mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, posted a gruesome photo this week of what he said were the corpses of Russian fighters killed in the Donbas because of a lack of ammunition, deepening a dispute with the Defense Ministry.

Without a big battlefield success story to tell and without any of the escalatory steps that some had speculated he might announce a year after the invasion such as a new mobilization drive to bring Belarus and the breakaway regions of Georgia closer to Russia or some grim new ultimatum leveled at Ukraine and the United States, Putin tried a go-to tactic: nuclear saber-rattling.

Putin "could have clarified his war aims, but he didn't. He could have made explicit escalatory threats, but he didn't," Sam Greene, a professor at Kings College London's Russia Institute, wrote on Twitter after the address. "He could have made explicit escalatory threats, but he didn't."

In a speech devoid of any bombshell, the closest thing was his announcement that Russia would suspend its participation in New START, the only remaining nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia.

He also said he had ordered new nuclear missiles to be put on combat duty. And he followed up the next day with more words about Russia's nuclear weapons, using a holiday honoring the military to hark back to World War II and promise to modernize the armed forces. "As before, we will pay increased attention to strengthening the nuclear triad," he said, referring to nuclear missiles based on land, at sea, and on long-range bombers.

"Putin, empty-handed after a bloody winter offensive, talked up Russia's nuclear arsenal," was how the Reuters news agency put it in a daily briefing.

'He Seeks To Stoke Fear'

One aim of all the nuclear talk, presumably, was to reassure Russians that their country is strong and expand on the false narrative that Russia is fighting a defensive war against NATO and the West, not a war of aggression and choice -- Putin's choice -- against Ukraine.

Another was to make the West more worried and undermine its unity in support of Ukraine, which many analysts say is one of Moscow's chief goals, given the obstacles to winning the war, or even achieving some of Putin's more modest intentions for the invasion, on the battlefield.

In the eyes of the Kremlin, Putin's speech "justifies continuing the war without specifying strategic aims, it stokes an amorphous fear of the U.S./NATO among Russians, and it tries -- vaguely -- to make Washington worry about nuclear arms control," Greene wrote.

"Putin's move is political, not military," Jon Wolfsthal, senior adviser at Global Zero, an NGO that advocates eliminating nuclear weapons, wrote on Twitter. "He seeks to unsettle NATO allies and stoke fears of broader war because he is losing in Ukraine."

The United States "has extensive ability to monitor Russian nuclear forces even without a treaty in place" and "still has many more nuclear weapons than it needs to deter Russian nuclear use," Wolfsthal wrote.

While Putin's move caused concern, there was no immediate evidence it would weaken Western resolve to support Ukraine.

"We're not going to change our policy on Ukraine because he's in a hissy fit over the New START treaty," Air And Space Forces magazine quoted Rose Gottemoeller, who was the top U.S. negotiator of the pact and served as NATO deputy secretary general from 2016 to 2019, as saying on February 22. "That's just not going to happen."

"Putin's ongoing attempts to hold New START hostage to his demands for the end of U.S. support to Ukraine will fail," Gottemoeller tweeted.

New START entered into force in 2011 and was extended for five years at the start of Biden's term, early in 2021, but that was over a year before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and Moscow and Washington have been at odds over New START for several months. In late January, the United States accused Russia of violating the treaty by refusing to facilitate inspections.

Signed in 2010 by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, New START was the showcase of a short-lived "reset" in ties. Relations became increasingly sour again starting in 2011, and Medvedev's over-the-top public hawkishness is a particularly grotesque attribute of Russia today.

The nuclear weapons pact is due to expire in February 2026, and the chances of a replacement seem slim unless tensions somehow ease considerably by then -- a development that is difficult to imagine while Russia's war on Ukraine rages with no end in sight.

For now, Russian officials have signaled that Moscow intends to remain within the limits on deployments and abide by other aspects of the treaty. Bien called the suspension a "big mistake" but said he did not interpret it as an indication that Putin is "thinking of using nuclear weapons or anything like that."

The "New Start suspension is an illusion, since no suspension clause is contained in the treaty and Putin is in no position to start a nuclear arms race with the United States," wrote Patrick Wintour, diplomatic editor of The Guardian. "But it is the last piece of nuclear security architecture, and so provides some leverage over Washington and will keep the nuclear threat bubbling."

In any case, Wintour concluded, Putin's address was a "speech full of lies, darkness, [and] self-pitying isolation."

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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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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