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The Week In Russia: Putin's Bloodshed Bugbear And Srebrenica In The Donbas

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stands behind Russian President Vladimir Putin after they met face-to-face for the first time at talks in Paris on December 9 aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin finally acknowledged that he had sent troops into Crimea ahead of Moscow's takeover of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, he said one of the reasons for the incursion – though he did not use that word or any other that reflects reality very well, at least in the eyes of Kyiv and the West -- was "to avoid bloodshed."

The implication, echoed in remarks by numerous Russian officials -- some of them with more fiery words, if no more factual, such as unsubstantiated accusations about "fascism" -- was that, without intervention, bloodthirsty assailants would run roughshod over those residents of Crimea who favored making the peninsula part of Russia.

No evidence in support of such claims was furnished, and there were several more obvious motives for the Russian takeover. Among them: bolstering Putin's popularity at home and seeking to ensure that the Russian Black Sea Fleet would never be ejected from its base in Sevastopol or end up within a NATO member-state.

In the weeks after Russia claimed formal control of Crimea in March 2014, a war stoked in part by Moscow's efforts to sow separatism in heavily Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine erupted.

Earlier this week, on December 9, Putin met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at a Paris summit billed as a bid for progress in ending that war – the only one being fought in Europe today -- which has killed more than 13,000 people and done potentially irreparable damage to Russia's ties with Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States.

'As Simple As That?'

A day later, Putin raised the specter of ethnic or political bloodshed in Ukraine again – and again, in a fashion that would seem like hyperbole to many. This time, it signaled the Kremlin's seeming reluctance to restore Kyiv's control over Ukraine's border with Russia in the chunk of the Donbas that is held by the Moscow-backed forces.

If Kyiv regains control of the border without a law providing amnesty for residents of the separatist-held area, he said, "There would be Srebrenica, it's as simple as that."

It's not that simple, though.

Putin was referring to the worst mass slaughter in Europe since World War II – the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in the town of Srebrenica in July 1995.

He provided no evidence that such a turn of events could unfold in the Donbas, where many Ukrainians see the conflict as a war of resistance against a continuing act of aggression by the Russian state -- not a struggle against Russian-speakers or any other particular group, ethnic or otherwise.

While passage of an amnesty law is set out in Minsk 2, the February 2015 agreement on a cease-fire and steps toward a resolution -- most of them still in place only on paper -- Putin's remark may deepen doubts in Kyiv and the West about the Kremlin's commitment to seeking peace, as opposed to maintaining as much influence as possible over Ukraine and its future course.

No Genocide

It could also raise questions about Putin's willingness to ascribe to people such qualities as vengefulness and bloodlust in the service of a geopolitical goal.

And there's a twist: Officially, Russia doesn't think what happened at Srebrenica was all that bad – or at least, not genocide.

In 2015, Russia used its veto power in the UN Security Council to scuttle a resolution stating that "acceptance of the tragic events at Srebrenica as genocide is a prerequisite for reconciliation."

The British-drafted resolution, meant to advance reconciliation efforts on the 20th anniversary of the killings, was supported by the United States, France, and seven nonpermanent Security Council members, while China and three other countries abstained.

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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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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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