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The Week In Russia: A 'Monstrous' Sign Of The Times


The pardon for Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, convicted of involvement in Anna Politkovskaya's killing, was "a monstrous instance of injustice and lawlessness," the late journalist's children and the staff of Novaya gazeta said. (file photo)
The pardon for Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, convicted of involvement in Anna Politkovskaya's killing, was "a monstrous instance of injustice and lawlessness," the late journalist's children and the staff of Novaya gazeta said. (file photo)

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.

Years after her murder, a pardon for one of the men convicted of involvement in Anna Politkovskaya's killing is pardoned in exchange for fighting in Ukraine. The Supreme Court declares the LGBT "movement" extremist, essentially outlawing gay rights activism, and Russia's war in Ukraine grinds on.

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

'Desecration'

Amid the drumbeat of dark developments in Russia these days, there are some that seem to stand out as emblematic of the era, or at least of a particular moment in time.

One of them occurred in mid-November, when it came to light that one of the men convicted of involvement in the murder of investigative reporter Anna Politikovskaya, on President Vladimir Putin's birthday in 2006, had been pardoned by Putin in exchange for serving with the military in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The pardon for Sergei Khadzhikurbanov was "a monstrous instance of injustice and lawlessness" and a "desecration of the memory of a person who was killed for her beliefs and her professional duties," the late journalist's children and the staff of the newspaper where she worked, Novaya gazeta, said in a statement.

It added a baroque new twist to a case that, for many Kremlin critics, human rights advocates, and ordinary people, had already stood out – ever since Politkovskaya was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building at the age of 48 – as a symbol of how Russia has gone wrong under Putin.

Politkovskaya's dogged reporting, which exposed high-level corruption in Moscow and rights abuses in the Chechnya region, among other malfeasance, was a constant reminder of how the promise that came with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was being washed away by oppression, iniquity, and violence.

Khadzhikurbanov was one of five men who were convicted in June 2014 of involvement in Politkovskaya's killing; accused of helping organize the murder, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The verdicts brought little relief to Politkovskaya's relatives and colleagues, who say that justice will not be done until the person or people who ordered her killing were identified and prosecuted – something that is widely seen as unlikely to happen as long as Putin is in power because of suspicions that a thorough investigation would lead too close to the Kremlin and the Moscow-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Turning To Inmates

The new development was made possible, of course, by Russia's war against Ukraine – which started a few months before Khadzhikurbanov was convicted but grew much bigger and deadlier when Putin ordered the full-scale invasion in February 2022. In its hunger for manpower, the Russian state is springing inmates from prison and sending them to the front in exchange for the promise of a pardon if they survive long enough.

Returning convicts have committed violent crimes and sparked fear and tension in communities across Russia.

In one case, a man who was convicted of killing four people – and who investigators said cut one victim's legs off, cleaned and refrigerated them, and later ate them – was released from his 22-year prison term to fight in Ukraine and is now in a hospital in the Far Eastern city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

Politikovskaya was killed halfway through Putin's second four-year term. In a way, the Russia she lived in is no more: Trends that she documented, such as a shift toward authoritarianism, the suppression of dissent, and increasing abuses of basic human rights gathered speed after Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 following a four-year stint as prime minister. And they went into overdrive with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

If Khadzhikurbanov's release was a sign of the times, so were a Russian Supreme Court ruling branding "the international LGBT social movement" as extremist – a decision Amnesty International called shameful and absurd -- and the jailing of RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, whom the long-respected, now outlawed human rights group Memorial recognized on November 30 as a political prisoner.

'The Right To Be Russia'

So, too, was the address Putin delivered at a forum of a reactionary nationalist group called the World Russian People's Congress.

Putin has not said publicly whether he will seek a new six-year term in an election due to be held in March. But the November 28 speech seemed like an informal announcement of his candidacy, which he is widely expected to make official this month.

He repeated narratives that are familiar, if false, once against casting the armed attempt to subjugate Ukraine as a necessary measure and portraying the war he unleased – the biggest in Europe since 1945 – as a defensive struggle for Russia's survival in the face of what he asserts, without evidence, is an effort by Washington and the West to erase the country and its culture.

In some cases, he embellished them.

Two months before launching the full-scale invasion, as Moscow was massing forces along the border with Ukraine, Putin said that Russia had "nowhere further to retreat"– a remark that, like his portrayal of the war as a defensive act, now stands in direct contradiction to the simple fact that Russia invaded Ukraine and not vice versa. And to the fact that while the war poses an existential threat to Ukraine, the same is not true for Russia.

"Russia's objective is to subjugate Ukraine, but it is inconceivable that Ukraine could do this to Russia," Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King's College London, wrote in a November 23 blog post. "Ukraine is fighting to end the occupation; Russia is fighting to occupy."

'Beleaguered Fortress'

Putin knows that perfectly well, of course. But he seemed to take the narrative a step further in the November 28 address, stating that Russia's "fight for sovereignty and justice is, without exaggeration, one of national liberation, because we are upholding the security and well-being of our people -- and our supreme historical right to be Russia."

It's part of attempt to convince Russians and others around the world that the United States – which, without naming it, Putin described as a "hegemon" whose "dictatorship…is becoming decrepit" – is bent on annihilating what he calls Russian "civilization."

With the election approaching and most Russians worried that "times are going to get harder, rather than better," Putin "is pivoting to legitimating his regime by precisely the sense that Russia is a beleaguered fortress and that the West will claw it down unless all Russians band together," author and analyst Mark Galeotti told Dutch radio station BNR.

Putin's pronouncements may sound dramatic – they are certainly meant to. But at the same time, there may be another motive: to enable the Kremlin to claim victory in Ukraine – or more accurately, victory over the West -- even if it falls far short of its most ambitious war goals.

After all, if the goal to is to preserve Russia's sovereignty and its "right to be Russia," that can be achieved even if Putin ends up withdrawing from Ukraine.

"In the case of Ukraine, we should not underestimate the scope [Putin] has to define the outcomes, at least to the Russian population," Galeotti, an honorary professor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, wrote separately on his blog on November 29.

"It is not just a question of his control over the domestic media apparatus, but also the way he has developed this new narrative, that this is not really a war with Ukraine as such, but with the whole West," he wrote. "In that context, even small wins can be presented as actually impressive David-versus-Goliath successes."

War Footing

Not that there are strong signs that Russia is ready to settle, at least for now, for the chunks of Ukraine it has seized since 2014 – Crimea, parts of the Donbas in the east, and a southern strip of land running along the Azov Sea coast between them.

Putin has repeatedly said Russia is open to negotiations, "but when pushed further it transpires that his interest in diplomacy is only to help him achieve some of his core objectives, such as Ukrainian neutrality or the transfer of even more territory than currently occupied to the Russian Federation," Freedman said. "We can take such calls more seriously when they open with a promise to withdraw from Ukrainian territory."

For the time being, at least, there seems to be little incentive for Putin to consider that, let alone to seek a cease-fire. A much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive has made only moderate progress since its launch in early June, nearly six months ago, and the Kremlin is hoping the U.S. elections – now less than a year away – will result in a precipitous fall in Western support for Kyiv, both financial and military.

"For the coming months Russia is in a better position in terms of shell production. The EU is falling short in its ambition to provide Ukraine with a million artillery shells and rockets by March, while Russia is now on a war footing in terms of production and has benefited from an influx of North Korean shells," Freedman wrote.

"Because of the surge of expenditure on the war effort its economy is growing fast. Over time Moscow has found more workarounds to limit the impact of Western sanctions. Through financial incentives it is able to keep up the flow of new recruits to feed the front lines," he added.

At the same time, "If the war stopped now with a cease-fire Putin could claim whatever territory Russia still holds as a major gain, but it would be far short of controlling all the territory hurriedly 'annexed' last autumn and which is now officially presented as part of Russia," Freedman wrote. "He would still have to explain what the past year's fighting was about as Russia has barely added to its holdings and lost some ground."

Russian forces have made a furious push in the Donbas this fall. And while they have suffered heavy casualties while gaining little ground, some analysts predict that Putin, who has baselessly declared the Black Sea peninsula and four other Ukrainian regions to be parts of Russia, will make a new push after the presidential election, particularly if Western support for Kyiv fades.

But eventually, Galeotti wrote, "Putin will take what he feels he can get, when he feels the time is right -- or that he has no alternative."

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).

Yours,

Steve Gutterman

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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

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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