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The Week In Russia: 'Into The Abyss'

A carnival float depicts Russian President Vladimir Putin kissing the devil at a parade in Cologne, Germany, on February 14.
A carnival float depicts Russian President Vladimir Putin kissing the devil at a parade in Cologne, Germany, on February 14.

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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares a speech as the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine nears the one-year mark. And a critic of the war has been sentenced to six years in prison over a social media post about a Russian attack that killed hundreds of civilians seeking shelter at a theater in Mariupol.

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

Words Of War

When Putin delivers his annual address to the nation next week, after skipping a year in 2022, his words and even body language will be scrutinized for signs of his intentions -- particularly when it comes to the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, which will enter its second year three days later, with no end in sight.

The February 21 speech will be followed the next day by sessions of both parliament chambers -- billed as unscheduled but now, in fact, scheduled -- and a huge rally at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium.

The preplanned fanfare suggests it’s impossible to rule out the prospect that Putin could use the address or parliamentary legislation to level a new ultimatum at Kyiv and the West, to draw a red line whose crossing would trigger consequences -- though given the setbacks Russia has suffered since the invasion, which he clearly expected would swiftly subdue Ukraine, he might be hard put to find a convincing way to apply pressure.

And barring such a bombshell, the chances that he will say anything very meaningful seem slim.

Even before the invasion, Putin – who has been president or prime minister of Russia since 1999 -- was known more for repetition of flawed or false narratives, tough talk towards the West, and assurances to his domestic audience than for substantive remarks in the many set-piece speeches he has delivered.

“Determining Putin’s actual objectives can be difficult; as an anti-Western autocrat, he has little to gain by publicly disclosing his intentions,” Fiona Hill and Angela Stent, both senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, wrote in a February 15 article in Foreign Affairs.

“But the last year has made some answers clear enough,” they wrote. “Since February 2022, the world has learned that Putin wants to create a new version of the Russian empire based on his Soviet-era preoccupations and his interpretations of history.”

In his address, Putin may seek to obscure those aims, turning again to some of the themes of previous remarks on the war he has unleashed against Ukraine -- painting Russia as the victim of aggression from Washington and the West rather than an aggressor seeking to subjugate its neighbor, for example.

As for signaling his intentions, there is very little he could say -- either to convince Kyiv and the West that he wants peace or, conversely, to raise the threat level and frighten them into concessions -- that would be taken at face value and lead to substantial change in the situation on and off the battlefield.

In the latter case, that’s because he and other senior officials have already issued several thinly veiled threats to potentially use nuclear weapons. The effect of any new warning would be tempered by its lack of novelty and the understanding that such saber-rattling may be dialed down or up later -- and may not reflect actual policy or plans.


And when it comes to talk of peace, Putin has boxed himself in through a series of steps that, combined with the death and destruction Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, make almost anything he might propose patently unpalatable to a vast majority of Ukrainians.

Among those steps was the claim, formalized in September, that the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson regions -- a wide swath of eastern and southern Ukraine that Moscow’s forces are far from controlling in its entirety -- are part of Russia.

“Putin might pronounce words like ‘end of the war,’ ‘cease-fire,’ ‘peace,’ knowing full well that this will set off another round of calls for Ukraine to ‘finally negotiate’ in the West,” Sabine Fischer, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, wrote in a Twitter thread on February 12. “The Kremlin still hopes that they will be able to split the West and Ukraine.”

However, she wrote: “Whatever he says, he will not take back any of the annexations since March 2014” -- a reference to his claim that Russia now includes Crimea and the four mainland regions. And she noted that Russia’s constitution, amended at his behest in 2020, forbids giving up any territory.

“Needless to say, Putin won’t admit to any of the war crimes committed in Ukraine,” Fischer went on, and reparations “are out of the question. So, whatever Putin may or can offer in the conditions he created for himself over the past decade, it will not be acceptable for Ukraine.”

“Obsessed with his own legacy of a ‘great leader,’ he has painted himself into a corner that he won’t be able to leave without loss of power [or] even life,” she wrote. “He is pulling Ukraine and his own country into the abyss.”

New Offensive

And he keeps pulling, with few signs -- if any -- of plans to let up. Russia has launched a new offensive in the Donbas region, according to Western military analysts and officials such as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and its forces have suffered massive casualties in months of heavy fighting over cities including Bakhmut, which Ukraine has held so far.

“Putin’s terms have not changed. He still wants to destroy Ukraine’s statehood,” Fischer wrote.

NATO has seen “no sign whatsoever" that Putin is preparing for peace, Stoltenberg said on February 13.

"What we see is President Putin and Russia still wanting to control Ukraine," Stoltenberg said. "We see how they are sending more troops, more weapons, more capabilities."

'Total War'

Many analysts say that Putin believes he can prevail and is banking mainly on the prospect of Western unity and backing for Ukraine flagging in the coming months or, if not that soon, the coming years.

“Despite a series of blunders, miscalculations, and battlefield reversals that would have surely seen him thrown out of office in most normal countries,” Putin is “still at the pinnacle of power in Russia” and “continues to define the contours of his country’s war against Ukraine,” Hill and Stent wrote.

“Russia has declared total war on [Ukraine] and its citizens, young and old,” they wrote. “For a year, it has deliberately shelled Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and killed people in their kitchens, bedrooms, hospitals, schools, and shops. Russian forces have tortured, raped, and pillaged in the Ukrainian regions under their control. Putin and the Kremlin still believe they can pummel the country into submission while they wait out the United States and Europe.

“The Kremlin is convinced that the West will eventually grow tired of supporting Ukraine,” they added. “Putin believes, for example, that there will be political changes in the West that could be advantageous for Moscow. He hopes for the return of populists to power in these states who will back away from their countries’ support for Ukraine.”

In a speech in Poland that may come on the same day as Putin’s address, U.S. President Joe Biden will talk about that support, emphasizing the “importance of the international community’s resolve and unity in supporting Ukraine for now going on a year,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in announcing the visit.

Strong and sustained Western support for Ukraine is clearly crucial to Kyiv’s effort to repel the Russian invasion and maintain its sovereignty.

But following a series of setbacks for Russian forces in 2022 in the north, east, and south of Ukraine, the relentless Russian bombardments and extremely deadly fighting in the Donbas in recent weeks has served as a reminder that the war is far from over and that momentum can shift.

'Too Soon'

“[D]espite hopes to the contrary, it is too soon to say that Russia’s campaign will collapse,” Dara Massicot, a military analyst and a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based think tank, wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Putin is certainly digging in for the long haul, and although wounded, the Russian military is still capable of complex operations, adaptive learning, and withstanding a level of combat that few militaries in the world can.”

“Russia has still not been able to break Ukraine’s will to fight or impede the West’s materiel and intelligence support,” Massicot wrote in a February 8 article. “It is unlikely to achieve its initial goal of turning Ukraine into a puppet state. But it could continue to adjust its strategy and solidify its occupied holdings in the south and east, eventually snatching a diminished variant of victory from the jaws of defeat.”

Meanwhile, she concluded that “for all the uncertainty, this much is clear: As Russia continues to mobilize and Kyiv and its supporters dig in, the war is poised to continue.”

So is the suppression of all forms of dissent In Russia, where a clampdown that can be traced back at least 12 years --to the days when Putin was gearing up to return to the presidency after a stint as prime minster -- intensified with the arrest of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in January 2021.

Some analysts and Kremlin foes point to that intensification as evidence that Putin had already decided to invade Ukraine and, before beginning the onslaught, to further narrow the space for protest -- already tightly squeezed and shrinking ever since he came to power.

Whatever the case, the state has ratcheted up the oppression further still since the invasion began on February 24, 2022.

The war “has enabled the authorities to destroy the last remnants of freedom in Russia in the space of a few months,” economist and political analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev wrote on Telegram on February 16, adding that it “would have taken years under different circumstances.”

'Changes Will Come'

One result of the clampdown this week: Under legislation that Putin signed a week or so after he ordered the invasion, which criminalized the deliberate spread of what the government deems "false information" about Russia's armed forces, a court in the Altai region sentenced journalist Maria Ponomarenko to six years in prison.

The alleged criminal act: a social-media post highlighting a Russian bombardment that killed hundreds of adults and children sheltering in a central theater in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol last March, the single deadliest attack since the unprovoked invasion began.

"Patriotism is love for your homeland. And love for your homeland should not be manifested in the encouragement of crime…. Attacking a neighbor is a crime," Ponomarenko said in a defiant statement from behind the bars of a courtroom cage on February 14, the day before the verdict.

She predicted she would be out of prison before she qualifies for early release, saying that “changes will come sooner than that.”

“No totalitarian regime has ever been as strong as before its collapse,” she said.

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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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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