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The Week In Russia: War Stories  

A painting features in an exhibit titled "Kherson Is Ukraine" in Lviv on October 14. Along with the three other regions that Russia claims, Kherson is now under martial law -- according to Putin. 
A painting features in an exhibit titled "Kherson Is Ukraine" in Lviv on October 14. Along with the three other regions that Russia claims, Kherson is now under martial law -- according to Putin. 

Welcome to The Week In Russia.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Every Friday, 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 in-box, click here.

Amid Russian retreats, a declaration of martial law in parts of Ukraine -- and "martial law lite" in parts of Russia. Accounts of torture in Izyum. And more prison time looms for Aleksei Navalny.

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

The Big Story

Nearly eight months after ordering a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a series of aggressive, escalatory steps that focus on four regions in the east and south of the country he is seeking to bring to heel: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya.

A month ago today, he ordered a military mobilization, seeking hundreds of thousands of draftees to send to the front. On the last day of September, with Kremlin fanfare projecting the image of a mission accomplished, he signed documents that Moscow baselessly claims make those regions part of Russia. And on October 19, he decreed martial law across the four regions, as well as imposing enhanced security regimes in nearby parts of Russia.

On the surface, these may seem like the actions of the winning side in a war: moves to make the consequences of battlefield victories official -- and to celebrate them ostentatiously, as Putin did by addressing a gala concert on Red Square after the September 30 signing ceremony -- as well as to strengthen control over territories it has seized in fighting. The next step might logically seem to be further advances -- Russian forces pressing toward Kyiv, the capital, which they failed to reach at the start of an invasion that Putin is widely believed to have expected to be over, with Ukraine under Russia's thumb, within days.

Instead, they come at a time when Russia is in retreat, for the most part: Since late summer, Ukraine has regained control over substantial chunks of territory that had been taken by Russian forces in the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions in the east as well as the Kherson region, where further Ukrainian gains appear imminent, in the south.

Russia holds none of the four regions in its entirety. In Zaporizhzhya it does not control the regional capital, and the same may be the case in Kherson soon. While there's certainly no guarantee of this, the new commander of Russian operations in Ukraine seemed to hint at a possible retreat from the city when he said the military might need to make "the most difficult decisions" there.

Like Putin's pronouncement, he televised comments from General Sergei Surovikin -- a big man with an apocalyptical nickname -- hid clues to a possible pullback in stern remarks that seemed designed to project strength.

Surovikin appeared to be "preparing Russians for news of a retreat" from the city of Kherson and the west bank of the Dnieper River in the region, Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based think tank, wrote on Twitter on October 19. "The position is increasingly untenable for Russian forces there."

While Russia's unfounded claim of sovereignty over a sizable portion of Ukraine and the declaration of martial law in the lands it holds may look like the moves of a winner, they might actually reflect an adjustment of Russia's aims in Ukraine, albeit possibly temporary, and an acknowledgement that the initial objective of the invasion is out of reach for the foreseeable future.

Putin's "ideal goal is presumably still the subjugation of Ukraine, but even the most optimistic Kremlin hawk must realize that, for the moment at least, this is not a credible goal," author and analyst Mark Galeotti wrote in an October 18 column for BNE Intellinews.

"Instead, just as he abandoned his 'thunder run' on Kyiv when it became clear that could not succeed and instead refocused on the southeast, now he is in effect abandoning any great hope of winning his war on a grand scale, and instead seeking to avoid losing it," Galeotti wrote.

The Real Big Story

The noise from the Kremlin and the natural desire of people horrified by the war in Ukraine to know what comes next and when it may end sometimes drown out the developments that make it so horrific.

Nearly eight months after the invasion, the horror stories that emerged in places like Bucha and Borodyanka when Russian forces withdrew from northern Ukraine after failing to take Kyiv in February and March are receding into the past, even as investigators and international groups gather evidence for war-crimes prosecutions.

But a new report from Human Rights Watch underscores the fact, at once obvious and alarming, that atrocities have by no means been limited to that time and place in the war.

"Russian forces and others operating under their command routinely tortured detainees during their six-month occupation of Izyum," Human Rights Watch said in the report on a city in the Kharkiv region that was recaptured by Ukrainian forces in September.

Horror Stories

More than 100 survivors described being subjected to abuses such as electric shock, waterboarding, severe beatings, threats at gunpoint, and being forced to remain in stress positions for long periods of time, HRW said.

"Multiple victims shared credible accounts with us of similar experiences of torture during interrogation in facilities under the control of Russian forces and their subordinates, indicating this treatment was part of a policy and plan," said Belkis Wille, a senior researcher at the New York-based organization.

Meanwhile, Russia unleashed new barrages in numerous cities around Ukraine, killing civilians on the streets and in their homes and targeting critical infrastructure, disabling power plants and cutting off water supplies as months of cold weather approach.

"Russia's attacks against civilian infrastructure, especially electricity, are war crimes," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted on October 19. "Cutting off...water, electricity and heating with winter coming -- these are acts of pure terror."

Russia has also been accused of war crimes over a practice that an Associated Press investigation-based report said is already well under way: the "open effort to adopt Ukrainian children and bring them up as Russian."

The investigation "found that officials have deported Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories without consent, lied to them that they weren't wanted by their parents, used them for propaganda, and given them Russian families and citizenship," the AP said.

"Whether or not they have parents, raising the children of war in another country or culture can be a marker of genocide, an attempt to erase the very identity of an enemy nation," it said.

Some of the children have been taken to Russia after being "found in the basements of war-torn cities like Mariupol," the report said, referring to the large southeastern city that was razed by Russian rockets, shells, and bombs during a monthslong siege and now in Russian hands.

Zhenya, a boy born in Kharkiv two months after the invasion, lives with his mother -- but apart from his birth at a hospital and some brief outings, he has spent his life in the shelter beneath a factory where she took refuge.

A Russian Story

In the months since it launched the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian state has intensified a clampdown on dissent that had already been ratcheted up repeatedly over the previous year after opposition leader Aleksei Navalny returned to Russia in January 2021 following treatment abroad for a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning he blames on Putin.

On October 18, as expected, the imprisoned Putin foe and anti-corruption crusader lost an appeal against a conviction and nine-year sentence he was handed in March on embezzlement and contempt-of-court charges he contends are baseless and politically motivated.

Two days later, Navalny said informed that he is being investigated on charges of propagating terrorism, public calls for extremist activities, the financing of an extremist organization, and the rehabilitation of Nazism.

In a Twitter thread, Navalny said the charges stemmed from a YouTube channel, run by associates who have left Russia over fears of prosecution and persecution, which has aired criticism of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

His lawyers calculated that if convicted, he could spend "about 30 years" in prison, he wrote.

Many observers believe the Russian state will ensure Navalny remains behind bars as long as Putin, who has engineered constitutional amendments allowing himself to run for reelection in 2024 and 2030, remains in power.

But as a result of Putin's decision to invade Ukraine, what Russia will look like in 30 years -- or even a fraction of that -- seems increasingly unclear.

In a series of tweets on October 19, Galeotti noted that in addition to the decree declaring martial law in the four partially Russian-held regions of mainland Ukraine, Putin also signed a decree that imposes "a kind of martial law lite" in Russian regions bordering Ukraine, and that "some level of emergency regulation now applies across the whole of Russia."

The situation calls to mind "the spread of creeping martial law by extraordinary measures under late tsarism, such that by 1917 most of the country was 'extraordinary,'" he wrote, adding that it's "not a great precedent."

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).

The next edition of The Week In Russia will appear on November 4.

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

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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