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 Moscow’s war against Ukraine grinds on and mounting evidence of atrocities by his troops emerges, President Vladimir Putin turns to the false claim that it is a defensive struggle for Russia’s survival.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
'Pull It To Pieces'
Both before and since he launched the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Putin has repeated a number of false narratives and groundless assertions in efforts to justify the unprovoked assault.
For example, he has wrongly claimed that Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis, and also that the goal is to protect the people of the Donbas – thousands or tens of thousands of whom have been killed as a result of the invasion, and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes as Russian bombs have destroyed cities and towns. An unknown number have been tortured, raped, or otherwise abused by Russian forces.
This week, Putin turned to one of the biggest or broadest of these narratives, and one that he and other Russian officials have been reaching for with increasing frequency: The claim that the West is bent on tearing Russia apart.
“For us, this is a struggle for the existence of Russian statehood itself, because as we have been convinced over the decades, our opponents, whom I used to call our partners, have a single goal: to shake [Russia] up and pull it to pieces,” Putin said in televised comments at a meeting with workers at an aircraft factory in Ulan-Ude, near Lake Baikal, on March 14. Moscow, he claimed, is fighting for “the survival of Russian statehood.”
It's not a new narrative. It stretches back at least as far as 2004, when militants seized the main school in Beslan, in Russia’s North Ossetia region, on the first day of classes, starting a 52-hour hostage crisis that ended with more than 330 people dead, more than half of them children, after security forces stormed the building in a botched rescue effort.
'No Publicly Available Evidence'
In the wake of what Russian officials called their country’s 9/11, Putin suggested that Washington and the West were supporting Islamic militants operating in the North Caucasus in hopes of tearing a vulnerable post-Soviet Russia apart and devouring whatever “tasty morsel” they could snap up in the process.
Putin and other Russian officials have provided little evidence to support claims that the West gave material backing to militants from inside or outside Russia.
“There is no publicly available evidence that the U.S. ever provided direct material support to armed Chechen separatist groups, much less North Caucasus-based militants who have engaged in terrorist attacks,” the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School said after a review of Putin’s repeated assertions on the subject.
Putin has doubled down on those accusations and embellished them over the years, however. At the factory in Ulan-Ude, he falsely claimed that the West “sent whole hordes of international terrorists against us, who began to operate in various regions of the country, including and primarily the North Caucasus.”
It’s part of a pattern of blaming external factors -- usually the West -- for Russia’s problems. Immediately after the Beslan attack, Putin took steps to roll back democracy and civil rights in Russia -- and then, in 2011, blamed the United States when large protests erupted over the latest steps in that direction.
Western governments have neither stated nor signaled any intention to break Russia apart or destroy it as a state, but Putin has made the claim with what seems to be increasing frequency and insistency since he unleashed the large-scale invasion of Ukraine.
That may be because it allows him to portray an aggressive war of choice against Ukraine as, instead, a defensive war that Russia has been forced to wage to beat back an existential threat from Washington and the West.
But while Putin and other Russian officials often say that Russia’s actions abroad are a necessary response to pressure from the West, some analysts suggest that’s the opposite of the truth.
Russia’s “current trajectory was not predestined, and…there were many chances for the Kremlin to do things differently,” Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia-Eurasia Center in Berlin, wrote in a summary of his March 13 article in the journal Foreign Affairs.
“The deplorable foreign policy course and the tragedy of the Ukraine war are the result of deliberate choices by President Putin and the inability of Russian society to push back,” Gabuev wrote.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is existential, of course -- for Ukraine: Putin is seeking to subjugate a country he has repeatedly suggested has no right to exist as a fully sovereign state, if at all. And he evidently expected to bring the country to heel within days or weeks of the February 24, 2022, invasion.
That did not happen. But Ukrainians are fighting an existential battle every day -- and every day brings both new death and destruction and new revelations about the actions of the invading Russian forces earlier in the conflict.
In a report issued on March 16, an investigative commission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council last year said that Russia has perpetrated large-scale violations of international human rights and humanitarian norms -- some of them amounting to war crimes -- since the start of the large-scale invasion.
The commission “has documented patterns of willful killings, unlawful confinement, torture, rape, and unlawful transfers of detainees in the areas that came under the control of Russian authorities in Ukraine,” it said. “Violations were also committed against persons deported from Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”
One Year Ago
Citing Ukrainian prosecution files, the Reuters news agency reported this week that Kyiv says two Russian soldiers sexually assaulted a four-year-old girl and raped her mother at gunpoint in front of her father, part of what authorities say was a spree of sexualized violence committed by members of a Russian brigade in the Brovary district, in Kyiv’s suburbs, in March 2022 – a year ago this month.
As these reports emerged, the deadly battle for the ruined Donbas city of Bakhmut continued, as Moscow sought ways to bring more men into a war that Western officials estimate has killed or wounded as many as 200,000 Russian troops.
Meanwhile, March 16 marked one year since Russia bombed a big theater in Mariupol where residents were seeking shelter in the basement amid the assault on the Azov Sea port city in the Donbas, killing hundreds of people despite huge painted letters on the ground outside the building that said there were children inside.
In a story about the attack, its survivors, and the dead, The New York Times cited a woman named Elyzaveta Fatayeva as saying she had been separated from her mother for a time as they escaped the smoldering ruins. Later, she asked her mother where she had been.
“Reluctantly, her mother told her: When she got outside, following Elyzaveta, she had seen a woman’s bloodied face in the rubble. The woman was pinned under a slab of limestone,” the Times reported. “Elyzaveta’s mother went to the woman. She and a boy tried to pry the slab off her. It was too heavy. She had to go.
She looked into the pinned woman’s petrified eyes.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and ran off.”
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).