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 in-box, click here.
Joy over the homecoming of a U.S. basketball star freed from Russian custody in a swap with an arms dealer dubbed the “Merchant of Death” was clouded by concern for the Americans still being held.
A prominent Kremlin opponent was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison for his criticism of the “monstrous war” in Ukraine, where Russian attacks on vital infrastructure persisted in what Human Rights Watch called a campaign to “instill terror.”
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
The Basketball Star And 'The Man Who Makes War Possible'
Sometimes he creates problems so that he can remove them in return for something he wants; other times he takes advantage of developments that have put him in a position to bargain.
But whether he deliberately sets about creating it or finds it has fallen into his lap, it seems clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin likes a situation in which he has something he can trade.
That is what U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner became when she was arrested after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia, in her baggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on February 17.
“It is almost impossible not to see this as a case of state hostage-taking," Russia analyst Mark Galeotti wrote in The Spectator on December 9, adding that “what in other circumstances would have been handled by a fine, deportation, or a short sentence at most was elevated into a serious case to give the Kremlin leverage.”
Through the continuing horror that Putin unleashed with the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine one week later, Griner’s fate has been an additional worry for the United States and a source further criticism of the Kremlin, which critics have long said takes prisoners for use as geopolitical hostages.
Russia raised the stakes in August, when a court convicted the 32-year-old American -- who had played there during WNBA off-seasons since 2014 -- of drug possession and sentenced her to nine years in prison.
Bout, 55, the subject of a book titled Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, And The Man Who Makes War Possible, had been serving a 25-year prison sentence after being arrested in Thailand and extradited to the United States, where he was convicted in 2011 on charges that included conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens.
U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly voiced determination to secure the release of Americans held in Russia. In April, Moscow and Washington engineered an exchange that swapped Trevor Reed, an ex-Marine jailed in Russia on charges of assaulting police, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot jailed on U.S. drug-smuggling charges.
Griner’s release brought joy and relief to her family, friends, fans, and others fearing for her health and safety in a Russian prison. But there was also anguish over the fact that other Americans remain behind bars in Russia.
Still A Hostage
They include David Barnes, a Texan arrested in January amid a custody battle; Marc Fogel, a beloved English teacher sentenced to 14 years in prison after being arrested in 2020 with a small amount of marijuana he says was for medical purposes, and Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive who was arrested in December 2018 while visiting Moscow for a friend's wedding and is now serving a 16-year prison sentence on espionage charges that he denies.
For Putin, the exchange of Griner for Bout has no downside to speak of. In part because Russia is an undemocratic country in which the Kremlin has substantial control over the media; the Russians held in the United States are not objects of widespread sympathy among the Russian public. And Bout – despite his background – has been a poster boy for the Kremlin’s claim that Washington is overstepping the bounds by going after Russian suspects in third countries, part of a longstanding narrative portraying the United States as an overbearing busybody out for world domination. At the same time, it shows that the White House is willing to engage with Moscow despite severe strains due to Russia’s war on Ukraine and other issues.
“The Russian negotiating style is, they punch you in the face and then they ask if you want to negotiate,” Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department official who now works as research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, told The New York Times.
Furthermore, Russia still holds Whelan, whom the Kremlin may be unlikely to release in anything but a swap of alleged spies because it wants to maintain the claim that he was caught red-handed at espionage.
"Today my family is whole, but as you all are aware, there's so many other families who are not whole," Griner’s wife, Cherelle, said in remarks at the White House. She said the couple “will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our thoughts today."
In an e-mailed statement, Whelan’s brother David said he is “so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home. As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays.”
“[T]his is the event we wish for so much for our own family, he wrote. “She will be reunited with her family. Brittney is free. And Paul is still a hostage.”
'Stop The Madness'
Foreigners, of course, make up a small minority of Russia’s prison population.
The intensity of the current Kremlin clampdown on opposition, dissent, free speech, and civil society has varied in the dozen years since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, and this year -- in the nearly nine months since he ordered the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February – it has reached its highest point to date.
But, if any particular date can be considered its starting point, the top candidate is arguably December 5, 2011, five months before Putin was sworn in for his third term as Russian president.
That evening and into the night, hundreds of people were detained at a protest and march in central Moscow. The demonstration was driven by anger over widespread evidence of fraud in favor of the Kremlin-controlled United Russa party in parliamentary elections the previous day and by dismay over Putin’s decision to return to the presidency -- the office he had held from 2000-08 -- following a four-year stint as prime minister.
It was the beginning of a big wave of demonstrations that showed how strong the desire for real political change was among some Russians -- but also showed, ultimately, that it was not strong enough to keep Putin from taking office the following May and staying there to this day.
A key leader of the protest was Ilya Yashin, a founder of the opposition movement Solidarity who, like Aleksei Navalny, was among those detained. Both were handed 15-day jail terms and missed a much bigger rally five days later on Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin, that gave the budding protest movement its name.
Still much less well known abroad than the now imprisoned Navalny or the late Kremlin opponent Boris Nemtsov, who was also among those detained at the December 5, 2011, protest and was shot dead in February 2015, Yashin has been one of the most prominent and persistent opposition politicians. Until his arrest in July, he was also one of the few who have remained inside Russia but outside of jail or prison, numerous short stints behind bars for administrative violations notwithstanding.
On December 9, a Moscow judge sentenced Yashin to 8 1/2 years in prison after convicting him under a law against deliberately spreading false information about the Russian military, which Putin signed in March. The judge also said he would be barred from using the Internet for four years after his release.
“With this hysterical verdict, the authorities want to intimidate us all, but in fact they are only showing their weakness,” Yashin, 39, said after the sentence was pronounced. “Strong leaders are calm and self-confident -- only weaklings seek to shut everyone up and snuff out any dissent.”
“Another shameless and lawless verdict by Putin's court will not silence Ilya and should not intimidate the honest people of Russia,” Navalny, who said he has known Yashin since the latter was 18, wrote on Twitter. “This is yet another reason why we need to keep fighting, and I have no doubt we will ultimately win.”
The charge stemmed from YouTube posts in which he spoke about the killings of civilians in Bucha, a city outside Kyiv where survivors, rights activists, and Ukrainian authorities say Russian forces committed atrocities during their occupation of the area in the weeks after the February 24 invasion.
At his final court appearance before the verdict hearing, Yashin appealed to Putin to “stop the madness” and end the war by withdrawing Russia’s forces from Ukraine.
“You have brought terrible misfortune to the Ukrainian people, who will probably never forgive us. But you are fighting a war not only with the Ukrainians, but also with your compatriots,” Yashin said. “You are sending hundreds of thousands of Russians into the heat of battle, many of whom will never return home, having turned into dust. Many will be crippled or go crazy from what they saw and experienced. For you, this is just statistics of losses, numbers in columns. And for many families, it is the unbearable pain of losing husbands, fathers, and sons.”
“Looking at the consequences of this monstrous war, you have surely come to understand what a grave mistake you made on February 24,” he said. “Your name is now firmly associated with the words ‘death’ and ‘destruction.’”
'A Lengthy Process'
Yashin acknowledged that his might be a “voice crying out in the wilderness” -- and sure enough, remarks Putin made two days after Yashin delivered his “last word” in court contained no suggestion that he has any regrets whatsoever -- or any plans to end the war anytime soon.
On the contrary, he said the “special military operation” -- as he calls it and insists all Russians call it, on pain of prosecution -- could be “a lengthy process.”
Putin also used the December 8 meeting of his advisory Council on the Development of Human Rights and Civil Society, whose name critics say is increasingly oxymoronic as it has been progressively gutted of authentic activists and stocked with Kremlin loyalists, to suggest that the war is going well for Russia.
He made no mention of the numerous setbacks Russia has suffered -- from the failure to subjugate Ukraine within days or weeks of the invasion to the retreat last month from Kherson, the only regional capital Russian forces had managed to seize since February 24.
Putin also hailed Russia’s capture of the Ukrainian shores of the Azov Sea as a major accomplishment, stating that Tsar Peter the Great, to whom he likened himself in June, had sought access to the sea, which is hemmed in by Crimea to the west, with the Kerch Strait the only outlet to the Black Sea.
The boast about territorial gains may have been delivered as part of an effort by Putin to keep his options open.
Putin’s forces have failed to seize large swaths of land in the four regions Putin baselessly claimed as part of Russia in September, and the loss of Kherson was a particularly powerful embarrassment -- or should have been: Russian forces retreating from a regional capital that the state formally considers part of its territory.
If there comes a time when Putin decides to cut his losses and cede more of the land Russian troops have seized or pledge not to try to take any additional Ukrainian land, but not to retreat from Ukraine in full – he would presumably again cast the conquest of the area around the Azov Sea as a major victory.
For the time being, though, there’s no tangible sign of such a plan – and Putin suggested on December 8 that strikes targeting vital Ukrainian infrastructure, which have plunged cities into darkness and added to ire in Kyiv and the West, will continue as the winter cold descends.
Russian strikes and fighting also raged in the Donbas -- where it has persisted since 2014 --– as Russia seeks to take more territory in the Donestk and Luhansk regions. A Russian attack on the Donetsk region town of Kurakhovo killed 10 people on December 7, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said.
In a report on December 6, Human Rights Watch said Russia’s “widespread and repeated targeting of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure appears primarily designed to instill terror among the population in violation of the laws of war.”
The attacks have also killed at least 77 civilians and injured 272 others, said the New York-based group, which also noted that “Russian politicians, lawmakers, and other commentators on Russian state media widely applauded the prospect of Ukrainian civilians being left without heat and water in winter.”
“There’s something simply deranged about all of this,” it said. “Whatever the Kremlin’s war aims were initially when it invaded its neighbor in 2014 and again in 2022, there seems to be nothing left now but a vindictive will to spread terror.”
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 December 23