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The Week In Russia: Genocide Accusations, Price-Tag Protests, And A Sinking Ship 


Vladimir Putin disembarks after paying a visit in 2014 to the Moskva missile cruiser, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea fleet, which sank on April 14.

A warship sinks, accusations of atrocities, war crimes, and genocide mount, and despite a relentless clampdown, determined Russians find ways to protest President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.

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

'A Dark Place'

Over the years of Putin’s rule, with the Kremlin pressing harder and harder against dissent, Russians determined to push back have come up with creative ways to protest -- and not a few poignant slogans that seem to capture the mood.

At a demonstration outside the Defense Ministry maybe 15 years ago, one woman held a sign that read, “There have been worse times [in Russia], but none so revolting.”

The current era seems to be giving those times a run for their money.

In the year after the return of Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny in January 2021, following treatment in Germany for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin, the state turned screws that had already been cranked tight, broadening and deepening a clampdown on political opposition, independent media, civil society, and all forms of dissent.

Then came the invasion of Ukraine – a large-scale offensive against an independent country that had been under intense pressure from Moscow since 2014, when Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and fomented separatism across the east and south, resulting in a war that had killed more than 13,000 combatants and civilians in the region known as the Donbas before Putin launched the new assault on February 24.

Just a few weeks later, allegations and evidence of war crimes are emerging -- many of them in towns near Kyiv where retreating Russian forces have left a trail of death, destruction -- the sickening stuff of countless horror stories from survivors.

On April 4, U.S. President Joe Biden called Putin a “war criminal” and said evidence should be gathered for use at a war crimes trial. On April 12, he accused Russia of committing “genocide,” saying that Putin is trying to “wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has also said Russia’s war is genocidal.

Those accusations are based an alleged actions of Russian forces in Ukraine and Putin’s repeated statements about Ukrainians and their country, which he has frequently said has no right to exist as a sovereign state.

Crimes And Miscalculations

Obviously, the alleged atrocities underpinning the use by Biden and others of these terms deepen the human suffering that Putin has caused by unleashing the unprovoked invasion. They also appear to have also altered the course of the war and affected its potential outcome, as well as the roles of Washington and the West.

“The mass torture and killings carried out by Russian forces in Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka and other Ukrainian towns add a new level of horror to a terrible war,” but they also “change the strategic context in three ways,” Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in an April 12 article.

They will “entrench Ukrainian hostility towards Russia,” they are “driving the Russian public into a dark place,” and they “show that, as long as Russia occupies Ukrainian territory, an end to fighting does not mean an end to violence,” Gould-Davies wrote.

“The prospect of even a temporary halt to the war, already slim, is now remote. Russia is in many ways more isolated than it was in the Cold War,” he wrote, adding: “Unless major Western states elect leaders with very different political priorities, it seems virtually unthinkable that sanctions will be eased while Russia occupies Ukrainian territory and Putin remains in power.”

'It Sank'

There appears to be little likelihood of the former KGB officer and Federal Security Service (FSB) chief being driven from power anytime soon in an internal coup at the hands of his security agencies, despite signs of unrest in the power structures in Moscow -- with a senior Federal Security Service officer, Sergei Beseda, reportedly tossed in the infamous Lefortovo jail after feeding Putin bad intelligence that led to major miscalculations about how the invasion would go.

In a real and symbolic blow that seemed to underscore how badly the war seems to have gone for Russia, the country's Defense Ministry said late on April 14 that the missile cruiser Moskva -- the name means Moscow -- sank in the Black Sea during a storm after a fire on board detonated ammunition and damaged the hull. The admission came hours after Ukraine said it had hit the vessel with anti-ship missiles.

“We are a long way from any such potential parricide,” author and analyst Mark Galeotti wrote in an April 13 article in The Spectator, likening Putin to the mythical titan Cronos, who “thought that by devouring his children he would be safe” but “actually drove the last, Zeus, to slay him.”

Meanwhile, Putin’s government has turned the screws even tighter since the invasion began, seeking to silence any opposition to the war – in part by suppressing information about the conflict, which Ukrainian and U.S. officials estimate has, in less than two months, killed as many Russian soldiers as the number of Soviet troops killed in Moscow’s nearly decade-long war of occupation in Afghanistan, if not more.

The Kremlin’s relentless propaganda campaign about the war, at its most venomous on state TV, has divided society, pitting pupils against teachers and family members against one another.

At What Price?

To anyone watching the way the intensifying clampdown has unfolded, it might seem like there would be nobody left in Russia to protest against the war. Navalny is in prison and his network of offices nationwide has been outlawed by the state. Some of his associates have also been jailed, and some have fled the country -- as have tens of thousands of Russians who have left as a result of the war, driven by disgust with the government, concerns about making a living in a country isolated by Western sanctions, fears about the future, or all three and more.

In fact, though, there are still people protesting.

One of them is Aleksandra Skochilenko, an artist from St. Petersburg. She and other activists across Russian found a creative way to protest the war and reveal information that the government is trying to hide.

In shops and supermarkets, they have replaced price tags with statements about the war or the repercussions in Russia.

One such tag said that Russian forces had bombed an art school in Mariupol, Ukraine, where hundreds of people were sheltering; another blamed rising inflation in Russia on the assault on Ukraine and said, “Stop the war.”

With a small group of supporters clapping and cheering as she was led toward the courtroom in handcuffs for an April 13 hearing, Skochilenko was jailed pending further investigation and trial.

She could be sentenced to 10 years in prison.

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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. 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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Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk, Steve Gutterman.

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