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The Week In Russia: A 'Wicked And Unjustifiable' War

Civilians dive for cover during the shelling of a hospital in Mariupol in the Ukraine war, which has now entered its 100th day. (file photo)
Civilians dive for cover during the shelling of a hospital in Mariupol in the Ukraine war, which has now entered its 100th day. (file photo)

On Day 100 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the end of the war is not in sight -- and the outcome may be less clear than ever.

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

'Burying The Dreams Of Children'

What do Pele and the pope have in common? Among other things, both are now critics of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In an Instagram post on June 2, the Brazilian soccer legend voiced a widely held opinion when he called the conflict “wicked and unjustifiable.”

“Wars only exist to separate nations, and there’s no ideology that justifies… missiles burying the dreams of children, ruining families and killing the innocent,” Pele wrote. Addressing Russian President Vladimir Putin, he added: “The power to stop this conflict is in your hands. The same ones I shook in Moscow, at our last meeting in 2017.”

Without directly blaming Russia or Putin, Pope Francis has repeatedly called for an end to the war. At a mass on May 1, he described it as a “macabre regression of humanity” and said the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol, razed by Russian bombs, rockets, and shells, had been “barbarously bombarded and destroyed.”

In an interview published two days later, the pontiff said that he had asked for a meeting with Putin in Moscow but had heard no reply -- and expressed doubt that Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a vocal backer of the war who he suggested was acting like Putin’s “altar boy,” would be any help in stopping “so much brutality.”

On June 1, Francis addressed another issue related to Russia’s war on Ukraine, where Russian port blockades have halted the shipment of thousands of tons of grain from one of the world's largest suppliers. Ukrainian and Western officials have also accused Russia of stealing grain stocks and shipping them home.

"Please, one does not use grain, a basic food, as a weapon in war," he said, adding that access to food is a fundamental right and that the blockades were causing “grave concern,” particularly because of the effects on the world’s poorest countries.

Mariupol, which a few months ago was a vibrant city in the industrial Donbas region but is now a rubble-strewn symbol of the suffering inflicted upon Ukraine since Putin launched the unprovoked invasion on February 24, is now in Russian hands, after a grueling standoff with defending forces holed up at the massive Azovstal steel mill ended last month.

100 Days

On Day 100 of the Russian invasion, the fiercest fighting is now taking place further north within the Donbas, in and around Syevyerodonetsk and other cities, towns and villages in the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.

While the war has haunted the Donbas since 2014, the current struggle for control of the region marks a new phase in the conflict -- at least in terms of perceptions, which have shifted pretty sharply twice since the invasion.

Before February 24, it was almost a commonplace that Ukraine would be forced to make concessions, at best, if a Russian invasion did materialize – something many analysts doubted until the last few days before the forces Moscow had amassed at the border started rolling in.

Putin, for his part, seems to have been confident that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government would fold in the face of the onslaught, enabling Russia to subjugate the country of 44 million within a few days – but that did not happen.

And several weeks after Russian forces entered Ukraine from Belarus and moved southward toward Kyiv, they headed back across the border – after suffering major losses and inflicting death, suffering, and abuse on civilians in a violent campaign that is likely to be the subject of war crimes cases in Ukraine and internationally for years to come.

The Russian forces were also hit with setbacks in other regions -- failing to take Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, or the Black Sea port of Odesa.

Gradually, it came to seem like Ukraine could win the war -- or at least, achieve results that some would consider a win, such as driving Russian forces out of the Donbas altogether or back to the front lines that existed there with little change since 2014 or 2015.

For the time being, though, the tide has turned again to some degree, with Russian forces slowly making progress in the Donbas, particularly in Luhansk Province.

'Russia Has Lost'

With more Western weapons on the way or expected in the coming weeks and months and Putin showing no sign of abandoning the offensive, the outcome of the war seems possibly less clear than ever before -- and there are more and more forecasts predicting that it will not end anytime soon.

Whatever the outcome, analyst Mark Galeotti argues, Russia will be the loser.

“We really shouldn’t underestimate the long-term impact of not just the way that 20 years of military modernization has been chewed through in 20 days of actual fighting, but also the degree to which the Russian economy is going to contract dramatically and terribly over the course of this year. And even if sanctions are then quickly lifted, it’s not going to bounce back. The scars that are being left are scars that will take years or in some cases decades to heal,” Galeotti, an honorary professor at the UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies in London, said on the RFE/RL podcast The Week Ahead In Russia on May 30.

In future, he said, “There’s no way of getting around the fact that, at best, what Russia will be doing is minimizing its defeat. Russia has lost.”

Does Putin realize that?

Analyst Tatyana Stanovaya doesn’t think so.

“In Putin’s eyes, he is not losing this war. In fact, he likely believes he is winning,” Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and founder of the political analysis firm R.Politik, wrote in a June 1 article in the journal Foreign Policy.

“For the moment, both Russia and the West appear to believe that their counterpart is doomed and that time is on their side,” Stanovaya wrote, suggesting that Putin’s real target in its war on Ukraine is the West and that perceptions on both sides mean it’s highly unlikely to end soon.

“At the end of the day, a deal between Russia and Ukraine is only possible as an extension of an agreement between Russia and the West or as a result of the collapse of Putin’s regime,” she wrote. “And that gives you an idea of how long the war could last: years, at best.”

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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.

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