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The Week In Russia: A Legacy Of War

“Unhinged Putin likely believes his own delusions,” a U.S. political science professor remarked.

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, dashing hopes that he would hold back despite “dark and aggressive” rhetoric and insistent demands for restrictions on Kyiv’s sovereignty. For Ukraine and Russia, the consequences are unpredictable.

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

A Deadly Decision

In the past, when he has made the most momentous decisions of his more than 22 years as president or prime minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin has always seemed to have one eye on his legacy. This time, he took a giant, grotesque step toward shaping it forever.

Unprovoked, Putin launched a war on Ukraine on February 24, with Russian forces invading from three sides and the Kremlin hinting that it hopes to bring down the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the democratically elected leader of a country that, like Russia, has been independent since the Soviet Union fell apart 30 years ago.

Russian Missiles, Air Strikes Hit Ukrainian Targets
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Hours after the first missiles hit, Ukraine said dozens of soldiers and civilians were dead, and more than 100,000 people had fled their homes, according to the UN. The Ukrainian death toll had reached 137 by the morning of February 25, Zelenskiy said.

Putin’s big decisions in the past have played out as tightly scripted dramas in which the outcome is clear from the outset, at least in retrospect, but in which critics -- as well as those in the audience who are simply tired of the perpetual leading man and his performances -- hold out hope until the last that he will, for once, do what they see as the right thing. But then he doesn't.

It happened in 2011, when Putin and his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, put on a two-man show at a ruling United Russia party congress for the announcement that Putin -- president from 2000 to 2008 -- planned to return to the Kremlin after four years in the No. 2 spot as prime minister, shattering millions of Russians’ hopes for reform and political change.

It happened again in 2020, when the real point of plans for hundreds of changes to the Russian Constitution was revealed by Valentina Tereshkova, a United Russia lawmaker and the first woman in space, when she proposed an amendment that would allow Putin, who at the time was barred from seeking reelection in 2024, to do so -- and to do so again in 2030.

The march toward the public announcement of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was marked by a similarly stilted choreography, with a series of addresses recorded days in advance of their broadcast and a remarkable meeting of the normally secretive presidential Security Council that was, maybe for the first time, televised in full.

'Unbelievably Dark And Aggressive'

Hours after that meeting, also on national TV, Putin unleashed a falsehood-filled diatribe against Ukraine and the West -- and, at the very end, announced that Russia would recognize the territories claimed by the Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine as independent countries, paving the way for the invasion.

The “unbelievably dark and aggressive” speech, as one Russia analyst put it, convinced many who watched it that Russia would, in fact, invade Ukraine. Others couldn’t quite believe it until it happened -- and then it seemed, looking back at Putin’s remarks about Ukraine over the past few weeks and months, like something that he may have decided on long before that decision was made public.

And while that was also true of the two occasions on which he concluded that he would not leave the Kremlin when he could just as well stay, first by exploiting a loophole in the constitution and then by changing it, this was different.

Putin’s moves to prolong his rule have clearly had a profound and long-lasting impact on Russia and its citizens -- those jailed in an intense and persistent clampdown on dissent, for example, and those swept away by a COVID pandemic whose effects have been aggravated by what Kremlin critics say has been a badly botched response.

But launching a large-scale attack on another country is another thing entirely, with consequences more immediate, tragic, and bloody. And most of all, consequences that were entirely avoidable.

In Ukraine, in Russia, and around the world, millions of people have been stunned by Putin’s staggering decision. Some of them were on the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and dozens of other Russian cities on February 24, protesting despite the risks of defying a government that arrested more than 1,800 of them. Others were headed west from Kyiv in their cars, trying to escape in case Ukraine’s capital, where the historical roots of Ukraine and Russia lie, is targeted by Russia’s leader.

Police Break Up Anti-War Protests Across Russia
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Emilia, a 36-year-old IT programmer, and her daughter, Ira, 8, found themselves in the subway station beneath Kyiv’s Independence Square -- the Maidan -- where celebrations of independence from Moscow and momentous protests aimed to maintain it have been held in the years since the Soviet collapse.

“No one expected, in the modern world, that we would be down here in the subways, camped out, hiding out, like what we read and saw in photographs from World War II,” Emilia told an RFE/RL correspondent.

She added a question: “What is the point of this nonsense?”

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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.

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