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The Week In Russia: War And Warnings Of A Purge  

Vladimir Putin’s March 16 address about the war in Ukraine and the situation in Russia was “as ominous as it was bizarre,” according to one analyst.

President Vladimir Putin sought to justify Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin’s intense crackdown at home in an alarming, falsehood-filled address as civilian casualties mounted. A maverick protester on Russian state TV said Putin bore sole responsibility for the “fratricidal” conflict, and U.S. President Joe Biden called him a “war criminal.”

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

Terror And 'Traitors'

A picture is said to be worth a thousand words, and Russian President Putin used more than 4,000 words -- many of them outlandish, unfounded, or simply false -- in an address that analyst and author Mark Galeotti described as “truly as ominous as it was bizarre.”

The remarks on March 16 came in the latest in a series of aggressive monologues Putin has used in an effort to justify the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine -- first in advance and then after he launched it on February 24, wreaking death and destruction on an independent country that those same speeches suggest is an object of obsession for him.

Putin repeated baseless suggestions that the United States has a bioweapons program in Ukraine and a false claim that the government in Kyiv has been committing “genocide” in the country’s Donbas region, where a war fomented by Moscow had killed more than 13,200 people between April 2014 and the new Russian invasion.

One of the more striking falsehoods was Putin’s assertion that Russia forces are “doing everything in their power to avoid casualties among the civilian population of Ukraine’s cities” – a claim that is exposed as untrue by photographs, footage, and accounts from several cities – Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and many more.

In besieged Mariupol, where officials say more than 2,500 people have been killed, fears that the toll could climb higher surged on March 16, after authorities said a Russian air strike hit a theater where hundreds of people had been sheltering. Satellite photos showed the word “children” written in massive letters in Russian on the ground on two sides of the building, visible from above.

On March 18, the Russian military said that its forces and separatist fighters were "tightening the encirclement" around Mariupol and that there was fighting in the streets.

With the war in its fourth week and casualties increasing as Russia bombards cities and towns while its own forces on the ground sustain severe losses and make little progress, Biden said on March 16 that he thinks Putin is a “war criminal.”

A Chilling Message

In his remarks the same day, Putin spoke of both Ukraine and Russia, which has been plunged into uncertainty by the war. Western sanctions have hit, and tens of thousands of people have fled the country for various reasons – fear of a spiraling clampdown, shame and anger over their government’s actions, and concern that Russia’s increasing isolation will leave them jobless, penniless, or both.

For those who have gone West, in body or in spirit, Putin essentially said, “Good riddance.” He delivered a chilling message to those who stay behind, whether by choice or by circumstance.

“Any nation, in particular the Russian nation, will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like a fly that has accidentally flown into their mouths,” Putin said in the remarks, which some observers said smacked of fascism.

He also spoke of cleansing or purification, language that among other things evokes the purges of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, saying: “I am convinced that a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion, and readiness to answer any challenges."

It was a message also aimed obviously if not overtly at the “oligarchs,” with Putin saying that he’s not “judging those who have a villa in Miami or the French Riviera.” The problem, he asserted, is that “many of these people, by their very nature, are mentally located precisely there, and not here, not with our people, not with Russia.’

In the past, Putin left the tycoons and their fortunes more or less intact as they stayed out of politics, and this unwritten law was more important to Putin's system of rule than many of the written ones. “Now he is going further, demanding not just their acquiescence but their active loyalty,” Galeotti wrote in a March 17 article in The Spectator.

'They Are Lying To You Here'

Whether he will get it and for how long is unclear, one of the questions whose answers will shape the situation in Russia -- which is suddenly changing fairly fast and could potentially change faster -- in the coming weeks, months, and years.

Another pillar of Putin’s power structure is the state media, particularly the two main channels that reach tens of millions of Russians. So, another crucial question is whether an unprecedented protest by Channel One editor Marina Ovsyannikova on March 14 will end up being an anomaly or the start of something.

During a prime-time news broadcast, Ovsyannnikova appeared beyond the anchor holding an anti-war sign that said: “Don’t believe the propaganda. They are lying to you here.” Before the protest, she recorded a video in which she said that “Russia must immediately stop this fratricidal war” and that Putin alone is responsible for the bloodshed.

After being questioned for 14 hours without a lawyer present, she was fined for an unauthorized demonstration, and she could still face criminal prosecution under a law against spreading "deliberately false information" about the use of the armed forces. It carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

In a less prominent protest the following day, Moscow law student Anastasia Parshkova stood before the country’s main Russian Orthodox church, Christ the Savior Cathedral, holding a sign that read, “Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill.”

She was arrested -- one of about 15,000 people detained for protesting the war since Russia launched the new invasion of Ukraine.

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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.

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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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