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The Week In Russia: Off-Ramps And Obsessions

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 inbox, click here.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he’s not against negotiations for peace in Ukraine. Analysts say that, despite setbacks in the more than 17 months since he launched Russia’s large-scale invasion, he is still bent on “destroying and subordinating” that country and determined to “redraw the world map.”

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

‘Fatal Mistakes’

Headlines can be misleading, miss the point, or highlight a remark that — while it may arguably be technically accurate — skews the relevance of what was said.

Example: After Putin met with African leaders at a summit in St. Petersburg last week, several news stories appeared under headlines citing Putin as saying that Russia does not oppose holding peace talks with Ukraine.

Putin can say what he wants, but there are so many caveats that the statement itself is almost meaningless.

For one thing, Putin immediately blamed Ukraine for the absence of peace talks, also saying that calls for a cease-fire made little sense amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

“We can’t cease fire when we are under attack,” he said, neglecting to mention that Kyiv would not be mounting a counteroffensive if it were not under attack — if Russia had not launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

And then there’s this detail: Putin may not have mentioned it specifically in his comments to media outlets on July 29, but he and other Russian officials have repeatedly said that Ukraine and other participants in any negotiations on the war in Ukraine would have to accept the “new realities.”

That term is shorthand for Kremlin claims that do not reflect reality: Last September, Putin asserted that Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson regions are now part of Russia. In fact, Russian forces do not hold any of those regions in their entirety, and the claim is based on little or nothing beyond so-called referendums deemed illegitimate by most of the world.

Based on those statements, regardless of Ukraine’s position and what’s happening on the long front line, Russia has strongly suggested that it is unwilling to negotiate without a guarantee that it would end up with even more Ukrainian territory than it currently controls.

Meanwhile, there’s a broader issue, and a more far-reaching one: The widespread suspicion that Putin still wants more than those regions — that despite a series of setbacks, starting with Russian forces’ failure to take Kyiv and push President Volodymyr Zelenskiy from power in the first weeks of the invasion, he is still determined to seize Ukraine, subjugate it, or both.

Pointing to factors including legislation adopted last week to raise the maximum age for mandatory military service for men to 30 from 27, analyst Alexander Gabuev wrote that, “Far from seeking an off-ramp from his disastrous war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is preparing for an even bigger war.”

“Putin has made plenty of fatal mistakes,” Gabuev, who is director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, wrote in The Financial Times. “But as long as he is in charge, Moscow will dedicate its still vast resources to achieving his obsession with destroying and subordinating Ukraine.”

‘Powerful Lessons’

Putin prefaced the full-scale invasion by repeatedly stating or suggesting that Ukraine has no right to exist unless it is closely tied to Russia.

In remarks since the invasion, he has said more of the same, giving no indication that his goals — which go beyond Ukraine — have changed.

Putin’s “mission” is “to redraw the world map with the borders that he and his ideologists call ‘historical Russia,’” Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, wrote in Novaya Gazeta Europe.

No wonder Kyiv is wary of negotiations — and might remain so if Putin’s rule were to come to an end.

“Powerful lessons from Ukraine’s own past, as well as its neighbors’ history and present, have taught Ukrainians that Moscow can’t be trusted,” Andreas Umland, an analyst at the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, wrote in Politico. “And according to their experience and comparative analysis, if the Russian state exists in its current form, it will not engage in sincere negotiations, or sign a peace deal in good faith.”

Of course, it’s impossible to say for sure how a country will act in the future, even the very near future. But in the present, since the full-bore invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there have been plenty of signs that Putin is not ready to scale down his goals.

For one thing, when it comes to the parts of Ukraine that it does currently control, Russia is trying to turn what it calls the new realities into actual realities – with devastating consequences for the Ukrainians who have not fled or been killed.

In his Novaya Gazeta Europe article, Kolesnikov wrote that in Putin’s Russia, the Soviet-era state ideology of Marxism-Leninism has been replaced by “so-called traditional values” and a “glorious, mythologized history of Russia.”

“Historical politics is also acquiring a practical political application — it is becoming an instrument for the rule of the country,” he wrote.

And if there are few signs that Putin is willing to give up his most aggressive goals when it comes to Ukraine, there may be even fewer indications that the state is preparing to let up on its clampdown on all forms of dissent.

That impression may be reinforced by the verdict and sentence that is to be handed down to Putin’s most prominent foe, Aleksei Navalny, at a hearing scheduled to start on August 4, wrapping up a trial on extremism and other charges that he and supporters dismiss as politically motivated and absurd.

Navalny is already serving prison sentences of nine years and 2 1/2 years on charges that he also rejects, and a conviction is a foregone conclusion in a country where the acquittal rate is well below 1 percent.

A ‘Stalinist’ Sentence

Last month, in a trial held behind closed doors, the state prosecutor asked the court to sentence Navalny to another 20 years in prison.

Analyst Kolesnikov wrote that while post-Soviet Russia has ditched Marx and Lenin, Putin has increasingly turned to narratives from the “ideological arsenal of the Stalin era” — such as the claim that Russian invasions of other countries are not attacks but “missions of liberation.”

In a comment on the eve of the verdict hearing, Navalny also made reference to the Soviet dictator and his terror-filled times, saying he expects a “Stalinist” sentence — a long one, that is.

In another prominent case that has served as a sign of the times, an appeals court upheld the guilty verdict and 25-year prison sentence against Kremlin opponent Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was convicted of treason and other crimes in a trial he and his supporters say was politically motivated punishment for his criticism of Putin and the war on Ukraine.

The still-spiraling state clampdown has also claimed many lesser-known critics of the war.

On August 3, a court convicted a 19-year-old man, Danil Berdyugin, of treason and sentenced him to six years in prison. Berdyugin had taken part in anti-war protests in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk and signed several petitions demanding that Russia halt its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

That’s it from me this week. The next edition of The Week In Russia will appear on August 18.

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).

Yours,

Steve Gutterman

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