This week in Russia: Ambition and reality

Like the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s war on is something that President cannot control – so the is flushing the numbers and trying to shape the story. Putin’s speech on the weekend of May 9 signaled that the killing could continue for months or more.

Here are some of the most important events in Russia over the past week and some of the future takeaways.

‘Under control’

When the coronavirus pandemic reached Russia, it created a particularly big challenge for Putin: A leader could a leader who is more accustomed to dealing with the optics of relatively isolated incidents and situations created by his own choice respond adequately to a major crisis of external origin and was resistant to form with propaganda?

For Kremlin critics, the answer is “No.” Weeks after Putin said in March 2020 that the Russian authorities had managed to “contain the mass penetration and spread” of the virus and that the situation was “generally under control”, it became clear that they did not have it, and that it was not.

When the enormous scale of the crisis set in, a large part of the Kremlin’s efforts were to address it by tarnishing the figures. According to the country task force for the coronavirusFewer than 380,000 Russians have died as a result of covid-19 since the pandemic began.

But in reality, it is generally believed that the toll has exceeded 1 million of a population of less than 150 million – around the beginning of this year.

In contrast, the United States – which has the highest recorded death toll for covid on the planet and a population of nearly 335 million – passed 1 million mark Earlier this month.

Two years after the coronavirus took hold, Putin is facing another crisis that is affecting the entire country and defying containment, promising long-term consequences and clouding the future. This time it is a crisis he himself has created: Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the war raging there now, killing Russian soldiers, inflicting a heavy blow on the country’s economy and severely damaging its image over large parts of the world.

The causes of the latter effect are growing by the day, as cities are being destroyed by bombs, grenades and rockets, and horrible accounts of alleged atrocities come from areas where Russian forces have left their mark. On the Internet, for example, there is a heartbreaking, heartwarming photo of a mother and her twinssurvivors of a rocket attack on a train station in eastern Ukraine last month. On , there are movies of Russian soldiers talking to two seemingly unarmed civilians, releasing them and then shooting them in the back as they leave.

May 12, UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calls on its investigators to investigate possible abuses and violations in northern Ukraine in the weeks following the February 24 invasion. “The scale of illegal killings, including indications of summary executions in areas north of Kyiv, is shocking,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

numbers games

The geopolitical consequences for Russia also seem to be growing. In his Victory Day speech, Putin reiterated his claim that the invasion of Ukraine was necessary to preserve the country’s security, the effect has become something else. Finland, which shares a long border with Russia, is probably join this year, and Sweden can do the same. Western sanctions are strikes at the economy hard with worse expected to come, and many European seem determined to end their long-standing dependence on Russian oil and gas.

At the same time, many promising young Russians have fled the country, fearing that, at least for now, there is nothing for them there.

And again, one of the ways in which the Putin is tackling the crisis, or avoiding it, is by tarnishing the numbers.

The last time the Ministry of Defense issued an official death toll was on March 27, when it said that 1,351 Russian soldiers had been killed since Putin ordered the start of the large-scale invasion. Ukrainian and Western officials said weeks ago that the real Russian customs duty was more than 15,000 – higher than the number of Soviet troops killed in Moscow’s nearly decade-long occupation war in Afghanistan.

The blatant fraud over its own victim numbers is part of a broader effort by the Russian state to keep secret information about the war – from the reasons it is being fought to its consequences for Russian citizens – secret.

Assignment not completed

The tools used for this work include laws that allow prosecution to spread what the government considers to be false information about the war and a continued repression campaign against the remnants of political opposition, civil society, independent media and citizens who voice dissent.

Cheating on the numbers is also part of an obvious attempt to hide a particularly important piece of information about the war from the Russians: how it is going.

Putin and other officials have repeatedly said things are going according to plan. But there is plenty of evidence that Putin had expected the invasion to force the Ukrainian government to surrender or make major concessions within days – and that its offensives in the east and south, where most fighting is now focused, are also goes slower than the Kremlin would wish.

The address Putin delivered at the annual military parade on Red Square on May 9, as Russia celebrates Nazi ’s defeat in , seemed to add evidence.

Putin repeated unfounded allegations Aiming to justify the invasion of Ukraine and proposing that Russia’s military – like the Soviet army in what Moscow calls the Great Patriotic War – fight Nazism, which is false.

He also provoked wars that Russia has been involved in going back almost a millennium, suggesting that they were always defensive. But he said little or nothing concrete about Russia’s goals in the war in Ukraine.

Some may interpret it as a cunning way to make the world guess, something Putin likes to do. But it seems just as likely – or more so – that in the absence of the quick victory he had almost certainly expected, and in the absence of good news for Russia from the front lines, he just did not have much to say.

Ambitions and limitations

For Putin, wrote Russian analyst and author Mark Galeotti, May 9 must have been disturbed “by the inevitable realization that what [he] had apparently once thought that it would be a celebration of a glorious victory, one that would fix his place in the pantheon of Russian hero monarchs, instead must be a model for the greater battles to come. “

“This was not the speech of a man considering retreat or even dismissal,” said Galeotti, an honorary professor at the UCL School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies in London. wrote in an article was published in The Spectator shortly after the indictment. “Rather, he signaled that the war would still be fought.”

There were echoes of that assessment in the testimony that U.S. Secretary of Intelligence Avril Haines delivered to the Senate Armed Forces Committee the following day.

“We believe that President Putin is preparing for a protracted conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas.” in Haines – which indicates that he at least wants Russian forces to keep parts of Ukraine that they have occupied outside the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the southeast, parts of which have been controlled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014.

A more ambitious goal that would also fall within that description would be the seizure of the port city of Odesa and a piece of southern Ukraine from the Russian border and the Donbas to , which would cut off Kyiv from the Black Sea and the Azov Sea.

But Ukrainian forces have been reclaim areas that Russian forces had occupied the east, and Haines hinted that Putin’s goal and ambiguity over if they can be achieved create a volatile mixture.

“The reality” is that “Putin is facing a mismatch between his ambitions and Russia’s current conventional military capabilities,” she said – and this “probably means that the next few months may see us move along a more unpredictable and potentially escalating path.”

NOTE: The next edition of The Week In Russia will appear on June 3.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE / RL, Inc. Reprinted with permission from Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036


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