‘Charred Buildings And Shallow Graves’

By: - February 9, 2024

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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.

An anti-war candidate is barred from the presidential ballot, and two detailed reports shed grim new light on the fate and future of Mariupol — the devastated port city where Russia is seeking to “erase Ukrainian culture.”

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

Horror And Hope

Nearly two years into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a handful of place names stand out as grim emblems of the death and destruction Moscow’s forces have wreaked on the neighboring country since the unprovoked assault.

The most prominent of these may be Bucha, the suburban Kyiv city whose name is now synonymous with evidence of atrocities and accusations of war crimes by Russian troops in the first few weeks of the onslaught.

But Bucha is in the northern part of Ukraine from which Russian forces withdrew early on after failing to take the capital or force President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his government to capitulate. So it’s also a symbol of hope for justice: the hope, shared by many Ukrainians and their supporters abroad, that Russia will face consequences for its actions.

Mariupol is a different story. After withstanding attacks over the years of the war in the Donbas, which erupted in 2014, it fell to Russian forces in May 2022 after a devastating siege and remains in Moscow’s hands — one of the biggest Ukrainian cities occupied by Russia.

As a result, it is a symbol of another kind: of the lengths to which Russia is prepared to go using brute force to seize Ukrainian territory, even areas whose pre-invasion populations were largely Russian-speaking residents whom President Vladimir Putin baselessly claims the onslaught was intended to protect, and of the suffering still in store for residents of areas that are occupied by Russia or may be in future.

The fate of those people figures prominently in the arguments of those, both inside and outside Ukraine, who say driving Russia’s forces out of all of Ukraine must be the goal and any agreement that leaves Russia in control of Ukrainian territory would keep millions of civilians in Russia’s thrall and invite further and even direr disaster.

For now, the war seems sure to continue for many months or more and there appears to be no chance Ukraine could recapture Mariupol anytime soon, let alone push Russian forces out of the country entirely. A Ukrainian counteroffensive fell far short of its goals last year, and Russia is pressing at several locations on the front line.

‘One Of The Worst Chapters’

For all that’s unknown about Mariupol, where Russian control hinders access to accurate information about the past and present, horrifying stories have emerged from a city where many buildings were razed by Russian attacks and rows of fresh graves multiplied as Russian forces pressed to capture the strategic Azov Sea port.

Some of them are linked to the bombing of a theater where hundreds of adults and children were taking shelter, others to the siege of the steelworks where Ukrainian forces made their final stand, Azovstal. Still others are on a far smaller scale, such as a video showing a woman slumped in a hospital corridor, sobbing and clutching her sleeping son after a bombardment that killed her other child.

This week, two extensive new reports shed stark new light on developments in Mariupol both before Russia’s takeover and since.

One is a Human Rights Watch report on an investigation, conducted in cooperation with two other organizations, into what the group calls “one of the worst chapters of Russia’s atrocity-ridden invasion and occupation of Ukraine so far.”

“The operation, which included Russian forces pounding Mariupol for weeks with explosive weapons, left thousands of Ukrainian civilians dead and injured. It trapped hundreds of thousands for weeks. And it turned a thriving city into a wasteland of charred buildings and shallow graves,” HRW says.

Given what it describes as “Russia’s continued efforts to erase Ukrainian culture” in Mariupol, a vibrant city of 540,000 not long ago, the chapter is far from over.

The other new report is from the Financial Times. It focuses on Russia’s rebuilding of Mariupol, describing the city as a “Potemkin village” whose residents “live in perilous conditions while Russian companies profit from contracts worth millions.”

“With investigators unable to access the city, and with Moscow racing to plaster over the horrors of the war, it’s feared [that] more Russian atrocities may remain undiscovered,” the report says after citing the bombing of the theater and a strike on a maternity hospital.

“Russia is trying to destroy all evidence of its war crimes,” it quotes Ukraine’s human rights commissioner, Dmytro Lubinets, as saying.

Barred From The Ballot

Mariupol is in Donetsk Province, one of five Ukrainian regions that Russia baselessly claims as its own.

In the real Russia, a decade-long clampdown on civil society, independent media, and dissent that intensified after Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine shows no sign of flagging ahead of a March 15-17 election that is set to hand him a new six-year term.

Prosecutions on extremism charges that critics say the Kremlin uses to silence opponents and quash perceived threats have risen sharply since the February 2022 invasion.

Putin’s most prominent foe, Aleksei Navalny, is serving a prison sentence that was extended to 19 years after he was convicted of extremism last August. On February 6, his spokeswoman said he had been placed in solitary confinement several days earlier for the 26th time since his incarceration three years ago.

Navalny has been an opposition leader for many years, but his biggest troubles with the state began after he sought to challenge Putin on the most recent presidential vote in 2018. He was barred from the ballot and in 2020 survived a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on Putin and the Federal Security Service.

As in 2018, the Kremlin’s grip on politics, government, and the media means Putin is certain to win the election next month barring some massive, unexpected development.

But once again, Putin appears to be taking no chances: Boris Nadezhdin, a little-known former lawmaker whose would-be campaign quickly turned into a magnet for Russians who are tired of the war in Ukraine, or of Putin, or both, was denied a place on the ballot in a decision handed down by the Central Election Commission on October 8.

Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin offered a simple explanation for the decision to bar Nadezhdin from the ballot.

The Kremlin initially saw him as a nonthreatening figure who would receive 2 or 3 percent of the vote, demonstrating “the wretchedness of the European, anti-Putin and anti-war alternative,” Oreshkin told RFE/RL’s Crimea.Realities. But after Russians lined up in droves to sign the petitions he needed to qualify for the race, it became clear he might attract a larger number of votes.

“If suddenly an opponent of the war, oriented toward the West, who defends liberal values, gets 10 to 12 percent, this is a completely unthinkable situation” for Putin and his circle, Oreshkin said. “And so, sometime in mid-January, Nadezhdin moved irrevocably from the ranks of acceptable…candidates to the ranks of the unacceptable.”

That’s it from me this week.

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

P.S.: Consider forwarding this newsletter to colleagues who might find this of interest. Send feedback and tips to [email protected].

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