The Week In Russia: Indelible Images Of War

By: - March 10, 2023

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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. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

Russia launches a deadly new wave of strikes on Ukraine as the battle for the city of Bakhmut continues. A video purports to show the defiant last moments of a captured Ukrainian soldier’s life. Opponents of the war are jailed in Russia, and protesters in Georgia fight against “foreign agent” legislation they say mirrors Russian law.

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

In The Frame

A captive soldier about to be shot dead. A city razed to the ground. A jailed student activist voicing defiance and resolve in court. A protester, draped in the national flag, facing a line of riot police.

These images, all recent, seem to encapsulate the death and destruction Russia has wreaked with its invasion of Ukraine, the state’s still-spiraling clampdown on all forms of dissent at home, and the reverberations abroad of Moscow’s conduct.

Famous Last Words

Amid all the horrors of the Russian invasion, a short piece of footage that appears to show a soldier smoking a cigarette and saying “Glory to Ukraine” before being shot multiple times and collapsing to the ground struck a chord in his home country and beyond.

It is particularly grim and graphic, and the message of defiance is particularly clear: The soldier’s last words emblemize the resistance Ukrainians have put up against what many in Russia, the West, and elsewhere believed would be the swift subjugation of the nation by force.

A screenshot from the video — without the words and without the gunfire and its effects — somehow seems to send the same message.

On March 7, the Ukrainian military’s 30th Separate Mechanized Brigade said preliminary information indicated that the soldier it shows was Timofiy Shadura, who served in the brigade and has been listed as missing since February 3 amid fighting in and around Bakhmut, in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine.

Later, however, the military command for northern Ukraine said it was apparently Oleksandr Matsiyevskiy, a soldier with a brigade from the Chernihiv region who was killed on December 30 near Soledar, a few kilometers northeast of Bakhmut, and Matsiyevskiy’s mother said she is certain it was her son.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office said law enforcement authorities will make a formal determination of the soldier’s identity.

On March 8, the UN Human Rights Office said it was “aware of this video posted on social media that shows a Ukrainian soldier…apparently being executed by Russian armed forces. Based on a preliminary examination, we believe that the video may be authentic.”

The video has added to ever-growing accusations and evidence of war crimes by Russian soldiers since President Vladimir Putin launched a massive and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, dramatically escalating a war that had been simmering in the Donbas since 2014.

According to the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, signed by Russia, POWs must be guaranteed life and humane conditions of detention. Executions and ill-treatment of prisoners of war are considered war crimes.

‘Seizing Rubble’

The footage, if authentic, is also a stark close-up of the situation in and around Bakhmut, which Russian forces have been trying to capture for many months in some of the deadliest and most intense fighting since the invasion.

Military analysts say that the city is of little strategic importance. There’s also almost nothing left of it.

“The reality is that if the Russians do capture Bakhmut, they are seizing rubble,” Mick Ryan, a former Australian Army major general and an analyst on Russian military doctrine, wrote in a commentary.

Aerial images of Bakhmut and other largely destroyed cities and towns, their buildings either bombed out or razed to the ground — Soledar, Vuhledar, Mariupol, and Maryinka among them — provide breathtaking evidence of the enormity of the damage Russia has done to Ukraine.

Of course, such photos make for a superficial picture, only hinting at the extent of human suffering the invasion has caused in Ukraine.

Behind Bars

As it presses its assault on Ukraine, the Russian state under President Vladimir Putin has escalated its already relentless efforts to silence independent voices and stamp out dissent at home.

“Whatever false justifications for this war of aggression have been promulgated by the Kremlin’s state-controlled media, its clear purpose is to remove the elected leadership in Kyiv and deprive Ukrainians of their fundamental right to free self-government,” the U.S. government-funded democracy and human rights watchdog Freedom House said of the Russian invasion in its annual report, released on March 9.

“In his desire to destroy democracy in Ukraine and deny Ukrainians their political rights and civil liberties, Putin has caused the deaths and injuries of thousands of Ukrainian civilians as well as soldiers on both sides, the destruction of crucial infrastructure, the displacement of millions of people from their homes, a proliferation of torture and sexual violence, and the intensification of already harsh repression within Russia,” it said.

That campaign of repression has targeted numerous prominent Kremlin opponents — as well as countless other Russians.

One of them is Dmitry Ivanov, a math and cybernetics student at Moscow State University and the administrator of a protest blog in which he posted remarks about the conduct of Russian forces in Bucha, Mariupol, and other Ukrainian cities where eyewitnesses, activists, and authorities say they have committed atrocities.

On March 7, Ivanov was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison under legislation that criminalizes the distribution of what the government deems deliberately false information about the actions of the Russian armed forces abroad. Putin signed the law eight days after launching the invasion on February 24, 2022.

At trial, the court did not address whether Ivanov’s posts were accurate, and he said he stood by everything he wrote. A photo taken at a hearing shows him standing inside a courtroom enclosure and flashing a V sign with his fingers — in this case not the letter V, which the Kremlin has adopted as part of its war propaganda, but a show of defiance and confidence that truth and justice will eventually prevail in Russia.

Another is Bulat Shumekov, an anti-war activist in the Kemerovo region of Siberia who was sentenced to seven years in prison on March 9 for publications condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

After 16 months in jail, Lilia Chanysheva, the former head of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s office in the Bashkortostan region, faces a court hearing on March 14.

She is charged with crimes that stem from the state’s designation of Navalny’s regional political network as an extremist group — a label dismissed by Kremlin critics as absurd and politically motivated — and could face 18 years in prison.

Another dramatic photograph shot this week was taken in Tbilisi, Georgia, where opponents of a Russian-style “foreign agents” bill took to the streets in protests called by the main opposition party after the government-sponsored legislation won preliminary approval in parliament on March 7.

The nighttime photo shows a protester wearing the red-and-white Georgian flag like a cape and standing on a cobblestone street facing a thick crowd of riot police.

‘The Russian Law’

After two nights of protests and clashes in which police fired tear gas, stun grenades, and water cannon at demonstrators, who at one point tried to storm parliament, the government said it would withdraw the bill, and the legislature voted to scrap it on March 10 following a third night of demonstrations.

The Georgian bill was not directly related to Russia or the war in Ukraine. But critics say it echoed Russian “foreign agent” legislation that Putin’s government has used as one of the main tools in its campaign to suppress dissent, muzzle independent media, and shutter civil society.

The European Union had sharply criticized the bill and said it would place a hurdle on the country’s path to EU membership, which polls indicate is supported by a large majority of Georgians. Opponents of the ruling Georgian Dream party accuse it of being pro-Russian, and protesters chanted “No to the Russian law.”

In several former Soviet republics, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fueled fears that Moscow has designs on them as well and might try to seize parts of their territory, subjugate them though influence on their governments, or otherwise increase its meddling more than 30 years after the U.S.S.R.’s collapse.

Russia has already encroached heavily on Georgian territory, invading the South Caucasus country in 2008 and recognizing two breakaway regions where it maintains troops as independent nations. In Moldova, tensions are high amid claims of a Russian coup plot.

Meanwhile, Russia unleashed rocket, drone, and artillery attacks across much of Ukraine before dawn on March 9, the first assault of its kind in weeks, killing several civilians in areas from the Dnipropetrovsk region in the southeast and Kyiv in the north to the Black Sea port of Odesa and the Lviv region in the west.

Several of the attacks targeted electricity and other infrastructure facilities, causing power cuts in numerous locations and temporarily disrupting the main power supply for the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Ukrainian authorities said.

“More electricity facilities destroyed this morning,” novelist Andrey Kurkov wrote on Twitter. “This is indeed the war between light and total darkness.”

RFE/RL intern Ella Jaffe contributed to this report.

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