Since President Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, policymaking in Russia has been subordinated to the war and long-term planning is at a standstill. Political analyst Andras Toth-Czifra joins host Steve Gutterman to discuss the chaotic situation and its potential consequences.
Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia
Sunday 23 July 2023
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.
A "traitor" was welcomed to the Kremlin and a Russian field commander lashed out, echoing the invective that preceded the Wagner mutiny last month. Meanwhile, NATO pledged staunch support for Ukraine but wouldn't say when it can join. And after more than 500 days, Russia's invasion raged on.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
Hosting The 'Backstabber'
What happens in the Kremlin stays in the Kremlin -- until it's revealed much later in a statement that, if true, means previous statements were flat-out lies.
That's what happened in the wake of the stunning but short-lived mutiny by Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and his mercenary force last month.
On June 29, five days after the mutiny in which Wagner fighters seized the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and marched to within 200 kilometers of Moscow, also shooting down Russian military aircraft and killing 13 air-force personnel, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin's administration did not know Prigozhin's whereabouts.
Eleven days later, the story changed: Putin had met with Prigozhin for three hours in the Kremlin on June 29, Peskov told reporters. He said that 35 Wagner commanders were invited and that Putin delivered "an assessment of the June 24 events" -- a laconic way of referring to what many analysts agree was the biggest challenge to Putin in nearly 24 years as president or prime minister.
The flip-flop seems certain to reflect uncertainty in Putin's administration about how to handle the mutiny in terms of propaganda. Putin had already taken a 180-degree turn in the space of several hours on June 24, calling the revolt a "stab in the back" by "traitors" and then agreeing to a resolution that at least for now allows Prigozhin and others to escape prosecution.
Clearly, the content and tone of Peskov's remarks were part of a Kremlin effort to play down the significance of the rebellion -- to portray what was widely seen as a game-changer, a sign of weakness from which Putin could probably never recover, as instead a mere blip or a bump in the road. And even to cast it as show of strength on Putin's part and of loyalty on the part of the Russian people.
The Wagner commanders who met with Putin at the Kremlin "underscored that they are staunch supporters and soldiers of the head of state and the commander in chief," Peskov said. And while Putin later commented on the meeting in a short interview with a Kremlin-friendly journalist, it's hard to know for sure whether it actually took place at all, let alone whether Peskov's claim about assurances of loyalty is accurate.
Meanwhile, though, Prigozhin and a top Russian armed forces commander seen as his ally, General Sergei Surovikin, have not been seen in public since the rebellion, which may be a way for Putin to portray himself as in control by hinting that they are in custody -- or at least that they are not free to travel, speak, and do as they please.
After The Mutiny
The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed "people familiar with the situation," reported on July 13 that Surovikin was being held and questioned in Moscow and that about 15 senior Russian military officers had been suspended from duty or fired since the mutiny.
But the challenge to Putin remains, and the reverberations of the mutiny are likely to be felt for a long time.
One of those reverberations came on July 12, with the emergence of a strongly worded audio message is which a top Russian field commander said he was summarily dismissed after complaining to top brass about the situation on the front lines in Ukraine.
In any case, the mutiny and its fallout underscored how Putin's decision to launch a full-scale war against Ukraine, which he said was a forced move that was necessary to ensure Russia's security, has done the exact opposite.
Also highlighting how Putin has harmed his country's security rather than enhancing it: The NATO summit that was held in Vilnius this week, with Ukraine as its focus.
One of the ways Putin has sought to justify the invasion is by saying that if Ukraine were to join NATO, or play host to NATO weaponry, it would pose an intolerable threat to Russia's security -- and even its sovereignty.
He and other officials have gone further than that as well, suggesting that Russia had to ignite the biggest war in Europe since 1945 because Ukraine, backed by the West, was about to launch a major offensive in the Donbas, where Kremlin-backed forces seized parts of two provinces in 2014 in a war that continued to simmer until the full-scale invasion of 2022, and potentially against Russia itself.
This is false -- as was pointed out by Prigozhin, of all people, in remarks hours before the Wagner mutiny got under way.
There was "nothing extraordinary happening" on February 24, 2022, Prigozhin said, meaning that there was no such threat. "Now the Defense Ministry is trying to deceive the public, deceive the president, and tell a story that there was some crazy aggression by Ukraine, that -- together with the whole NATO bloc -- Ukraine was planning to attack us."
At that time, there was also no indication that Finland, Sweden, or Ukraine would soon join NATO. But as a result of the invasion, Finland -- which shares a long border with Russia -- is now a member, while Sweden is poised to join soon, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to stop blocking its accession. And Ukraine, long lukewarm or on the fence, adamantly wants in.
Ukraine wasn't expected to get an invitation at the July 11-12 summit, and it didn't. But what it did get fell pretty far short of what it had expected, or at least what it might have been satisfied with: a clear path to membership, with a timeline attached.
'Uncertainty Is Weakness'
Technically, Ukraine did come one significant step closer to joining NATO: The alliance said that it will not require Kyiv to receive and fulfill a Membership Action Plan (MAP). That opens the door to a faster accession process once members are ready to bring it in.
But there was no escaping the drab, disappointing nature of this key passage in the NATO summit communique, which was vague on what Ukraine must do to get in but made plain as day the fact that there is no consensus on when Kyiv can join a group that has been telling it for 15 years, since a summit in Bucharest in 2008, that it will one day be a member: "We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met."
Ahead of the summit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that for Russia, ambiguity on when Kyiv might be able to join NATO "means motivation to continue its terror. Uncertainty is weakness."
Zelenskiy was more upbeat as the summit concluded, saying it marked "a significant security victory" for his country and "removed any doubts and ambiguities about whether Ukraine will be in NATO."
But despite U.S. President Joe Biden's statement after the gathering that NATO was "more united than ever," Putin seems likely to see its results as a sign that Western unity could still unravel, turning the tide of the war in Moscow's favor.
The summit is "more likely to be remembered for what it didn't do, than what it did," Sam Greene, director of democratic resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said in a comment published on July 12. "Moving beyond the Membership Action Plan for Ukraine was, in fact, a significant step, but Ukraine remains without membership and without a real plan for getting it."
"Unless the allies can move swiftly to clarify the conditions that will need...to be 'right,'" he said, "the vagueness of NATO's commitment to Ukraine will invite unproductive game-playing from the alliance's less responsible members and encourage Moscow to keep trying to chip away at allies' resolve."
The Killing Persists
Meanwhile, the war goes on, and Russia continues to try to break the resolve of Ukrainians, killing and maiming civilians in attacks on cities and towns across the country while its troops try to hold back a major Ukrainian counteroffensive that began last month.
Last weekend, Russia's full-scale invasion passed the 500-day mark -- and as time goes by, Ukraine faces both new attacks and the anniversaries of particularly atrocious events.
A year ago on March 16, for example, Russian forces bombed a theater in the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol, killing hundreds of adults and children seeking refuge there.
Amid those grim reminders of the recent past, a harrowing new report by the Associated Press adds to the evidence that Russia plans to occupy as much of Ukraine and control as many Ukrainians as it can for as long as it can, and take more if possible.
"Thousands of Ukrainian civilians are being detained across Russia and the Ukrainian territories it occupies, in centers ranging from brand-new wings in Russian prisons to clammy basements. Most have no status under Russian law," the report says. "And Russia is planning to hold possibly thousands more."
That's it from me this week. The next edition of The Week In Russia will appear on July 28.
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).
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.
To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.