By Steve Gutterman
As the cold bears down and Russia's onslaught against Ukraine persists, President Vladimir Putin tries to justify the untimely deaths of Russian soldiers -- but has no words for the Ukrainians his war has killed. A prominent opposition politician goes on trial, and Americans remain behind bars.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
Last winter, many observers clung until the last minute to the belief -- or the hope -- that Russia would not launch a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, despite evidence ranging from Western intelligence warnings to a litany of remarks from Putin suggesting the neighboring nation must be subjugated to Moscow.
Another piece of evidence, in hindsight, was Putin’s sometimes cavalier comments on the subject of death, including the mass death that comes with war.
Back in October 2018, with war simmering in the Donbas but this past February’s invasion more than three years away, Putin caused a stir, as he likes to do, by announcing that in the event of a catastrophic nuclear conflict with the West, Russians would “go to heaven as martyrs.”
Citizens of the “aggressor” country “would just croak because they wouldn’t even have time to repent,” he said.
The remarks did not sit well with some Russians, for whom Putin’s assurance about the afterlife made his apparent willingness to see them sacrificed in a confrontation with the West no less eerie. “I don’t want to go to heaven,” one commentator put it succinctly. “I want to live.”
Putin was at it again a week ago, ahead of Mother’s Day in Russia. At a closely choreographed meeting at his residence outside Moscow on November 25, he told an apparently handpicked group of women whose sons the Kremlin said have fought and, in some cases, died in Ukraine that “we are all mortal…. And we will at some point leave this world – it’s unavoidable.”
Noting that tens of thousands of Russians die every year in traffic accidents or from alcohol, he said that what’s important is “how we lived,” not how long.
So: A 70-year-old leader whose unprovoked invasion of an independent country has cut short the lives of tens of thousands of Ukrainians, including infants and children, and who has sent tens of thousands of Russians to their untimely deaths on the battlefield, declares that everyone must die at some point and that some drink themselves to death or die in car crashes anyway.
The remarks were the latest of many made by Putin over more than 23 years as president or prime minister that critics say show he places the state above its citizens, a hierarchical order that some observers say must be reversed -- and may have been briefly in the years before he came to power -- if Russia is ever to truly thrive.
Putin’s message was one he apparently made sure he delivered to a carefully controlled audience. The women he met with at his residence outside Moscow included none of the mothers, wives, sisters, and girlfriends who have bitterly lamented the lack of training and dire conditions for soldiers sent to fight in Ukraine. Some of the men were swept up in the massive mobilization Putin decreed in September, seeking to replenish the ranks after serval setbacks in a war he is widely believed to have expected would long be over in Russia’s favor, with Ukraine under its thumb, within days or weeks of the invasion on February 24.
Being confronted by women whose grief is mixed with anger over the senseless, preventable deaths of their sons and husbands is something Putin learned to avoid early in his time in power after the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in August 2000 and the botched rescue effort that followed. All 118 seamen aboard the vessel died.
As Putin talked of death, the killing he set in motion continued.
According to Ukrainian officials, one of the victims of the barrages of missiles Russia fired at targets around the country on November 23 was a newborn baby at a maternity hospital in a town in Zaporizhzhya, one of four regions in the south and east that Putin baselessly claimed as part of Russia in late September.
A 15-year-old boy was killed in the shelling of a hospital in the Sumy region in the east, reports said.
There has been heavy fighting in the Donbas, in the southeast, where war broke out after Moscow fomented separatism in 2014. And as Russia pounds civilian infrastructure, seeking to subdue Ukrainians as winter sets in by cutting off power, water, heating -- including in parts of Ukraine that it claims are now its own -- reports say Moscow may be preparing a massive new wave of attacks involving strategic bombers.
On the ground, evidence of atrocities by Russian forces has mounted. A report by Yale University researchers with backing from the U.S. State Department details “widespread allegations of abuse -- including torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” a statement on its November 18 release said.
At the White House on December 1, U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to hold Russia to account "for widely documented atrocities and war crimes, committed both by its regular armed forces and by its proxies including mercenary entities such as Vagner."
Inside Russia, meanwhile, the clampdown on dissent that was severe before the invasion and ratcheted up right afterward persisted. Many Kremlin opponents who have not been jailed have left the country to escape possible prosecution on political grounds.
On November 23, Ilya Yashin, one of the few prominent opposition politicians still in Russia, went on trial on charges stemming from his criticism of Russia’s war against Ukraine and specifically from his YouTube posts about alleged crimes committed by the Russian military in the city of Bucha, near Kyiv.
Yashin, 39, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
On December 1, imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, meanwhile, was sent to punitive solitary confinement for the eighth time since August, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said -- this time for failing to wear a jacket during a pre-dawn inspection.
Foreigners are also behind bars, including American basketball star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, a citizen of the United States and three other Western countries.
Griner, 32, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who was playing for a Russian team, was arrested in February when customs agents said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. She acknowledged she had packed the canisters but said she had no criminal intent.
On November 17, Griner’s lawyers and agent said she had been sent to a prison in the Mordovia region, about 400 kilometers southeast of Moscow, to serve her nine-year sentence for drug possession.
Whelan, 52, was arrested on Moscow in December 2018 and has been serving a 16-year prison sentence, also at a penitentiary in Mordovia, on espionage charges that he denies.
On November 30, the United States voiced deep concern about Whelan’s whereabouts and his condition after his brother David said the family had not from him in a week. It was highly unusual that he did not contact them over the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, he said.
Biden has emphasized that the United States is trying hard to secure the release of Americans behind bars in Russia, where analysts say prominent foreign prisoners are essentially kept as hostages -- bargaining chips for potential use in diplomatic back-and-forth on other issues.
A search for geopolitical leverage may also have been the motive behind Moscow’s last-minute decision to postpone talks with the United States aimed at the resumption of inspections under New START, the long-range nuclear arms control treaty, which had been due to take place in Cairo on November 29.
Russian diplomats cited reasons linked to the treaty, which is the last remaining nuclear weapons limitation pact between Russia and the United States, but their remarks suggested Moscow may be using the talks on nuclear matters to pressure the United States on Ukraine.
Negotiations on a potential prisoner swap have failed to result in freedom for Griner and Whelan so far. "The plight of U.S. citizens detained in Russia will be a top priority for me," Biden’s nominee for ambassador to Russia, career diplomat Lynne Tracy, said at a Senate confirmation hearing on December 1. (SJ/RFE)