The week in Russia: Behind the facade

At an annual economic forum in St. Petersburg, President Vladimir Putin sought to justify invading Ukraine and portray Russia as a constructive force in the world. But the destruction and death continued, Moscow was accused of exacerbating world hunger, and Ukraine took a step towards joining the European Union.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways for the future.

In the wings

Saint Petersburg is Putin’s hometown, and it’s also the site of some of his most assiduous image creations – both stage, backdrop and prop for events he has used, for nearly 23 years as president or prime minister, to showcase Russia and its rule.

The columns, churches and canals of the city east of the Baltic Sea, and its history as Tsar Peter the Great’s “Window to the West” provide a nice backdrop for Putin’s efforts to portray Russia as a modern country open for business – and as a power that deserves a say, even influence, in European and global affairs.

But over the years, showcases have been marred by what isn’t shown, by what happens behind the scenes, behind the scenes.

In May 2003, Putin hosted foreign leaders during tercentenary celebrations which aimed, an Associated Press reporter written at the time“to promote Russia as a cornerstone of the international community and restore the glory of St. Petersburg after decades of Soviet-era decline”.

But behind the freshly painted facades, another Russia lurked: invisible from the street, the courtyards of the city’s apartment buildings remained in disarray, and squalor persisted in the communal apartments of the stately old structures in the city center and in dilapidated Soviet-era housing projects. out.

Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia was still in its infancy. For example, it was five months before the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose imprisonment was one of the most important symbols of Putin’s rule. It was about nine months before a brutal hate crime which showed an ugly side of the country: the fatal stabbing of Khursheda Sultanova, a 9-year-old girl of Tajik origin, in one of the courtyards of Saint Petersburg. And that was more than a year before Putin, after suicide bombers shot down two airliners and militants staged a deadly attack on a school in the southern city of Beslan, rolled back civil rights and pluralism. politics in what turned out to be one step in a crackdown that has continued – and intensified, in many ways – to this day.

Ten years later, in September 2013, Putin hosted a Group of 20 (G20) summit at an Imperial-era palace outside St Petersburg.

Ten years after

The tenor of ties with the West has changed significantly since 2003: US President Barack Obama’s “reset” with Moscow has soured amid growing disputes over issues such as NATO strikes against Libya in 2011, the war in syriaand the new restriction of rights and democracy in Russia.

Putin, who has publicly accused the United States of inciting a wave of street protests among Russians angry at evidence of election fraud and dismayed by his return to the presidency, was back in the Kremlin after a four-year term as prime minister.

Putin’s government was pursuing charges against alleged participants in a protest in which police clashed with protesters all over Moscow. Bolotnaya Square on the eve of his inauguration in May 2012 – a wave of prosecutions that set the stage for the escalating crackdown that marked Putin’s last two terms.

Opposition politician Aleksei Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison in July after a politically charged trial, but the sentence was suspended hours later, allowing him to run for mayor of Moscow in September, a few days after the G20 summit.

Over the years, meanwhile, the main event Putin has used to woo investment and showcase Russia as a leading player in the global economy and global community has been the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. , which he has attended every year since 2005.

He did it again last week, repeatedly attacking the United States and the European Union in his address on June 17 and claiming that Russia is building a “new world order”, but hitting some of the same notes he had at previous editions of the event – this time courting countries outside of the West.

Russia’s “first principle is openness”, he said, adding that it “will never follow the path of self-isolation” and, on the contrary, “expands cooperation with all those who are interested in it, who want to work with us”. , and will continue to do so.”

This time, the other Russia that has remained offstage, behind the curtain, has gone well beyond the courts of St. Petersburg: it has spread throughout the country, where the state has intensified its repression against civil society, independent media and all forms of dissent. in 2020 and has accelerated it further since Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine four months ago.

Navalny, arrested on his back to Russia in January 2021 following treatment abroad for a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning he blames on Putin, is currently serving a nine-year sentence on what he calls absurd and politically motivated charges, and was moved this month to a high security penitentiary where his relatives and sympathizers fear for his life.

Modified States

The war on Ukraine quickly changed Russia, leading to unprecedented Western sanctions and the withdrawal of countless companies such as McDonald’s, Nike, and Ikea, and economic difficulties that promise to be lasting and serious. Tens of thousands of Russians have left the country, fearing for their future in their isolated homeland, disgusted by the war, or both.

And, of course, the other Russia has extended to Ukraine itself, where the unprovoked invasion has killed thousands, driven millions from their homes – many now destroyed as the army of Moscow bombed towns and villages across the country – and caused untold suffering, with more to come.

Putin mentioned the war in Ukraine in his address to the forum, but only to repeat his attempts at justification without providing evidence to support his arguments – and in some cases relying on outright lies, such as his assertion according to which Kyiv committed genocide. in the eastern region of Donbass.

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has left a trail of devastation in its wake.

Beginning with his insistence on calling the war a “special military operation to liberate Donbass,” there was a deep disconnect between Putin’s remarks and the reality of the devastation Russia inflicted on Ukraine.

Mariupola largely Russian-speaking Donbass city of 450,000 before the February invasion, was flattened by Russian shelling and street battles. fierce fightg is now ravaging other parts of Donbass like Russia urges to move forward In the region. Some residents were forcibly evacuated to Russia, and survivors gave many horror stories of the assault.

trail of destruction

The same applies to other areas that were attacked or held by Russian forces, which Ukraine has accused of committing war crimes in various parts of the country, including towns and cities around Kyiv and to the north, where the invading army left a trail of destruction and alleged atrocities as he retreated after failing to take the capital.

Russia is accused of blocking grain exports from Ukraine, exacerbating what many call a global crisis food crisis. A war against a country whose people, according to Putin, are one with the Russians has brought Ukrainians closer together than ever before and is likely to leave ties between the two countries in tatters for decades or more.

Ukraine, with Moldova, was granted to the European Union candidate status June 23, during a European summit. Sweden and Finland, which share a long border with Russia, have requested NATO membership and could join the Western military alliance this year.

And Russians, three decades after the life-altering turmoil of the collapse of the Soviet Union, face a long period of deep uncertainty – economic and other – again.

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