27 February 2022
Simon is chair of Rights in Russia but writes these comments in a personal capacity and they may not necessarily represent the views of the organisation
Somehow a certain terrible logic about the Russian authorities’ increasing repression within Russia and aggression beyond its borders over the years of Vladimir Putin’s rule fell into place on 24 February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine – Europe’s second-largest and eight-most populous country. Most recently, the attempt to murder Aleksei Navalny (and his subsequent jailing) and the enforced liquidation of the Memorial organisations (International Memorial and Memorial Human Rights Centre) have been just two of the events of which observers have tried to make sense in recent months. The unleashing by President Vladimir Putin of the unlawful and catastrophic full-scale invasion of Ukraine made plain that the very worst predictions of the direction of travel of the regime are in fact being realised.
The unleashing of war had been preceded at the start of the week by President Putin’s recognition of the independence of eastern Ukraine’s separatist republics following a televised meeting of his security council (an event claimed to be aired live, but in fact not). This recognition marked Russia’s unilateral withdrawal from the Minsk Agreement. According the Levada Centre, public opinion was divided over the issue of recognition of the republics (official pollsters said four out of five Russians supported recognition – and later the Kremlin was to claim public opinion was ‘no less supportive’ of Russia’s military operation). Russian Russia’s billionaires had already reportedly lost a combined $32 billion since the start of the year, according to Bloomberg as result of the Ukraine crisis. Russia’s financial markets plunged Monday to their lowest level. The EU in reaction agreed a package of new sanctions whose targets included the members of the Russian parliament members who backed recognition. Sanctions included Germany’s suspension the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the blocking of the trading of Russian government bonds, and issuing more asset freezes and travel bans on top oligarchs.
Meanwhile, as the number of reported ceasefire violations in east Ukraine in a single day increased to the highest in the year, Moscow continued to insist it was not planning to invade Ukraine. However, the US said Russia could attack ‘at any time and Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said Russia had not stopped planning for a full-scale invasion. The US told the United Nations it had ‘credible information’ about alleged plans by Russia to target specific Ukrainians to kill or to send to camps should it decide to invade the country. The US said Russia had moved nearly 100% of troops into invasion-ready position. There were also reports of the bad conditions in which Russian troops were living.
The leaders of Russia’s Donetsk People’s Republic [DNR] and Luhansk People’s Republic [LNR] announced an ‘evacuation’ of women and children to Russia, purportedly because of the threat of attack from Kyiv (again an announcement that had been pre-recorded some days before). Russian state media filled with claims that Ukrainian forces were attacking the DPR and LPR. The FSB claimed ‘a terrorist attack’ on a church in occupied Crimea by the Ukrainian nationalist organization ‘Right Sector.’ Ukraine was hit by more and unprecedented cyber-attacks hitting a number of Ukrainian government websites and the websites of some Ukrainian banks.
Next, President Putin ordered ‘peacekeeping operations’ in the so called DNR and LNR, that amounted to a declaration of war. It soon became clear that the recognition of the DNR and LNR was not limited to their factual borders. President Putin went on to urge the Ukrainian army to overthrow its leadership whom he labelled as a ‘gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis who have has lodged itself in Kyiv and taken hostage the entire Ukrainian people.’ Ukraine urged its citizens living in Russia to leave the country immediately and mobilised its military reserves. Ukraine called on the European Union and its member states to urgently provide air-defence and anti-missile systems, as well as use ‘all means’ to jam Russian satellite signals.
Russia’s economy plunged into a new economic crisis following the start of its military action against Ukraine. Western countries immediately ratcheted up the sanctionsThe US, the EU and the UK brought in additional sanctions, including on banks and individuals. The EU froze the assets of President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov.
In Russia, protests against the war broke out on the streets. At least 705 people were arrested as anti-war protests took place in 40 Russian cities on the first day of the war, the OVD-Info protest monitor said. Human Rights Watch said hundreds of peaceful protesters were arbitrarily detained by police, including at least two human rights defenders who spoke up against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moscow prosecutors warned that unauthorized gatherings were illegal and would have ‘negative consequences.’ The protests continued on subsequent days in over 50 Russian cities with thousands detained. Prominent Russian human rights activist Marina Litvinovich was detained by police as she was leaving her home on 24 February after she publicly called on Russians to attend a ‘walk‘ against the war at 7 p.m. Moscow time, including on Pushkin Square in central Moscow. She was subsequently fined for ‘an attempt to organise a rally in Moscow without official permission.’ 1,831 Russians were detained in 60 cities on 24 February for publicly speaking out against the war, OVD-Info reported.
Jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine in a statement he made at his ongoing trial on trumped up charges of embezzlement held in a penal colony. ‘This war between Russia and Ukraine was unleashed to cover up the theft from Russian citizens and divert their attention from problems that exist inside the country,’ he said. He said the war would ‘lead to a huge number of victims, destroyed futures, and the continuation of this line of impoverishment of the citizens of Russia.’ ‘I am against this war,’ he said, adding that President Putin bore full responsibility for the conflict and calling those who launched the war ‘bandits and thieves.’ The police-monitoring website OVD-Info reported dozens of detentions in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities for staging solo pickets against the war.
Celebrities, journalists and other public figures voiced opposition to President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, including Ksenia Sobchak daughter of Putin’s St. Petersburg patron, Anatoly Sobchak. An anti-war petition launched by Kommersant business daily reporter Elena Chernenko collected at least 200 journalists’ signatures. She was then barred from attending Foreign Ministry events. Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief and 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov denounced the military operation can called on Russians to stand up against the war. The Syndicate-100 group of 30 independent Russian media outlets declared opposition to ‘the massacre started by the Russian leadership.’ Memorial, ordered to be liquidated late last year, said the war would mark ‘a shameful chapter in Russian history.’ More than 150 Russian scientists and scientific journalists signed an open letter against the ‘unfair and frankly meaningless’ Russian military action in Ukraine. More than 150 municipal deputies from Russian cities signed an open letter condemning the deadly attack on Ukraine. Meduza joined the chorus of those speaking out against the war.
Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor ordered the country’s media to use only official sources in covering the country’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, threatening to block outlets which do not comply and banning use of the word ‘war’ to describe the ‘special operation.’ Later, Roskomnadzor said it was partially restricting access to Meta Platforms (FB.O) Facebook in response to restrictions the US social media giant had imposed on Russian media. Human Rights Watch criticised the authorities for threatening to block media outlets in case their reporting on the war differed from the official narrative. Reporters Without Borders called on belligerents and international organisations to guarantee journalists’ safety.
At the start of the military operation, Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said: ‘The protection of civilians in Ukraine must now be the absolute priority. While the potential for full-blown conflict is now a devastating reality, every effort must be made to minimize civilian suffering and prioritise humanity in this crisis. It is a legal obligation of all parties to do so.’ The Eastern Partnership Network condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a violation of international law and of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. FIDH and its member organisation in Ukraine, the Center for Civil Liberties condemned ‘Russia’s aggression against and occupation of Ukraine’ and called on all parties to the international armed conflict to respect international humanitarian law and international human rights law. The Council of Europe suspended all representatives of Russia from participation in the pan-European rights body.
Soon Amnesty International issued a statement saying that its research had verified violations of international humanitarian law, saying Russian attacks ‘could constitute war crimes’ and that Russian claims to use precision guided weapons were ‘patently false.’ The Russian invasion of Ukraine had been marked, Amnesty International said, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had been ‘marked by indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and strikes on protected objects such as hospitals.’ Human Rights Watch said a Russian ballistic missile carrying a cluster munition struck just outside a hospital in the Ukrainian town of Vuhledar killing four civilians and injured another 10, six of them healthcare workers, and damaged the hospital, an ambulance, and civilian vehicles.
In other human rights news from Russia, the new trial of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny continued inside the penal colony where he is being held on new trumped up charges of embezzlement. Fyodor Gorozhanko, a former member of Navalny’s team, and a witness for the prosecutors, said at the trial that investigators had put pressure on him to testify in the way they wanted. Gorozhanko refused to testify and later left Russia. Amnesty International called for the immediate release of two Chechen siblings, Salekh Magamadov and Ismail Isayev, who had fled from Chechnya to Nizhny Novgorod after they were allegedly persecuted and tortured for their sexual orientation, Chechen security forces forcibly returned them to Chechnya, where they were charged with providing aid to an illegal armed group. Amnesty International said ‘Salekh Magamadov and Ismail Isaev should be released immediately and unconditionally. However, the two young men were sentenced to eight and six years in prison, respectively on charges of guilty of complicity with illegal armed groups. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group pointed out that Ukrainian Andriy Kolomiyets, aged 22 when ‘seized and tortured by Russian police in May 2015’ remained in prison in Russia almost seven years later serving a 10-year sentence in revenge for Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests. A court in Russia’s southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don handed prison terms to three individuals from the North Caucasus region of North Ossetia who took part in a massive rally in April 2020 against anti-coronavirus restrictions. Meanwhile in events sponsored by the local authorities, residents of Ingushetia commemorated the victims of the 1944 Soviet deportation of Ingush and Chechens from the North Caucasus to Central Asia.
The threats to human rights from the Russian regime have now been hugely exacerbated by the war against Ukraine. Domestically, repression will surely only increase in the immediate future. This is already evident from the reports of repressive measures against protesters and censorship imposed on the media. In Ukraine there are already civilian casualties in what would seem to be war crimes resulting from Russia’s indiscriminate use of its weaponry. There will no doubt also be a mounting humanitarian crisis in the country and in neighbouring regions as a result of refugees leaving the war zones. The Putin regime has thrown down the gauntlet to the international community and made demonstrative its rejection of the most precious values of human rights and human dignity. It has chosen war as its weapon. And this is a weapon that will be used against it. Ukraine at this moment in its history, victim of an unprovoked attack, has no choice.