6 March 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
The barbaric war unleashed by Russia has created something of a state of shock in Western public opinion. President Putin’s utter disregard for human life came as something new to those who may have heard little of the course of the wars in Chechnya, the invasion of Georgia or the Russian intervention in Syria. At the same time this military intervention in Europe has been seized on by the Putin regime as an opportunity to further crush independent media and civil society organisations within Russia itself. The current events will surely be a turning point in the history of the Russian Federation. Putin has taken enormous risks in invading Ukraine. If one discounts the view that Putin actually believed he would be welcomed with open arms by the Ukrainian population, he presumably is banking on the support for empire among the population of Russia to carry out repressive policies in conquered Ukraine. His failure to take into account the international backlash to many seems, to say the least, quite extraordinary. But there are also many who would argue that Putin’s cynical calculation that the Western world would have to put up with the outcome, given the post-invasion newly expanded resources of his extended empire, is certainly an arguable case. However, there is an alternative possible outcome: that the stresses and strains of the invasion will trigger popular and intra-elite discontent that the regime, stretched by war, will be unable to manage. Who knows, but it may indeed yet prove to be the case that Vladimir Putin, who perhaps had wished to celebrate his seventieth birthday this October in Kiev, may find himself, then, thereabouts, or somewhat later, instead standing trial for war crimes in The Hague?
As the war in Ukraine intensified this week, the invasion claimed hundreds of lives and displaced more than a million people, while there were allegations of war crimes. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy called for Russia to end its bombing Ukrainian cities for talks about a ceasefire to begin. He also urged Nato members to impose a no-fly zone to stop the Russian air force and called for direct talks with the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, saying it was ‘the only way to stop this war.’ During the week he continued to urge negotiations to end the war and bring peace. However, lower level talks that did take place achieved no apparent results.
War Russian troops entered the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and Vladimir Putin unleashed a wave of attacks on airfields, fuel facilities and civilian centres, with around 200 ballistic and cruise missiles fired at Ukraine in a 48 hour period. In Kharkiv, Russian forces were reportedly held back. Russian forces seized two small cities in south-eastern Ukraine and the area around a nuclear power plant. Russia’s defence ministry claimed ‘total air superiority.’ Belarus troops crossed the Ukrainian border in Chernihiv region. Residents of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol told the BBC they were subjected to a relentless barrage of Russian shelling in residential areas that cut off power and water supplies. A nuclear catastrophe nearly resulted from a fire when Russian forces seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine.
Civilian casualties The number of civilians killed was estimated by Ukraine’s human rights commissioner as soon as Sunday at 210, including several children.The mayor of Kyiv reported 31 deaths from Russian attacks. Later reports said dozens of civilians were killed and hundreds wounded in rocket strikes by Russian forces on Kharkiv. A TV tower in Kyiv, was hit by Russian missiles with a further ten civilians reported dead. About 100 people were feared trapped under rubble after a missile attack in Borodyanka, a small town north-west of Kyiv. Five members of a family trying to flee Russian attacks were apparently deliberately targeted and killed by Russian soldiers at a checkpoint in southern Ukraine. The need for humanitarian assistance grew rapidly during the week.
Military Casualties The Russian government initially issued no reports about losses. Ukrainian authorities launched a website to help Russian families track down soldiers killed or captured – 200rf.com – and appealed to families of Russian soldiers to identify their relatives captured or killed in the four-day-old war. Russia’s army admitted on Sunday that there were killed and injured soldiers among its troops in Ukraine but did not say how many casualties. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov became at least the fifth head of a Russian region to admit casualties. On 2 March the Russian government said 498 Russian soldiers had been killed and 1,597 injured. Ukrainian officials said more than 9,000 Russian service personnel killed or wounded (which, given the usual ratio of 1:3 for killed to wounded would mean approximately 3,000 killed).The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a Russian-based open-source-monitoring group, estimated Russia’s war dead at about 700.
Refugees In the first days of the conflict, Meduza reported at least 150,000 civilians had been forced to leave their homes. Poland, Moldova, and Hungary announced they were all accepting Ukrainian refugees. Slovakia declared a state of emergency due to the large wave of new arrivals. The United States declared a readiness to help refugees and Ireland cancelled visa requirements for Ukrainian arrivals. Forty Ukrainian civil society groups called on the west to establish safe zones for refugees inside Ukraine.
Morale and Propaganda It was reported Russia has drawn up plans for ways to break morale in order to discourage Ukrainian from fighting back as and when cities fall under the Kremlin’s control including sever crackdowns on protests. Mediazona received information schools were being instructed to tell students Russia was invading Ukraine in ‘self-defence.’ The BBC debunked the Russian claims that its military campaign was to ‘denazify’ Ukraine.
Civil society / media clampdown The official Russian media watchdog Roskomnadzor ordered all media reporting on the war (officially termed ‘special operation of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine’) to remove reports describing Russian attacks on Ukraine as an ‘assault, invasion, or declaration of war’ and to only use ‘information and data received only from official Russian sources’ or face being fined or blocked. RFE/RL refused to delete information about the invasion and Roskomnadzor blocked the websites of Current Time and the Crimea.Realities as well as the New Times website. Subsequently the websites and other resources of Ekho Moskvy, Dozhd TV and Taiga.Info (a news website in Novosibirsk) were all closed down. Russia completely blocked access to Facebook and Twitter, although they remained accessible via VPNs.
Two Danish reporters – reporter Stefan Weichert and photographer Emil Filtenborg Mikkelsen – were seriously injured by deliberate gunfire but survived. At least five journalists are facing charges and dozens more were detained across Russia following their coverage of anti-war protests. The chief editor of the television channel Dozhd TV Tikhon Dzyadko said in a statement he and several of his colleagues had left the country indefinitely. The next day Dozhd suspended its operations for an ‘uncertain period of time.’ A number of Russian journalists reportedly quit their jobs in state media.
On 3 March the State Duma introduced, and the next day adopted, a bill introducing punishment of up to 15 years in prison for spreading fake news about the Russian military. Roskomnadzor said Meduza, Deutsche Welle, and Radio Svoboda had all been ‘limited’ – and later added the BBC to the list. The BBC announced it was halting its journalists’ work in Russia. Novaya gazeta, a recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace, and business news website The Bell, said they would stop reporting on the war to protect their journalists. Valery Fadeyev, head of the Presidential Human Rights Council, accused Western media of being behind ‘a huge flow of false information that comes from Ukraine’ and said the Council had set up a project to stop it.
Protests erupted in Russia and around the globe on 26 February, with thousands taking to the streets in support of Ukraine. According to protest monitor OVD-Info, at the first protests police detained more than 1,400 people at anti-war protests in 45 Russian cities. Human Rights Watch said police arbitrarily detained hundreds of peaceful protesters at rallies against the war. The authorities also arrested at least two human rights defenders who spoke out against Russia’s full-scale invasion. On Sunday police detained more than 2,000 anti-war protesters across the country, bringing the total number of protesters arrested since the invasion to 5,250. In the following days Russians continued to take to the streets to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The number of those arrested subsequently rose to 6,800 protesters arrested, including many journalists. Police in Moscow detained two women and five children who wanted to lay flowers at the Ukrainian Embassy on Tuesday.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT-FIDH) said repression against civil society organisations, rights defenders and peaceful protesters had dramatically intensified since Russia invaded Ukraine. Nevertheless, voices continued to be raised agains the war. A number of people were fired from their jobs for signing anti-war petitions. Some members of Russia’s business and political elite spoke out against the invasion of Ukraine. Billionaire Oleg Deripaska and Russia’s second-largest oil producer Lukoil called for an end to the war. Dozens of Russian Orthodox clerics called for an immediate end to the war in an open letter. Aleksei Navalny called for daily protests against the war, describing President Putin as an ‘obviously insane czar.’ The anti-war movement was also active online with Ukrainian flags and the hashtag #NoToTheWar #НетВойне trending on Twitter. A group of exiled Russian public figures created an Anti-War Committee. Members included Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Dmitry Gudkov and Sergei Guriev. In a statement on 27 February, the group said Russian generals and political leaders responsible for the invasion must be recognized as war criminals and face punishment. Russians leaving the country faced lengthy interrogations at airports. On 28 February Russia’s Supreme Court upheld its previous decision to shut down International Memorial. The three judges hearing the case refused to allow defence witnesses to testify and supporters of Memorial were barred from the court. On 4 March, Russian police carried out searches of Memorial’s offices.
International reaction A group of Western nations led by the US, the EU and the UK moved to block access for ‘selected’ Russian banks to the SWIFT financial system and impose other measures on Russia’s central bank. The EU prohibited making transactions with the Russian Central Bank or any legal person, entity or body acting on behalf or at the direction of the Russian Central Bank. The EU also agreed to make €500m available to finance provision of equipment and supplies to the Ukrainian armed forces, including lethal weapons, and EU member states closed their skies to aircraft operated by Russian air carriers. In addition, the EU approved new sanctions on Belarus for assisting Russia in its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The G7 foreign ministers issued a joint statement saying Russia (and Belarus) would face further ‘severe sanctions’ for its invasion of Ukraine. The statement called on Russia to stop its attacks, especially near Ukraine’s nuclear power plants.
Ratings agencies Fitch and Moody’s slashed Russia’s sovereign debt on Thursday to “junk” status (the category of countries at risk of not being able to repay their debt). Western sanctions sent the rouble into free-fall. Russia also found itself virtually unable to sell oil on account of the sanctions and moral costs of dealing with Russia. Swedish furniture giant Ikea said it was suspending its activities in Russia and Belarus, affecting nearly 15,000 employees, 17 stores and three production sites. FIDH also urged governments to step up economic sanctions on strategic sectors and called on the international community to continue its support. A blockchain fundraising effort using the Ukrainian flag that was backed by a member of Pussy Riot has raised over $6.7 million to support Ukraine’s military.
In a telephone conversation, French President Emmanuel Macron told President Putin, ‘You are lying to yourself. It will cost your country dearly, your country will end up isolated, weakened and under sanctions for a very long time.’ Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, said Russian forces were ‘shelling residential housing, schools, hospitals and other civilian infrastructures. It looks like they want to destroy Ukraine.’ US secretary of state Antony Blinken said he believed Ukraine’s defeat was not inevitable and the country could even win the war against Russia.
War Crimes Forty Ukrainian civil society groups called on the west to provide technology to document Russian war crimes to bring Vladimir Putin and his inner circle to justice at the international criminal court. Ukraine’s government and human rights groups accused Russia of using thermobaric weapons. The prosecutor of the international criminal court in The Hague, Karim Khan announced an investigation into possible war crimes or crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine since 2014. The United Nations general assembly voted overwhelmingly to deplore the Russian invasion of Ukraine ‘in the strongest possible terms’ and approved a resolution demanding Russia stop the war in Ukraine and withdraw all troops. The UN Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for 4 March following a fire at a nuclear power seized by Russian forces. The International Court of Justice , the UN’s top court, announced it would hold genocide hearings on 7 and 8 March over the war in Ukraine. The UN Human Rights Council voted strongly in favour of a resolution condemning alleged rights violations during Russia’s military actions in Ukraine and set up a commission of inquiry to investigate them.
The coming days and weeks will show whether Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was, in a political sense, an error of enormous proportions by the Russian leader, or whether it is something that he will survive – and that may even serve to strengthen his regime in some way. But there can be no doubt about three things. First, even if his hitherto authoritarian regime does survive the immediate aftermath of this war, it will never be the same again. It has metamorphosed into something far more dangerous and extreme, both for its own citizens and for the world community. Second, the global community will never again be able to treat Putin and his regime in the same reletively restrained and conciliatory manner as hitherto. Surely the regime will have to be treated as a pariah state, an outcast, and isolated from the rest of the world as much as possible for as long as it lasts. Third, account must be made for the horrendous cost in human life and suffering caused by the military forces Putin sent against Ukraine. The world community will be obliged to exert every effort to use all the appropriate mechanisms of the international justice system to hold Vladimir Putin and his regime to account. Or it will indeed seem there is no justice in the world.