Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 11 March 2022]

13 March 2022

By Simon Cosgrove

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

As the horrors of war become reality, and the worst human rights violations a daily occurrence, so the need for human rights becomes more pressing. The need to stop the brutality of war becomes ever greater as that brutality assumes a crushing, devastating force. As global institutions are shown to be too weak to stop the devastations of war, so the need for effective global institutions becomes more obvious. As the senseless, destructive use of force is demonstrated to us all, so the need for a counter-force capable of stopping that force becomes a necessity.

This week as the military ground forces sent by Vladimir Putin into Ukraine in an unprovoked invasion encountered major difficulties as the Ukrainian army resisted, Russian forces seem to have opted for shelling and aerial bombardment of Ukraine’s cities, presumably in an attempt to break the morale of the Ukrainian people. As human rights activist and director of Memorial Human Rights Centre Aleksandr Cherkasov observed, it seems Russia’s invasion forces in Ukraine are adopting the indiscriminate tactics used in the wars against Chechnya that resulted in huge civilian casualities and total destruction of urban infrastructure.

Refugees During the course of the week, UN figures for the numbers of Ukrainian refugees rose from 1.36m to over 1.7m, to 2m and then more than 2.3m. At the start of the week at least 364 civilians had been confirmed killed in Ukraine since Russian troops invaded and another 759 wounded, although the true numbers are probably “considerably higher”, a UN monitoring mission said. Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said half of the capital’s total population had left the city.

War Russian shelling reportedly prevented the evacuation of civilians from cities, including Kyiv, Mariupol, Sumy, Kharkiv, Volnovakha and Mykolayiv. Ukraine’s foreign ministry accused Russia of violating the ceasefire by shelling humanitarian corridors. Russia bombed a children’s hospital and maternity hospital in Mariupol, a city where residents have no heat, water, sanitary systems or phones, burying civilians under rubble, wounding at least 17 patients, including pregnant women, and killing at least three, including a child. An air strike killed at least nine people, including two children, in the city of Sumy. Among the victims was a six-year-old girl who died from dehydration under the rubble. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said Russian aircraft had dropped multiple unguided bombs that hit an intersection in a residential neighbourhood of Chernihiv, killing at least 47 people, according to local authorities, and wounding many others, should be investigated as a possible war crime. Amnesty International said civilians whose homes have been destroyed and others forced to flee Russian bombardment must be granted access to safe humanitarian corridors. Human Rights Watch said Russian forces bombarded an intersection on a road that hundreds of civilians were using to flee the Russian army’s advance. Russian forces shot and killed the mayor of the Ukrainian town of Hostomel. Ukraine’s foreign minister has called for a ceasefire to allow repairs to be carried out to restore the electricity supply to Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The UN human rights office said it had received ‘credible reports’ of several cases of Russian forces using cluster bombs, indiscriminate use of which might amount to war crimes. The Russian ministry of defence confirmed the use of the TOS-1A weapon system in Ukraine, which harnesses the power of thermobaric rockets. At the end of the week, fresh Russian strikes hit more civilian targets in central and eastern Ukraine. The World Health Organisation said attacks on Ukrainian hospitals, ambulances and other healthcare facilities had increased “rapidly” in recent days and vital medical supplies were running low. Concerns grew that Russia might be planning to use chemical or biological agents. Amnesty International called on both sides in the conflict to respect the rights of prisoners of war.

Russia While Russia was reportedly illegally mobilizing Ukrainian men from occupied Crimea and Donbas to take part in its invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s Defence Ministry confirmed that conscripts were among military personnel taking part in the invasion, something previously denied by President Putin. Reports said Russia plans to change conscription rules so that summons can be sent by mail. President Putin called for foreign volunteers to be able to fight against Ukrainian forces, including Syrians. Meanwhile, there were reports President Putin may be cracking down on the FSB, with two senior figures in the FSB’s foreign intelligence arm, the so-called Fifth Service, under investigation. However, since the war started, there have been no high-profile resignations in the world of high politics of state administration.

International Antony Blinken said the war in Ukraine ‘could take some time, and meanwhile the suffering is real and it’s terrible.’ UK prime minister Boris Johnson accused President Putin of committing war crimes in Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine, urged the United States to help provide aircraft to defend the country, warning of a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ if a no-fly zone were not imposed. The International Court of Justice held public hearings at the request of Ukraine in the case concerning Allegations of Genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Ukraine v. Russian Federation). The International Court of Justice said it would rule ‘as soon as possible’ after ending a hearing into a legal move by Kyiv to stop the Russian invasion of the country.

Domestic repression On 6 March the Russian human rights monitor Ovd-Info reported that 4,359 people were arrested at nationwide peace protests, including 1,636 in Moscow and 1,185 in St. Petersburg, making a total of 13,500 peaceful protesters arbitrarily arrested since 24 February. Human Rights Watch and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders said thousands of peaceful protesters were being arrested at anti-war rallies across Russia and condemned the increased crackdown on human rights defenders, independent media and civil society organisations in Russia. Human rights defenders Oleg Orlov and Svetlana Gannushkina were arrested for peaceful protests. An audio recording documented the torture of protester, artist and activist Alexandra Kaluzhskikh. A court in Kostroma region of Russia fined a Russian Orthodox priest was detained after giving an anti-war sermon. Former Moscow lawmaker Yulia Galyamina was sentenced to 30 days in jail on a charge of violating the law on public events. Elena Kovalskaya resigned in protest over the war as the Meyerhold Centre’s director while the organisation’s artistic director, Dmitry Volkostrelov, was fired the next day. Unknown attackers burned a car belonging to rights activist and vlogger Maksim Tsedenov in Kalmykia. Sergei Tsivilev, governor of Kemerovo region, found himself confronting angry members of the public about the war. Police launched an investigation into someone who put a Ukrainian flag in their windows. St Petersburg State University expelled at least 13 students detained at protests.

Other events The Russian authorities announced they will introduce a registry of people who have links with companies, organizations, or media outlets that have been officially recognized as ‘foreign agents’, another move to broaden the state’s crackdown on civil society. Russian lawmakers expanded the country’s controversial online voting system to be used in all national elections and banned figures like jailed Alexei Navalny from the presidency.

Navalny Prisoner of conscience Aleksei Navalny again called for protests against the invasion of Ukraine. Amnesty International in a statement said it had reviewed materials related to the new criminal charges of fraud against Navalny and had concluded that the prosecution is ‘politically motivated and based on arbitrary application of law.’

Crimea Repression continued in Crimea. A court in Russia sentenced five Crimean Tatars to lengthy prison terms on charges of being members of a banned Islamic group and plotting to seize power. Remzi Bekirov and human rights activist Riza Izetov to 19 years’ imprisonment, with three other Crimean Tatar civic activists receiving only slightly shorter sentences. Emil Emirov, deputy head of the Bakhchysarai branch of Crimean Telecom, has not been seen since he was taken away on 4 March by the Russian FSB who claimed to suspect him of ‘treason.’ Sheikh Said Ismagilov, Mufti of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine ‘UMMA’, called on Muslims in all countries to support Ukraine in its struggle against Russia’s invasion (by contrast, the head of Russia’s Orthodox Church apparently blamed liberal Western values — drawing particular attention to gay pride parades — for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine).

Media Amnesty International condemned what they called ‘an unprecedented, nationwide crackdown on independent journalism, anti-war protests and dissenting voices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.’ Other organisations condemning the repressive measures included  Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, FIDH and Committee to Protect Journalists, Civil Rights Defenders. In particular the organisations condemned the new law signed into force by President Putin that calls for sentences of up to 15 years in prison for people who distribute ‘false news’ about the Russian military, effectively making reporting impossible. Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists said the Russian authorities should end their campaign against the domestic press and cease harassing journalists covering the invasion of Ukraine and comply with their international obligations to guarantee the safety of reporters in the field.

Staff at the independent Dozhd TV channel walked out live on air while declaring ‘No to war’ after the channel was shut down. Bloomberg News announced it was suspending its work in Russia and CNN said would stop broadcasting in the country. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty suspended operations after local tax authorities initiated bankruptcy proceedings against its Russian entity. The Russian state-run Sputnik Radio took over the bandwidth of Ekho Moskvy, the liberal radio station closed down last week. At least 150 journalists have fled Russia. Mikhail Fishman, a journalist with Dozhd TV, was denied entry into Georgia at Tbilisi International airport.

The Russian authorities blocked access to Amnesty International’s Russian-language website and opened a criminal case against Meta Platforms, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, moving to label it an ‘extremist organization.’ Two international press freedom organisations for the promotion of journalism, the Lviv Press Freedom Centre and the Media Lifeline Ukraine, set up a partnership to support Ukrainian journalists and media at risk. Reporters Without Borders called on the EU to equip itself with a system to protect its news and information space from Russian disinformation. Reporters Without Borders used the mirror site technology of its Collateral Freedom operation to unblock access to Meduza. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the West to protect journalists working in Ukraine and published a weekly timeline of the war’s impact on journalists and independent media outlets. Reports said Russia was swiftly moving to seize control of the media where it has seized Ukrainian cities

Economy President Biden announced a U.S. ban on Russian oil imports Russian oil products and that the US was moving to revoke Russia’s ‘most favoured nation status’ in coordination with allies. Other Western countries have reportedly begun making efforts to diversify away from Russian oil and gas. Some 250 companies have left Russia or reduced operations in the country. The EU agreed to expand its third round of sanctions imposed on Russia to target a larger number of oligarchs and officials close to Vladimir Putin. South Korea became the latest country to announce economic sanctions against Russia. The Shell oil company announced it was ending all purchases of Russian oil and gas and closing other operations in the country. The fast-food chain McDonald’s announced temporary closure of all 850 locations inside Russia. The business departures are expected to result in a major crisis for employment. Fitch Ratings downgraded its view of Russia’s government debt, warning a default was ‘imminent’. Russia banned foreign currency sales for six months in an attempt to avert an economic crisis.  Vladimir Potanin criticized plans to confiscate the assets of foreign businesses. According to reports, the Russian government appears to be paralyzed, reaching out for Soviet-era policies like nationalization, currency controls and price caps in desperation.

Short of a coup in Moscow that topples Vladimir Putin, or widespread mutiny among Russian troops that ends the fighting, there seems at this point no way to bring the war in Ukraine to a rapid end. It is clear the Putin regime is uncertain of support among the Russian public – hence the ferocious repressive measures against protests, the media and freedom of expression. And we may be about to witness, on a grand scale, what is sometimes called the ‘struggle between the fridge and the television’ – the conflict between economic reality and government propaganda for the hearts and minds of the Russian public. However that domestic conflict may play out, and even if propaganda loses its grip on the minds of millions, there is every indication the regime would be ready domestically to resort to far more coercion rather than relinquish its hold on power.

The violence and brutality of war may have its own logic. Certainly, the methods used by Vladimir Putin to attack Ukraine seem to make a compromise for peace between the parties more remote. The intentions of Ukraine’s Western allies seem to be to provide Ukraine with military materiel thereby enabling Ukraine’s forces to continue to resist the Russian invaders, while undermining the ability of Russia to wage war through hard-hitting economic sanctions. In the meantime the Ukrainian civilian population is subject to horrendous violence that apparently at the present time there is no way to stop.

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