18 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
Aleksei Navalny: ‘It’s every person’s duty right now to oppose the war
This week the Pentagon said Russian troops had made little progress on the ground in Ukraine but major cities were coming under heavy bombardment. The death toll is high, although the Russian and Ukrainian authorities dispute the numbers of troops killed. Ukraine has said that about 1,300 Ukrainian troops have been killed and estimated Russian military losses at about 12,000. Reports seem to indicate shortage of military service personnel is bringing Russia to draw up lists of 40,000 fighters from the Syrian army for deployment in Ukraine, while Central Asian nationals living in Russia are reportedly being pressured to go to fight in Ukraine. As attempts to evacuate civilians from cities under siege in Ukraine were being made difficult if not impossible by constant Russian shelling, the UN said more than three million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began. Estimates said the number could rise to as many as seven million refugees in coming months.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose decision it is to prosecute the war against Ukraine, called those who oppose the war a ‘fifth column’ within Russian society and ‘traitors’ who have a ‘slavish mentality.’ Putin also led a pro-government rally in Moscow to which people were reportedly forced to attend. The organisers were conveniently able to avoid a ban on public gatherings that has been imposed as part of anti-Covid measures – a ban under which many protesters have been arrested. Arkady Dvorkovich, a former deputy prime minister, spoke out against the war and promptly resigned as chair of the Skolkovo Foundation. Reports have said President Putin is cracking down on the FSB: the two top officials of the FSB’s foreign intelligence arm, the so-called Fifth Service, have been placed under house.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said nearly 100 children have died in Russia’s invasion. Ukrainian officials reported that over 2,500 people had died in Mariupol. A pregnant woman wounded in the Russian bombing of a maternity hospital died along with her unborn child. In the besieged city, water, food, medicine, electricity, and communications are in short supply. A historic mosque in Mariupol, where 80 civilians were sheltering, was shelled by Russian forces. There were reports Russian forces had taken patients and medical staff of a hospital hostage in the city, preventing staff and patients of the Regional Intensive Care Hospital from leaving. Russia bombed the Donetsk Regional Drama of Theatre in Mariupol, believed to be a shelter for over a thousand civilians, most of them women and children. A charity worker who managed to escape Mariupol described the ‘hell’ and ‘horror’ of the besieged city. It is estimated about 30,000 civilians have fled the city with over 300,000 remaining.
Russian forces reportedly fired on a convoy of women and children from Peremoha village, near Kyiv, killing seven. 67 residents of Bucha, mostly women and children, were killed by Russian shelling. Five members of one family were killed by Russian bombing in Chernihiv. Other victims also included ten residents killed while standing in a queue for bread. At least 21 people were killed and 25 were injured when Russian forces shelled Merefa, a town in eastern Ukraine. Amnesty International said civilians in Izium in Kharkiv region were on the brink of a humanitarian disaster as Russian forces bombarded the town. FIDH said the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation is having a severe impact on women, girls and marginalized populations in Ukraine and jeopardizing their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Ukrainians continue to protest in occupied territory. About 2,000 people protested in Melitopol demanding the release of the abducted mayor, Ivan Fedorov. Russian forces seized a second Ukrainian mayor, Yevhen Matvieyev, the Mayor of Dniprorudne, and a civic activist organizing information self-defence in occupied Nova Kakhovka. It was reported that Olha Haisumova, coordinator of the protests, had also been abducted, as well as others.
Reporters Without Borders, which opened a press freedom centre in Lviv this week, says since the start of the hostilities four reporters have been killed and seven injured by gunfire. U.S. reporter Brent Renaud was shot dead in Irpin outside Kyiv, the second journalist to have been killed. Hromadske journalist Viktoria Roshchina has gone missing and there are reports she is being held by Russian forces in Ukraine. Oleh Baturin, a journalist from Kakhovka in Kherson region has disappeared amid fears he has been abducted by Russian soldiers.
The EU’s foreign policy head Josep Borrell confirmed a fourth round of sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine targeting Russia’s steel, coal, and energy sectors, as well as its market access and membership in international financial institutions. According to reports, US president Joe Biden, pressed China’s president, Xi Jinping, not to support Russia’s war effort. The UK’s media regulator Ofcom revoked the broadcasting licence of the RT television channel with immediate effect. The Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected Russia’s appeal of a ban imposed on it by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body. The International Chess Federation said it had banned Russia and Belarus from official competition ‘until further notice’. Russia completed a bond payment of $117.2m despite the sanctions. Prices in Russia rose faster over the last two weeks than the government had projected for the entire year.
The UK, the US, France, Albania, Ireland and Norway accused Russia of war crimes in Ukraine. France said Vladimir Putin was only pretending to be interested in a peace deal. International legal proceedings were launched by Australia and the Netherlands at the International Civil Aviation Organization against Russia over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. The UN’s international court of justice in The Hague ordered Russia to stop its invasion, saying it had seen no evidence to support the Kremlin’s justification for the war that Ukraine was committing genocide against Russian-speakers in the east of the country. The Kremlin rejected the United Nations’ court’s order. Russia’s foreign ministry said it was launching the procedure to exit the Council of Europe, as pressure grew for Moscow’s expulsion from the organisation. The Council of Europe said its Committee of Ministers had officially decided to expel Russia. Amnesty International said Russia’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe was ‘a tragedy for the victims of the Kremlin’s human rights abuses.’
The Russian government’s attacks on civil society organisations and independent media continued to escalate. Since the war began some 15,000 protesters have been detained across Russia, with reports of detainees being beaten and tortured. Human rights defender Svetlana Gannushkina was fined 10,000 roubles for taking part in an anti-war protest. TV editor Marina Ovsyannikova was fined 30,000 roubles for interrupting a TV news broadcast with an anti-war poster. A Moscow resident was fined 30,000 rubles for wearing a yellow and blue hat. Russia has begun to use the new law on distributing ‘deliberately false information‘ about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for which the penalty is up to 15 years in prison. The Investigative Committee opened a probe against blogger Veronika Belotserkovskaya over alleged ‘false information’ about Russian armed forces on her Instagram account. Pussy Riot member Maria Alekhina was jailed for a further 15 days in jail immediately after she had served a similar jail term for an alleged breach of prison discipline. Police in Pskov searched the homes of the leader of the Yabloko party’s regional branch, Lev Shlosberg, as well as the homes of other party members and journalists.
The prima ballerina Olga Smirnova quit the Bolshoi Ballet company after denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Three journalists who worked on government TV stations resigned over the war: Zhanna Agalakova, Lilia Gildeyeva and Vadim Glusker. Rapper Ivan Dryomin (known as Face) left Russia in protest against the war. Tens of thousands of Russians have fled abroad, including at least 150 of Russia’s independent journalists. Russian musicians who have left Russia, such as Oxxxymiron, are now performing abroad, often with an anti-war message.
Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, demanded Google take down videos on YouTube it says are ‘threatening Russian citizens.’ Russia accused Meta of allowing incitement of violence against Russia on its platforms, and thereafter Instagram became inaccessible in Russia (Facebook and Twitter were blocked in early March). Roskomnadzor blocked access to the BBC’s news website. Meanwhile Human Rights Watch noted that the withdrawal from Russia of leading foreign tech companies exacerbated the risk of Russian isolation from the global internet. The Committee to Protect Journalists joined 40 other civil society groups in calling on U.S. President Joe Biden to ensure sanctions did not interfere with Russians’ access to the internet. However, the impact of Russian TV has meant that many in Russia believe Russian official propaganda about the war. Tigran Khudaverdyan, Yandex’s chief executive, stepped down from this role after he was the subect of an asset freeze and travel ban imposed by the EU
In Crimea a 19-year prison sentence was given to Crimean journalist Remzi Bekirov on a trumped-up terrorism charge. A court sentenced five Crimean Tatars to prison terms ranging from 14 to 15 years on charges of being members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group banned in Russia. A Russian appeal court revoked the sole acquittal of a Crimean political prisoner sending the ‘case’ against civic journalist Ernes Ametov back for re-trial. The same court upheld long prison sentences against seven other Crimean Tatar civic journalists and activists, including Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Server Mustafayev. Abdureshit Dzhepparov, a veteran of the Crimean Tatar national movement and human rights defender, was sentenced to 15 days’ imprisonment.
In other news, the Supreme Court of Karelia upheld the court decision to increase the sentence given to historian Yury Dmitriyev, head of the local branch of Memorial, from 13 to 15 years in prison for allegedly taking pornographic images of his foster daughter, a charge he and his supporters deny. A Moscow court extended the detention of U.S. women’s basketball star Brittney Griner until 19 May. The prosecutor in the trial of jailed Aleksei Navalny asked the court to convict him of embezzlement and contempt of court and sentence him to 13 years in prison and a fine of 1.2 million roubles. ‘You can demand and sentence me to 113 years [in prison], but you won’t scare me or those like me,’ Navalny told the court, adding: ‘Russia is big, it has many people, and not everyone is ready to betray their future and the future of their children in as cowardly a manner as you did!’ During the trial, Navalny had asked his accusers: ‘Why do you think this impunity will last forever?’ In his final address to the court he said: ‘The consequence of this war will be a breakdown, the collapse of our country.’[…] It’s every person’s duty right now to oppose the war.’