I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.
Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.
The destruction of a massive Dnieper River dam in occupied territory added another line to the list of calamities unleashed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Moscow's propaganda machine let a trial balloon fly amid signs that Kyiv's counteroffensive has begun, while the clampdown continued at home.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called the breach of the Kakhovka dam a 'barbaric act' and suggested it was terrorism.
But unless the Kremlin can come up with hard evidence that Ukraine destroyed the dam, chances are good that Russia is responsible: The huge hydroelectric power plant spanning the Dnieper River upstream from Kherson has been controlled by Russian occupation forces for about 15 months. And while Putin pointed the finger at Kyiv and what he called its 'Western handlers,' Russian officials have not said how Ukraine could have caused the breach.
On June 9, Ukraine's security service said it had intercepted a telephone call in which a Russian soldier said a Russian 'sabotage group' had caused the breach. The authenticity of the recording could not be independently verified.
Arguably, any talk about who or what exactly caused the damage is beside the point. It wouldn't have happened had Russia not launched a full-scale, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Regardless of the details, that seems to hand the bulk of the blame on Russia for what Putin called the 'large-scale ecological and humanitarian catastrophe' that ensured when water from Ukraine's main river came pouring over the busted dam, flooding fields, forests, towns, and the city of Kherson while fish flopped and died as the water levels in the wide river upstream from the dam fell fast.
The breach added a catastrophic new twist to the diverse variety of destruction, suffering, and death unleashed by Putin when he ordered the invasion -- a list that, among other things, includes the abuse, torture, rape, and murder of civilians and the dispatch of tens of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia and the territory it occupies, which has made Putin the subject of a war-crimes arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court.
European Council President Charles Michel called the destruction of the dam a war crime, while French President Emmanuel Macron called it an 'atrocious act.' British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that 'if it does prove to be intentional, it will represent a new low. It's an appalling act of barbarism on Russia's part.'
On The Move
In the days after the dam breach, Russia continued to target Ukrainians in affected areas, shelling Kherson as residents struggled to survive on flooded streets or to leave the city for safer, dryer areas farther from the front.
The collapse of the dam came amid increasing signs that a long-expected and potentially crucial Ukrainian counteroffensive may be under way, with heavy fighting reported on at least two sections of the 1,000-kilometer front line stretching from the area near Kherson in the south to the Donbas and the Kharkiv region in the east.
A major military push would be a chance for Ukrainian forces to regain more of the territory Russia has occupied not just since the February 2022 invasion but since 2014, when it seized control of Crimea and backed anti-Kyiv forces who took parts of the Donbas, including the eponymous capitals of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
It also coincided with intriguing indications that Putin and the Kremlin may be considering cutting Russia's losses and seeking to freeze the conflict in place - or, alternatively, trying to make Kyiv and Western governments think they're considering it.
The main point of such a feint, presumably, would be to increase calls in the West for Ukraine to negotiate with Russia -- though Russia has given no convincing sign that it's interested in good-faith talks -- and step back from its stated goal of driving Russian forces out of all of Ukraine, including Crimea.
After retreating from northern Ukraine in the spring of 2022 following a failed attempt to take Kyiv, and then losing swaths of land it had occupied in Ukrainian counteroffensives in the east and south later in the year, Russia has continued to struggle on the battlefield, making few gains other than a partial victory in the extremely costly battle for the Donbas city of Bakhmut. The Kremlin has also been rattled by attacks and apparent drone strikes inside Russia.
Against that backdrop, direct or veiled calls for Russia to scale down its objectives -- essentially abandoning the goal of seizing or subjugating Ukraine, and instead seeking to hold the territory it has occupied and turn the war into a 'frozen conflict' -- have been made by prominent and consistently bellicose figures including Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group, and Margarita Simonyan, a state media executive and propagandist.
'A mood of deepening gloom is gripping Russia's elite about prospects for President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine, with even the most optimistic seeing a 'frozen' conflict as the best available outcome now for the Kremlin,' Bloomberg News wrote in an article published on June 8, citing multiple 'people familiar with the situation' without naming them.
'Many within the political and business elite are tired of the war and want it to stop, though they doubt Putin will halt the fighting,' it said.
'The most favorable prospect would be negotiations later in the year that would turn it into a 'frozen' conflict and allow Putin to proclaim a Pyrrhic victory to Russians by holding on to some seized Ukrainian territory,' Bloomberg cited two of its sources as saying.
Do these statements and signals mean that Putin -- who prefaced the invasion with repeated assertions that Ukraine has no right to exist as a sovereign state -- is ready to halt efforts to seize more of its neighbor's territory and bring Kyiv to heel?
For one thing, Bloomberg wrote that according to five of the people it spoke to, 'Putin shows no indication of wanting to end the war.'
Make No Mistake
Author and analyst Sam Greene, in a Twitter thread about comments from Simonyan that caused a stir, wrote that 'it's worth taking a moment to reflect on how Russian propaganda works.'
Simonyan's logic 'reflects the views of some in the Russian establishment. Maybe even many or most,' Greene wrote. 'It would be a mistake, however, to assume that it reflects the Kremlin's position in any meaningful way.'
Instead, he suggested it had three objectives: to 'disrupt Western strategic narratives,' to 'maintain domestic constructive ambiguity,' and to 'conduct reflexive public opinion research' -- in other words, in the last case, to send up a trial balloon in an effort to find out what the Russian populace thinks of the idea.
The particular Western strategic narrative that the Kremlin may want to disrupt is 'the current Western consensus is that Russia will keep fighting until it either wins or loses outright.'
'As a result, when arguments are made that the West should push Ukraine towards a negotiated settlement, they fail to resonate: most analysts and policymakers do not see a negotiating partner in Moscow,' Greene wrote. 'Simonyan's statement is meant to complicate that assumption.'
As the calamity unfolded on the Dnieper in Ukraine, the Russian state's sweeping clampdown on dissent, civil society, and independent media at home continued. On June 8, a Moscow court began the trial of Oleg Orlov, 70, a senior leader of Memorial, a prominent and highly respected human rights organization that was outlawed in December 2021.
The charge against Orlov, who is accused of repeatedly discrediting the armed forces, stems from his condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, called his trial a 'travesty of justice.'
That's it from me this week.
If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036