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Under Western barrage, Russia gets nastier in Ukraine, crushes dissent

Faced with the West's economic assault, Russia is getting even more brutal in Ukraine as it steps up its bombing campaign and takes a more ferocious approach in its crackdown on dissenters, including imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

(CN) — Russia is seeking to stiffen its resolve to fight both Kyiv and the West's full-spectrum assault by ramping up its military offensive in Ukraine, antagonizing Japan over the disputed Kuril Islands and cracking down on dissenters at home, chief among them opposition leader Alexei Navalny.   

Faced with the cataclysmic consequences of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia is taking steps on many fronts to keep afloat its battered economy, test the West's mettle, wear down Kyiv militarily and ensure an anti-war movement doesn't take root inside Russia.   

Meanwhile, Russia continues to pour troops and weaponry into its war in Ukraine. It's been 27 days since Russian President Vladimir Putin disrupted the world by launching an invasion of Ukraine, alleging that it had become a hostile nation controlled by a United States determined to break up Russia as a state.   

Fighting continued to rage Tuesday in many parts of Ukraine with the worst bloodshed taking place in the devastated southern port city of Mariupol. Russian forces claimed that they controlled about half of the city. But Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol and elsewhere remained fierce.   

The United Nations said the war has caused the displacement of about 10 million Ukrainians, or nearly a quarter of the country's inhabitants. More than 3.5 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries, making this the biggest movement of people in Europe since World War II.   

“What Russia is doing now is missile-driven deportation,” said Volodymyr Yermolenko, the editor-in-chief at UkraineWorld, a U.S.-backed media outlet, on Twitter. “Hit civilians with missiles to force them [to] massively leave. Another tactics of demographic change which Russia has been doing for centuries. It wants Ukraine without Ukrainians. But it will never get it.”   

As it wages a war in Ukraine, Russia is also fighting back on many other fronts too: Taking aim at dissidents at home, launching cyber and propaganda offensives, rattling diplomatic sabers and inventing economic recipes to keep its sanctioned economy afloat.

On Tuesday, a Russian court sent a chilling signal to Russian dissenters by extending Navalny's prison sentence by nine years for fraud and insulting the court. He was thrown into prison in January 2021 on dubious charges after he returned to Russia following treatment in Germany for an alleged poisoning carried out by Russian agents. He is a fierce Putin critic and he’s trying to build a movement to oust the Kremlin leader.    

“If this [prison] term is the price for my human right to say what I consider necessary, and the civil right to fight for a better future for Russia, then they can seek 113 [years],” Navalny said on Instagram. “I will not give up my words and what I do.”        

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, center, is seen via a video link standing next to his lawyers during a court hearing in Pokrov, Russia, on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Beyond Navalny, Russia is going after people who speak out against the war and the State Duma on Tuesday voted to expand a recent law allowing authorities to imprison people up to 15 years for spreading “false information” about the Ukraine war. Under new amendments, anyone who “knowingly” spreads so-called false information about all Russian state bodies operating abroad can be fined 1.5 million rubles (about $14,300) and get imprisoned for up to 15 years. In Russia, media outlets must refer to Russia’s invasion not as a war but as a “special military operation,” the term Putin used when he launched the invasion on Feb. 24.     

Since the start of the invasion, more than 15,000 Russians have been detained for protesting against the war, according to figures from OVD-Info, a Russian human rights group. On Monday alone, the group documented cases where a woman was stopped by police in Chelyabinsk and given a warning because she wore a green ribbon, an anti-war symbol. In Tula, a woman was fined for hanging a banner out her window that read, “I’m against the war.”     

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Anti-war dissidents also have been fired from their jobs and harassed, as happened with a geography teacher in Moscow who refused to not speak with his students about the war and then posted anti-war comments on Instagram. He was accused by the school principal of “betraying the motherland,” according to Meduza, a Russian news outlet forced to move its operations out of Russia.   

Last Wednesday, Putin gave a chilling speech about how Russia would be strengthened through a “purification of society” wherein “traitors” would be targeted.    

“The West will continue trying to crush and dismember Russia,” Putin said in the speech to regional governors about economic measures the Kremlin would take to deal with sanctions. “It’s placing its bets on the fifth column, the people who live in Russia geographically but have a slavish mentality. But the Russian population will be able to differentiate between the patriots and the traitors, and this purification of society will only strengthen the country.”   

Last week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Meduza how such a so-called “purification” might take place. 

“It’s in difficult times like these, in crucial situations like this one, when emotions are running high, that many people show their true nature,” he said. “And many people show themselves to be what we in Russia like to call traitors. They disappear from our lives on their own. Some resign from their jobs, some withdraw from their professional lives, and some leave the country and move to other places. That’s how the purification happens. Some people break the law and are punished for it in accordance with court decisions.”    

The Kremlin also angered Japan late Monday by dropping out of peace talks over the disputed Kuril Islands in the Far East, a retaliatory move in response to Japan's adherence to Western-imposed sanctions.   

Japan lays claim to four southernmost islands in the archipelago, which the Soviet Union annexed at the end of World War II and Moscow has controlled the island chain ever since. Russia also will no longer allow visa-free travel by Japanese to the Kuril Islands.   

Efforts to resolve the dispute had picked up in recent years but following the Ukraine invasion Japan used strong language in reasserting claims to the islands. Japan and the Soviet Union never signed a peace agreement at the end of World War II because of this territorial dispute.     

“Russia has refused to continue peace treaty talks with Japan. In the context of the Kuril Islands, this is a historically justified step that is long overdue and fair,” said Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, as reported by Tass, the Russian state news agency.  

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called Russia’s suspension of negotiations “extremely unreasonable and totally unacceptable.”   

Medvedev described Japan as trying to be “proud independent samurais” by imposing sanctions on Russia.   

Moscow is vowing that it will not succumb under the West's punishing wave of sanctions and near-total economic blockade. The European Union is even discussing the possibility of stopping the import of Russian oil and gas, a move that could seriously hurt both Europe and Russia.    

European leaders will meet with U.S. President Joe Biden this week to figure out NATO’s next moves.   

For now, the EU is showing unity in its condemnation of Putin and his invasion of Ukraine, but minor cracks are beginning to appear.  

This satellite image shows burning apartment buildings in northeastern Mariupol, Ukraine, on Saturday, March 19, 2022. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke to the Italian parliament and received a standing ovation. But about 300 parliamentarians were absent, causing polemics. Also, the Italian Senate’s commission president on foreign affairs spoke out against arming Ukraine. He said it was time for his party, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, to drop out of a technocratic government led by Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former European Central Bank president not affiliated with any party. Draghi was brought in to lead Italy through the coronavirus pandemic after a coalition government collapsed. His government includes most major parties.  

“It’s time to leave this interventionist government that wants to make Italy a co-belligerent,” tweeted Vito Petrocelli. His party’s leader told him to retract his statement, which he refused to do.  

Matteo Salvini, the head of the popular far-right League party, also was seen welcoming Zelenskyy coolly.  

Afterward, he praised Zelenskyy for talking about his willingness to enter into peace talks, but he added that he found the West “talks too easily about weapons,” a reference to NATO’s massive supplies of arms to Ukraine.  

Salvini is one of Italy’s most important politicians and a potential future prime minister, but he’s expressed admiration for Putin’s nationalist brand in the past and his party has been involved in scandals over receiving funds from the Kremlin.  

Many far-right politicians in Europe have been put on the defensive by Russia’s invasion because they were coddled by Putin before the war and many praised the Kremlin leader as a strongman who talked about defending Christian values, upholding nationalism and fighting again liberalism.  

In France, meanwhile, far-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon has been rising in presidential polls and drawing large crowds despite his anti-NATO stance. He has condemned Putin’s invasion but called for France’s withdrawal from the military alliance. France is holding a first round of voting in April to pick a president. French President Emmanuel Macron is leading in the polls and he’s expected to win a second term. Macron has supported NATO’s strong response to the invasion, but he’s also tried to act as a mediator between Putin and Zelenskyy. In the past, Macron called for more openness toward working with Russia on security.   

In the meantime, many Europeans are expressing anger over the rise in the cost of fuel and other basics.  

Still, the EU is showing immense solidarity with Ukraine and embarked on a path towards building up its military strength to counter Putin’s aggression. Also, EU citizens have shown tremendous willingness to take in millions of Ukrainian refugees, though some point out that the EU seems to be guilty of a double standard because the bloc has been much less willing to take in refugees escaping horrific wars in the Middle East and Africa.  

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.   

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