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THE BELL WEEKLY: Belgorod left to fend

The Bell

Hello! This week our top story is about recent attacks on Russia’s Belgorod region and the federal authorities’ reluctance to comment on the increasingly chaotic situation there. Then we turn to recent infighting among Russia’s opposition over protests in support of jailed activist Alexei Navalny. And finally, we look at changes to the program at this year’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

The Kremlin keeps mum about recent attacks against the Belgorod region

The little-known town of Shebekino — home to some 40,000 people and located near Russia’s southwestern border with Ukraine — made headlines last week following an armed incursion by anti-Kremlin Russian paramilitary groups. But the war had already come to this town some time ago. After Ukrainian forces fully regained control over the Kharkiv region last year, they gained the ability to launch strikes against the Belgorod region. However, nothing like last week’s events had previously been seen in any part of Russia.

  • The Ukrainian Armed Forces fired 850 artillery shells at Shebekino, Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov claimed last week. No one in the town was killed, although there were several casualties in nearby settlements. Shebekino was left without power, stores were closed and public transportation stopped running. Several thousand people were evacuated and students at universities in nearby Belgorod had to leave their dorm rooms in order to accommodate evacuees. Some people were provided temporary housing at a sports stadium in Belgorod.
  • Sociologist Elena Koneva, who has been interviewing residents of the border regions, argues that claims of widespread panic across the Belgorod region are exaggerated. Most residents, she says, have accepted recent events as facts of war, unless they themselves are directly affected. “Adaptation to the war has a very strong effect,” Koneva wrote.
  • Among Russian officials, Gladkov has been the most vocal about the situation in Shebekino. He even agreed to meet with the anti-Kremlin paramilitary fighters in order to secure the release of two Russian soldiers captured during a raid (though he never attended the proposed meeting). According to Gladkov, the only way to stop shelling against his region is to “annex [the Ukrainian] Kharkiv region,” which borders Belgorod.
  • Russia’s federal authorities are ignoring the situation in Belgorod altogether. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov did not even mention it during his daily press briefing at the height of the attacks against Shebekino on June 2. There was nothing on the Kremlin’s website either; the only update concerned President Vladimir Putin discussing issues of inter-ethnic relations in Russia. Putin has also kept mum about Shebekino. Although, propaganda channels have sought to amplify the words of the town’s mayor, who said he personally spoke to the Russian leader about the situation. “Putin is interested in every last detail on the ground,” leading propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov said in his Sunday evening news round-up.
  • But the authorities are not just ignoring Shebekino. In recent weeks, there have been repeated incursions by “reconnaissance and sabotage groups” comprising the anti-Kremlin Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, both of which are fighting on the side of Ukraine in the war. Each incursion led to skirmishes with Russian troops, with both sides sustaining casualties. The anti-Kremlin fighters claim to have captured at least 10 Russian soldiers. Putin has not commented on the attacks, while Peskov mentioned just once that the president was aware of the situation.
  • Officials have also declined to comment on the recent abduction of a Russian army lieutenant colonel by Wagner Group fighters after regular military personnel fired on them. In a video published on social media, the lieutenant colonel, who showed signs of having been beaten, said he and his subordinates fired on the mercenaries out of “personal dislike” for the Wagner Group.

Why the world should care

While the war came to Russia long ago, last week it entered its hottest phase on Russian territory yet — a town of 40,000 people was fired on and almost everyone was evacuated. At the same time, armed groups are freely crossing into the Belgorod region and capturing Russian servicemen.

The federal authorities prefer to not get involved and instead pass the burden of responding onto local officials. This is not unusual. Russian history shows that the president risks damaging his popularity if he comes bearing bad news. For example, at the height of the Covid pandemic in 2020, Putin gave local governors full authority for crisis management. According to Kremlin officials, Putin was unwilling to take responsibility for unpopular lockdown measures.

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Anti-war and anti-Putin protesters became further entangled in internal conflicts as they sought to mark Alexei Navalny’s birthday with rallies in his support. Navalny is currently serving an 11-year jail term for fraud and contempt of court, charges which human rights activists claim were politically motivated. However, calls for protests in Russia, where the Kremlin has brutally cracked down on any form of dissent, have further divided Russia’s beleaguered opposition.

  • On June 4, rallies in support of Navalny were held in Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, France, Spain, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, South Korea, the United States, Thailand and Australia. There were also protests in Russia, where more than 100 people were detained (half of them in Moscow), according to figures from the OVD-Info civil rights organization.
  • It is unclear what will happen to those arrested in Russia. The protests were organized by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which Russian authorities consider an “extremist organization.” FBK’s American subsidiary, the Anti-Corruption Foundation International, is listed as “undesirable” in Russia and those who work with it could face criminal charges. It’s impossible to know how the Russian authorities might react to people attending rallies organized by these groups, lawyers say. In their view, punishment could be given selectively and arbitrarily rather than in accordance with the law. But in either case, detainees face either a criminal case, with a potential five to six-year jail sentence, or an administrative case, which comes with a $185 fine.
  • Before the rallies took place, a number of prominent anti-war and anti-Putin activists unaffiliated with FBK urged people living in Russia to not join in the protests. This included businessman and vocal Putin critic Yevgeny Chichvarkin, renowned political analyst Yekaterina Schulmann, human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, and former Yukos director Leonid Nevzlin. Lyubov Sobol, a close colleague of Navalny from FBK, also cautioned against protesting in Russia. FBK members spoke at rallies in Vilnius, Tel Aviv and Berlin.

Why the world should care

Since the start of the war, the Russian authorities have ramped up their crackdown on political dissent. This largely explains why there have been almost no large-scale protests in Russia over the past year. It’s not clear what FBK supporters were hoping to achieve with Sunday’s protest action — there were no organizers or coordinators for pro-Navalny rallies inside Russia, and those who did take part in the protest were left to fend for themselves. Those who were arrested could face criminal charges and jail time, and it would be wrong to assume that FBK’s leadership did not consider these potential risks for its supporters.

The “Russian Davos” will debate “traditional values” and how to return Russians who fled abroad

The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) — known as the “Russian Davos” — kicks off next week, the second time the event has been held since Moscow invaded Ukraine. This year,  organizers have banned all Western press from covering the forum, while introducing a program devoted to discussions on “ethnic conservation” and “traditional” values.

  • SPIEF was traditionally seen as a major event for leading Russian businesses and, before the war, an impressive array of speakers made it a truly international gathering. In previous years, there were keynote addresses from former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Italian PM Matteo Renzi, former UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres, ex-OPEC general secretary Mohammed Barkindo, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and French premier Emmanuel Macron. Likewise, the forum was often accompanied by blockbuster business deals. In 2015, Gazprom and its European partners agreed to construct the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany (the pipeline is no longer in use following explosions last year).
  • But this time around, there will be no world-class speakers, nor any journalists from “unfriendly” nations (i.e., those who the Kremlin identifies as imposing or supporting sanctions against Russia). They were stripped of their accreditations at the 11th hour, something that has not happened since 1997.
  • The slogan for this year’s forum, which runs June 14-17, is “Sovereign development — the basis of a just world, let’s join forces for future generations.” There are 140 events in the program, which includes some 1,000 speakers. However, foreigners are reluctant to attend. One federal official told The Bell: "We’re not even talking about representatives of the West. Nobody is expecting them. But even from BRICS countries there aren’t many.”
  • Forum sessions are grouped into six thematic areas. According to the business program, the main topics are Russia’s sovereignty and the return of thousands of Russians that fled abroad since Moscow invaded Ukraine. The final part of the program is tagged “ethnic conservation.” These sessions include “From brain drain to influx,” “There will be people, there will be business,” “Healthy eating — healthy development” and “Act together, think as one country.

Here are a few events on the SPIEF program:

  • A roundtable on why Europeans choose Russia;
  • A session on investing in “traditional” values, featuring the Association of Active Pensioners;
  • A session on Russia’s future, involving far-right philosopher Alexander Dugin;
  • A discussion on “forming culturing values in the youth”;
  • A session on the fight against fake news, featuring online pranksters Vovan and Leksus, who are notorious for pranking Western politicians, famous writers and even members of the British royal family;
  • A session on how to shoot “films about heroes of labor” that attract young people into pursuing careers in engineering and similar industries (an apparent throwback to Soviet cinematography).

Why the world should care

SPIEF used to be a genuinely big event in Russia. It’s no accident that it was dubbed the “Russian Davos.” However, since the start of the war, the country has become a pariah on the global stage. Once a significant event capable of drawing the attention of Western leaders, even in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it has now dwindled into a peripheral forum for discussing the “benefits” of Russia’s international isolation.


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