Russia cracks down on dissent as invasion stalls
By Dan Bilefsky
As Russian forces struggled to make progress across Ukraine, losing control of a contested town west of the capital, Moscow advanced on a different front Tuesday, expanding the toughest crackdown on dissent during President Vladimir Putin’s 22 years in power.
In what appeared to be a signal move in that expansion, a Russian court sentenced the already imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny to nine years in prison on fraud charges. The verdict was widely seen as a way to keep him behind bars as the Kremlin tries to tightly control the war’s narrative at home amid glimmers of defiance. Navalny has been urging Russians to protest the invasion via letters from jail that his attorneys post on social media.
The move came as Russia amended an already draconian censorship law to make “discrediting” the activities abroad of all government bodies — not just the military — a potentially criminal offense. The law punishes anyone spreading “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison. Russia has taken other moves to quell information, including blocking access to Facebook.
On the ground, Ukrainians continued to mount a spirited defense of the capital, Kyiv, and said they had raised the blue and gold Ukrainian flag over Makariv, a town about 40 miles to the west, where control has gone back and forth between Russian forces and Ukrainians. Tuesday’s announcement reflected Ukrainian efforts to keep Russian forces from encircling Kyiv. After 26 days of fighting, a senior U.S. Defense Department official said that the Russians had not been able to advance beyond 9 miles northwest of Kyiv or 18 miles from the city’s east — essentially where they were last week.
In other major developments:
— The Pentagon has assessed that Russia’s “combat power” in Ukraine has dipped below 90% of its original force for the first time, reflecting the losses Russian troops have suffered at the hands of Ukrainian soldiers.
— President Joe Biden is preparing to travel to a NATO summit this week in Brussels, where Western allies are expected to discuss how they will respond if Russia employs chemical, biological, cyber or nuclear weapons.
— Tens of thousands of people remain trapped in Mariupol, many now confined to basements and running low on food and water. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said the city was being “reduced to ashes,” and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, called the Russian assault “a massive war crime.”
— The Ukrainian military is mounting an aggressive counteroffensive to reclaim territory captured by Russia in southern Ukraine, hoping to capitalize on public defiance. The efforts are most evident in captured towns and cities like Kherson, where Russian soldiers opened fire on protesters Monday. Russia has withdrawn most of its helicopters from the airport in Kherson, according to satellite images analyzed by The New York Times, in what analysts said could be a telltale sign of Russian military setbacks in the south of the country.
— Wildfires have broken out in the radioactive forest that surrounds the Chernobyl nuclear plant, an area now controlled by the Russian army, Ukrainian news media reported Tuesday. The report raised worries that radiation could spread widely in the smoke if the fires burned unchecked.