Enemy of the state.


A Russian Housewife Caught in Putin's War

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

Is Russia fighting a war against Ukraine? To hear President Vladimir Putin and his ministers, it's not -- it merely sympathizes with the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. Yet the case of a Russian housewife with a two-month-old baby, accused of treason and jailed for making a call to the Ukrainian embassy, proves that Russia sees the neighboring country as an enemy and that it has troops there.

Svetlana Davydova, a 36-year-old housewife from Vyazma in western Russia, made the fateful call in April 2014. She told an embassy employee that a garrison near her home, which normally housed a crack GRU military intelligence unit, had suddenly emptied out. Davydova also said she had had overheard a phone conversation on a bus in which a man -- she thought he might have been a soldier from the unit -- said he and his fellow servicemen were being transferred to Moscow in small groups, wearing civilian clothes, in preparation for a certain posting. Davydova added that she thought the unit might be headed for Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

For months afterwards, nothing happened. Then, according to Davydova's husband, a local precinct cop knocked on their door at 8:15 a.m. on January 21. He said neighbors had complained of noise from the apartment, though the couple's seven children were still asleep. When the couple opened the door, a group of operatives from the FSB, Russia's domestic intelligence service, burst in, seized all of their computers, arrested Davydova and handed her husband a piece of paper stating she was suspected of treason and that he would be informed of her whereabouts later.

Davydova ended up at Lefortovo, the Moscow prison where people suspected of serious crimes against the state are usually kept. When human rights activists visited the former seamstress at the jail, she was unsure what to do or even how to deal with her court-appointed lawyer. She said she had admitted making the call.

For his part, the lawyer, Andrei Stebenev, revealed in an interview with a Moscow radio station that Davydova's case file contained a document from the Russian General Staff saying the information Davydova had passed on to Ukraine was genuine and "could be used against Russia's security, potentially threatening the efficiency of measures aimed at strengthening the state border with Ukraine." Davydova faces a prison term of 12 to 30 years.

The charges against Davydova and particularly the document cited by Stebenev are the next best thing to an official admission that regular Russian troops are involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In the summer of 2014, the border between Russia and Ukraine, or the part of it controlled by the pro-Russian militants, effectively disappeared, making it utterly unnecessary for military intelligence commandos to defend it. At the same time, Ukrainian and independent Russian press reported that GRU handlers had been directing the groups of militants that seized a number of towns in eastern Ukraine.

There's no longer much sense in attempting to prove Russia's participation in the conflict, which flared up again in recent days after the rebels unilaterally abandoned a September cease-fire. There has been plenty of evidence already, including some from Russian servicemen captured by the Kiev side. The Ukrainian volunteers who maintain the website Lostivan.com have been combing through eyewitness reports and information on social networks to track active duty Russian servicemen taking part in the fighting. According to their research, 133 Russian soldiers have been killed in eastern Ukraine so far. News of these deaths have largely been kept out of the Russian media.

Ukraine has been reluctant to declare that it is in a state of war with Russia, fearing an all-out onslaught, though those calculations may be changing. Last week, Kiev's parliament declared Russia to be an "aggressor state".  Definitive evidence that Russian regulars have been involved in the fighting might help Ukraine procure modern weapons systems from the West -- aid that has been denied them so far. Indeed, Davydova's case provides ammunition to those in the U.S. -- including, reportedly, NATO's military commander, General Philip Breedlove -- who are in favor of arming Ukraine's army. After all, if it has to deal with one of the most powerful military machines in the world, it cannot be expected to defend itself with obsolete weapons from old Soviet stockpiles.

Sergei Loiko, a Los Angeles Times reporter who has covered the fighting in eastern Ukraine, wrote on Facebook:

Isn't it an incontrovertible fact that there are no Russian troops over there? Every day, the authorities and TV tell us so. That means the patriotic woman simply misled the enemy and she should be given some kind of medal. And here she is, thrown in jail!

Dmitry Gudkov, a member of Russian parliament, queried the prosecutor general's office about the Davydova case, asking whether the charges against her really constituted an admission that Russia was party to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. He has not yet received a reply.

It's time, however, that Moscow admitted the obvious and took part in negotiations to end the fighting. Rebel representatives are useless in any such talks because they do not make the decisions, and because the Ukrainian side cannot trust them to keep any promises they make. Last Friday, the rebel negotiators attending a fresh round of talks in Minsk rejected the possibility of a ceasefire -- they were riding a wave of relative success in fighting around the strategically important town of Debaltseve -- but even had they agreed to put the hostilities on hold, it would have meant little. 

Russia is the only side that can negotiate the final settlement to the conflict, or even a temporary cessation of the fighting. It needs to drop the useless denials, step forward and put its terms on the table. Otherwise, with or without American-supplied weapons, the conflict will take hundreds if not thousands of lives, in addition to the more than 5,000 that have already been lost. By continuing the useless cat-and-mouse game, Russia is not achieving any lasting results in Ukraine -- it just looks dishonest. Davydova's case adds two additional epithets: paranoid and inhumane. 

Most Russians, however, don't seem to care. Only 12,500 people have signed a Change.org petition for Davydova's release. Blame the ubiquitous anti-Ukrainian propaganda and an atmosphere of fear. The FSB, after all, could knock at any door.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net