IS PUTIN LOSING HIS GRIP?
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is one of the world’s most brutal and repressive dictators, similar in many respects to Adolph Hitler. He rules Russia with an iron fist, crushing opposition and depriving Russians of freedom whenever that freedom expresses itself in opposition to his policies. He employs his military, military intelligence, and secret services to terrorize and kill political opponents and to prop up his fascistic regime. He condones widespread corruption and graft.
In 2001, President George Bush revealed his own intellectual impoverishment when he proclaimed following a brief meeting with then President Vladimir Putin that he greatly admired the man because, as Bush put it, he had a “sense of his soul.” Never one quick to admit a mistake, Bush recently stated in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that Putin had “changed” from a good to a bad man since 2001. No, Mr. President, Putin has known and has liked evil since at least 1975 when—fresh out of the university—he joined the KGB and helped hunt down, abuse, and remove political dissidents within the Soviet Union. Putin and repression are best buddies. It is shameful that Bush embraced Putin despite (or perhaps ignorant of) Putin’s sordid past. He helped advance that dictators brutal and repressive regime by treating him as an ally.
Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal may have given the best summary of Putin’s regime when he defined the man as a despot, identified Russia under Putin as a fascistic state, and equated Putin’s nationalization of the means of production as the equivalent of Adolph Hitler’s national socialism.
While the Russian economy showed signs of improvement in the first few years of the twenty-first century, Putin had time to groom his favored image, that of a benevolent dictator. He modeled himself after the Czars at home and after Soviet leaders to the world, criticizing the United States, variously sounding bellicose, and often bullying former Soviet states into pursuing policies favorable to Russia. He aimed to rebuild a Russian empire and to maintain his supreme control over it. Democracy became a shibboleth to placate parts of his domestic audience. Political control remained in Putin’s hands with opponents and their families perpetually at risk of serious consequences.
In December 2009, thousands gathered in Vladivostok to protest new controls Putin slapped on Japanese used car imports, severely limiting their salability, to encourage the purchase of Russian built vehicles notorious in for their gross inferiority. To end the protest, Putin dispatched riot police from Moscow who arrested dozens of protestors, beat up many more, and repeatedly struck a Japanese photographer who was attempting to make a visual record of the horrors surrounding him.
With the Russian economy in deep trouble, many Russians are no longer willing to ignore the brutality of Putin’s regime. Instead, they are increasingly risking violent crack-downs to protest Putin’s policies. In March of 2010, “Day of Wrath” rallies occurred in twenty Russian cities. From Kaliningrad to Vladivostok thousands took to the streets condemning Putin, state repression and corruption, and poor economic policies. On October 31, over 2,000 Russians opposed to Putin assembled in Moscow’s Triumphal Square, protesting Putin’s policies. They chose October 31 because the thirty-first article of the Russian Constitution supposedly protects the right of assembly (a provision routinely violated by Putin’s police). Protestors called for Putin’s ouster, chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Death to that dog Putin.” Nine times previously smaller numbers of protestors gathered at the square and were variously arrested, beaten, and driven away by Putin’s police. This time the numbers were too vast and assembled too quickly to be dispersed readily. Putin permitted the protest to go on for about an hour. He then sent in dozens of police vans and hundreds of armed riot forces. The police manhandled large numbers of protestors into the vans and carted them off to prison. They beat and pushed the remaining protestors out of the square. Warning protestors to avoid public gatherings, Putin declared, “They will get it on the head with a truncheon.”
On December 24 across Russia from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, Russians stood shoulder to shoulder in public protests against Putin. They were angry over high unemployment rates, government corruption, promised but unpaid wages, government censorship, the rigging of elections, and the suppression of political opposition. Although the Kremlin has succeeded repeatedly in censoring information about prior protests, it could not contain reporting from the present protests because they were occurring all across the country simultaneously (across some nine time zones). These were the largest protests against Putin since the start of his regime.
Since 1990 dozens of Russian reporters have been killed or have disappeared following their publication of articles critical of Putin’s policies. In particular prominent journalists critical of the regime, like Anna Politkovskaya, have been assassinated following the publication of particularly poignant and well-documented exposes of corruption and repression. The assassinations have been covered by the Russian media, revealing the government’s interest in conveying to other journalists what may happen to them if they write pieces critical of the regime. The regime is particularly sensitive to those who criticize Putin for his use of force to prevent Chechen independence.
When Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian Federal Security Service, bolted to England and published books revealing, inter alia, Putin’s use of secret police to blow up a Russian apartment building (with the government alleging that Chechyan rebels were to blame, thus inspiring animus to support Putin’s repression of the Chechen Republic), Litvinenko became a targeted enemy of the regime. Agents slipped into Litvinenko’s tea some 200 times a lethal dose of Polonium-210, causing him to suffer acute radiation poisoning. Unbeknownst to the Russian secret service, Western technology could detect the presence of Polonium-210, and, so, on the eve of Litvinenko’s death, confirmation came of his murder by this means. In his last statement published in an article entitled “Why I believe Putin wanted me dead,” appearing in the London Mail on Sunday Online, Litvinenko wrote words that carry prophetic meaning for Putin:
“You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed. You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilized value. You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilized men and women. You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.”
That howl is now very much in Putin’s ears as ever greater numbers of his people publicly voice their discontent.
Like the George Bush of 2001, President Obama has again made the mistake of trusting Putin. Having agreed to further, albeit modest, reductions in our nuclear arsenal on the promise that Russia will do the same (START II), President Obama took another step based on an undeserved trust in the Russian dictator. He unilaterally announced that the United States will not modernize our nuclear force. To Putin the incentive is now great for him to modernize in secret Russia’s nuclear force to raise the specter of Russian nuclear superiority.
President Obama appears to have ignored SALT I precedent. In SALT I, the United States did not require limits to Soviet multiple warheads (MIRVs) largely because the Ford administration presumed Russia incapable of mastering the technology in the short run. Russia then invested heavily in the technology and produced MIRVs within five years of the treaty signing, surprising the United States. Many then declared the Soviet Union’s MIRVed warheads superior to the American arsenal.
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Rather than embrace Putin and convey the misimpression that the United States condones his fascistic state, we would do well to do the opposite, reveal to the world his acts of brutality and censorship, and state clearly our opposition to them. We should praise the brave protestors who oppose Putin and encourage efforts that lessen Putin’s repressive grip on Russia.
© 2011 Jonathan W. Emord - All Rights Reserved