Putin Gets Away with Murder
October 23, 2006
In Russia, gangsters have the macabre custom of making a birthday
present of a murder. On Vladimir Putin's 54th birthday, one of his
fiercest domestic critics, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was shot
to death in her apartment building in central Moscow. She worked for
the weekly Novaya Gazeta, Russia's last independent newspaper. Its
deputy editor was murdered a couple of years ago, and the killer was
never found. Although Politkovskaya had been tailed by the Federal
Security Service (FSB) for years and her murderer was captured on film,
he got away. The Kremlin has made no comment. The prosecutor general
claims to have personally taken charge of the investigation, but such
investigations seldom result in an arrest.
Western policy toward Russia has been an unmitigated failure since
Vladimir Putin became president on New Year's Eve 1999. Every year
since then, the Russian government has moved further away from both the
United States and the European Union, and Western influence over Russia
In the last year, President Putin has exported ground-to-air missiles
to Iran that can shoot down American F-16s. He has exported arms to
Syria that were successfully used by Hezbollah against Israel. A year
ago, the Kremlin cheered when Uzbekistan evicted a large US air base,
and now it is encouraging Kyrgyzstan to do the same.
Meanwhile, state-controlled Russian media spew out nationalist and
antiwestern propaganda. Every evening after the first state channel's
main newscast, one of the Kremlin's foremost propagandists, Mikhail
Leontiev, delivers his daily diatribe against the West.
To consider Putin a strategic partner or even ally would be to close
one's eyes to reality. If Putin persistently behaves like an enemy of
both the United States and the European Union, we had better pick up
the gauntlet. Only a fool or a coward would do otherwise.
The G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in July became a symbol of all that is
wrong with Western policy toward Russia. For three days, the Western
leaders participated in this televised celebration of Putin's new
authoritarian powers, and they got nothing in return.
To flatter himself further, Putin invited the presidents of the other
11 former Soviet states for the ensuing week, but they know how to
handle him. A few hours before the summit, four of them dropped out—two
announcing that they were going on vacations. By contrast, in St.
Petersburg it was President Bush who endured Putin's insult (“We
certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they
have in Iraq.”).
The fundamental problem of Western policy toward Russia is that it is
still based on the idea that the Cold War is over. Alas, this truth has
become obsolete, as Putin has gone about reviving one feature after
another of a police state, including authoritarian rule and an
antiwestern foreign policy.
The West has retained the same friendly but half-hearted policy toward
Russia it pursued under Boris Yeltsin. But Putin is no Yeltsin. In
fact, Putin is the anti-Yeltsin. Whatever Yeltsin was, Putin is not.
Whatever policy the West pursued toward Yeltsin should be replaced with
its opposite—with a few exceptions: Not even Putin wants to revive
Communist ideology, and Russia remains a market economy.</P>
Although poorly understood in the West, Yeltsin was a democrat, as Leon
Aron shows in his excellent biography. Yeltsin believed in free and
fair elections and free media. Putin, by contrast, is a secret
policeman. In his book First Person, made up of interviews, he marvels
at his own skillful repression of dissidents.
Putin talks about democracy while systematically destroying it, as
Berkeley political scientist Steven Fish has detailed in Democracy
Derailed in Russia. Putin has mostly destroyed press freedom, deprived
both parliamentary chambers of power, undermined free elections,
eliminated the election of regional governors, and seized control over
the courts. Where Boris Yeltsin boldly and peacefully dissolved the
Soviet empire, giving its peoples freedom, his successor has publicly
complained that this was the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th
Yeltsin believed in private enterprise. He has been criticized for
privatizing the Russian economy in the only way possible, rather than
leaving a larger share in the hands of the state. Putin is currently
undertaking the greatest renationalization the world has seen.
Yeltsin regarded both himself and Russia as part of the free and
democratic Western world, while Putin does not. He criticizes both the
United States and the European Union in evermore paranoid and
conspiratorial language, while praising China more and more. Unlike
Westerners, the Chinese do not ask nosy questions about
authoritarianism, corruption, and money laundering, questions for which
Putin has no good answers.
In the end, Yeltsin was one of us, although larger than life. So it was
worth talking to him and exploring our common interests through quiet
diplomacy. The opposite is true of Putin. He gives lip service to our
values, but regularly undermines them. A liar should not be treated
like a gentleman.
On a few points, the United States has got its policy toward Russia
right. First, the United States and the European Union stood up for
democracy during Ukraine's Orange Revolution, and Putin accepted
defeat. Second, the West protested loudly against the restrictive
Russian draft legislation on nongovernmental organizations, which was
softened. Third, the Western outcry over Russia's cutoff of gas
supplies to Ukraine last January led to an immediate resumption of
deliveries. Putin was upset, but he changed his policy. And the recent
US embargo against the Russian state arms export agency,
Rosoboronexport, and the military aircraft producer, Sukhoi, because of
their deliveries of sophisticated arms to Iran is another step in the
The lesson is that Putin only responds if protests are loud, public,
and backed up by threats. Rather than talking about the Cold War being
over (which is true), we should remember that the most successful
policies toward the Soviet Union were those of Ronald Reagan.
It could be argued that Western policy toward Russia has not mattered
much in recent years because Russia has been too weak to dare to be
foolhardy. That is no longer the case. In 1999 Russia's GDP was $200
billion in current dollars. This year, it will reach $920 billion.
Russia has financial surpluses to waste on foolish policies at home,
and perhaps also abroad.
Right now, Russia is apparently preparing for a war against the
independent former Soviet republic of Georgia. With no justification
whatsoever, Putin personally has accused Georgia of state terrorism. He
likened the arrest of four senior Russian military spies in Georgia to
the acts of Stalin's henchman Lavrenty Beria. Russia has evacuated its
diplomats and citizens from Georgia and imposed a nearly complete
embargo. Major Russian military maneuvers are under way.
Most analysts draw parallels to Yeltsin and argue that Russia's actions
are meant only to frighten. I doubt that. Putin is a warrior. He won
his presidency on a very dubious war, the second war in Chechnya—the
region whose agony Anna Politkovskaya covered at the cost of her life.
Putin won his reelection and authoritarian rule with his war against
the oligarchs, especially his confiscation of the Yukos oil company. It
is a logical next step to illegally prolong that rule by starting a war
It couldn't be plainer that the United States needs a serious policy
toward Russia and needs it fast.