Behind Putin’s Cynicism and Hypocrisy
The Kremlin’s ruler wants to extend to neighboring countries the tyranny he imposes on his own people.
You can usually figure what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing and why by noting the actions and values he falsely projects onto others.
Over the past several weeks, for example, he has accused the Ukrainian government of stripping autonomy from Ukraine’s eastern regions, while moving to end local elections in Russia.
He has claimed U.S. “mercenaries” were operating alongside Ukrainian forces, while infiltrating Russian special forces to seize Crimea and organize violence in Ukraine’s east.
He has called the Internet a CIA creation, while trying to bring Russian social media under the control of a secret police-dominated state.
So when Mr. Putin justified intervention in Ukraine by accusing its government of human rights abuses, it was a bad sign for the Ukrainians who would soon be subject to his rule.
The new authorities in Kiev aren’t perfect. But international organizations have found no evidence that they are or were suppressing the rights of the ethnic-Russian minority in Crimea or Ukraine’s east. Pro-Kremlin separatists, on the other hand, have been attacking their unarmed opponents with growing abandon. Every offense Russia falsely attributed to Ukraine’s Maidan is in fact being committed by its own forces and proxies.
The pattern began in Crimea. Shortly after Russia’s intervention, local authorities announced that ethnic Tatars — who had returned over the years to Crimea after their mass deportation by Joseph Stalin — would have to vacate their land. Before the deportation’s 70th anniversary this week, police conducted mass searches of Tatar homes.
On over a dozen occasions in the days that followed, armed men attacked or detained local and international journalists. Pro-Russian forces kidnapped and tortured Ukrainian civic activists. At least two were killed in detention, their bodies dumped in forests; more are still missing. International organizations report that around 5,000 people — including minority Christians, Jews and at least 3,000 Tatars — have fled Crimea and sought refuge elsewhere in Ukraine.
In Ukraine’s east, polls show that the great majority of people — whether they supported the Maidan revolution or not — don’t want to join Russia. But when the citizens of Donetsk, Slovyansk and Kharkiv have come out to oppose Moscow’s intervention, pro-Russian militias have repeatedly assaulted them; more than 100 peaceful demonstrators in the east have been hospitalized after such attacks.
Abductions, torture and killings have also intensified in the east. Three bodies of supporters of the Kiev government recently washed up on a riverbank in Slovyansk, bearing signs of torture. Acting on orders from the self-appointed “mayor” of Slovyansk, pro-Russian militias have begun to drive local Roma families from their homes.
In these and other ways, Mr. Putin is extending into eastern Ukraine the repression he has imposed inside Russia in recent years, in direct opposition to what eastern Ukrainians would enjoy as part of a united Ukraine: local autonomy, freedom of expression and internationally monitored free and fair elections. This isn’t just the effect of Mr. Putin’s intervention; it is arguably the intent. The example of Ukraine’s Maidan — of ordinary people overthrowing a corrupt, authoritarian ruler so that they could draw closer to European democracies — was a threat to the ruler of the Kremlin. For this, in Mr. Putin’s mind, Ukraine had to be punished and humiliated, if not carved into pieces.
Russia’s actions are a threat to a postwar international order designed to banish the old pattern of large powers swallowing small ones. But the crisis in Ukraine is also a contest of values. This isn’t a contest between the West and Russia, but between people everywhere — including in Moscow — who believe that states exist to serve their citizens, and regimes that think it should be the other way around.
The sanctions that Washington and Brussels have imposed to stop Russian aggression have costs. All sanctions do, and because the potential costs are higher for Europe, paying this price isn’t a mere gesture. But it is striking that in Europe, those most vulnerable to Russia’s countermeasures — from Estonia to Poland to the Czech Republic — have nonetheless been among the most vocal in pressing us to act.
The effect is even more pronounced among Russian dissidents I have recently met — men and women who are labeled “traitors,” “foreign agents” and “extremists” for questioning the Kremlin, but who still urge us to resist what their government is doing. The closer one is to the heart of the problem, the more one sees what’s at stake.
Those of us who live further away should see things as clearly. We were right to seek practical cooperation with Russia and to encourage its integration as a respected power into global institutions. I hope that the time will come when this is possible again. But in the current crisis, we are right not to make the mistake of projecting our hopes onto the ruler of Russia in the way he projects his cynicism onto us.