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Re-evaluating Putin: part two

| Tuesday, March 17, 2015

My first column for The Observer, published in April 2014, was “Re-evaluating Putin.” In it, I argued that the international community had been too harsh in its criticism of Russian president Vladimir Putin. While I acknowledged the missteps of the Putin administration (specifically on LGBT rights and foreign policy), I argued that he’d also been of great benefit to Russia and to the world in other areas, and that he should not be written off as inept.

That was nearly a year ago. Much has changed since then. Most notably, anti-Putin activist Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed outside the Kremlin. The shooting occurred just days before he was supposed to lead a demonstration against Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine. This convenient timing has spurred suggestions that the assassins were working on Putin’s behalf, if not in accordance with his direct orders.

I have previously been skeptical of conspiracy theories that have emerged from the New Russia; that is to say, I have not assumed that said conspiracies must be well-founded just because they allegedly happened in Russia. I did not regard accusations that the 1999 apartment bombings were false flags to provoke the Second Chechen War with any more credibility than suggestions that Bush orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. Likewise, allegations of Kremlin-sanctioned hits against journalist Anna Politkovskaya and tycoon Boris Berezovsky are circumstantially based. While future information may substantiate these claims, the burden of proof has not been overcome.

This is not the case with the Nemtsov assassination. On top of the already suspicious timing of the death, one of the first suspects arrested in connection with the shooting confessed to his involvement, then retracted his confession, saying it had been forced from him. Even by generous standards of proof, it is likely that Nemtsov was assassinated to further the aims of the Putin administration.

I am reminded of George Orwell’s statement in “Politics and the English Language,” that “some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism … cannot say outright ‘I believe in killing off your opponents if you can get good results by doing so,’” before suggesting that apologists for such behavior prefer to deflect attention from the matter with meaningless euphemisms. Simply put, I don’t want to be that guy. I’ve cut Putin slack before, but the benefits he’s brought the Russian people are now outweighed by the detriments.

I’m disappointed. After the mess that was the Yeltsin administration and its economic ruin, Putin was supposed to be a fresh face for the New Russia. And for a while, he was. The economy rebounded, the country regained the territory of Chechnya and the Iron Curtain began to lift. But the last few years of free speech restrictions and international grandstanding have heralded a reversal. Though the country hasn’t gone full Soviet yet, it’s on its way.

The truly bizarre part of this trend is that Putin didn’t need to do any of it. His approval ratings have been far higher than what a Western politician would need to sustain incumbency — 54 percent at its lowest point between 2012 and 2013, according to Gallup. Now it’s nearly at 83 percent, with Russian citizens rallying around the flag as NATO tries to complete its chokehold (a strategy which is doomed to fail against Putin, a judo black belt). He shouldn’t need to cheat elections or suppress free speech, and yet he does. Out of habit? Who can say?

While it in no way excuses his behavior, some of Putin’s more baffling maneuvers might be better understood in light of his treatment by the American government. We opted to regard the Russian Federation merely as a new enemy, instead of a defeated adversary to be nurtured into democracy. We’ve even spurned the Kremlin’s offers of aid, and it has cost us in blood. In 2011, the Russian Federal Security Service warned that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, eventual architect of the Boston Marathon bombing, was preparing to join a clandestine extremist group. They were ignored, and the result was tragedy. Who can blame Putin for so professionally acting the villain, when that’s the only script we’ll listen to him read?

The good news is that there’s hope. Putin may yet realize the destruction he’s heaped upon himself and his constituents, and pledge to “sin no more.” It will, of course, take a lot to balance the Nemtsov assassination, but if Putin can put such methods behind him permanently, he might one day regain my respect as a force for good in Russia and globally. My fingers are crossed.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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