The Magazine

Putin Gets Away with Murder

It's time to confront the Russian leader.

Oct 23, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 06 • By ANDERS ASLUND
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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 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 has waned.

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 U.S. air base, and now it is encouraging Kyrgyzstan to do the same.

Meanwhile, state-controlled Russian media spew out nationalist and anti-Western 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 E.U., 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 eleven 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 anti-Western 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. What ever 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 ideol ogy, and Russia remains a market economy.

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 in terviews, he marvels at his own skillful repression of dissidents.

Putin talks about dem ocracy 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 par liamentary 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 century."

Yeltsin believed in private enterprise. He has been criticized for privatizing the Russian economy in the only way that was possible, rather than leaving a larger share in the hands of the state. Putin is currently undertaking the greatest re-nationalization 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 E.U. in ever more 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.