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Friday, April 12, 2024

Crime and (no) punishment

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Larry Smith

Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day 1991. Soon thereafter, the Soviet Parliament dissolved itself. Those events had a profound and lasting effect on a young KGB officer named Vladimir Putin. Putin’s hurt and embarrassment has never dissipated, either in his head or in his heart. This blow to his pride would be utterly irrelevant were it not for the fact that he is now a megalomaniacal, homicidal would-be despot who presides over a vast nuclear arsenal.

Putin’s dream is to reconstitute the Russian Empire (which, incidentally, is different from the Soviet Empire). In his eyes that is the only way to restore the honor, respect, and fear that he believes Russia is due. Those who cross Putin must be dealt with decisively, especially if they are Russian. That certainly was this case with his long-term nemesis, Alexsei Navalny. To Putin, Navalny was not so much a person to be thwarted as he was an obstacle to be annihilated.   

The charismatic Navalny died last week under very questionable circumstances in a remote Russian prison. (The murder is so brazen, and the surrounding secrecy so cliché, it would be rejected as a plot in a John le Carré novel.) A relentless crusader against government corruption, Navalny repeatedly put himself in harm’s way. He was fully aware of the potential consequences of his actions, yet he continued to speak the truth. Due to his unjust incarceration, Amnesty International declared him to be a prisoner of conscience.

In much the same way that Putin murdered Navalny more or less in the open, he continues to threaten his neighbors. Some people buy his argument that he merely wants to take back what he believes are Russian “possessions”, then he’ll stop. However, it’s facile to look at, for example, his invasion of Crimea and Ukraine and conclude that he’s satisfied. If the world makes a “peace in our time” declaration à la Neville Chamberlain, we will be fighting World War III.

President Joe Biden has strongly condemned Mr. Navalny’s presumed murder, directly blaming Putin. (This is an example of why Putin obviously lied when he told a fawning Tucker Carlson that he preferred Biden to be re-elected as opposed to Former President Donald Trump.) Biden has promised substantial additional sanctions on Russia. Unfortunately, such actions almost assuredly will not have a deterrent effect.

For this part, Mr. Trump has continued acting more like an apparatchik than a former leader of the free world. Trump is a man whose mendacity is surpassed only by his victim mentality. Thus, he and his allies are painting him as a Nalvany-in-waiting, someone who is being persecuted (not to mention prosecuted) by a rogue government. The reality is that, for all his blather about an imaginary “Deep State”, Trump is the de facto leader of a “Shallow Shadow State” – one that acts at Vladimir Putin’s behest.

Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has suggested that Putin either has some damaging information on Trump, has him in a financial bind, or has something “on the come” – which is to say that Putin has promised Trump some future prize in exchange for his sycophancy. (Russians call this “kompromat”.) At this point, I am astounded that anyone could disagree with Pelosi’s assessment.  

As a wave of authoritarianism is rising across the world, I am reminded of words from Winston Churchill, uttered in 1947:

Many forms of Government have been tried – and will be tried – in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”

Nearly 80 years later, after having shunned the lessons of the past, more and more Americans are embracing authoritarianism. That, in combination with a creeping isolationism, would lead to a calamitous future. Still, there is reason for optimism. Horrified by Mr. Navalny’s death, a bipartisan group in Congress recently crafted a compromise that could finally result in additional American military aid to Ukraine. Such support would come at a crucial time in that war.

Sadly, violence is the only thing that Vladimir Putin truly understands and respects. I’m hopeful that our government can muster the moral courage to speak to him in his preferred language.

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