Obama and Putin
The scope and intensity of the neo-Soviet crackdown now underway in Vladimir Putin's Russia is truly breathtaking to behold, even for those of us who saw it coming. But even more terrifying is the craven, dishonorable response to that crackdown by the President of the United States.
Let's start in the Duma, Russia's answer to the U.S. House of Representatives. Within the last two weeks, two of the leading figures opposing the Putin regime in the legislature have been politically liquidated. First, deputy Gennady Gudkov was actually thrown out of the body; then his colleague Ilya Ponomarev was banned from speaking in it. Both are members of the "Just Russia" party, the only group in the legislature willing to tweak Putin from time to time. Gudkov was accused of criminal activity without even having been arrested, much less convicted, and Ponomarev was accused of calling Putin's party United Russia a "party of swindlers and thieves" from the Duma floor.
For Putin's United Russia to silence Ponomarev is like Obama's Democrats silencing Paul Ryan. Ponomarev has that kind of profile in Russia, and Putin's move is that heedlessly bold. Meeting a group of foreign ambassadors to receive their credentials recently, Putin told them: "Attempts to replace the universal principles of the U.N. Charter by unilateral actions or partisan deals, moreover to use force bypassing the U.N. do not do any good, as is well known." This statement, made in defense of the murderous regime in Syria and ignoring the fact that in attacking Georgia in 2008, Putin acted as unilaterally and as heedless of the U.N. as he possibly could have, rivals the most deranged pronouncements of the Politburo in Soviet times. Putin simply does not care about consequences, because for him, as for the Politburo, there are none.
Now for the Russian White House, where the prime minister works. That would be Dmitri Medvedev, the so-called liberal future of Russia as anointed by Obama during a cheeseburger lunch in D.C, a while back. Medvedev is about to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. In one of the epic humiliations of an office-holder in world history, Putin announced that he doesn't think Medvedev's alterations to Russia's daylight savings time scheme were smart, and he's scrapping them -- literally turning back the clock on reform. One by one, Putin has shot down each of the so-called reform measures adopted by Medvedev during his term in office -- measures which were in fact only lip service to democracy, not serious moves to achieve it.
Let's jump to the internet. The latest report by Freedom House reveals that Putin's crackdown on the Runet places Russia in the ranks of such rogue states as Azerbaijan, Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka as places where internet freedom is most in jeopardy. For years now, the standard canard offered by Putin's apologists has been that it didn't matter much if Putin seized control of television and newspapers as in Soviet times, because the freedom of the internet would counterbalance any such losses, and Putin could not rein it in. But Freedom House details chapter and verse (see pages 408-421 of its report) how Putin is doing exactly that, and there is no significant opposition seeking to block him.
Now, how about a visit to church? Moscow Times editorial page editor Michael Bohm says that from a religions perspective, Russia is the new Iran. It's a topic I covered myself a few weeks ago on these pages. Bohm points out that Putin is now about to adopt a criminal law providing a brutal three-year prison sentence for anyone who "insults the religious feelings of others." As a practical matter, such a vague statute can be imposed on anyone, at any time, and it gives the Orthodox Church a terrifying new level of power that seems little different from the oppressive mechanisms that operated in Soviet times.
Foreign policy? As noted above, Putin continues to aggressively support the enemies of democracy all around the world (from Venezuela, recently given a puppy, to Belarus, whose elections Putin just pronounced "free and fair"). And he is confronting the U.S. even more directly: Putin recently announced that he was booting USAID, the primary instrument of American influence in Russia, out of the country. Obama's response? He went Putin one better and shut down Radio Liberty, the literal voice of America in Russia, depriving tens of thousands of listeners in Moscow alone of access to some vague hint of truth. Russia's democracy advocates were utterly shocked, and they decried Obama's policy of appeasement as a betrayal of fundamental American values, to say nothing of their trust.
And then Obama went still farther. Via Hillary Clinton, he promised Putin to continue to work ardently to remove any economic sanctions from the West based on Russia's human rights record, and to block any future efforts to impose such measures.
Faced with all this largesse from the Obama administration despite his worst excesses, it's little wonder that Putin has openly endorsed Obama's re-election and vilified Mitt Romney. Putin sees in Obama not just someone who is weak and incompetent as a figure on the world stage, not just as someone who cares nothing about basic American values, but as someone who admires Putin's authoritarian ability to enact whatever policies he sees fit and who is willing to help all he can. Indeed, Putin often pays allegiance to Franklin Roosevelt, an American would-be Brezhnev who built concentration camps, packed the Supreme Court, and ruled indefinitely, leaving office only in a coffin. Undoubtedly, FDR is one of Obama's heroes, too.
If Putin and Obama remain in office for another four years, the world could see Russia descend into the same sort of bleak darkness that envelopes Belarus, except of course that Belarus does not wield a U.N. Security Council veto, hold a seat on the G-8, or have an arsenal of ICBMs. This could leave the U.S. to face a whole new era of Cold-War terror, not to mention the permanent loss of credibility as a the great beacon of hope for those who struggle to advance American values in Russia.