Why Putin Is Not Okay

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by Sergio Galeano, Researcher
Tyler Roylance, Staff Editor

russian soldiers crimea

Heavily-armed soldiers without identifying insignia guard the Crimean parliament building after taking up positions there earlier in the day on March 1, 2014 in Simferopol, Ukraine. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

 

A few reminders of the Russian dictator’s track record as President Trump heads to his summit in Finland.

Last week, U.S. president Donald Trump gave his assessment of Russian president Vladimir Putin, with whom he will be meeting on July 16: “Putin’s fine.”

Listed below is a small sampling of reasons to think otherwise.

 

Assassinations

The Kremlin has been accused of a series of murders abroad. But since Putin first took office as president in 2000, Russia itself has been the scene of numerous assassinations targeting dissidents, reporters, human rights activists, and opposition politicians. The death toll among journalists alone reached 28 last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Here are some of the lowlights of this legacy.

  • Igor Domnikov, journalist, July 16, 2000
  • Eduard Markevich, journalist, September 18, 2001
  • Valeriy Ivanov, journalist, April 29, 2002
  • Sergey Yushenkov, opposition politician, April 17, 2003
  • Aleksey Sidorov, journalist, October 9, 2003
  • Paul Klebnikov, U.S. journalist, July 9, 2004
  • Anna Politkovskaya, journalist, October 7, 2006
  • Magomed Yevloyev, journalist, August 31, 2008
  • Stanislav Markelov, human rights lawyer, January 19, 2009
  • Anastasiya Baburova, journalist, January 19, 2009
  • Natalya Estemirova, human rights activist, July 15, 2009
  • Sergey Magnitsky, anticorruption lawyer, November 16, 2009
  • Gadzhimurad Kamalov, journalist, December 15, 2011
  • Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev, journalist, July 9, 2013
  • Boris Nemtsov, opposition politician, February 27, 2015
  • Nikolay Andrushchenko, journalist, April 19, 2017
  • Dmitriy Popkov, journalist, May 24, 2017

 

Political prisoners

Last month, the Russian human rights organization Memorial published a list of 50 current political prisoners and 108 prisoners held for their religious beliefs. The latter figure is expected to grow as authorities crack down on banned minority groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many more political and religious prisoners have been incarcerated over the course of Putin’s reign. Below are a few of the more high-profile cases.

  • Aleksey Pichugin (June 19, 2003 – present): Pichugin, a former security official at the Yukos oil company, was arrested in connection with the government’s campaign to jail and seize the assets of billionaire and opposition supporter Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He was sentenced to life in prison on murder charges after a deeply flawed trial. Khodorkovsky himself left the country in 2013 after serving 10 years behind bars for supposed fraud and tax evasion, and his business partner Platon Lebedev was released a year later.
  • Yaroslav Belousov (May 28, 2012 – September 8, 2014): Belousov, a political science student and member of a national democratic movement, was taken into custody after participating in a May 2012 protest against Putin’s inauguration for a third term as president. Having spent more than 20 months in pretrial detention, he was ultimately sentenced to 27 months in prison and released shortly thereafter. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in his favor in 2016, but the Russian Supreme Court rejected the decision. Belousov was just one of hundreds of people to face arrest for the protest, dozens of whom were charged and prosecuted. For example, well-known opposition activist Sergey Udaltsov spent more than three years in prison on charges of organizing “mass disorder.”
  • Pussy Riot (August 18, 2012 – December 23, 2013): Three members of the feminist protest band Pussy Riot—Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova—were sentenced to two years in prison for recording an anti-Putin video in an Orthodox Church. While Samutsevich was released on appeal shortly after her conviction, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were freed in December 2013 as part of a larger amnesty.
  • Zarema Bagavutdinova (July 4, 2013 – July 3, 2018): Bagavutdinova, a human rights activist in Dagestan, was recently released after serving five years in prison for supposedly aiding terrorist groups. Among other activities that angered authorities, she had made comments to the media that were critical of the security services.
  • Oleg Sentsov (May 10, 2014 – present): Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker, was detained along with activist Oleksandr Kolchenko in Russian-occupied Crimea and accused of plotting terrorist acts. They were sentenced in Russia to 20 and 10 years in prison, respectively, after a proceeding that included testimony allegedly extracted under torture. Since May 16, 2018, Sentsov has been on a hunger strike, demanding the release of all Ukrainians detained in Crimea and Russia.
  • Oleg Navalny (December 30, 2014 – June 29, 2018): Navalny was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on what were widely seen as spurious fraud charges designed to intimidate his brother, prominent opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, who was also convicted but received a suspended sentence. Aleksey Navalny has been arrested many times over the years and was disqualified from challenging Putin in this year’s presidential election, but he has never faced a lengthy prison term, presumably because such a move would invite greater domestic and international criticism.
  • Oyub Titiyev (January 9, 2018 – present): Titiyev, a leading human rights defender in Chechnya, was arrested on dubious charges of marijuana possession. He has remained in custody while awaiting trial and faces up to 10 years in prison. Since his arrest, his organization’s office in neighboring Ingushetia has been burned down, his colleagues have been assaulted or threatened, and his family was forced to leave the country.

 

Foreign invasions and frozen conflicts

Under Putin, Moscow has supported separatist movements, threatened several neighbors with aggressive military maneuvers, and actually invaded Georgia and Ukraine, where fighting continues to date.

  • Moldova: Putin has resisted demands to withdraw Russian troops from Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, using his control over the separatist regime to help keep Moldova out of NATO and the European Union.
  • Georgia: Russia long supported separatist authorities in Georgia’s breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but in August 2008 Russian troops invaded Georgia to thwart what it called a Georgian attack on South Ossetia. Moscow subsequently recognized the territories’ claims of independence and maintains a large military presence in both.
  • Crimea, Ukraine: Putin dispatched Russian special forces to Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in February 2014, after protesters in Kyiv forced the downfall of corrupt Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin client. After seizing control of the region by force, occupation authorities rigged a referendum to facilitate formal annexation by Russia, which the international community has refused to recognize.
  • Donbas, Ukraine: In March 2014, Russian-backed separatist activity in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine escalated into an armed conflict between Ukrainian forces and a motley collection of pro-Russian separatists supported by regular Russian troops and equipment. Despite international attempts to broker peace, the area has remained an active war zone, leading to atrocities including the July 2014 destruction of a passing Malaysian airliner by a Russian missile system.

 

Client dictators

Putin has shown his disdain for democracy and U.S. interests in part by supporting authoritarian regimes that have clashed with Washington on security and human rights matters. These are among the most noteworthy examples.

  • Syria: Putin has provided Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad with extensive military and diplomatic support throughout his regime’s seven-year civil war against an array of different rebel groups. This help has often entailed heavy and indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and assistance with the cover-up of chemical attacks on civilians.
  • Venezuela: Russia has propped up Venezuela’s authoritarian regime through billions of dollars in loans and weapons sales. Far from abandoning President Nicolás Maduro as he drives his once-wealthy country deeper into a humanitarian crisis, Moscow has increased its engagement, using the opportunity to acquire valuable energy assets.
  • Iran: Putin’s government has provided both military and diplomatic support to the Iranian regime, whose forces also protect Assad’s rule in Syria. Besides facilitating crucial arms sales to Tehran, Moscow has vetoed resolutions initiated against Iran at the United Nations and moved to exploit the rift between Iran and the United States over the 2015 nuclear agreement.
  • North Korea: Russia under Putin has resisted U.S.-led efforts to pressure the North Korean regime through sanctions and even pursued new trade opportunities, including an energy pipeline that would reduce the North’s dependence on China.
  • Nicaragua: Since Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega returned to the presidency in 2006, Russia has been increasing its influence in Nicaragua through a combination of weapons sales—including battle tanks—and civilian goods. It has also constructed a suspected intelligence facility in the country. According to one report, from 2011 to 2015 Nicaragua was the fourth largest recipient of Russian foreign aid, not including military support.

 

Support for European nationalist parties

As part of his long-term effort to fracture European unity and the NATO alliance, Putin’s government has used disinformation and other tactics to polarize European voters. While much of this activity is covert, Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, has openly signed cooperation agreements with far-right nationalist parties and other factions seen as sympathetic to Russia or the Soviet legacy.

  • Austria: Freedom Party (in government)
  • Italy: Lega (in government)
  • Serbia: Serbian People’s Party (in government), Dveri, and Democratic Party of Serbia
  • Montenegro: Socialist People’s Party, New Serbian Democracy, and Democratic People’s Party
  • Moldova: Moldovan Socialists’ Party (holds presidency)
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina: Alliance of Independent Social-Democrats (in Republika Srpska government)
  • Bulgaria: Bulgarian Socialist Party, Alternative for Bulgarian Revival

 

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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