President Biden said, “I do” last week when asked if he believed
is a “killer”. This is a first step in an open fight against Russian crimes that would protect Russians threatened by repression and also strengthen American security.
The US government has long hesitated to draw attention to Russian crimes. In a February 2017 interview on Fox News, President Trump responded to the statement that Putin was a murderer by suggesting that American leaders were no better. “There are many murderers, we have many murderers,” he said. “You think our country is so innocent?”
Mr Trump has been widely condemned. However, the willingness of US officials to ignore Russian crimes was non-partisan. When President Boris Yeltsin attacked Parliament with tanks in October 1993, Foreign Secretary Warren Christopher congratulated him on his victory. Despite Putin’s alleged attachment to organized crime, President Bush said in 2001 that he “looked the man in the eye” and “got a feel for his soul”. In July 2009, President Obama described Putin as “sincere, just and deeply interested in the interests of the Russian people” despite the polonium poisoning of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. An official British investigation found that Putin was likely personally responsible for its poisoning.
With regard to Russia, American leaders are to some extent superficial for fear of what a serious effort to learn the truth might find. But the United States, as the guarantor of world stability, has a duty to keep itself fully informed about the crimes committed by Russian leaders. Russia is run by around 100 people who control 35% of the country’s assets. With free rein, there are few limits to the action they can take against the outside world.
In three cases in particular, the US should make every effort to understand and detect Russian crimes.
First, we need the truth about February 27, 2015, when Boris Nemtsov, Russia’s main democratic leader, was killed, who was shot on the Bolshoi-Moskvoretsky Bridge next to the Kremlin. The official story was that Zaur Dadaev, a former officer in the Russian armed forces based in Chechnya with no ties to Nemtsov, shot him six times. Four other defendants are believed to have been involved in the crime. The regime has zealously promoted this version and the US has tacitly accepted it.
However, the Parliamentary Assembly of Europe cited evidence that Nemtsov was the victim of an operation conducted by the regime – including the presence on the bridge of suspects who were never interviewed, the disappearance of films from all nearby surveillance cameras, and eavesdropping on Nemtsov, who could only be carried out by a secret service. Andrei Illarionov, a Russian economist, released evidence that Nemtsov was shot from two different guns, not one as claimed in court, and a videotape confirmed that Mr Dadaev was not on the bridge when Nemtsov was killed.
For many Russians, Nemstov is a hero; The place where he was killed has become a place of pilgrimage. But it was also important to the United States. He was one of only two Putin opponents who were able to conjure a crowd. The other is Alexei Navalny, who was recently jailed after being poisoned. However, unlike Navalny, Nemtsov was an opponent of nationalism and Russian aggression against Ukraine. The US owes every effort to the Russian Democrats to identify those responsible for his death.
We also need the truth about the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014, which killed 298 passengers and crew. The Putin regime made disinformation efforts after the plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine to create the impression that it was accidentally destroyed by separatists. But evidence points to Russia.
A Dutch criminal court found that the Buk-M1 missile that hit MH17 was brought to Ukraine by the 53rd Russian anti-aircraft missile brigade. According to a report on Radio Liberty, the battery was accompanied by Russian intelligence officers. In an interview with the Times of London in May 2020, separatist leader Igor Girkin denied any involvement. When asked if he was blaming Russia, Mr Girkin said, “People can interpret this however they want.”
What is particularly daunting about the destruction of MH17 is that it appears to be part of a political strategy. Mr Putin called Mr Obama immediately after the plane was shot down, citing the danger to civilian planes, calling for an end to the Ukrainian offensive which was rapidly advancing into separatist-held areas. In the next 10 days, he phoned Western leaders 24 times to accomplish the same goal.
Finally, we need the truth about the apartment bombings in September 1999 that resulted in a new invasion of Chechnya and brought Putin to power. More than 300 people were killed in the explosions in four buildings. Shortly thereafter, three Federal Security Service (FSB) agents were caught planting a fifth bomb in the basement of a building in Ryazan. The bomb, which was disarmed before it could explode, tested positive for hexogen, the explosive used in the four explosions. Other evidence that has accumulated over the years also points to the FSB.
The US never raised the question of why FSB agents were caught planting a bomb in the basement of an apartment building. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declined to answer questions about the bombings by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, simply saying that “acts of terrorism have no place in a democratic society”. Russia blamed the Chechen rebels for the bombings. From now on, unless the truth is established, terror can become the way power changes hands in Russia.
Many Russian critics focus on corruption, which is easy to understand. However, the greater danger that the Putin regime poses to the world is a mentality that treats murder as a normal part of political life. The concept of the human being as completely dispensable emerged under socialism with its abolition of private property and the transformation of the individual into the property of the state. This idea is ingrained in the minds of Russian leaders.
Russia has responded to Mr Biden’s comment by threatening an “irreversible deterioration in relations”. The road to better relations, however, is when Russian leaders realize that the rest of the world is determined to limit their crimes. The president must reverse decades of US political practice and respond to his recognition of Putin’s role. If he doesn’t, the next crime by the Russian ruler is only a matter of time.
Mr. Satter is the author of Never Talk to Strangers and Other Writings from Russia and the Soviet Union and an advisor to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
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