MOSCOW — The decline of American exceptionalism couldn’t come soon enough for the Kremlin. For more than a decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has bristled at nagging U.S. statements of alarm and concern, or the imposition of sanctions, whenever protests are dispersed or an opposition figure turns up dead.
To Putin, American exceptionalism boils down to the United States giving itself the right to criticize Russia on moral grounds and throw its weight around in other countries’ sovereign affairs.
Change may be coming under the Trump administration. The State Department and the White House have been silent this week on two events: the latest sentencing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny for embezzlement, likely ending his 2018 bid for president, and the mysterious, life-threatening illness of Vladimir Kara-Murza, another opposition figure, who, his family believes, has been poisoned twice since 2015.
And then there were the remarks by President Trump this week when conservative television host Bill O’Reilly labeled Putin is “a killer.”
“There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump replied.
Putin’s personal spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, demanded an apology from Fox, an unusual move by the Kremlin that he later toned down. Russian officials have said they are worried that the Republican establishment will seek to drive a wedge between Putin and Trump and questioned whether the American leader would be able to withstand pressure from his own party and establish a friendlier relationship with Putin.
When the pushback came, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell retreated to slightly safer ground, opting to call Putin “a thug,” a word used liberally during the Republican primary debates and also used in reports to characterize the Obama administration’s view of Putin. Critics of Trump, such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), also sounded off, declaring that the United States and Russia were not morally equivalent.
When has a Democratic political activists been poisoned by the GOP, or vice versa? We are not the same as #Putin. MR
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 5, 2017
In calling Putin “a killer,” O’Reilly was likely referring to the murders of political opponents — including that of former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, gunned down two years ago near the walls of the Kremlin — that remain half-solved at best. Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who wrote piercingly about the violence in Chechnya, was assassinated in her elevator in 2006. Natalya Estemirova, a human rights worker who regularly collaborated with journalists, was abducted in Chechnya and killed in 2009.
There are other cases, too, such as the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB agent who fled to London and died of radiation poisoning there in 2006.
For some, images of the authorities papering over the deaths of antigovernment activists, and the callous treatment of their memories, indicate guilt.
“Is this possible in a country where the authorities have not killed their own opponents?” wrote Viktor Kogan, a volunteer at a makeshift memorial to Nemtsov, re-posting a viral video of city workers manically throwing trinkets, portraits and flowers into the back of a truck, while others attacked those filming.
At least publicly, there is not ironclad proof that Putin stands behind these murders. Trials in the cases of Nemtsov, which is ongoing, and Politkovskaya fingered the alleged triggermen and their accomplices. But the persons who ordered the killings — the “zakazchiki” — remain at large. In Estemirova’s case, no suspects were brought to trial.
A British inquiry into the death of Litvinenko ended with Sir Robert Owen, a former judge, declaring that Putin “probably approved” the murder.
Critics in Russia say that, at the least, the Kremlin is responsible for creating a culture of political violence that goes unpunished, where engaging in unsanctioned opposition politics is equivalent to forfeiting one’s right to justice.
“I personally don’t think that Putin himself ordered the murder of Politkovskaya, Nemtsov or even Litvinenko,” said Oleg Kashin, a Russian journalist who was nearly beaten to death in an attack in 2010 that he has blamed on a conflict with a regional governor. Then-President Dmitry Medvedev promised that the case would be solved, but it never was. “But I am sure that he knows who killed them and is covering for them, making him at the least an accomplice.”
The logic is as follows: Even if the Kremlin did not order the killings, who would carry them out without prior approval? Or avoid justice without Kremlin consent afterward?
Putin is “definitely politically responsible for this climate of intimidation, and murders actually happen in Russia because people aren’t punished because he doesn’t address it as a problem,” said Mikhail Fishman, a Russian television journalist who is also the editor in chief of the Moscow Times.
Earlier this week, Fishman premiered a film about Nemtsov that will be shown in several cities in Russia, one that he said was intentionally produced to celebrate Nemtsov’s life in politics rather than investigate his murder.
But with regard to the killing, he said, the evidence clearly leads to those with ties to Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin-appointed leader of Chechnya, who wields a mandate to use all means necessary to keep that republic calm.
“The state and us, journalists, society, know very well who did what,” Fishman said. “Especially when it comes to the murders connected to Chechnya.”