The Kremlin has an old habit of using the Christmas holidays to bury bad news. Moves that would normally get worldwide attention — such as arresting opposition leader Boris Nemtsov or sentencing prominent regime critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky — were purposefully pushed to the last days of December, when most Western parliamentarians, diplomats and media figures are offline and out of reach and public attention is focused elsewhere.
This past holiday season showcased that tradition once again, except that this time, Vladimir Putin’s regime broke its own record, squeezing months’ worth of repression into a single week.
Two of Russia’s most respected human rights groups — Memorial International, which documents atrocities committed by the Soviet regime, and the Memorial Human Rights Center, which chronicles present-day repression — were shut down at the request of Putin’s prosecutor general. One high-profile political prisoner, Yuri Dmitriev, had his sentence extended from 13 to 15 years; another, Andrei Pivovarov, was denied his appeal to move his hearing from a remote (and journalist-free) location. A prominent opposition lawmaker in Siberia associated with jailed Putin rival Alexei Navalny was indicted on an “extremism” charge that could get her 12 years in prison. The justice ministry issued its latest batch of “foreign agent” designations, slapping the label on a new group of pro-democracy figures, including Russia’s best-known satirical writer, Viktor Shenderovich. Meanwhile, a senior lawmaker from Putin’s party suggested that it is time to start stripping Kremlin opponents of Russian citizenship — as was done to dissidents in the Soviet Union.
And all this in just five days leading up to New Year’s Eve.
If the speed and intensity of Putin’s new wave of repression are surprising, the trajectory is not. As history shows, systems such as Putin’s will continue down the ever-accelerating spiral of internal repression and external aggression until — and unless — they encounter resistance.
That the Kremlin does not (for now) meet organized resistance from its own citizens is hardly surprising given Putin’s two-decade war on Russian society — a war that has included annihilation of independent media and competitive elections, state-driven murders and large-scale political imprisonment, and a brutal crackdown on civic activism and public demonstrations. One day, when the demand for change in Russian society reaches a critical point, none of these barriers will be able to stem the tide. Putin’s falling approval numbers and Russians’ growing fatigue with his geopolitical gambles show the trend clearly, but we are not there yet. As the unfolding events in Kazakhstan demonstrate, political upheavals can begin suddenly.
What is more surprising — indeed, shocking — is the willingness of Western democracies to act as accomplices to Putin, providing him not only with much-needed international acceptance but also with a lifeline in the form of access to Western financial systems — a lifeline the Kremlin uses to challenge the West’s own interests.
Unlike other dictatorships that are shunned by the free world — such as Nicolás Maduro’s in Venezuela or Alexander Lukashenko’s in Belarus — Putin’s kleptocracy is intimately integrated into the global system. His close confidants hold some of the most prized Western real estate, own top English football clubs and get passports from NATO countries. Private Russian assets stashed abroad are estimated to exceed $1 trillion, with much of this wealth likely linked to Putin himself. Inexplicably, the Biden administration has failed to make a single Russia-related designation under the Magnitsky Act, a law intended to seek accountability for human rights abuses by Putin’s officials.
A less-known but perhaps more poignant example was given by Dmitry Muratov, the crusading Russian newspaper editor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, at last month’s award ceremony in Oslo. Facing a room of Western dignitaries and diplomats, he reminded them that, formally speaking, Navalny was imprisoned by the Kremlin on the basis of a complaint by a French cosmetics company. Yet another small element of Western complicity in Putin’s crimes.
Now, as U.S. and NATO leaders prepare for next week’s talks with Kremlin officials over Putin’s proposed Yalta-style security arrangement in Europe, we hear familiar Western arguments for yet more appeasement. They range from outlandish suggestions to expel the Baltic countries from NATO to the much more troubling call by the German chancellor for a “new start” in relations with Putin.
We know how appeasement ends. The 20th century has provided ample illustration of that, and without exception. Thankfully, there are still voices in Western politics willing to stand on principle — as, for example, the authors of a recent congressional proposal to withdraw U.S. recognition of Putin if he illegally extends his rule beyond 2024. That initiative sent shockwaves through official Moscow.
Vladimir Bukovsky, the famed Russian dissident of the communist era, once noted that too many Western politicians put their desire to fry bacon on Soviet gas above their self-professed values. Fortunately for Bukovsky’s generation, not everyone did. One can only hope that there are still enough leaders in the free world today who are willing to put principle over bacon.