Deputy Editorial Page Editor

At the heart of the crisis in Ukraine lies a simple truth about Vladi­mir Putin. Who better to say it than Nadya Tolokonnikova, who before turning 25 has experienced Russian prison, whippings by Cossacks, Western celebrity — and of course life in the punk protest group Pussy Riot, of which she is a founder.

Putin, Tolokonnikova said, “is using foreign policy to solve problems inside Russia.”

Yes, the Kremlin strongman would like to prevent Ukraine from integrating with the European Union, and to bite off as much of it as possible for his would-be Eurasian Union, a kind of Soviet Union lite. But ultimately Putin is acting defensively. He knows that if Ukraine’s democracy movement succeeds and the country prospers, it will become a model for Russia and his own autocracy will be doomed.

“Putin is trying in Ukraine to set an example for Russia — to show that the result of a political change is a state of chaos,” said Tolokonnikova. “The main thing he is worried about is that what happened in Ukraine” — where mass protests forced Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country — “will happen in Russia.”

Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, who spent 21 months in prison for taunting Putin in a Pussy Riot stunt, were in Washington last week to underline that point and the equally simple conclusion it leads to: One of the best ways for the West to answer Putin’s aggression in Ukraine is to support his democratic opposition inside Russia.

That is not so easy to do, precisely because of Putin’s paranoia. Since returning to the presidency two years ago, he has expelled U.S. aid programs, forced Russian groups that receive Western funding to register as foreign agents, stopped broadcasts by U.S.-funded Radio Liberty and demonized U.S. democracy promotion as a CIA plot. A domestic crackdown, meanwhile, has sent several leaders of the Russian opposition into prison or exile and all but eliminated independent media.

Ukraine has made it all worse. “The government’s hands are untied,” said Alyokhina. “The attitude is that with the spotlight on foreign policy, they can do whatever they want at home.” As the two women travel Russia to promote the prisoner’s rights organization they created after leaving prison last December, they have been repeatedly attacked and beaten by state security thugs.

There is, however, a readily available means by which the United States can defend Russia’s dissidents — one that the Obama administration has inexplicably shunned. A law passed by Congress in 2012, known as the Magnitsky Act, mandates sanctions against Russian officials who are implicated in human rights violations. After resisting passage of the bill, the administration applied a visa ban and asset freeze to a small number of officials last year. But in December, the White House set aside a second list of up to 20 of Putin’s enforcers that had been prepared by the State and Treasury departments.

Congress was told at the time that the administration didn’t want to provoke Putin just before U.S. athletes headed to Sochi for the Winter Olympics. But with the Olympics long over and Ukraine under attack, Obama still keeps the human rights list on ice. That timidity has provoked senators from both parties, including Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, who sponsored the Magnitsky Act. Cardin and three other senators, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and ranking Republican Bob Corker (Tenn.), used a Magnitsky Act provision to petition the administration to add two Russian officials to the sanctions list. The administration is required by the law to respond by next Monday.

Tolonnikova and Alyokhina came to Washington to lobby for a positive response. They appeared with Cardin at a Capitol Hill news conference and touted their own list of suspecsts suitable for sanctions. Many are connected to the suppression two years ago last week of the “Bolotnaya protest,” an opposition march in Moscow on the eve of Putin’s presidential inauguration that was attacked by security forces; eight protestors were subsequently sentenced to prison terms. One Pussy Riot sanctions target is also on the senators’ list, as well as the State--Treasury list frozen by the White House: Alexander Bastrykin, Putin’s head prosecutor.

Would sanctions on these police, prosecutors and judges have any impact? The Pussy Rioters think so. Bastrykin, they point out, has property in the Czech Republic. “Why shouldn’t he be forced to take his vacations in Crimea instead of Prague?” asked Alyokhina. Putin himself demonstrated his sensitivity to Western pressure by releasing a number of political prisoners before the Sochi games, including these young hipsters.

They do look the part; but there’s a lot of quiet courage behind Alyokhina’s outsize blue glasses and Tolonnikova’s green-and-red painted nails. Asked if they planned to return to Moscow after their latest anti-Putin tour, they simply shrugged. “Of course,” said Alyokhina. “That’s where we live.”

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