The writer is senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute.
The Russian KGB, known today as the FSB, has come to Washington.The organization’s director, Alexander Bortnikov, is leading the Russian delegation to President Obama’s “Countering Violent Extremism” summit this week. The optics of this — having the head of the successor agency to the Soviet KGB in Washington as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine and conducts a nasty crackdown on human rights at home — are terrible.
Bortnikov is not on the U.S. sanctions list that denies dozens of Russians entry to the United States either because of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine or because of the 2012 human rights legislation known as the Magnitsky Act. His name does appear, however, on the Ukraine-related sanctions lists adopted by the European Union and Canada.
Bortnikov should long ago have been included on the Magnitsky sanctions list dealing with human rights abuses as well as the Ukraine-related list. The FSB leads Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to eliminate his political opposition, stifle civil society and independent media and perpetuate the myth that the West, and the United States in particular, are a threat to Russia. It is actively involved in the propaganda effort in which the Kremlin spreads lies and misinformation to its audiences via RT (formerly Russia Today) and the Sputnik news agency. Its special forces are heavily involved in Ukraine.
Bortnikov is believed to be one of Putin’s closest and most hawkish advisers on Ukraine and other matters. The Obama administration’s decision not to place him on the U.S. sanctions list allowed Putin to select him to represent Russia at this week’s summit.
U.S. officials arguably did not have the ability to tell Putin to designate someone else to lead the delegation to the summit. But they could have rescinded Moscow’s invitation to participate when it became clear that, instead of taking the summit seriously, Putin would use it to stick a finger in the administration’s eye. Moreover, Russia’s gross human rights abuses in the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus over the past two decades, in which the FSB has played a major role, most notably in two wars with Chechnya, have contributed to the extremism problem the world faces today. Having Bortnikov attend the summit is like inviting the fox into the chicken coop.
Making U.S.-Russian relations even worse, Putin claimed this week that the United States is supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons. “According to our information, these weapons are already being delivered,” Putin said during a news conference in Budapest on Tuesday, when asked whether a shipment of lethal hardware from Washington to Kiev would worsen the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s claim is completely untrue (it’s not the first time the Russian leader has lied about the crisis — recall his denial of Russian involvement in Crimea a year ago). Unfortunately, Obama has not given the go-ahead on providing defensive military assistance to Ukraine, and there is no covert operation underway either, according to government sources. This has been Obama’s biggest mistake on the Russia-Ukraine war — his failure to help Ukraine defend itself against Putin’s aggression. And yet Putin is either being fed bad information — from, among others, Bortnikov’s FSB — or fabricating the claim as a challenge to Obama. No matter the explanation, Putin has shown once again that he is not someone we can work with.
“The West’s top priority should be to reestablish civil relations with Russia — and ease tensions to minimize the risk of spiraling confrontation,” Jack Matlock, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, said recently. Matlock and those who share his views are more than welcome to meet with Bortnikov — it just shouldn’t be in Washington or anywhere else in the United States. Bortnikov represents the corrupt, thuggish, authoritarian regime we face in Moscow these days, and we need to open our eyes to the threat it poses to its own people, its neighbors and the rest of the democratic community of nations.
We can no longer contract out the handling of the Russia-Ukraine crisis to the Europeans. Obama needs to demonstrate U.S. leadership, and he can start by ordering Bortnikov out of the country immediately and agreeing to help Ukraine defend itself. We should also lead the charge to exclude Russia from the global payment-processing system known as SWIFT; such a step would seriously affect Russia’s banking and financial sector. We should have taken these steps long ago. This is no time for Obama’s preferred “strategic patience.”