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But a confrontation with both the police and the pro-Putin youth group Nashi is likely. One activist said, “Commissars from Nashi are already sharpening their fists. They told me they will stop people pitching tents and carry them off hand and foot.”
The opposition seems determined to get their point across whether the demonstrations are sanctioned or not. Mr. Navalny tweeted, “[E]verybody who would like to can peacefully and without hurry begin to move towards Manezh Square.” This is an open invitation to arrest in Putin’s Russia, where, since he came to power, what little freedom enjoyed by Russian citizens has been virtually snuffed out.
During Putin’s first two terms, there was a gradual loss of freedom in Russia as the former head of the KGB cracked down on dissent and suppressed independent media. Newspapers and television stations that weren’t driven out of business were intimidated by several high profile murders of prominent opposition journalists. Putin has also used the threat — real or fabricated — of Chechen terrorism to advance his political fortunes. This includes the widespread belief that the FSB (successor to the KGB) blew up an apartment building prior to the 2000 presidential election, boosting the “law and order” candidacy of Putin. The Russian president used that terrorist attack as an excuse to launch the second Chechen war.
Putin used that war to rid himself of several troublesome reporters. Kim Zigfeld of the blog LaRussophobe wrote:
Opposition journalists, especially those who dare to report on what it going on in Chechnya, suddenly start dying. In 2000 alone, reporters Igor Domnikov, Sergey Novikov, Iskandar Khatloni, Sergey Ivanov and Adam Tepsurgayev are murdered — not by hostile fire in Chechnya but in blatant assassinations at home in Russia.
In all, 12 journalists have been murdered since Vladimir Putin came to power.
A commission set up to investigate the 2000 apartment bombings was virtually wiped out by assassination, trumped up charges of espionage, and strong arm tactics. Several prominent opposition figures who may have challenged Putin have ended up in jail.
Restrictions on the press, on assembly, on free speech, and a return to the worst excesses of the KGB during the Communist regime has been the result of Putin’s rise to power in Russia. And yet, most independent observers point out that Putin didn’t need to cheat. He was guaranteed a victory because most Russians either don’t see an alternative to his rule, or genuinely believe he is the only one who can give them what they desire the most: economic security.
Thus, the Russian people — fatalistic and cynical as a result of hundreds of years of oppression — willingly voted for a man who is likely to take away what little freedom they have left.
The United States has strongly supported the protestors in the streets and called out Putin for his electoral shenanigans. This has enraged the Russians who see this as interference in their internal affairs. Coupled with the Russian veto of UN Security Council sanctions against Syria (and their refusal to support the Libya mission), relations between the two countries is at low ebb. Progress on arms control, missile defense, and counterterrorism have all been sidetracked as Putin has adopted a “Blame the West” posture, accusing Washington of fomenting the protests and for most of the ills afflicting the country.
In short, the “reset” in relations with Russia that President Obama promised when he took office is now dead. Jennifer Rubin writes in the Washington Post, that the reset “has been nothing more than appeasement that has allowed Russia to oppress its people with impunity and act in ways contrary to our and our allies’ security interests.” This is especially true of Iran where Putin has made a point of warning Israel and other nations against attacking Tehran. If there is a crackdown on protestors as Putin seems to be of a mind to initiate, there is little doubt our relations with Russia will cool even more.
Not an ally, but not quite an enemy, Vladimir Putin’s Russia will continue to bedevil American policymakers for the foreseeable future. The two nations do, in fact, have some common interests especially in fighting Islamic terrorism and in promoting European security. But what is presently dividing Russia and the US threatens to do more than ruin some nonsensical “reset.” What’s at stake is the peace and stability of the world as the two great nuclear powers eye each other warily and try to work their way back to a stable relationship.
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