The Problem with Putin

An unreliable ally, an unlikely democrat


A couple of weeks before the U.S. presidential election, one of the Republicans' tropes–the terrorists want Kerry to win–got some unexpected support from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Speaking at a press conference in Tajikistan after a regional summit, Putin opined that "the activities of terrorists in Iraq are not as much aimed at coalition forces but more personally against President Bush." Driving the message home, he added: "International terrorism has as its goal to prevent the election of President Bush to a second term. If they achieve that goal, then that will give international terrorism a new impulse and extra power."

This statement was met with squeals of delight on the right. "On the international theater, Vladimir Putin today said that he felt that George Bush was the right man and the evildoers wanted to work against him," the conservative radio show host Janet Parshall crowed on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes. Fox personality John Gibson picked up this theme on his own show, and bloggers Michelle Malkin and Glenn Reynolds chimed in from cyberspace.

Among the many ironies of that moment was that the conservatives' man of the hour has been, at best, a dubious ally in the war on terror. Even as Putin seemingly endorsed Bush, Russia was finalizing its deal with Iran–widely viewed as the chief terrorism-sponsoring state–to help launch that country's nuclear reactor, despite American and European concerns that it would be used for weapons development. (To avert International Atomic Energy Agency sanctions against Iran, Russia volunteered to vouch for the peacefulness of its nuclear program.) Russia has also remained on amicable terms with North Korea and Syria, and it almost certainly circumvented the sanctions against Iraq to supply weapons to Saddam Hussein's regime right up to the invasion.

Lately, however, all that seems to have taken a back seat to Russia's status as a fellow target of radical Islamic terrorism. This perception was cemented by the horror in Beslan, the town in Northern Ossetia where armed pro-Chechen militants seized a schoolhouse on September 1, 2004, and took more than 1,000 hostages, demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.

A two-day standoff ended in a violent climax that left about 350 hostages dead, more than half of them children. Some were gunned down by the terrorists while they tried to flee after explosives were set off in the school; others were killed in the ensuing shootout between the terrorists and Russian security forces. This came right on the heels of the downing of two Russian passenger planes by suicide bombers and another bombing near a Moscow subway station. On a visit to the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., President Bush proclaimed, "The United States stands side by side with Russia as we fight off terrorism."

Beslan was quickly invoked by supporters in the Bush presidential campaign. "Those people want to kill us," declared one campaign ad, while images of terrorists and their victims flashed on the screen. "They killed hundreds of innocent children in Russia. They killed 200 innocent commuters in Spain and 3,000 innocent Americans." This ad fully accepted the official Russian position that the Beslan terrorists were a part of the same "they" as Al Qaeda–even though initial Russian claims about the presence of Arabs and other foreigners among the hostage takers proved inaccurate.

In fact, the terrorist atrocity in Beslan was, by all indications, primarily a product of the local conflict in Chechnya, where Russia has been waging war against separatists since 1999 (and, before that, from 1994 to 1996). Putin has long tried to depict this war as a part of the West's battle against Islamist terror.

Putin's critics bristle at this claim. Elena Bonner, a veteran human rights activist and the widow of the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, calls it "the big lie." What the Russian armed forces are perpetrating in Chechnya, says Bonner, "has nothing to do with the fight against international terrorism. It's a war on the people, a genocide. The fact that there are a few extremist Islamist terrorists among the militants doesn't change the nature of this war."

Bonner may be too dismissive of the radical Islamic connection in Chechnya. A recent paper by Leon Aron–director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and no fan of Putin's conduct of the Chechen war–lays out a convincing case that extremist Muslim groups have been an active presence in Chechnya, taking advantage of the Chechens' struggle for independence and of chaos in the war-torn republic.

Otherwise, however, Bonner's characterization of Russia's actions is fairly accurate. Aron estimates that 100,000 Chechens have been killed and another 35,000 "disappeared" in the two wars. The Russian military has carpet-bombed populated areas, massacred civilians, conducted house-to-house sweeps in which searches for weapons and terrorists became a pretext for looting, and allowed soldiers and officers to murder and rape with impunity. It's not a stretch to think that these horrific abuses have helped turn the previously secular Chechnya into an Al Qaeda playground.

The Bush administration has paid lip service to human rights concerns in Chechnya and to the need for Russia to negotiate with moderate Chechens. But in essence, after 9/11, it has accepted Putin's view that his war is our war.

Last June, after a Boston court granted political asylum to Chechen activist Ilyas Akhmadov, a moderate who had consistently condemned terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security challenged the decision, parroting Moscow's claim that Akhmadov had terrorist ties. Eventually, the objection was withdrawn because the charges were clearly baseless; even then, an official in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow stressed that the asylum decision had been made by a court and was not to be "misinterpreted as a statement of foreign policy."

This tolerant attitude has extended to Putin's widely recognized rollback of democratic freedoms within Russia itself, where in the last few years the multiparty system has been effectively abolished and freedom of the press has taken some major hits. (Two journalists critical of the government's actions in Chechnya, Andrei Babitsky and Anna Politkovskaya, were prevented from reaching Beslan during the hostage crisis.) Less than two weeks after the slaughter in Beslan, Putin extended his centralized power grab by proposing that regional governors be appointed by the Kremlin, not elected by local voters.

This proposal, which, according to Aron, "amounts to the dismantling of the backbone of Russia's nascent democracy," was met only with a meek expression of concern from the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, Russia's role in its anti-terrorist alliance with the U.S. has consisted largely of making cost-free, P.R.-rich supportive gestures, such as Putin's declaration that the terrorists wanted Bush to lose. Along the same lines, Putin asserted last June that before the invasion of Iraq, Russian intelligence services had warned the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein's regime was planning terrorist attacks inside the U.S. and on American targets abroad.

This startling revelation became fodder for conservative media outlets as proof that the war in Iraq was justified, even though one might reasonably have asked why Russia opposed the invasion of Iraq if it possessed such information. Interestingly, the U.S. never confirmed Putin's claim; one senior intelligence official diplomatically told The Washington Post that "Russia has provided helpful information in the war on terrorism" but no specific information about any Iraqi threat.

During the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the United States made a number of morally shady strategic friendships with authoritarian regimes in the Third World. It will be a bitter historical irony if Putin's Russia becomes America's authoritarian pal in the War on Terror–and all the more ironic if its friendship is as unreliable as it is morally compromising.