Russian leader Vladimir Putin responded yesterday to a question about the deaths of Russian dissidents with one of the strangest bursts of whataboutism yet: He invoked the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
In a Fox News interview that aired hours after Putin's joint press conference with Donald Trump, host Chris Wallace asked the Russian president why "so many" of his critics "end up dead or close to it." Wallace specifically referenced the deaths of politician Boris Nemtsov, reporter Anna Politkovskaya, and former double agent Sergei Skripal.
Putin replied that "all of us," including Trump, have political rivals, prompting Wallace to indicate that other politicians' rivals "don't end up dead." An undeterred Putin offered this reply:
Haven't presidents been killed in the United States? Have you forgotten about—well, has Kennedy been killed in Russia or in the United States? Or Mr. King? What—and what happens to the clashes between police and, well, civil society, and some—several ethnic groups? Well, that's something that happens on the U.S. soil. All of us have our own set of domestic problems.
Though Russia's constitution supposedly allows for freedom of speech, Russian officials have "great discretion to crack down" on views they don't like, according to the human rights group Freedom House. And while Putin said Monday he is not "the kind of strongman" people portray him to be, many of his outspoken critics might say otherwise—at least the ones who are still alive.
Needless to say, the U.S. is hardly perfect. We do have our own "domestic problems," including the police killings that Putin alluded to. Still, Americans are allowed to speak out against their own government without fear of death or prison.
And the invocation of the assassinations is bizarre. You can read it as a conspiracy theory that past U.S. leaders had King and Kennedy assassinated, but raising that idea in this context would imply that Putin has been assassinating his critics—not an unreasonable thing to suspect him of doing, but also not something he's likely to confess on Fox News. Alternately, you can take it as a suggestion that Nemetsov and the rest were victims not of the state but of the same sort of general political turbulence that produces people like James Earl Ray and Lee Harvey Oswald. But in addition to being a dubious argument in general, that would be an especially curious way to contrast contemporary America and Russia, given that King and Kennedy were killed more than half a century ago. In any case, while the U.S. has seen its share of political violence over the last few decades, I think it's safe to say that Russia's had a lot more of it.
The Russian News Agency, meanwhile, is using Putin's Fox interview to highlight Moscow's alleged efforts to bring the culprits behind those political crimes to justice. That isn't a surprising response: The state-run news outlet has little choice but to defend the nation's leader. After all, the consequences for dissidence can be dire.