Vladimir Bukovsky, the legendary Russian dissident who spent 12 years in prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for his “anti-Soviet activity,” famously faulted Western media in the 1980s for their confusing terminology, which resulted in curious statements about the “Russian” invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the protests against it by “Soviet” academician Andrei Sakharov. This linguistic mix-up between the oppressor and the oppressed is resurfacing with Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine: Many analysts and journalists cite “Russian” threats, the “Russian” invasion and the need for sanctions on “Russia.”
The truth is that most Russians oppose intervention in Ukraine. Even the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center found last month that 73 percent of Russians are against it. The unanimous vote by unelected “senators” last week granting Putin’s request to use military force in Ukraine illustrates the unrepresentative and authoritarian nature of Russia’s political system. Consider the irony that, while Putin’s officials justified the invasion by citing the need to “protect Russians in Ukraine,” Putin’s police forces were arresting and beating Russians on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg for protesting against war. More than 300 people were arrested Sunday alone.
The international community should respond to Putin’s aggression by sanctioning its perpetrators. In particular, the list of Russian human rights abusers banned from traveling to and keeping assets in the United States under the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act must be dramatically expanded to include senior Kremlin officials responsible for the attack on Ukraine and the crackdown against Russian citizens. One hopes that the European Union would soon follow with its own version of the Magnitsky sanctions. Those who commit acts of aggression and abuse the rights of their own citizens should not be entitled to the privileges and comfort of the democratic West. It is time for the Kremlin’s corrupt cronies to be held responsible for their actions.
As for Putin, he would benefit from learning some Russian history. “Small victorious wars” — the phrase coined by czarist interior minister Vyacheslav Plehve with regard to Russia’s war on Japan in the early 20th century — have tended not to end well for their instigators. The Crimean War in the 19th century demonstrated the economic and technological backwardness of the autocratic system and showed the need for political, social, judicial, military and economic reforms, including the abolition of serfdom and the establishment of elected local self-government and trial by jury. The Russo-Japanese war, contrary to Plehve’s intent, led to the first Russian revolution and forced the regime to grant a parliament and recognize political and civil liberties. World War I contributed to the collapse of the czarist system. The Afghanistan invasion precipitated the disintegration of the Soviet dictatorship.
Putin may yet regret the day he decided to send troops into Ukraine.
Vladimir V. Kara-Murza is a member of the federal council of the People’s Freedom Party, a democratic opposition party in Russia.