The Kremlin bullied and bribed Russians to the ballot box again on Wednesday, the latest episode of what long ago became a painful mockery of democracy. Democracy means choices, and there has been no real choice in Russia for many years. All roads, all votes, lead to Vladimir Putin.
The plebiscite was on changing the Russian constitution to, among other things, allow Putin to stay in power until 2036. Of course, “allow” is a silly word to use when Putin was always going to rule the Kremlin until he’s carried out, no matter what any piece of paper says. Even this formality was a foregone conclusion; the new constitution was available for purchase on newsstands and bookstores for days ahead of the vote. Early analysis from statistician Sergey Shpilkin shows an estimated 22 million fake votes out of a reported 74 million cast.
It’s fair to ask, why bother with the pretense of democracy? Dictatorships are obsessed with the superficial trappings of legitimacy and democracy, both as distraction and to sully the meaning of these terms. And after decades of liquidating the opposition and crushing all dissent, a despot might even enjoy thinking that he’s as popular as the worthless polls, elections and state media say he is.
These sham votes aren’t only to provide Putin with cover in Russia, where civil society barely exists, but to give foreign leaders the pretext of treating Putin like an equal instead of confronting him like the autocrat he is. It also allows foreign media to continue calling him “president,” putting him on par with the leaders of free countries. As with every tyrant before him, Putin thrives partly due to the cowardice of those who could deter him but choose not to.
These aren’t just semantics. It would be awkward, even outrageous, to make deals with dictator Putin, to trust him, or to speak fondly of him the way President Donald Trump does. The title feeds the hypocrisy, and so the myth of Putin the elected, Putin the popular, must be perpetuated.
This is a choice to be made by every foreign official and every media organization. They could make sure to mention in their coverage that Russian elections are neither free nor fair. They could strip Putin of the democratic title of “president,” of which he is unworthy – and they should.
With Russia’s disastrous coronavirus response exposing the myth of Putin’s competence and weakening the economy further, it’s no surprise that he’s looking abroad again. In an interview for a recently-aired documentary, Putin talked about “historical Russian territories” and condemned former Soviet republics, saying they should have “left with what they arrived, rather than taking with them gifts from the Russian people” when the USSR broke up in 1991. Considering that Putin has already invaded two former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine, this must be taken as a clear threat.
Putin’s apparent desire for fresh conquest brings us to his most successful operation yet, the ascension of Donald Trump as US president. The degree of influence Russian operations had on the 2016 election can never be known for sure, but whatever Putin invested, it’s paid off a thousandfold. Even aside from Trump’s bizarre loyalty to Putin personally, America’s role as a global champion of democratic values has evaporated in a cloud of quid pro quos thanks to a president who is more likely to criticize traditional American allies than dictators like Putin and Xi Jinping.
For Putin to cross another border, he needs to know he won’t face any serious opposition from the US, or from a NATO that is toothless without American support. In other words, he needs Trump to be in the White House, not Joe Biden. The only consistent thing about Trump’s erratic foreign policy has been his refusal to criticize Putin, whose influence was confirmed in detail in John Bolton’s new book. Even the shocking revelations that Russia was, according to reported intelligence, paying bounties to the Taliban for killing US troops have been met with typical White House obfuscation and claims of ignorance.
As for what Putin might do to help Trump in 2020, an expanded version of the hacking and disinformation campaigns of 2016 is just one of the potential worries. The Republican-led Senate seems ready to remove a requirement for campaigns to reveal foreign support, practically rolling out a red carpet to Putin and others like the Saudis and Chinese with a vested interest in keeping America out – or at least on the sidelines – of the pro-democracy business.
Putin came to power in 1999 in no small part due to the bombings of Russian apartment buildings that were blamed on Chechen terrorists. Then-prime minister Putin’s brutal response brought him to prominence even as evidence mounted that the Russian security services had been caught in the act of plotting an apartment bombing in Ryazan. As a former KGB man, Putin prefers subtler methods, but as the recent assassinations of his political targets on foreign soil and the Afghanistan bounty program confirm, he has no allergy to blood, including American blood.
Along with the fear-mongering and violence, Putin exploited the legitimate grievances of the Russian people for his own gain. His themes were familiar ones: security, cultural preservation, ethnic tension. Twitter didn’t exist then, but if it had, Putin would have been tweeting “Law & order!” in Russian. Those of us in the Russian pro-democracy movement had the dual challenge of protesting Putin’s crackdowns while acknowledging the other problems the country faced.
I watched as Putin destroyed our fragile democracy by focusing only on his own power and wealth while mouthing nationalist rhetoric and attacking the free press. Now I’m watching Trump use many of the same techniques to chip away at democracy in my new home, although I cannot complain of exile when some of my Russian colleagues have been jailed or killed.
But Trump has yet to do his worst, a prediction I make with confidence not because I know what he will do, but because I know what such people are capable of.
Russian democracy is a farce, and Putin would like nothing more than to inflict the same fate on the American version. In this he has a partner in Trump, who accuses Democrats of trying to rig the elections, attacks voting by mail, and has done little to prevent the raging coronavirus pandemic that looks set to continue into November and sow chaos at the polls.
An ounce of deterrence is worth a pound of retaliation. US lawmakers, and candidate Biden, must make it clear that any attack on the integrity of the 2020 election will be met with the harshest penalties – regardless of whether those attacks come from the Kremlin or from the Oval Office.