To speak of Vladimir Putin’s presidential election victory this week requires multiple quotation marks: it’s a sham victory in a sham election in which no real challengers were allowed to run and no dissenters were allowed meaningful access to mass media. That’s no different from several previous national elections in Russia. But today, what’s happening in Moscow is at the highest level of concern to the United States, and the West, since the end of the Cold War nearly three decades ago.
Last Friday, two days before the election, a group of scholars, journalists, activists, and other Kremlin-watchers gathered in New York for an event billed as the world’s first PutinCon — a daylong conference, sponsored by the Human Rights Foundation, to explore Putin’s history and his impact on the world.
It is telling that the location of the conference in midtown Manhattan was disclosed shortly before the event to registered participants. A likely Kremlin-sponsored attempted assassination in London — the nerve gas poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter — is still fresh in the news. At the conference, journalist James Kirchick quipped darkly that Russia’s modus operandi in such matters can be described as “implausible deniability.” One of the speakers, Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, survived two attempts on his life.
Beyond such acts of terror, the Putin regime is widely seen as having a poisonous effect on Western democracies through campaigns of subversion using cyberattacks, “fake news,” and social media outreach — most notably in our 2016 presidential election. There has been intense debate on how much of a role Russian interference played in the outcome and on whether the Kremlin’s goal was to elect Donald Trump or simply sow chaos.
Some say blaming Putin is a convenient deflection from our problems and failures. But the PutinCon speakers who addressed the Putin regime’s role in the subversion of Western democracies, such as Kirchick and political strategist Molly McKew, stressed that the West’s internal conflicts, weaknesses, and faltering commitment to liberal democratic values have created openings for the Kremlin to exploit. That doesn’t make the Kremlin’s quest to replace the liberal international order with one in which, as Kirchick put it, “might makes right,” any less pernicious or dangerous.
The squabbles about the U.S. response to the Russian election are a stark example of failed leadership. Trump’s decision to congratulate Putin on his fake victory was, as many conservatives have pointed out, no different from President Barack Obama’s post-election greeting to Putin in 2012. But at least at the time, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had some harsh words for Russia’s rigged elections — reportedly the principal motive for Putin’s vendetta against her. By contrast, when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked whether Putin won a free and fair election, she replied that “we don’t get to dictate how other countries operate.”
PutinCon’s last session, which opened with a video greeting from Russian anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny (kept out of the election by a trumped-up fraud conviction), was rather optimistically titled “The End of Putin’s Tyranny.” The moderator, opposition activist Garry Kasparov, noted that “we have a daunting task — to give you a hint of optimism after what you have heard today.” Optimism is increasingly rare in today’s politics. And yet, as the speakers noted, change often happens quickly and unpredictably.
We can only hope that when reform comes to Russia again, the West will be ready to champion freedom.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.