When John McCain called Putin a “thug and a murderer,” this is what he was talking about

A friend for the new administration?
A friend for the new administration?
Image: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin
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Editor’s note: This article from December 2016 was updated on Feb. 24, 2022, to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Follow the developments here.

After recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, two separatist regions along the Russia-Ukraine border, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine. The ensuing assault by air, land, and sea sent Ukrainians in the northeastern city of Kharkiv scrambling to subway stations that served as bomb shelters, and put the infamous Chernobyl nuclear plant, in the country’s north, in the hands of Russian forces.

World leaders including US president Joe Biden and UK prime minister Boris Johnson condemned Russia and announced sanctions, while making clear they will not send troops directly into the conflict.

Biden denied he had ever underestimated Putin, whom he described in June 2021 as a “worthy adversary.”

How John McCain described Vladimir Putin

Russia observers may remember a more searing characterization by the late John McCain, Biden’s former colleague in the US Senate and a longtime Kremlin critic, who in 2016 bluntly explained why the US should worry about Putin.

“Vladimir Putin is a thug and a murderer and a killer and a KGB agent,” McCain said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Dec. 11, 2016.

Putin, who has ruled Russia since 2000, has created a regime under which his opponents are murdered; political prisoners are sent to Siberia for decades behind bars; minority rights are suppressed; opposition is quashed; foreign territory is forcefully annexed; and Syria’s bloodthirsty president, Bashar Assad, enjoys direct military support for his massacres.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of past examples of Putin’s abusive rule in Russia.

Murdering enemies

The list of people suspected murdered on orders from the Russian leader or people close to him is long. It includes several of Putin’s early critics (paywall), among them liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and exiled former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. A UK government report showed that Litvinenko’s death—he was poisoned using polonium in London—while was “probably” approved by Putin. 

Both Politkovskaya and Litvinenko had tried to investigate a series of bombings in 1999, when Putin was prime minister, that killed some 300 people in four Russian cities. The authorities blamed the bombings on Chechen rebels and used them as a pretext to unleash a war on Chechnya, but there are strong suspicions 1 that they were a “false-flag” attack by Russia’s own own security services.

When confronted with Putin’s record of killings on a TV show in 2015, Donald Trump, who would win the US presidential election the following year, answered, “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe.” He added, “I’ve always felt fine about Putin. He’s a strong leader. He’s a powerful leader.”

Imprisoning dissenters

According to a list from Russian human-rights group Memorial, there were 102 people held in Russian prisons for their political beliefs as of 2016. In this, Putin’s Russia was continuing Tsarist and Soviet traditions, sending political dissenters to Siberia or to work camps as in Stalinist days. Famous past prisoners have included oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.

Occupying foreign territory

Sentsov, who was released in a prisoner swap in 2019, was one of at least 10 Ukrainian nationals serving long sentences in Russia after the country annexed Crimea in 2014 and started sponsoring rebels in eastern Ukraine.

On Dec. 14, 2016, Germany’s then-chancellor, Angela Merkel, and France’s then-president, François Hollande, said they favored continuing sanctions on Russia, after peace talks on Ukraine failed to produce tangible results. However, a day earlier, Trump’s chief-of-staff pick, Reince Priebus, said he would not rule out lifting US sanctions on Russia.

Quashing opposition

Russia has suppressed political opposition using an arsenal of techniques. These range from laws limiting free assembly and other civil rights 3, to jailing protestors for vague offenses such as “hooliganism,” to using the notoriously corrupt courts to convict opponents of embezzlement or tax fraud, to straightforward police intimidation, as well as murder. Prominent opponents have been forced into silence or exile.

Masha Gessen pointed out in The New Yorker that Trump’s threat to imprison Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign was reminiscent of how political opponents are most often silenced in Russia: not through outlawing them, but “abusing or misusing criminal laws.”

Abetting some of the world’s worst bloodshed

Seeking to gain influence in the Middle East, Putin supported the murderous regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, in what was then the deadliest war of the 21st century. Russia’s military help was priceless to Assad. Western powers and the UN accused the alliance of indiscriminately targeting civilians.

In the siege and recapture of Aleppo by Assad and his allies, reports from the ground indicated Syrian forces were slaughtering civilian families. Samantha Power, then the US ambassador to the UN, said Russia bore responsibility for the carnage along with the Assad regime and Iran, asking: “Is there literally nothing that can shame you?”