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When John McCain calls Putin a “thug and a murderer” this is what he’s talking about

Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a session of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, December 8, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin - RTSV8AI
Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin
A friend for the new administration?
  • Hanna Kozlowska
By Hanna Kozlowska

Investigative reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Many key figures—including president Barack Obama, members of the Electoral College, and senate majority leader Mitch McConnell—have voiced concerns about Russia’s hacking campaign during the US election and its ties to the incoming administration. But leave it to Arizona senator and longtime Kremlin critic John McCain to bluntly explain why the United States should be worried.

“Vladimir Putin is a thug and a murderer and a killer and a KGB agent,” McCain said on CBS’s “Face of the Nation” on Dec. 11. Speaking two days later about Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, who received the Russian “Order of Friendship” in 2013, McCain said in a radio interview: ”Frankly, I would never accept an award from Vladimir Putin because then you kind of give some credence and credibility to this butcher, this KGB agent, which is what he is.”

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 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.

Political insiders, independent journalists and observers have raised suspicions and provided some evidence that the bombings were in fact orchestrated by Russian security services. In 2003, McCain himself said on the floor of the US Senate: "There remain credible allegations that Russia's FSB had a hand in carrying out these attacks."

When confronted with Putin’s record of killings on a TV show last year, Trump 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 are now 102 people held in Russian prisons for their political beliefs. In this, Putin’s Russia is continuing Tsarist and Soviet traditions: Political dissenters are still being sent to Siberia or to work camps as in Stalinist days. Famous past prisoners have included oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, and Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko. Still confined is Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was sentenced to 20 years in a strict penal colony in Siberia on trumped-up terrorism charges. 2

Defiant during his trial, which Amnesty International called "redolent of Stalinist-era show trials," Sentsov said he was tortured while in captivity. In a letter recently smuggled out of the Siberian prison, Sentsov writes: “If we’re supposed to become nails in the coffin of a tyrant, I’d like to become one of those nails. Just know that this particular nail will not bend.”

Occupying foreign territory

Sentsov is one of at least 10 Ukrainian nationals serving long sentences in Russia who were arrested after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and started sponsoring rebels in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin-backed protracted conflict, Europe’s “forgotten war,” is is in its third year, and has claimed nearly 10,000 lives.

On Dec. 14, German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande said that they favored continuing sanctions on Russia, after the 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.

If sanctions are lifted, oil giant ExxonMobil could gain billions of dollars in deals. Trump’s pick for secretary of State is Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson.

Quashing opposition

Putin has run the country for 17 years as prime minister and president. In 2008, Russia extended presidential terms from four to six years; the next election is in 2018.

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.

In particular, since a law was passed in 2013 against "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors," LGBT Russians have been harassed, both formally and informally, activists say. The community found some refuge online, but, The Daily Beast reports, the country's most popular gay site has now been blocked all around the country. Putin himself has defended the law, saying that in Russia there is "no persecution at all," but that "kids should be left in peace." Another website authorities have been trying to shut down is Deti 404, which offers support to LGBT teenagers.

Putin’s biggest challenger right now is Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and anti-corruption activist who announced on Dec. 13 that he would run for president in 2018. He has faced several criminal charges and received a suspended sentence for embezzlement, overturned after international outcry. He is due for a re-trial, however, and if found guilty, won’t be able to run for office. His brother Oleg is in prison after being sentenced in the same trial.

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 has supported the murderous regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, in what has become the deadliest war of the 21st century so far. Russia’s military help has been priceless to Assad. Western powers and the UN accuse the alliance of indiscriminately targeting civilians.

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

Meanwhile, according to an interview released by the Syrian government, Assad is hopeful about the next US administration. He called Donald Trump a “natural ally.”

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