Is Putin evil?

I put up a post in this blog years ago asking “Is Obama Evil“? So it only seems fair to ask the question about the leader of a country that spans nine time zones – and that is Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin.
Karen Dawisha, who heads the center for Russian studies at Miami University (in Ohio), wrote a book about him recently, and she traces the sometimes complicated webs of finance he was involved in, and he certainly is no saint.
But first lets look at the plus side of Mr. Putin.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin

Any Russian that does not like living in Russia is free to leave. That is a big positive change from Soviet days. I’ve also seen praise of Putin from a few Westerners saying that European countries lack pride and cohesion and are facing demographic collapse (except for their Muslim minorities), but Russia, they say, is nationalistic and cohesive and will survive. My thought on this is that there should be a way for a nation to be self-confident and reasonably proud, without suppressing the free media and embracing raw power.
But putting aside whether Putin is a dictator, is Russia flourishing under his leadership?
The short answer is no.
Russia is not in good shape. The birth rates are not much different from Europe, but the lack of adequate medical care produces five times more deaths from cardiovascular disease among women in Russia than in Europe. As for family life, more Russian women die annually from domestic violence than the number of soldiers the USSR lost in the entire Afghan war.
Russian men have high rates of suicide, and many fall victim to murder. Many drink themselves to an early death. The life expectancy of a fifteen-year-old male is three years lower in Russia than in Haiti.
I once read an article by Robert Zubrin who made a claim about Russia that I did not believe. He said “young girls are kidnapped off the street in large numbers”
But professor Dawisha seconds this: “millions of Russians, mainly girls..have been lost to sex trafficking.”
She also makes an instructive comparison with China, another authoritarian country. “Despite receiving $1.6 trillion from oil and gas exports from 2000 to 2011, Russia was not able to build a single interstate highway during this time. There is still no interstate highway linking Moscow to the Far East; in contrast, China..has build 4,360 miles of modern highways annually for the last ten years, equivalent to three times around the circumference of the earth.”
Why is this? The title of her book, “Putin’s Kleptocracy”, may indicate the answer – there is so much corruption in Russia, that the leadership would rather spend the money on themselves than on the country.  I remember seeing Putin give a speech at the Sochi Olympics, and my impression of him – just from that speech – was quite positive. But in Dawisha’s book, I read that “More than half of the $50 billion spent on the Sochi Olympics simply disappeared into the pockets of Putin’s cronies, according to detailed analyses by multiple Russian experts.”
Her whole book is on the looting of Russia, sometimes with the connivance of organized crime. Bribes alone, according to the Russian think tank Indem, amounted in 2005 to about $300 billion.
As for entrepreneurship, in the ten years from 2002 to 2012, hundreds of thousands of businessmen were actually imprisoned, primarily as a result of rivals paying corrupt police and judges to put away the competition.
But maybe Putin is not that bad, given the realities of Russia.  He just took over the oil sector, rewarded his friends, punished his enemies, suppressed some freedoms, but why get excited about that? The world is full of dictators.
And maybe these problems of Russian society are beyond his control to do anything about?
And as for his recent military actions, I’ve read some who say his invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine was understandable, given that he could not be expected to give up the strategic naval base on the shores of the Black Sea, and he had to protect the native Russians in these areas.

Anna Politkovskaya
Anna Politkovskaya

Almost 100 Russian Journalists have been killed since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Maybe Putin had nothing to do with this, though we know that journalist/victim Anna Politkovskaya was critical of Putin.
We know that Alexander Litvinenko, who applied for asylum in England and was poisoned with Polonium by Russian agents there, discovered, while he worked for the Russian FSB, numerous links among members of the top brass of Russian law enforcement agencies and Russian mafia groups. But that is if we believe his widow Marina. She might be lying. And maybe Putin had nothing to do with his assassination.
During the Iraq war, the London Telegraph obtained Iraqi intelligence documents that revealed that Moscow provided Saddam with lists of assassins available for “hits” in the West.
If not a forgery by someone who hates Russia, this is quite disturbing. Who knows who has been killed by these people so far?
Wouldn’t Putin know about this?
The US intelligence community has warned against the “growing nexus in Russian (and Eurasian) states among government, organized crime, intelligence services, and big business figures.”
This is something to worry about. If you stand in the way of the financial power of these people, you will be stepped on.
The Russian elite do have a code of honor, says Andrey Illarionov, who had been Putin’s advisor and then testified before the US Congress. Loyalty, “strict codes of conduct and of honor,…omerta [the mafia code of silence]…Violations of the code of conduct are subject to the harshest forms of punishment, including the highest form.”
Dawisha ends her book saying again that Russia is not in good shape – the midpoint of wealth for Russian citizens is $871 as opposed to countries such as India (midpoint $1,040) and China ($8,023), even though those countries lack Russia’s huge oil reserves. We hear complaints that the US has too much income inequality, but in Russia, 110 billionaires own 35% of the wealth. And, says Dawisha, for the elite to achieve their wealth and power, the rule of law had to be strangled, as did freedom in general.

US escorts Russian Plane off Alaska
US escorts Russian Plane off Alaska

So back to the question of this post – is Putin evil? He is an adversary, and his ideals are different, as is shown when eastern Ukraine was invaded.  There the initial invaders “carried the outward-radiating eight-arrowed flag of Putinist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin.”  Who is Dugin? He is a man who says that what Russia needs is a “genuine, true, radically revolutionary and consistent, fascist fascism.” On the other hand he says that:
“Liberalism, is an absolute evil. . . . Only a global crusade against the U.S., the West, globalization, and their political-ideological expression, liberalism, is capable of becoming an adequate response. . . . The American empire should be destroyed. . . ”
Putin has not disavowed this man.
And it gets worse.  Putin’s navy is visiting Cuba. Putin’s air force flies along California and Alaska.
Many in the West are responsive to an anti-American message, and Russia’s extremely anti-American TV show, “Russia Today” with its recipe of smart propaganda, sex appeal and unlimited cash, is outperforming its peers worldwide.
Putin has made his huge country, armed to the teeth with nuclear missiles, a threat to you and me.  Whether that is “evil” is hard to say.  But if even one murder, such as that of Politskaya, can be attributed to him, then  he is indeed evil.

Sources: (on journalists)
Putin’s Kleptocracy – by Karen Dawisha (published by Simon and Schuster 2014) – (on Nazis) (on Russia Today) (offering assassins to Saddam)


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