To put it mildly, President Joe Biden referring to Vladimir Putin as a “killer” in an interview last month wasn’t well received by the Russian government. Putin made a show of (temporarily) recalling Russia’s ambassador to Washington and of lecturing Biden about the importance of good relations between their two countries.
But Russia’s largely predictable reaction is not the story here. What’s really important is that some Americans might be tempted to believe the subtle propaganda of Putin’s authoritarian dictatorship. For me, Russia’s propaganda recalls the lies the former Soviet Union — where my parents and grandparents immigrated from in 1992 — told the world whenever it was called out for its human rights violations; I feel obligated not to let this go unanswered.
Russia’s rhetoric targets Americans who are unaware of the classic tactics it uses to neutralize criticism. With 63 percent of Americans reporting little to no confidence in their elected officials to act in the public’s best interest, Putin is betting people will be amenable to the suggestion that America and its condemnations of Russia are responsible for any and all problems in their relationship. And, unfortunately, it’s had some effect: On March 18, reporters echoed the Russian line in questions to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
First, it must be said that Biden was absolutely correct to call Putin a killer. Biden was most likely referring to the attempted murder of Alexei Navalny, the most prominent critic of the Putin regime. Last August, Navalny survived an attempt to poison him with Novichok, a Soviet-era chemical weapon.
After receiving lifesaving treatment in Germany, Navalny posed as a government aide to call an operative of the FSB, Russia’s domestic security agency. The man on the other end of the line confirmed that the FSB had tried to kill him. Separately, investigative journalism organization Bellingcat confirmed the Russian government’s, and ultimately Putin’s, responsibility for the attack. Navalny courageously returned to Russia in January and was arrested upon arrival; he remains in prison today.
Navalny has, for now, escaped becoming the latest entry in a long list of murders of political dissidents under Putin. That list includes investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot in the elevator of her apartment building; anti-corruption attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who was beaten to death while in prison on false charges; and opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot on a Moscow bridge outside the Kremlin.
Those are the facts Russia wants to hide by pushing the line that any deterioration of relations between Russia and the United States is always America’s fault — that relations would be normalized if only America would stop calling out Russia’s actions. Russia is saying that the United States is treating Russia aggressively because the United States refuses to compromise on its values, that as the aggressor the United States must always be wrong, and that by extension Russia must always be right in defending itself from international reproach.
This functions as political gaslighting, suggesting that American leadership — and, more importantly, American voters — should not trust their gut feelings that Russia’s murders of dissidents are wrong and must be denounced.
George Orwell was half-right when he wrote “political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Putin isn’t bothering to make his murders respectable, or even trying too hard to deny his culpability; he’s just trying to make the rest of the world not pay attention by pointing them elsewhere. He’s essentially trying to draw a moral equivalence between poisoning a dissident and Biden’s remark.
You’d think presumably well-educated White House correspondents would know better than to believe him, but Russia’s underlying message is superficially attractive. If lasting peace with Russia could be assured just by playing nice with the Russians, no one could possibly object. But we should ask exactly what kind of peace would result if America stopped criticizing Russia’s domestic actions.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, another Russian dissident who has himself survived two poisoning attempts, said it best: “Domestic repression is always followed by foreign aggression.” Not only would Putin feel emboldened to intensify his human rights abuses at home, but he would also feel confident ramping up Russia’s international aggression, which has cost thousands of lives in Ukraine and Syria.
Direct provocations, like Russia’s interference in the last two presidential elections and the paying of bounties to the Taliban, would only get worse. This so-called peace would threaten both America’s internal security and the post-World War II rules-based international order that the Biden administration wants to uphold; it is not something that America can, politically or morally, accept.
For my family, Russia’s response to Biden is reminiscent of the Soviet response to criticism for their human rights record. For example, the USSR spoke of “chauvinistic sentiments” and “anti-Soviet hysteria” by the United States when it boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, in retaliation for the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But there’s another reason why Biden’s comment brings back memories for my family, because Biden did an invaluable service by speaking the truth to a regime that wants to destroy that very concept. The truth was what my family heard when they, like countless other Soviet citizens, tapped into Voice of America at night, or read forbidden books through samizdat. It gave them hope, and I’d like to think Biden can do the same for those like Navalny and Kara-Murza, who are fighting for the truth in Russia today.
Ben Reicher PO ’22 is from Agoura Hills, California. He joined his high school newspaper in ninth grade because he loved to argue, and hasn’t stopped since.