President Biden said “I do” last week when asked if he believes Vladimir Putin is a “killer.” That’s a first step toward addressing Russian crimes openly, which would shield Russians in danger of repression and strengthen American security as well.
U.S. administrations have long been reluctant to call attention to Russian crimes. In February 2017, in an interview on Fox News, President Trump responded to the statement that Mr. Putin was a killer by suggesting American leaders are no better. “There are a lot of killers, we’ve got a lot of killers,” he said. “You think our country’s so innocent?”
Mr. Trump was widely condemned. But the readiness of U.S. officials to ignore Russian crimes has been bipartisan. When President Boris Yeltsin attacked Parliament with tanks in October 1993, Secretary of State Warren Christopher congratulated him on his victory. Despite Mr. Putin’s reputed ties to organized crime, President Bush said in 2001 that he had “looked the man in the eye” and “was able to get a sense of his soul.” In July 2009 President Obama described Mr. Putin as “sincere, just and deeply interested in the interests of the Russian people”—despite the polonium poisoning of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. An official British inquiry found Mr. Putin was probably personally responsible for his poisoning.
To an extent, when it comes to Russia, American leaders are superficial out of fear of what a serious effort to learn the truth might find. But the U.S., as guarantor of world stability, has the duty to gain full knowledge of Russian leaders’ crimes. Russia is run by 100 or so individuals who control 35% of the country’s assets. With free rein, there are few limits to the actions they can take against the outside world.
In three cases in particular, the U.S. should make every effort to understand and expose Russian crimes.
First, we need the truth about the Feb. 27, 2015, killing of Boris Nemtsov, Russia’s most important democratic leader, who was shot on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge next to the Kremlin. The official story was that Zaur Dadaev, a former officer in the Russian military forces based in Chechnya with no connection to Nemtsov, shot him six times. Four other defendants allegedly assisted in the crime. The regime assiduously promoted this version, and the U.S. tacitly accepted it.
The Parliamentary Assembly of Europe, however, cited evidence that Nemtsov was the victim of an operation carried out by the regime—including the presence of suspects on the bridge who were never interviewed, the disappearance of film from all nearby surveillance cameras, and eavesdropping on Nemtsov that could have been carried out only by an intelligence service. Andrei Illarionov, a Russian economist, published evidence that Nemtsov was shot from two different guns, not one as alleged in court, and videotape confirmed that Mr. Dadaev wasn’t on the bridge when Nemtsov was killed.
Nemstov is a hero to many Russians; the spot where he was killed has become a place of pilgrimage. But he was also important to the U.S. He was one of only two Putin opponents capable of summoning a crowd. The other is Alexei Navalny, recently imprisoned after being poisoned. Unlike Mr. Navalny, however, Nemtsov was an opponent of nationalism and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The U.S. owes Russia’s democrats every effort to identify those responsible for his death.
We also need the truth about the July 17, 2014, destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which killed 298 passengers and crew. The Putin regime mounted a disinformation effort after the plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine to create the impression that it was destroyed accidentally by separatists. But evidence points to Russia.
A Dutch criminal court established that the Buk-M1 missile that hit MH17 was brought into Ukraine by the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade. According to a report by Radio Liberty, the battery was accompanied by Russian intelligence officers. In a May 2020 interview with the Times of London, separatist leader Igor Girkin denied any involvement. Asked if he was accusing Russia, Mr. Girkin said, “People can interpret this as they like.”
What’s particularly chilling about MH17’s destruction is that it appears to have been part of a political strategy. Mr. Putin immediately called Mr. Obama after the plane was shot down and, citing the danger to civilian aircraft, called for an end to the Ukrainian offensive that was advancing rapidly into separatist-held territory. In the following 10 days, he made 24 calls with Western leaders with the same goal in mind.
Finally, we need the truth about the September 1999 apartment bombings, which led to a new invasion of Chechnya and brought Mr. Putin to power. More than 300 were killed in the explosions in four buildings. Soon after, three agents of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, were caught placing a fifth bomb in the basement of a building in Ryazan. The bomb, disarmed before it could explode, tested positive for hexogen, the explosive used in the four explosions. Other evidence that has built up over the years also points to the FSB.
The U.S. never raised the question of why FSB agents were caught putting a bomb in the basement of an apartment building. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declined to answer questions about the bombings from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying only that “acts of terror have no place in a democratic society.” Russia blamed the bombings on Chechen rebels. Unless the truth is established, terror may become the way power changes hands in Russia from now on.
Many Russia critics focus on corruption, which is easy to understand. But the bigger danger the Putin regime presents to the world is a mentality that treats murder as a normal part of political life. The notion of human beings as completely expendable originated in socialism, with its abolition of private property and conversion of the individual into the property of the state. That idea is ingrained in the minds of Russian leaders.
Russia has responded to Mr. Biden’s remark by threatening an “irreversible degradation of relations.” But the path to better relations leads through the realization by Russia’s leaders that the rest of the world is determined to place limits on their crimes. The president needs to reverse decades of U.S. political practice and act on his acknowledgment of Mr. Putin’s role. If he doesn’t, the Russian ruler’s next crime is only a matter of time.
Mr. Satter is author, most recently, of “Never Speak to Strangers and Other Writing From Russia and the Soviet Union” and an adviser to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
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Biden Should Follow His ‘Killer’ Instinct – The Wall Street Journal