Since 1999, Vladimir Putin has led a Russian government that tramples on human rights and international norms. His government increasingly restricts freedom of the press and censorship is pervasive, especially for opinions critical of the government. Putin and his cronies are linked to murders of numerous political dissenters and journalists. Russian authorities persecute religious minorities that they deem “nontraditional,” such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Tatar Muslims. The Kremlin tacitly approves the Chechen authorities’ continued gross violations of human rights including disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings based on suspected sexual orientation.
Russian forces actively fight in eastern Ukraine, and earlier this year, the Kremlin further tightened its control of Crimea as it finished the illegal construction of a bridge crossing the Kerch Strait. Russian troops occupy the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and continue to occupy the Transnistria region in Moldova against the government’s wishes. Moscow continues to prop up Bashar Al Assad’s regime—who uses chemical weapons against civilians—by providing weapons and thousands of troops.Russian cyberattacks disrupt democratic institutions around the globe. Additionally, Russia still denies its involvement in the downing of Malaysian Flight 17, resulting in the deaths of 298 people.
The United States and the European Union have responded to Putin’s provocations with sanctions designed to curb the Kremlin’s aggression. Despite these sanctions, which have damaged Russia’s economy and major corporations owned by Putin’s cronies, Putin has brazenly persisted in shattering international law and civilized norms.
Today, it appears that the Kremlin is less interested in sanctions relief and is after something less tangible: moral equivalence. The more nations that accept that Russia’s actions are morally equivalent to those of Western countries, the more the world will overlook Putin’s disregard of international norms and human rights. Moral equivalence secures his public approval—and therefore power—within his own country and gives him impunity abroad.
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Contributor: Sean McAndrews, Max Kampelman Fellow