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The West Deserves Much Of The Blame For Putin's Rise To Unchecked Power

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The West deserves much of the blame for Putin’s rise to unchecked power

Global Opinions contributor|Follow
June 21, 2023 at 2:11 p.m. EDT

PRETRIAL DETENTION CENTER NO. 5, MOSCOW — Dictatorial regimes can come to power in different ways. Sometimes, it is through years of civil war, as with the Bolsheviks in Russia after 1917. Sometimes, it is through democratic procedures, as in 1930s Germany. Or, as in Chile in 1973, it can happen as the result of a military coup.


Vladimir Putin achieved power in 1999 by a backroom deal in the top ranks of President Boris Yeltsin’s administration. But the new Kremlin leader needed time to transform Russia’s imperfect democracy into the seamless authoritarian system it is today. No one can pinpoint the precise moment Russia ceased to be democratic. But the year can be named with certainty.

It was 2003 — and this week marks exactly 20 years since the first turning point in that transformation. On June 22 of that year, Putin’s press ministry turned off the broadcasting signal of TVS, Russia’s last independent television network. In a characteristic display of Soviet-style hypocrisy, the official reason it cited was “viewers’ interests.” This was the final step in Putin’s campaign against independent television, which he had launched days after his inauguration with a security raid on the offices of Russia’s largest private media holding. Within three years, all major independent broadcasters — NTV, TV-6 and finally TVS — fell silent, giving the Kremlin a complete monopoly on the airwaves. Controlling public sources of information is a prerequisite to any dictatorship.


Two other milestones came later that year. In October 2003, Putin’s security services arrested Russia’s richest man, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The official charge was tax evasion. But the real reason was Khodorkovsky’s funding of civil society groups and opposition parties and his public confrontation with Putin over government corruption. This was a clear signal from the Kremlin to all of Russia’s business community: Stay loyal or stay out. Finally, in December came Russia’s parliamentary election that — for the first time since the end of Soviet rule — was assessed by international observers as unfair. It resulted in the ejection of pro-democracy parties from the Duma. With the Russian parliament becoming — in the unforgettable words of its speaker — “not a place for discussion,” Putin’s authoritarian transformation was complete.

f8bcdc37-eaf9-4ad5-9723-ecc86bc431f3.jpgFollow Vladimir Kara-Murza's opinions

For those of us who had been involved in the democratic opposition to Putin from the very start of his rule, it was painful to watch how calmly most of Russian society seemed to accept the dismantling of the nascent freedoms of the 1990s. There were street protests against the state takeover of NTV — but nowhere near the scale merited by the situation. There were principled voices in the Russian parliament against Putin’s authoritarian moves — such as Boris Nemtsov — but they were not matched by a mass popular movement. As a candidate for the Duma in the critical 2003 election, I remember well how indifferent most voters even in my Moscow district were to the country’s authoritarian turn. After the economic hardships that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet system in the 1990s, many people were willing to accept Putin’s unspoken social contract: higher living standards (bankrolled by rising oil prices) in return for giving up political freedoms.

So when politicians and opinion-makers in the West today speak of Russian society’s responsibility for allowing Putin’s rise to unchecked power (and ultimately leading us to the current war), they have a point — but only partly. Why? Because a very large part of that responsibility lies with the West itself.


When Putin came to power, Russia was fully integrated into the international rules-based system. It belonged to the Group of Eight industrialized democracies; it was a member of the Council of Europe, which serves to safeguard human rights on the continent; it was (and still is) a participating state in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose statutes explicitly assert that matters relating to democracy, human rights and the rule of law are of legitimate concern to all member states. So when Putin launched ever more active efforts to dismantle Russia’s democratic institutions, we in the Russian opposition naively thought the free world would express criticism.

Instead, American presidents of both parties applauded Putin’s rise. George W. Bush called him “a new style of leader, a reformer … who is going to make a huge difference in making the world more peaceful.” Barack Obama lauded his “extraordinary work … on behalf of the Russian people.” One German chancellor even went to work for one of Russia’s biggest state-controlled companies.

But perhaps the most grotesque gesture came from the British government, which welcomed Putin for a lavish state visit — complete with a horse-drawn carriage ride with the queen and billions of dollars in lucrative contracts — literally two days after he pulled the plug on TVS in June 2003. I covered that visit as a journalist, and I will never forget the surreal spectacle of Britain’s political and financial elite hosting the emerging dictator at an ornate banquet at the London Guildhall.


The immorality and cynicism of this realpolitik aside, the architects of the Western policy of embracing Putin ignored two fundamental warnings from history: that internal repression in Russia always translates into external aggression and that appeasing an aggressor always leads to war. Again, the free world has learned this the hard way. After he got away with so much else over the years, both at home and abroad, it is not surprising that Putin thought he could get away with occupying Ukraine, too.


Incredibly, there are still voices in the West who are suggesting that he should. Day after day, Russian state television (which I am forced to watch in my prison cell) relays statements by Kremlin-friendly politicians and talking heads in Western Europe and the United States calling for some kind of an “understanding” with Putin over Ukraine. I can think of no better recipe for disaster — and for a new, even larger war a couple of years down the road — than handing the aggressor yet another cave-in.

There is only one outcome of this conflict that would be in the interests of the free world, of Ukraine and, ultimately, of the Russian people: resounding defeat for Putin, to be followed by political change in Russia and a Marshall Plan-type international assistance program both to rebuild Ukraine and to help post-Putin Russia build a functioning democracy so that it never again becomes a threat to its own people or its neighbors. That is the only way to make sure Europe can finally become whole, free and at peace — and stay that way.

Both Russian society and the West are responsible for letting Putin come as far as he did. Both of us also share the responsibility to get it right this time.


Vladimir Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician and Post contributor who has been imprisoned in Moscow since April for speaking out against the war on Ukraine. He has been designated by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.
Edited by W. Niederhut
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