President Trump’s expression of “respect” for Vladimir Putin in an interview that aired over the weekend, and his comparison of extrajudicial killings by the Putin regime to American actions, has ushered in a new era in U.S.-Russian relations. Never before has an American president implied that political murder is acceptable or that the U.S. is guilty of similar crimes.
The goal of improved relations with the Russian president, as Mr. Trump explained, is to create the conditions for a U.S.-Russian alliance to fight Islamic State. But the result will be to cripple the Russian opposition, contribute to the propagandizing of the population, and diminish the ability of the U.S. to prevent internal and foreign Russian atrocities.
In the present atmosphere, Russian activists know they could be killed at any time. Last week Vladimir Kara-Murza, a political activist and journalist, was hospitalized with symptoms of poisoning. The motive for the poisoning may lie in statements Mr. Kara-Murza made to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last June. In his testimony, he called for the extension of sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, which imposed visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials involved in the 2009 torture and murder of Sergei Magnitsky, an anticorruption lawyer.
Mr. Kara-Murza said sanctions should be imposed on Russian human-rights abusers including Gen. Alexander Bastrykin, at the time Russia’s chief security officer and head of the Investigative Committee. Gen. Bastrykin resigned in September, and on Jan. 9 he was added to the list of those targeted by the Magnitsky sanctions.
Now Mr. Kara-Murza is in a coma, suffering from organ failure, and fighting for his life. The symptoms are identical to those he showed after being poisoned two years ago, when he was given a 5% chance of survival.
On Feb. 27, 2015, Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the Russian opposition, was shot dead as he crossed the Moskvoretsky Bridge in the shadow of the Kremlin. He was compiling a report on Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine whose presence was denied by the government. Earlier, he advised representatives of the U.S. government on targets for sanctions after the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine.
For both Mr. Kara-Murza and Nemtsov, the violence was demonstrative. Mr. Kara-Murza was poisoned twice in the same way, and Nemtsov was shot next to the Kremlin on the most heavily guarded bridge in Moscow. These are signs that the regime is not hesitant to indicate authorship of its crimes.
The oppositionists also face social isolation. Alexei Navalny, a prominent blogger, and Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister, have been physically attacked. A secretly filmed video of Mr. Kasyanov with his lover was shown on national television. Before he was killed, Nemtsov received death threats on social media. After his murder, images of his body were circulated on websites and social media, and posts denouncing him received hundreds of thousands of “likes.”
In such a hostile environment, U.S. backing is an important source of moral reinforcement for Russia’s political and human-rights activists. Mr. Trump’s remarks instead provide reinforcement for the Putin regime’s propaganda, which tries to convince Russians that the abuses they experience in their daily lives are typical of all countries.
An example was an Oct. 30 Russian news report that U.S. citizens, angered by vote fraud in the lead up to the Nov. 8 election, were ready to launch a massive demonstration in Washington, similar to the 2013-14 protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square. While the story about the U.S. demonstration was fabricated, in December 2011 Russians did take to the streets to protest widespread vote fraud. The “news” item was intended to persuade them that vote fraud was also typical of the U.S.
Mr. Trump’s statements suggesting that Russia and America are similar in abusing human rights and the U.S. also has “killers” will be quoted by the government, state-run media and other anti-opposition forces for years.
Mr. Trump also undermines America’s moral authority, making it more difficult for the U.S. to prevent Russian atrocities. In Syria, Russian forces have deliberately targeted markets, hospitals and homes. The London-based monitoring group Airwars estimates that there were at least 3,786 civilian deaths caused by Russian bombing between Sept. 30, 2015, and Dec. 20, 2016, with the actual numbers likely far higher. Death on this scale can generate new resistance. But Mr. Trump’s “respect” for Mr. Putin leaves little room for criticism. If the U.S. president is not concerned about political murders, what basis does he have for objecting to the indiscriminate meting out of death from the air?
The attempt to mollify Russia is not new. In 1999 the U.S. failed to question Russia’s official explanations for the apartment bombings that brought Mr. Putin to power despite the arrest of state security agents found planting a bomb in an apartment building in Ryazan. In 2009 the Obama administration launched its “reset” policy despite the murders of Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB agent, and Anna Politkovskaya, a leading investigative reporter, and the invasion of Georgia.
Mr. Trump’s readiness to condone murder in the pursuit of an ill-advised U.S.-Russia partnership suggests that he doesn’t see the distinction between defensive war and the murder of one’s own people to hold on to power. Cooperation with Russia on these terms could involve the U.S. in crimes that neither the American people nor the world will accept. Mr. Trump needs to give more thought to his words—while there is still time.