OK. I agree that Vladimir Putin said some very sensible and intelligent things in his open letter to America about America’s militarist posture in Syria and the limitations of American exceptionalism. Granted also, that the tentative diplomatic process regarding Syria and also Iran which is currently unfolding at at the UN is largely due to the Russian initiative.
But before we make Putin some kind of flagbearer for a new international order, it’s worth getting things in perspective. We are after all, talking about the leader of a state that once blasted Grozny to pieces in the Second Chechen War of 1999, on the basis of terrorist bombings in Moscow that probably originated from his own secret services; a state that killed and tortured thousands of Chechens; that murdered the valiant Anna Politkovskaya; which poured gas into a Moscow theatre during the 2002 Chechen hostage crisis, killing 125 hostages and shooting 40 unconscious militants in the process; which very likely poisoned the FSB dissident Alexander Litvinenko.
And this week, Putin’s Russia has shown once again what kind of state it is. First there was the open letter from the imprisoned Pussy Riot member Nadehzda Tolokonnikova, revealing the dire Gulag-like conditions in which she and thousands of other female prisoners are held at the Mordovian Penal Colony No. 14.
Tolokonnikova is clearly an extraordinarily courageous and tenacious woman, with a real passion for justice, and her letter is not just a testament to the vindictiveness of a regime that still cannot tolerate criticism or dissent; it’s also an indictment of an oppressive, corrupt and brutal prison system that continues to treats all its inmates in much the same way that Stalin once did.
Now she has gone on hunger strike in protest at the 17-hour prison working day, declaring ‘I refuse to participate in slave labor at the camp until the directors of the colony begin to follow the law and treat women inmates as people rather than cattle.’ In retaliation she has been placed in solitary confinement ‘for her own safety’ and the authorities have promised an investigation into her claims, while threatening her to charge her with ‘slander’ if they are disproved.
In the same week Russia has opened charges of ‘piracy’ against the 30 Greenpeace activists on the impounded Arctic Sunrise who tried to scale a Gazprom drilling platform in the Arctic last week – charges that carry a maximum sentence of 15 years.
The charges are nonsensical to anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of Greenpeace’s activities. But Russia is as keen to take advantage of the new Arctic ‘Gold Rush’ that melting ice and global warming has initiated and re-establish the old Soviet ‘Red Arctic’ in the new century.
For Gazprom, like the other oil majors looking to take advantage of the Arctic’s melting ice, a looming catastrophe for humankind is a commercial opportunity, and Russia is clearly seeking to set an example to prevent anyone who might follow Greenpeace’s example and seek to put a brake on the exploitation of the Arctic’s resources.
All of which is entirely normal behavior for a partially-reconstructed Stalinist state, led by a former KGB man who rules through authoritarianism, gangsterism, reactionary populism, and Gazprom, and who, whatever his views on American militarism, is really not someone to be admired for very much else.