Good morning, it’s Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Joe Biden meets tomorrow with his Russian counterpart. I trust the U.S. Secret Service will be extra vigilant. Vladimir Putin’s official title is the same as Biden’s -- “president” -- but this is a misnomer. Putin has ruled Russia for 21 years now if one includes the four years that “President” Dmitry Medvedev was his puppet.
Some of his sycophants want him to be named “Tsar,” but the Russian leaders he most resembles are the communist-era strongmen who ruled the Kremlin for most of the 20th century.
These cartoonish men were easy to underestimate, as an underprepared John F. Kennedy learned at precisely the same point in his presidency as Biden is today. And though the Russia-Trump campaign “collusion” narrative proved to be imaginary, Americans should have no illusions about the Kremlin’s longstanding attempts to disrupt civic life in United States -- or the depths to which Vladimir Putin will stoop. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the man is a credibly accused murderer. The Russian leader he most resembles is one whom he’s made preliminary attempts to rehabilitate: Joseph Stalin.
I’ll have more on that comparison in a moment. First, I’d point you to our front page, which aggregates, as it does each day, an array of columns and stories spanning the political spectrum. Today’s lineup includes Michael McFaul on Biden’s challenge in dealing with Putin (Foreign Affairs); Mike Pompeo on Russian cyberattacks (Fox News); Chris Cillizza on Mitch McConnell and the high court (CNN); and Ben Jealous on teaching racial history in schools (The Nation). We also offer a complement of original material from RCP reporters and contributors, including the following:
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On Infrastructure, WH Sticks to Meticulous “Sausage Making.” Phil Wegmann reports on the administration’s resistance to progressives’ calls to set infrastructure aside and focus instead on voting rights.
Ilhan Omar and Contempt for America. Charles Lipson assesses the congresswoman’s comparison of Israel and the U.S. to Hamas and the Taliban.
In Saving the Filibuster, Did Manchin Save the Senate? Adam Brandon sees great ramifications of Joe Manchin’s stance on maintaining the parliamentary procedure.
Illinois Dems’ Cultural Revolution. GOP official Don Tracy argues that bills passed in his state are at odds with the foundational view that government should be of, by and for the people.
Citizens United -- a Decade Later. Matthew Petersen, who was chairman of the FEC when the Supreme Court ruling came down, weighs in on the H.R. 1 provision calling for a constitutional amendment to undo the campaign finance ruling.
Welcome to Wokespeak. At RealClearInvestigations, John Murawski lays out the paradoxes that now abound in American public life -- for example, when "white flight” and its opposite, “gentrification,” are both condemned as racist.
Pennsylvania Schools Received More COVID Aid Than Health Care Providers. At RealClearPolicy, Adam Andrzejewski spotlights the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan outlays.
Benefits Cliff Coming. Also at RCPolicy, Matt Weidinger previews the curtailment of enhanced unemployment payouts, some as soon as early July but most by Labor Day.
Why Cancel Life-Saving Cures for Seniors? At RealClearHealth, Saul Anuzis warns that lifting intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines will stifle the development of breakthrough therapies for other maladies.
Boosting Diversity in Medical Schools. Also at RCHealth, Dr. G. Richard Olds offers this Rx.
Reading, Writing and Ratting Each Other Out. At RealClearEducation, Nicole Neily highlights how K-12 “bias response teams” have been weaponized to curtail free speech and open discussion among students.
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Although you can find the quotation easily on the Internet, Joe Stalin did not say “Death solves all problems -- no man, no problem.” The words were put in Stalin’s mouth by novelist Anatoly Rybakov. The reason they are so believable is that it’s a perfect description of how Stalin dealt with his political rivals and or perceived enemies -- even if those deemed expendable included millions of Russian farmers (called “kulaks”) and Ukrainian peasants. Genocide is probably the right way to think about it, as Stanford University historian Norman Naimark has detailed.
Vladimir Putin hasn’t done anything like that, and these mass murders are what Putin means when he acknowledges “the horrors of Stalinism.” But there was another kind of horror in those years in Russia: the knowledge among everyone inside the Kremlin (or Russian society at large) that Stalin could have you carted away and shot or imprisoned in the gulag without warning or explanation. These “purges” included heroes of the revolution, such as Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Bela Kun, and most famously Leon Trotsky, along with much of his family.
Putin is hardly in Stalin’s league in this regard, but it’s not for lack of trying. The list of murders, attempted assassinations, and suspicious deaths that have befallen Putin’s critics keeps growing:
-- Yuri Shchekochikhin (2003). Crusading anti-corruption journalist who died of a mysterious “illness” days before he was to leave for the U.S.
-- Sergei Yushenkov (2003). Army colonel who formed an opposition party and was investigating Putin; he was shot to death outside his Moscow home.
-- Anna Politkovskaya (2006) Another Russian journalist and author of the critical book “Putin’s Russia.” Fatally ambushed in her apartment building elevator.
-- Alexander Litvinenko (2006) Like Putin, he was a former KGB agent. He ran afoul of the regime by accusing Putin and the spy agency of staging a series of 1999 Moscow bombings blamed on Chechens. He also accused Putin of ordering Politkovskaya’s killing. According to the British government, Litvinenko was poisoned at a London hotel by Russian agents “probably” operating on Putin’s orders.
The list goes on: journalist Natalya Estemirova, kidnapped, shot, and left to die in the woods in 2009. Lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, beaten by police and denied medical care, which led to his death in 2009. Later that same year, human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who had represented Anna Politkovskaya, was shot outside the Kremlin. Anastasia Baburova became the third Novaya Gazeta reporter killed when she went to Markelov’s aid. In 2013, former Putin crony Boris Berezovsky was found hanged in his London bathroom in what appears to be a staged suicide. In 2015, Boris Nemtsov was fatally shot in the back outside the Kremlin hours after calling for a demonstration against Russia's military incursion into Ukraine.
In 2018, Russian agents poisoned former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the British town of Salisbury with a nerve agent, nearly killing two British subjects in the process. All four recovered, as did Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned in August 2020. Western intelligence officials believe that the brazen nature of these attempted assassinations -- the type of poison used and the identities of the suspected perpetrators (Russian agents) -- has a strategic purpose: They intimidate would-be critics inside Russia, while elevating Putin as a man with the power to thumb his nose at the U.S. and NATO. Putin even sneeringly made jokes about it in his run-up to the Biden meeting.
“We have been accused of all kinds of things,” he told NBC News. “Election interference, cyberattacks and so on and so forth. And not once, not once, not one time, did they bother to produce any kind of evidence or proof. Just unfounded accusations.”
“I’m surprised that we have not yet been accused of provoking the Black Lives Matter movement,” he added. Now there’s a thought. But I’ll leave you with another: After British officials determined that two Russians, who were identified by name, had murdered Alexander Litvinenko, instead of extraditing them to stand trial in the U.K., Putin awarded one of them a medal for “services to the motherland.”
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics