The official conclusion that Vladimir Putin “probably approved” the murder of the former spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 has again raised uncomfortable questions about Russian exceptionalism – and how best to handle relations with what many conservative western politicians regard as a rogue regime in Moscow.
Russia’s sense of detachment from the European mainstream, or to put it another way, its self-created isolationism and separateness, is nothing new. It dates back to the 1917 revolution and the communist era, or even further, to the days of Tolstoy, Turgenev and the tsars.
But there are particular doubts about Putin, his strange brand of paranoid nationalism, and the state that has formed around the president.
A key issue for Putin’s western interlocutors is that Litvinenko’s death is not an isolated case, though the manner of his death was exceptional. Prominent opponents and critics of Putin have frequently come to grief, at home and abroad.
Anna Politkovskaya, an award-winning journalist, made her name reporting on Russian military abuses in the second Chechen war. She and her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, fiercely opposed Putin’s actions.
In October 2006 – one month before Litvinenko died – Politkovskaya was shot dead outside her home. Although five men were convicted of her murder, it remains unclear who ordered the killing.
Another cause célèbre was that of Sergei Magnitsky, who investigated corruption at the heart of the Russian state. An accountant and auditor, Magnitsky claimed to have uncovered large-scale theft of state funds by highly placed officials. He was arrested, beaten and denied adequate medical treatment. His death in custody in 2009 provoked protests from western governments and human rights groups.
And then there was the even more opaque case of Boris Nemtsov, a leading political opponent of Putin’s, who was gunned down last February hours after issuing an appeal for public support in opposing Russia’s war in Ukraine. Although several suspects have been arrested or have died in violent circumstances, no clear motive for the attack has been established.
Putin’s apparent lack of respect for what most nations, and the UN, regard as legal and democratic norms, and his apparent tolerance of high-level corruption at home and in relation to Russian state complicity in the Fifa World Cup and athletics drug abuse scandals, have further set the country apart.
This exceptionalism has caused mounting problems on the international stage. Putin’s support for pro-Russian secessionists in sovereign Georgian territory led to war there in 2008, when he ordered a large-scale invasion of the country following Georgian government provocations. The breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain under de facto Russian control.
This action was a harbinger of worse to come. In March 2014 Russia annexed Crimea and intervened militarily in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s actions, in open breach of international law and UN treaties, led to a protracted conflict in Ukraine, the imposition of western sanctions against Russia, and Russia’s expulsion from the G8 group of countries. Russian-backed and armed fighters are also suspected of shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.
In similarly arbitrary fashion, Putin ordered Russian military forces into Syria last autumn in an attempt to reinforce Moscow’s ally, Syria’s beleaguered president, Bashar al-Assad. Human rights groups have recorded a rising civilian death toll as Putin’s bombers pursue an apparently indiscriminate campaign against Assad opponents. Latest estimates suggest 1,015 civilians have died at Russian hands since September, including 238 children.
Even areas where there might be common ground with the west have merely reinforced Russia’s special view of itself.
Although the US and Britain sympathise over jihadi extremism emanating from the north Caucasus region, the way Putin has dealt with it has often left a feeling of deep unease.
Most notorious is the Beslan school hostage siege, mounted by Islamist terrorists in North Ossetia in September 2004, that ended in a terrifying massacre after security forces were ordered by the government to storm the building. In all, 334 hostages died, including 186 children. Far from apologising for the slaughter, Putin used the incident as a pretext to consolidate presidential security powers.
This incident echoed the 2002 Moscow theatre siege – another terrorist attack that ended when the FSB pumped toxic gas into the theatre. All the attackers died but so, too, did 130 hostages. In any western country, such a calamity would have caused a political firestorm and top-level resignations. Not in Putin’s Russia.
Perhaps the key to understanding the president’s seemingly recalcitrant, obstreperous and sometimes downright illegal behaviour is his determination to re-establish Russia’s greatness – and his deep sense of Russian difference. Putin’s disturbing message to his western critics, repeated in many varied ways over 16 years in power, is plain: in theRodina, the motherland, your rules don’t apply.
Copyright © 2016 theguardian.com. All rights reserved.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.