On April 6, the Trump White House issued sanctions for nearly two dozen Russian oligarchs and government officials as punishment for Putin’s “malign activity” across the globe. Treasury officials claimed the sanctions were handed down in response to Russia’s “actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, cyber-hacking and attempts to subvert Western democracy.” These measures may not have been taken if the United Kingdom had not accused the Kremlin of attempting to murder a British citizen. Though the investigation is still ongoing, the international community has concluded that the Russian government was likely involved in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. In response to the attack, more than 20 countries inside and outside of the European Union have expelled Russian diplomats – the UK expelled 23 and the US expelled 60. For far too long, the “West” has politely averted its gaze when confronted with the Kremlin’s corruption. But will these tougher tactics convince a KGB autocrat to change his ways?
By freezing the US assets of 17 Russian government officials, seven oligarchs, and 12 Russian companies, the Trump Administration strengthened US opposition to Kremlin-led kleptocracy, revanchism and international crime. However, recent events suggest that Vladimir Putin has no intention of embracing glasnost anytime soon, even if the American government goes after his wallet. In November of 2017, Putin claimed, “In response to our alleged interference in their election, [the Americans] want to create problems with the presidential election in Russia.” What possible reason could the United States government have for intervening in Russia’s 2018 presidential election? Any dollar spent trying to alter the election’s outcome would be a dollar wasted. Putin won another six-year term with about 77 percent of the vote, though it is difficult to estimate what the numbers would have looked like if the election had not been blatantly manipulated by government officials.
Who could possibly list all of the methods used to manipulate the electoral results, and who could determine how dramatically each of these methods altered the outcome? There is video evidence of government officials stuffing the ballots and photographic evidence of carousel voting. Regions loyal to Putin reported 99 percent turnout, but Muslim-majority regions like Chechnya reported turnout percentages in the high 30s. Alexei Navalny, an opposition party leader and a prominent critic of Putin, was barred from running for president because of his embezzlement conviction. Meanwhile, the incumbent president has stolen tens of billions of dollars from his countrymen by letting oligarchs monopolize major industries in exchange for a cut of their profits. Would Navalny have won in a fair election against Putin? Almost certainly not, but no one will ever know, since the president decided it would be best if Navalny was exiled from Russian politics forever.
The 2018 Russian election did not greatly affect relations between the Kremlin and the United States, but it did force White House officials to drift away from appeasement and closer to aggression. Many Congressional representatives on both sides of the aisle threw a fit when President Trump congratulated Putin on his re-election, indicating that those in the American government are seeking to punish Russia for its consistent opposition to democracy. Four years ago, Ukrainian revolutionaries deposed President Victor Yanukovych, a kleptocrat who earned the hatred of his people for deep-sixing a EU association agreement and subsequently massacring protestors. The Kremlin offered Yanukovych a place to hide and seized upon this period of instability by invading Crimea and Ukraine. In 1999, Russia’s Federal Security Service killed almost 300 civilians in a series of apartment bombings which Prime Minister Putin falsely blamed on the Chechens. Western leaders decided not to think much about the relation between these bombings and the surge in popularity which propelled Putin to presidential victory in 2000. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the number of crimes Putin has committed to achieve his imperialist goals. The Trump White House cannot be blamed for the recent escalation in hostility with Russia. If the American government had not refused to resist Putin’s despotic tendencies for the past 20 years, perhaps we would not find ourselves in such an uncomfortable position.
Alex Klein is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.