While Fox was airing its pre-Super Bowl interview of President Donald Trump, who refused to accede to Bill O’Reilly’s characterization of Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a killer,” Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. lay in a medically induced coma in a Moscow hospital. Kara-Murza is only 35, but he had been walking with the help of a cane because of something that happened two years ago: a sudden onset of nausea and a quick descent into multiple organ failure and coma. After weeks in intensive care in Moscow in 2015, he was finally examined abroad and was told that he had high levels of heavy metals in his system. It seemed to confirm his friends’ and family’s worst fear—which the Russian hospital had been pooh-poohing—that Kara-Murza had been poisoned for his relentless opposition to the Kremlin. Shortly before his organs failed in one afternoon in 2015, Kara-Murza had made a trip to Washington to ask lawmakers to sanction eight people he believed were responsible for the assassination of his old friend and ally, Boris Nemtsov.
Now, the fear, and the symptoms, are the same. In 2015, Kara-Murza survived and moved his family to the United States, but went right back to work with the Russian opposition. By Monday evening, the wretched diagnosis came: “acute intoxication with an unknown substance.” Whoever had poisoned him the first time had apparently returned to finish the job.
I seriously doubt that O’Reilly was referring to Kara-Murza when he spoke of Putin being a killer. I seriously doubt he even knows who Kara-Murza is. I seriously doubt that most of the commentators, both liberal and conservative, who exploded at Trump’s response know who Kara-Murza is, or could name any of the people Putin allegedly killed. Remember Oleg Erovinkin? Mikhail Beketov? Galina Starovoytova?
In fact, it’s hard to say Putin is a killer. Putin hasn’t technically killed anyone himself. He didn’t personally fire bullets into journalist Anna Politkovskaya and he didn’t personally drop bombs on children in Aleppo. He just issues general orders that make these things so. When it comes to eliminating domestic opposition, Putin comes from a long tradition, maintained by his native KGB and its forebears, of ensuring that political dissent remains a mortally dangerous proposition. Yet despite these roots, he is not a very bloody ruler, at least not by Russian standards. He has not sent millions to the Gulag or, like Stalin, signed in red pencil kill lists thousands of names long.
Rather, he has created an atmosphere in which his minions—like Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov or young nationalist punks or even uniformed officers of the state—can kill with impunity. Even when tens of thousands of people protested against him in the winter of 2011-2012, he didn’t respond with mass arrests and purges. He sent a few dozen people to jail, not for 25 years, but for two or three. The government picked sample protestors from each social group—an anarchist, a pensioner, a young liberal—because the point was not so much to punish specific individuals but to send a clear, targeted message about the costs of going against him. By American standards, Putin may be a killer, but by Russian standards, he is downright moderate in how he dispatches with his enemies.
Here’s another uncomfortable truth. Whether you, like Barack Obama, see Russia as a declining regional power, or like Trump, see it as a global powerhouse, it’s impossible to operate on the global stage without some degree of cooperation from Putin, who will insinuate himself as a spoiler even if you ignore him. But to build any kind of working relationship with him, Putin requires you to shelve the moral sanctimony—which isn’t too crazy a proposition in a partnership. George W. Bush, for instance, found that his romance with Putin ended where the lecturing and “democracy promotion” began.
Obama’s “reset” of relations with Russia, launched at the very beginning of his presidency, was another case in point. At its core was something called “dual-track engagement,” designed by Obama’s Russia adviser (and later ambassador to Moscow) Michael McFaul. On one track, work with the Kremlin where you can—on counterterrorism, on space, on fighting in Afghanistan—and on the other, engage Russian civil society. Though McFaul was a liberal committed to spreading Western democracy to the lands of the former Soviet Union, dual-track engagement turned out to be an exercise in hard-nosed realpolitik.
The problem was that engagement on the second track often had to be downplayed for the sake of engagement on the first track, lest it infuriate Putin and scuttle, say, plans to have the Russians launch American astronauts into space. And so while the Obama White House scored some geopolitical successes—retaining control of the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan and convincing Putin to allow a NATO transit point on Russian territory to help men and materiel get to Afghanistan—it also found itself trying to kill the Magnitsky Act, which introduced sanctions against people involved in the brutal murder of Russian lawyer Sergey Magnitsky. And until Washington fully threw in with the pro-democracy protestors in 2011-2012, many in the Russian opposition were highly critical of the Obama administration. Here we are, bleeding for democratic values, many argued, and all you care about is a Kyrgyz airbase?
The point is, maybe it’s not so stupid and craven to start negotiations by declining to call the guy who is now a key player in the Middle East and Europe a “killer.”
But, of course, the real significance of Trump’s response to O’Reilly has little to do with what Putin is doing internally. And it’s unclear that Trump knows anything about the workings of the Obama administration’s Russia “reset” other than it was, in his view, a bad deal.
It was, however, one of those political moments that illuminates what Americans talk about when they talk about Russia. For liberals, it was another sign of Trump going out of his way to avoid criticizing his favorite macho authoritarian—and perhaps political patron—at the expense of American interests, and their erstwhile candidate. For conservatives, it was the fact of a Republican president indirectly calling American troops killers rather than engaging in a full-throated ode to American exceptionalism. It was yet another moment of Trump utterly scrambling traditional political differences.
But the real and far more troubling point, I think, is one my colleagues Adam Serwer and Peter Beinart noted: The man in charge of America seems to believe that being a killer is a good thing, because the head of a nation should be a skull-cracking, throat-kicking action hero, that he too has created an atmosphere of hostility against journalists that could spill into something real and bloody. And that has little to do with Russia.