Many Americans, including leading Republicans, were affronted by President Trump’s nonchalant response to Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly’s characterization of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “killer.” The Kremlin, for its part, demanded an apology from Fox — and got a sarcastic reply from O’Reilly instead. Something that has fallen by the wayside in all these exchanges, though, is the question of how fair it is to call Putin a killer.
It’s not a trivial question. Putin is not a bloodthirsty, Stalin-like dictator. He has stubbornly resisted calls for the reinstitution of the death penalty in Russia, put on hold during the country’s brief romance with Europe. “Experts do not believe tougher punishment leads to the eradication of crime or the lowering of crime rates,” he said in 2013. On the other hand, it’s hard to ignore that some of Putin’s enemies and political opponents have turned up dead.
The three most prominent murders that are commonly blamed on Putin in the West are those of politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015, journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, and former intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, also in 2006. An official inquiry in Britain concluded it was likely that Putin was behind the assassination of Litvinenko, who was poisoned with the radioactive substance polonium-210. That’s the closest anyone has come to pinning a murder on Putin. The KGB — the organization that taught Putin most of what he knows about the world — has a long tradition of assassinating “traitors,” primarily defectors. In his memoir, Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general, recalled an episode from his work in the U.S. under journalistic cover in the 1960s. His boss, the New York station chief, told him he’d propose to Moscow that Kalugin shoot Yury Nosenko, a high-level defector to the U.S.:
“I hope you haven’t neglected your target practice,” he continued. “Can you still shoot? Would you be able to finish off the traitor at this meeting?” His question caught me off-guard, but I quickly replied, “Of course I could.” “We could get you out of it later, of course,” he went on. “You know, swap you for a Western spy. So there’s no need to worry.”
Kalugin was never asked to go through with the killing, but one can easily imagine KGB veteran Andrei Lugovoy, the man whom a British judge found guilty of poisoning Litvinenko, having a similar conversation with some important official in the KGB successor service, the FSB. Putin is on record as saying betrayal is, to him, the gravest possible sin; he once told a Moscow editor he was willing to tolerate and even respect an enemy but not a traitor.
Litvinenko would qualify as a traitor by FSB standards: He publicly accused his former service of ordering him to kill oligarch Boris Berezovsky, the man who helped Putin win the presidency in 2000 but then became a staunch opponent. He also claimed, on sketchy evidence, that the KGB organized the 1999 bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow, which were officially blamed on terrorists from the separatist region of Chechnya. After fleeing Russia in 2000, Litvinenko depended on the largesse of Berezovsky, but also of British intelligence — another red flag for the FSB.
In the case of Politkovskaya, Russian courts have convicted the actual murderers, but failed to determine who had planned and ordered the contract killing. The same pattern has emerged in the Nemtsov case, in which the trial is to continue on Feb. 14. Yet, though both Politkovskaya and Nemtsov were outspoken critics of Putin, friends, colleagues and family have not accused him of ordering the assassinations.
In both cases, there have been strong suggestions of the involvement of Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, installed by Putin to pacify the rebellious region. But despite clear ties between the convicted and accused killers and Kadyrov’s inner circle, the Chechen leader has not been asked to testify at either trial.
Kadyrov is a Putin appointee; and he enjoys such a special status in Putin’s Russia that, it appears at times, Russian laws don’t apply to Chechnya. Both Politkovskaya and Nemtsov harshly criticized the thin-skinned Chechen for his human-rights abuses. It would, however, be unfair to ascribe crimes Kadyrov may have ordered or committed directly to Putin. The Russian leader is himself a hostage to the scheme he chose to end a decade-long war of secession in Chechnya.
The corrupt and often ruthless system Putin has maintained in Russia is clearly a killer, and not just by dint of empowering people like Kadyrov. Since Putin came to power, 25 journalists were killed for work-related reasons. Many of them had been investigating corruption by Putin-appointed officials or exposing injustice by Putin’s billionaire friends — like Mikhail Beketov, the editor of a small paper in the Moscow suburbs that opposed a highway project led by Putin crony Arkady Rotenberg. Only three journalists have been murdered in the U.S. in the same period, and two of them were victims of a terror attack.
People also suffer injuries when they come into contact with Russia’s brutal and opaque law enforcement and justice systems. There are no official statistics on the number of people killed, beaten and tortured by police, but news reports of violent incidents are a daily reality. According to Rusebola.com, which attempts to collect independent statistics on inmate deaths in the Russian penal system, 99 people died in Russian jails and prisons in 2016. Had these statistics existed in 2009, Sergei Magnitsky, the tax lawyer whose death is often blamed on Putin, would have been included in them: A Kremlin human-rights council determined that Magnitsky, who had been denied medical help, was beaten by eight prison guards shortly before his death.
The degree of an authoritarian ruler’s personal responsibility is higher than in a state with a working system of checks and balances. Such a country’s interests inevitably merge with the ruler’s interest in keeping power. So, compared to U.S. leaders, Putin must accept more personal responsibility for the victims of his policies, his adventures and his mistakes. That includes the people killed in terror attacks that followed his harsh actions in Chechnya, as well as the many deaths resulting from his support of Ukrainian separatists and President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
To call Putin a killer, though, is to reduce Russia’s problems to the size of Putin’s compact body. The system he has built will likely still be there long after he is gone, and it will keep killing, even if Russia’s next leader makes an attempt at liberalization.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.