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America Is Back, Putin Stays Put

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On the eve of the presidents’ meeting, the Kremlin is showing the White House an upsurge in repressive policies

A few days before the meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in Switzerland, two events took place and they will undoubtedly have an impact on the presidents’ talks. The first one is the recognition of Navalny’s foundation as an extremist organisation. The second one is the publication of an investigation by the Bellingcat journalist group that proves the poisoning of writer and journalist Dmitry Bykov in Novosibirsk in the spring of 2019 by the same FSB agents and with the use of probably the same poisonous substance as in the case of Alexei Navalny in August 2020.

The Russian government is consistently destroying any signs of opposition, doing this in the most literal and brutal sense of the word. It is not enough for the Kremlin that Navalny, who miraculously survived, now stays behind bars, his Foundation’s staff is under constant police pressure, and the headquarters had to be closed due to physical threat to people. The recognition of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation, which was established in its place, and Navalny’s headquarters as extremist organisations leads to the fact that everyone, who has touched upon them and even left positive comments on their actions on social networks, will be recognised as those involved in extremism. These people will be barred from running for elected positions for three years. Any publications about the activities of Navalny’s structures fall under the article on the dissemination of extremist materials and attempts to donate money – under the article on financing of extremism, which provides for up to eight years in prison.

U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price already issued a statement condemning the persecution of non-violent organisations and their supporters only because they tried to take advantage of the fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation. The statement also calls for Navalny’s release, although it is clear that the Russian government is deliberately demonstrating to its citizens and the world the disregard for the law and the consistent intimidation of anyone who dares to criticise Putin’s regime. And the fact that this decision was not even postponed until Putin meets with Biden is very significant; it is a sign: “We will do anything we want inside our country.”

There are no limits to this “anything,” and the case of Dmitry Bykov proves this. Bykov has never been a politician. Once, back in 2012, in the wake of the then protests, he was a member of the Coordination Council of the opposition together with Navalny, Kasparov and others, and this is the only case of the writer’s participation in any political structures. Indeed, he does not hide his disapproval of the regime, his journalistic and poetic speeches and posts are full of criticism. At the protests, which took place 10 years ago, Bykov was remembered by the poster reading “Do not rock the boat – our rat feels nauseous.” This turned out to be enough to classify Bykov not only as disloyal but also as dangerous, and to give the order to poison him if not to kill. Moreover, the regular state divisions were involved, from FSB officers to chemical scientists and physicians who are experts in chemical warfare agents.

This lack of any moral brakes and ostentatious assassination determines the essence of the Putin regime in the third decade of his rule. When Joe Biden agreed with an ABC News interviewer that Putin was a killer, it was by no means a metaphor. And now, just before the face-to-face meeting of presidents, there has been further evidence of this assertion, which seemed too categorical and undiplomatic.

Joe Biden marked the central goal of the big European tour: to let everyone know that America is back. In particular, let Putin know what the U.S. president wants. This was announced by the U.S. president himself during a speech at the U.S. base in Great Britain. Yes, America is coming back and trying to unite all its allies and partners. And Putin has stayed put and does not intend to leave or change his own policy. On the contrary, there is a demonstrative increase in forceful arbitrariness. And it is not clear what America, which has come back, will do with it. One thing is clear: it is no longer possible to deceive oneself about today’s Russia and the prospects of resetting relations with it. Russia leaves no chance for such deception, openly challenging the West. How to deal with a killer who does not try to conceal but, on the contrary, emphasises that he kills and will kill? America, which has come back, must find an answer to this question. In fact, the answer to this question will prove that it is back indeed.

Leonid Shvets

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