Let’s Not Forget Russia Remains a Thug State

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Authors on this platform and others rightly point out that many in Washington have developed a sort of Russia hysteria. Those who want to uphold the United States as the policeman of the world are eager to lump in any non-interventionist point of view with a pretend link to Russia. The same is true in Europe: Criticize the European Union on its apparent malfunctions, and you will be hit with the inevitable criticism that you are dancing to the Kremlin’s tune. That said, it’s advisable that while we refute those ideas, we don’t fall for the conclusion that Russia is not a threat.

This month, dozens of staff of the Russian embassy in Prague will need to return to Moscow. The Czech Republic has decided to expel these diplomats amid the discovery that the Kremlin was involved in the explosion of a Czech munitions depot in 2014. Two of the people targeted by the expulsion are Alexander Petrov (alias of Alexander Mishkin) and Ruslan Boshirov (alias of Anatoliy Chepiga), whose faces will be familiar to many readers as they are also the accused parties in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, England, in March of 2018. In solidarity with the Czech Republic, Slovakia has also expelled diplomats from the Russian embassy in Bratislava.

In the Baltics, citizens live in constant fear of the military presence of Russia in their immediate neighborhood. Russia has stationed some 18,000 troops in the immediate border area with Estonia and Latvia. Short-range ballistic miles have been stationed by Russian forces a mere 75 miles from the Estonian border and only 27 miles from the Lithuanian border. The border between Lithuania and Poland, known as the Suwalki corridor, is a mere 40 miles-long and is the only land connection between the E.U./NATO member in the Baltics and Central Europe. To the left of the corridor is the Russian-held Kaliningrad exclave, and to the right is Russia-friendly Belarus. In case of a military escalation, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia could quickly be cut off from the rest of the European allies.

Another European country pained with the presence of Russia and its proxies is Ukraine, which since the annexation of the Crimean peninsula has suffered ongoing tensions and war in its Eastern regions. In a recent statement, Ukraine’s foreign minister warned Moscow of crossing the red line by entering its territory. Russia has built up a capacity of 80,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, with more arriving each day.

The potential of occupation isn’t theoretical; it happened in practical terms to the Republic of Georgia. A good 20 percent of the internationally recognized territory of Georgia has been occupied by Russian forces, which are pretending to “protect” the independent countries of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The harrowing realities of Russian aggression are displayed in a Vice report from 2015, which outlines how Russian forces and proxies move border posts to serve their own interests.

The nations targeted by this threatening behavior are in themselves no threat to Russia. Georgia has a population of just over ten million people. Ukraine has nowhere near the military capacity to oppose Russia in a war. It is understandable how a country such as Estonia, with a population just above one million, seeks close ties with its Western allies.

While Russia is not a palpable threat to the United States–particularly not when compared to the way it was during the Cold War–that does not mean that the U.S has no role to play in the mechanism of international diplomacy. An essential step was taken in 2012 with the adoption of the Magnitsky Act, named after the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. He had been wrongfully imprisoned and killed following the uncovering of a massive corruption scandal. The European Union has since followed the example of the U.S with a comparable piece of legislation passed just last year. The bill sanctions Russian officials responsible for human rights abuses and freezes their assets in the jurisdictions of the U.S. or E.U. member states.

Recognizing the abysmal human rights record of the Russian state does not mean ignoring the complicity of the United States in supporting countries such as Saudi Arabia or the hypocrisy of Europe cozying up to China while Beijing suppresses and tortures entire ethnicities in its country. It would appear that two things can be true at once. I am not a fan of calling an argument “whataboutism” in an effort to land a cheap retort. However, if you’re confronted with the case that Russia is the enemy of peace and liberty in Europe, starting your response with “what about…” is not a strong enough reply.

Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.

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