The United States should not justfollow, we should lead.
Take the lead, Mr. President.
AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, fileIn this Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 file photo, snow falls as Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony marking the Defenders of the Fatherland Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia.
What kind of country assassinates the opposition leader virtually on the steps of their legislature; puts hits out on citizens who speak out against them, even outside its borders; orders the persecution of government employees; foreign politicians and governments to cyber attacks; sends troops across sovereign borders and generally behaves like a 16th century dictatorship? The answer, of course, is Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
We have became so inundated with news, fake and otherwise, that we’ve become numb to reality of suffering abroad. The horrors of far-away places become somehow too much to rationalize, too large and complex to grasp, let alone tackle. So we briefly recoil and then return to the daily grind of work, community, and kids, naively thinking the wolf half a world away won’t come to our door.
Russia, however, is not that far away. And it is already coming. Their aircraft approach our airspace in North America regularly, their ships and submarines skirt our coastlines. They have planted flags in the high north in disputed, territorial Arctic waters. They are within striking distance, if we dare contemplate that chilling truth. Canadians and Russians may share a certain natural affinity as northern peoples, but our governments are increasingly and fundamentally opposed.
The truth is actually worse than the most inflammatory coverage in the Western media. There is truly no free press or speech in Russia. And regime opponents are dying
In Canadian politics, heated debates can see rhetorical arrows like “dictators,” “despots,” “anti-democratic” fly. But let’s be clear, those are words which clearly define the reality of the situation in Russia today. The truth is actually worse than the most inflammatory coverage in the Western media. There is truly no free press or speech in Russia. And regime opponents are dying.
Last week, a former Russian legislator, Denis Voronenkov, was shot in the back of the head in the streets of Kyiv. He was preparing to give testimony to prosecutors, presumably against the Russian government. The assassin was identified as a Russian agent. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called it “an act of state terrorism.”
The plight of Vladimir Kara-Murza, who worked closely with principal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, is another blatant example of the cruelty and oppressive nature of the Russian regime. Nemtsov, who was murdered on a bridge within sight of the Kremlin, was a former deputy PM and pro-democracy advocate. The killers, still on trial, are all linked to Putin. Kara-Murza, himself an outspoken proponent of human rights, a free and democratic Russian and strong defender of Nemtsov’s memory and legacy, has twice been poisoned by unknown assailants.
This list of high-profile deaths at the hands of Russian agents is shocking in the extreme, but only scratches the surface. Ex-pats, former agents, advocates and activists are often shot at close range or poisoned in incidents that can in most cases can be traced back to Kremlin. A list appeared recently in these pages of the National Post. The blatant brutality makes the fictional, Bond-film espionage seem tame by comparison.
And on it goes. Opponents and critics are silenced and murdered. The media is controlled. Government propaganda deceives the public. This rapid return to Soviet and “Stalinesque” ways has brought Russian society back to an era where they were isolated and dysfunctional. Abroad, the picture is just as bad. Russia commits war crimes in Syria and props up the Assad regime, while threatening NATO and annexing parts of Ukraine. The invasion of Crimea is the worst example of their aggression, but the reach of their cyber warriors is felt everywhere, including right here in the democratic West. The recent subway bombing in St. Petersburg will surely further embolden Putin in his crackdowns on opposition under the guise of fighting terrorism.
One of the greatest crimes has been the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a tax lawyer and prominent activist who courageously fought to expose corruption at the highest levels in the Kremlin. He paid the ultimate price for this public good. While working in Russia, American investment banker Bill Browder discovered massive fraud and systemic theft within the bureaucracy by corrupt officials. Upon learning of Browder’s discovery, the same corrupt officials and their political masters cynically banned Browder from re-entering Russia and charged and prosecuted Magnitsky, his lawyer, who had refused to flee his homeland after taking on the case. He was arrested, beaten, imprisoned and tortured before dying in custody after 358 days in a Moscow jail. They later convicted him after his death in a sham trial in July of 2015. Much of this is chronicled in Browder’s powerful book recounting his experience in Russia, Red Notice.
It is incumbent upon civilized nations to push back when the rule of law is abrogated in such a blatant way, and Canadians now have a historic opportunity. In addition to making the investments required to meet our NORAD and NATO commitments, we can pass the Magnitsky Act and hold those responsible for the abominable and disruptive behaviour of Russia. This would send a clear signal of solidarity to the long-suffering Russian people and to our allies who have taken action. Shared values is a lovely expression, but it must be an actionable item if it is to have meaning. Canada must demonstrate, as we have before, that we have the backs of those in need and are prepared to take meaningful steps to follow through on lofty rhetoric. Efforts to sanction officials involved in illegal activity would bring some measure of justice.
Barring travel, denying visas, and seizing assets are just a few proper steps in that direction that Canada has already taken. The American and British governments have already gone further. A Magnitsky Act has passed in the United Kingdom and the United States, where it was championed by Arizona’s Sen. John McCain, who has been very active and outspoken on Russia and the threat they pose to world order (he once memorably described the country as “a mafia-run gas station masquerading as a country”). He and others in Congress have led the charge to demand personal and political accountability.