Putin Rebrands Himself a Peacenik

Putin at the World Economic Forum. Courtesy World Economic Forum, Creative Commons license. By Amanda Krupman

Vladimir Putin has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

This just happened.

Yet I began writing this article before the formal announcement of his nomination, because the glory campaign was set in motion soon after (or with) his incredible (in the sense that it was beyond belief) open letter to Americans in the New York Times—placed by his U.S.-based PR firm, Ketchum. The letter concerned the situation in Syria, and had the Russian President calling on pro-intervention Americans to set aside their misguided Arthurian "might for right" mantras. And, while we're at it, we should all take a look at our nation’s God Complex.

The letter had its intended impact in that Russia’s U.N. Security Council veto was given a context of cool-headedness instead of defiance. It also brought into relief some surprising harmonies in the otherwise discordant sing-a-long of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Syria?” The op-ed had ultra-conservatives fawning over Putin’s letter, which stressed that a “peaceful, political route” would be possible and was the proper course of action. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan called it an “outstanding piece,” while former Reagan administration aide K.T. McFarland made no delay in praising Putin and taking a potshot at President Obama in her headline “Putin is the one who really deserves that Nobel Peace Prize.” Nevermind that Putin speciously claimed that the chemical attacks were likely committed by rebel groups; nevermind that Russia has proven to have vested interest in maintaining the unquestionably murderous Syrian dictatorship in power; nevermind the hypocrisy of advising against attacking a nation without international backing while Russian troops still occupy villages in Georgia.

If you read the comments running after Putin’s op-ed, you also got the impression that otherwise reflexively liberal New York Times readers were also enchanted by the sober and sound message that Putin seemed to be offering:

“I am shocked that, after reading President Putin's opinion, I feel that he is correct. The Russian President, an ex-KGB agent, a man who has led his county on some of their own missions of destruction, suddenly delivers a message which strikes a chord in me. Why, I wonder, am I reacting this way? I think it is because, despite the hypocrisies in President Putin's writing, he makes sense - simple, common sense….”

“…Much of this post is thought provoking and has a tone of reasonableness that I find disturbing to my prejudices. What a crazy world we are living in when Russia sounds more sane and responsible than our own government on a serious international crisis. It's as if I have blundered into some bizarre parallel universe.”

Well, right. Published on September 11, amid remembrances of lost Americans in the World Trade Center attacks, the letter underscored the anxiety and exhaustion so many of us feel when faced with another involvement in a Middle East conflict after over a decade of American occupations.

So let’s agree not to quibble over whether Putin’s insistence that there was another way is correct. He was correct. There was another way.

But back to this Nobel Peace Prize business.

Evidence of Russia’s human rights violations and suppression of speech is all over the news.

In 2012, Moscow's feminist political band Pussy Riot led a peaceful protest criticizing Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, somewhat appropriately, in a church. After their subsequent arrests, three members were convicted of a religious hate crime and sentenced to two years in prison. The arrest, indictment, and sentencing were internationally condemned by artists, musicians, and human rights organizations like Amnesty International.

Protestors in balaclavas (as worn by members of Pussy Riot) protest Pussy Riot members' arrest.

One member of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, was sentenced to two years at a notoriously bleak prison camp. About ten days after Putin’s calls for civility were printed in the Times, London’s Guardian published another open letter, this one from Tolokonnikova, announcing her intent to go on hunger strike in protest of the “brutal” conditions and “flagrant” human rights violations she and other prisoners suffered. In full color Tolokonnikova described Stalinesque-era conditions that include 16- to 17-hour workdays; collective punishments for individual infractions, turning prisoner against prisoner; and periods of starvation, loss of “hygiene privileges” (ability to use a toilet and wash oneself), and in Tolokonnikova’s case, death threats from prison authorities.

And while political protestors are thrown away into hellholes, members of Russian LGBT communities are bravely challenging the nearly seven years of institutionalized homophobia, which besides unofficially sanctioning hate crimes and general discrimination by the Russian public, subjects them to the vague “gay propaganda” law, which Russia’s parliament passed in June this year. The law, which bans the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors," is written in a way that puts any LGBT person at risk of detainment, prosecution, petty fines, and possible prison sentences just for the sake of being out. Another ludicrous law passed this year already banned Americans from adopting Russian children, but going absolutely beyond the pale, last month a member of the Russian Parliament drafted a law that would take children away from Russian gay and lesbian parents, presumably to place them in the overflowing Russian orphanages whose children are now denied otherwise loving, responsible caretakers because of adult bigotry.

The final piece of Russian-related news flying in the face of the Putin=Peace equation concerns arresting members of an organization actually promoting peace. Russian security forces arrested 30 Greenpeace protestors September 27 after two attempted to board a Russian-owned, but not-yet-active oil rig to protest Arctic oil drilling. Reporting on the raid, the BBC published camera-phone images showing Russian commandos descending from helicopters onto Greenpeace’s ship, where they detained protestors and crew for two days and then towed them to shore, where all were eventually issued formal piracy charges.

All of these ongoing conflicts and violations underscore one truth in Putin’s Russia: dissent will be quashed.

For whatever amount of eyebrow raising President Obama’s Nobel win got for his fine-but-not-groundbreaking diplomacy efforts, the Russian president’s involvement in helping broker Syria’s weapons surrender is at best self-suiting, and arguably ignoble.

The Nobel Prize nomination itself isn’t so surprising; it’s fairly easy to qualify as a nominating organization: Putin’s is the Russian advocacy group "International Academy of Spiritual Unity and Cooperation of Peoples of the World,” an organization no one has ever heard of. And, as you may know, Stalin was once nominated, and so was Hitler. But the notion that anyone outside of Putin’s direct influence and political affiliation would seriously argue that Putin is worthy of such an honor makes me, in the words of Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Bob Menendez on reading Putin’s op-ed during his dinner, want to vomit.