Russia's Invasion Tells Us Those Who Repress at Home Will Use Violence Abroad

The key lesson should be that the international community cannot continue to make an artificial distinction between a regime's internal and external policies.

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Despite headlines in the media about an ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, the invasion actually began in 2014, in the Crimean Peninsula and eastern Ukraine. Through all the years since 1991, after the collapse of the USSR and the establishment of independent Ukraine, Russia has intervened in the local politics and treated the country as its backyard. Because of geopolitical interests, especially Russia’s control of some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves, the international community and its institutions responded to the 2014 invasion with weak condemnations and sanctions. What we are seeing now is not an invasion of specific regions of Ukraine, but an overall attack meant to bring the country to its knees.

Attempts to rationalise Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to choose this moment as appropriate for the overall attack are problematic since rationalisation can slide into dangerous apologetics. Some left-wing commentators blame the deterioration mainly on US imperialism for trying to expand the NATO alliance and European powers for continuing the dialogue on strengthening the EU’s ties with Ukraine. Right-wing commentators, including some Donald Trump supporters in the US, see in Putin a “hero” who can save the world from the “oppression and hypocrisy” of liberal democracies, and advance their conservative and religious values. Irridentists around the world see the invasion as fulfilling the aspirations of parts of the Ukrainian population that identify with Russian culture, language and state, and believe that establishing an independent Ukrainian state worsened their condition. Some military and political commentators analyse Putin’s decision as a calculated strategic move designed to change geopolitical balances and shape a new world order in which Russia will once again have hegemonic weight similar to the Soviet era. Some of them think Putin is a strategic genius and are fascinated by him.

Perhaps in the future, historians will indeed be able to crack the Putin riddle. But it is already possible to understand his main motive. Totalitarian leaders of Putin’s kind primarily act in self-interest. To the disappointment of his fans around the world, Putin worries only about Putin, and is primarily concerned with his own future, not theirs. The price that the citizens of Ukraine, Russia and other countries of the world will have to pay for the realisation of Putin’s lust for power and corruption does not matter to him.

While Putin did not need any excuse and there is no justification for his overall attack on Ukraine, there is no doubt that in recent years quite a few events have taken place – within Russia and around the world – which make it easier for him to carry out his plots. At this moment of time, there are almost no internal and external brakes that can stop the Russian president.

Around the world, authoritarian leaders and regimes have promoted aggressive and repressive actions without paying a significant price. Among other things, in addition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine starting in 2014, Turkey invaded the Kurdish region in northern Syria, Azerbaijan has taken over large parts of the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump worked for Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories. Within national borders, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has taken the burning of the Amazon rainforest to new heights. India has changed the status of Kashmir and kept the residents there under siege, and China eliminated democracy in Hong Kong. 

It is also worth noting that the scuppering of Kashmir’s constitutionally protected status in India and the Israeli plan to annex the Palestinian territories were also carried out while the governments of India and Israel were working to crush their civil society and independent press.

Within Russia, after many years in which he persecuted the Russian opposition selectively, Putin, in the last two years leading up to the current attack on Ukraine, moved to a complete extermination of internal opposition. Accordingly, it was not at all surprising that the Russian parliament unanimously approved Putin’s “request” to deploy military force outside Russia. 

Alexei Navalny
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a court hearing in Moscow, Russia February 20, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

The key lesson should be that the international community cannot continue to make an artificial distinction between a regime’s internal violence and its external violence.

While the international community sees external violence as a threat to world order, it tends to ignore the internal violence of regimes, or at most condemns them in a weak voice. If in the past years, the international community was to side strongly with the opposition in Russia and impose more severe sanctions on the elite that surrounds Putin while he systematically erased Russia’s independent NGOs, journalists, opposition and civil society, there might be a chance we would not have reached a point where Putin could go all the way. 

The international community needs to understand that the repressive policies promoted by authoritarian leaders at home endangers not only the rights and freedom of their own people but also poses a wider threat.

Therefore, any negotiations and action by the international community regarding the end of the war in Ukraine must also include reference to the political detainees and the persecution of the opposition within Russia. Kiev will not be safe as long as Russian opposition leaders such as Alexei Navalny are not free. 

Eitay Mack is a human rights lawyer and activist based in Jerusalem.