In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin meeting in 1971 with representatives of Canada's indigenous population in Edmonton.

2 Decades of Russian ‘Whataboutism’: A Partial Rundown

October 21, 2021
Aleksandra Srdanovic

The discord of American politics, U.S. military engagements abroad, the English-language dark web—all these offer myriad opportunities for criticism. And Russian President Vladimir Putin took advantage of them with gusto after his June 16 Geneva summit with U.S. counterpart Joe Biden. One journalist called Putin’s deft deflection of tough questions from reporters “a masterclass in whataboutism”—which might be defined as the strategic practice of countering criticism with an accusation of wrongdoing against the criticizer, implying hypocrisy and/or disregarding circumstances that could weaken the latter charges, but not addressing the original criticism.

This tactic was frequently employed by the Soviet Union in response to Western criticism of its domestic and foreign policies, with America most often in the crosshairs. One early use of whataboutism—a term coined much later in the West—followed a speech made by then U.S. Secretary of Commerce W. Averell Harriman in 1947, in which he warned that Soviet totalitarianism was “a new and more threatening imperialism.” In response to Harriman’s remarks, Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg published a commentary in Pravda that the Christian Science Monitor described1 as saying that Americans wanted “to drop atom bombs on the Soviet Union because they do not like its social order” but that the Soviet people, “though they consider racial laws and slavery in the southern states of the United States insulting to human dignity, do not intend on that account to turn modern weapons against Mississippi or Georgia.” Ehrenburg also asked how the United States could be disgusted by Nazi atrocities when it has, in the Monitor’s rendition, “ghettoes for Negroes and lynch courts?” By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, accusations of America “lynching Negroes” had become a punchline for irreverent jokes about Soviet officialdom’s own hypocrisy and, as an Economist correspondent wrote in 2008, “a synecdoche for Soviet propaganda as a whole.”

Post-Soviet Russia took up its predecessor’s tactics as it sought to shield itself from Western criticism. Like the online disinformation reportedly spread by Russian troll farms, whataboutisms can mix substantive criticism of U.S. foreign and domestic policy with falsehoods and spurious equivalencies, like comparing the state-backed use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs by government-sponsored Russian athletes with the use of Chinese traditional medicine by U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps.

The collection below features statements made between 2000 and 2021 by Russian officials and state-run media outlets, organized using the same basic categories as our news and analysis digests. It is meant to give insight into the sort of responses Western officials might expect when criticizing the present Russian leadership, if not to prepare them for rebutting Moscow’s rebuttals.

 

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda 

Great power rivalry/new Cold War/NATO-Russia relations:

  • During his annual news conference, President Vladimir Putin was asked by a BBC reporter whether he bears “some of the responsibility for the woeful relations [between Russia and the West], especially considering Russia’s actions over the past years, from annexing Crimea to using chemical weapons on British soil, in Salisbury. … Are Russian authorities ‘squeaky clean’?” Putin responded by saying:
    • “Compared to you, yes, we are, indeed, squeaky clean, because we agreed to free the countries and peoples who wanted to be independent from a certain Soviet diktat. We heard your assurances that NATO would not expand eastward. However, you failed to keep your promises. Indeed, those promises were not made in writing; these were verbal statements, from NATO among others. However, you have done nothing in this regard. There have been two waves of expansion, and NATO’s military infrastructure is moving closer to our borders. Should we not respond to this?” (Website of the President of Russia, 12.17.20)

China-Russia: allied or aligned?

  • During remarks at a U.N. Security Council meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov remarked that “it is striking that Western leaders, while openly undermining international law, do not hesitate to argue that the main task of world politics should be to counter the attempts of Russia and China to ‘change the rules-based order.’” Lavrov elaborated on this by saying:
    • “Realizing that it is impossible to impose their unilateral or bloc priorities on other states within the framework of the U.N., the leading Western countries have tried to reverse the process of forming a polycentric world and slow down the course of history. Toward this end, the concept of the rules-based order is advanced as a substitute for international law. It should be noted that international law already is a body of rules, but rules agreed at universal platforms and reflecting consensus or broad agreement. The West’s goal is to oppose the collective efforts of all members of the world community with other rules developed in closed, non-inclusive formats, and then imposed on everyone else… We believe such efforts to impose totalitarianism in global affairs to be unacceptable, yet we see it more and more from our Western colleagues, above all the United States, the European Union and other allies, who reject all principles of democracy and multilateralism on the global stage. As if to say, either it’s our way, or there will be repercussions.” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 05.07.21)
  • During an interview on Russian Channel One, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked, “Do you think the U.S. is Russia’s opponent today?” Lavrov responded by saying:
    • “I will not go into analyzing the lexicon of ‘opponent,’ ‘enemy,’ ‘competitor’ or ‘rival.’ All these words are juggled in both official and unofficial statements. I read the other day that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that for all the differences with Russia and China, the U.S. does not have anything against these countries. As for what the U.S. is doing, it is simply ‘promoting democracy’ and ‘upholding human rights.’ I don’t know how seriously one can take this description of U.S. policy toward Moscow and Beijing. However, if they are promoting democracy, practice must justify theory. George W. Bush announced that democracy was established in Iraq in May 2003. Aboard an aircraft carrier, he declared that Iraq’s liberation from its totalitarian regime was completed and democracy was established in the country. There is no point in elaborating. It is enough to mention the toll of the U.S.-unleashed war—hundreds of thousands of people. We should also remember that the ‘rule’ of the notorious Paul Bremer resulted in the birth of ISIS, which was rapidly joined by members of the Baath Party, employees of Saddam Hussein’s secret services, who had lost their jobs. They simply needed to provide for their families. ISIS emerged not because of ideological differences. Relying on U.S. mistakes, the radicals actively used this fact. This is what democracy in Iraq is all about. ‘Democracy’ in Libya was established by bombs, strikes and the murder of Muammar Gaddafi, which was accompanied by Hillary Clinton’s cry of admiration. This is the result: Libya is a black hole; refugee flows bound for the north are creating problems for the EU that does not know what to do about them; illegal arms and terrorists are being smuggled through Libya to the south, bringing suffering to the Sahara-Sahel region. I do not wish to describe what the Americans feel toward the Russian Federation. If their statements about us being their ‘opponent,’ ‘enemy,’ ‘rival’ or ‘competitor are based on the desire to accuse us of the consequences of their reckless policy, we can hardly have a serious conversation with them.” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 04.01.21)

Missile defense:

  • Speaking with President Vladimir Putin on NBC News, interviewer Megyn Kelly said that “Russia has developed new nuclear-capable weapons systems, including an intercontinental ballistic missile that you say renders defense systems useless. Several analysts in the West said this is a declaration of a new Cold War. Are we in a new arms race right now?” Putin responded by saying:
    • “If we speak of the arms race, it began at that very moment when the United States pulled out of the ABM treaty. We wanted to prevent this. We called on our American partners to work together on these programs. Firstly, we asked them not to withdraw from the treaty, not to destroy it. But the U.S. pulled out. It was not us who did this but the U.S.” (Website of the President of Russia, 03.10.18)
  • During a news conference following the Volunteer of Russia 2018 award ceremony, President Vladimir Putin was asked to respond to former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who issued “an ultimatum, saying that Russia has 60 days to correct the alleged violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.” Putin responded by saying:
    • “It is very simple. First of all, it is obvious and known to all by now—Mr. Pompeo’s statement is somewhat late. It was the American side that announced its plans to quit the INF treaty first; only then they started casting about for a justification for doing this. The most important justification is that we violated something. At the same time, as always, no actual proof of violations on our part has been provided. As a reminder, in 2002, the United States, just as in this case, unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The ABM Treaty is one of the cornerstones of the international security system. Nevertheless, they just walked out without any second thoughts. By the way, they did not even bother to invent any reasons—just withdrew, and that was that.” (Website of the President of Russia, 12.05.18)

Nuclear arms control:

  • During a press briefing following the U.S.-Russia summit in Geneva, President Vladimir Putin was asked, “Mr. President, Joe Biden is calling for stable and predictable relations with Russia. But it is believed in the West that unpredictability is a feature of Russian foreign policy. Are you ready to give up unpredictability for the sake of improving relations with the West?” Putin responded by saying:
    • “You said it is believed in the West that Russia’s foreign policy is unpredictable. Let me return the puck. The U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002 was an absolutely unpredictable decision. Why was it necessary to do this, thereby destroying the basis of international stability in the field of strategic security? Then pulling out of the INF Treaty in 2019. Is this stability? Absolutely not… There is almost nothing left in the sphere of strategic stability.” (Website of the President of Russia, 06.16.21

Counterterrorism:

  • In response to Western leaders urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to negotiate with Chechen rebels during the second Chechen war, Putin responded by saying:
    • “These are not ‘freedom fighters’… Why don’t you meet [with] Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?” (CNN, 09.08.04) 

Conflict in Syria:

  • During an interview with President Vladimir Putin, Fox News host Chris Wallace said, “According to independent monitors, since the civil war began in 2011, more than a half a million people have been killed, and Russia has bombed civilians in Aleppo and Ghouta. No qualm about killing innocents?” Putin responded by saying:
    • “A war is in progress and this is the most horrible thing that can happen to humankind. Of course, victims are inevitable. And people always ask, who is to blame? As I see it, it is the terrorist groups, which have destabilized the country, that are to blame. I mean ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the like. They are the true culprits. This is exactly what the U.S. military reply, when they deliver strikes at civilian facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq or some other country. On the whole, although this may seem debatable to someone, … this is true. As far as Syria is concerned, U.S. aircraft delivered very serious strikes at the city of Raqqa.” (Website of the President of Russia, 07.17.18)
  • When asked during an interview with French broadcaster TF1 TV to respond to Western critiques of Russian airstrikes against Aleppo, President Vladimir Putin responded by saying:
    • “Regarding the humanitarian situation in Aleppo, have we all forgotten how American forces launched an airstrike in Afghanistan that hit a hospital and killed people from Doctors Without Borders among others? Entire wedding parties of up to 100 people were killed in Afghanistan. Look at what has just happened in Yemen, where a single strike killed 170 people and injured 500 at a funeral ceremony. The sad reality is that wherever military operations take place, innocent people suffer and die. But we cannot allow terrorists to hide among civilians used as a human shield. We cannot allow them to blackmail the entire world when they take hostages, kill or behead people. If we want to win the fight against terrorism, we must fight the terrorists and not let them take the lead, not waver and retreat.” (Website of the President of Russia, 10.12.16)
  • Asked whether there is a danger that Russia “will be seen as a protector of” the Syrian government, President Vladimir Putin responded by saying:
    • “We do not defend this government. We are defending absolutely different things. We are defending the norms and principles of international law… You have just said that Mr. [John] Kerry believes that chemical weapons have been used by Assad’s army, but the same point was used by another secretary of state under President George W. Bush as he was trying to convince the entire international community of Iraq’s possession of chemical weapons and even showed a test tube containing some white powder. All these arguments turned out to be untenable, but they were used to launch a military action, which many in the United States call a mistake today. Did we forget about that? Do we assume that new mistakes can be avoided so easily? I assure you that is not the case. Everyone remembers those facts, bears them in mind and takes them into account when making decisions.” (Website of the President of Russia, 09.04.13)

Cyber security:  

  • Following accusations by the U.S. National Security Agency, Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, FBI and the U.K. National Cyber Security Center that Russian military intelligence is targeting U.S. and global organizations, Russia’s U.S. Embassy responded by saying:
    • “We emphasize that fighting against cybercrime is an inherent priority for Russia and an integral part of its state policy to combat all forms of crime… Besides, it’s high time to put things in order on American soil, from where constant attacks on critical infrastructure in Russia emerge.” (Embassy of Russia in the United States, 07.02.21)
  • During a press briefing following the U.S.-Russia summit in Geneva, President Vladimir Putin was asked whether he would “commit to ceasing carrying out cyberattacks on the United States,” to which Putin responded:
    • “I would like to tell you about things that are generally known but not [to] the public at large. American sources—I am afraid to mix up the names of organizations (Mr. Peskov will give them to you later)—have said that most cyberattacks in the world, in the world, come from U.S. cyberspace. Canada is second. It is followed by two Latin American countries and then the United Kingdom. As you can see, Russia is not on the list of these countries from whose cyberspace the most cyberattacks originate. This is the first point. Now the second point. In 2020 we received 10 inquiries from the United States about cyberattacks on U.S. facilities—as our colleagues say—from Russian cyberspace. Two more requests were made this year. Our colleagues received exhaustive responses to all of them, both in 2020 and this year. In turn, Russia sent 45 inquiries to the relevant U.S. agency last year and 35 inquiries in the first half of this year. We have not yet received a single response. This shows we have a lot to work on.” (Website of the President of Russia, 06.16.21)

U.S.-Russian relations in general: 

  • During a press briefing following the U.S.-Russia summit in Geneva, President Vladimir Putin was asked whether he and President Joe Biden discussed Biden’s comments in which he referred to Putin as a “killer.” Putin responded:
    • “President Biden called me after that and we discussed the matter. I accepted his explanation. He also suggested that we meet—it was [at] his initiative… Generally speaking, responsibility for everything that takes place in our countries ultimately rests with the political leadership and top officials, that is, regarding who is guilty of what and who is the killer. You see, people, including the leaders of various organizations, are killed in American cities every day. You can barely say a word there before you are shot in the face or in the back, regardless of who is nearby, children or other adults. I recall a situation when a woman left her car and started running, and she was shot in the back. All right, these are criminal matters. Take a look at Afghanistan: As many as 120 people were killed there in one blow; entire wedding parties were wiped out. Yes, this could have been a mistake; such things happen. But using drones to shoot people who are obviously civilians in Iraq—what was that? Who is responsible? Who is the killer? Or take human rights. Listen, Guantanamo is still open. This is contrary to all imaginable rules, to international law or American laws, but it is still functioning. The CIA prisons that were opened in many countries, including in Europe, where they subjected people to torture—what is this? Is this respect for human rights? I don’t think so, do you?” (Website of the President of Russia, 06.16.21)
  • In the leadup to President Joe Biden’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Switzerland in June 2021, Biden announced that he would be discussing human rights abuses with Putin, “making it clear that we will not … stand by and let him abuse those rights.” Russian Senator Alexei Pushkov responded by saying:
    • “There will clearly not be an easy dialogue in Geneva. Biden is again making harsh statements about Putin. However, Russia also has something to show the United States in this regard. To begin with, demand from Biden [that the United States] stop persecuting Julian Assange and waive the demand for his extradition to the United States.” (Twitter account of Russian Senator Alexei Pushkov, 05.30.21)
  • During an interview with ABC News, U.S. President Joe Biden was asked if he believed President Vladimir Putin was a killer, to which he responded, “I do.” Putin was asked to address Biden’s comments during a meeting with public representatives of Crimea and Sevastopol and responded by saying:
    • “With regard to the U.S. establishment, the ruling class—not the American people who are mostly honest, decent and sincere people who want to live in peace and friendship with us, something we are aware of and appreciate, and we will rely on them in the future—their mindset was formed in rather challenging circumstances which we are all aware of. After all, the colonization of the American continent by the Europeans went hand-in-hand with the extermination of the local people, the genocide, as they say today, outright genocide of the Indian tribes followed by a very tough, long and difficult period of slavery, a very cruel period. All of that has been part of life in America throughout the history of the United States to this day. Otherwise, where would the Black Lives Matter movement come from? To this day, African-Americans face injustice and even extermination. The ruling class of the United States tends to address domestic and foreign policy issues based on these assumptions. After all, the United States is the only country to have used nuclear weapons, mind you, against a non-nuclear state, Japan, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII. There was absolutely no military need for the bombing. It was nothing but the extermination of civilians. I am bringing this up because I know that the United States and its leaders are determined to maintain certain relations with us, but on matters that are of interest to the United States and on its terms. Even though they believe we are just like them, we are different. We have a different genetic, cultural and moral code. But we know how to uphold our interests. We will work with the United States, but in the areas that we are interested in and on terms that we believe are beneficial to us. They will have to reckon with it despite their attempts to stop our development, despite the sanctions and insults. They will have to reckon with this.” (Website of the President of Russia, 03.18.21)
  • When asked during an interview with NBC News to address Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, President Vladimir Putin said:
    • “I don't want to offend anyone, but the United States, everywhere, all over the world, is actively interfering in electoral campaigns in other countries. Is this really news to you? Just talk to people but in such a way (to the extent it is possible for you) so as to convince them that you're not going to make it public. Point your finger to any spot on the world's map, everywhere you'll hear complaints that American officials interfere in their political domestic processes. Therefore, if someone, and I am not saying that it’s us (we did not interfere), if anybody does influence in some way or attempts to influence or somehow participates in these processes, then the United States has nothing to be offended by. Who is talking? Who is taking offense that we are interfering? You yourselves interfere all the time.” (Website of the President of Russia, 06.05.17)
  • When asked during an interview with French broadcasters Radio Europe 1 and TF1 TV to respond to comments from Hillary Clinton that “what Russia is doing in Eastern Europe resembles what Hitler was doing in the 1930s,” President Vladimir Putin responded:
    • “It’s clear that the United States is pursuing the most aggressive and toughest policy to defend its own interests—at least, this is how the American leaders see it—and they do it persistently. There are basically no Russian troops abroad, while U.S. troops are everywhere. There are U.S. military bases everywhere around the world and they are always involved in the fates of other countries even though they are thousands of kilometers away from U.S. borders. So it is ironic that our U.S. partners accuse us of breaching some of these rules.” (Website of the President of Russia, 06.04.14)

 

II. Russia’s domestic policies  

Domestic politics, economy and energy: 

  • Following the release of the U.S. Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which featured a report on Russia, the Russian Foreign Ministry responded by saying:
    • “The report traditionally does not analyze the far from ideal human rights situation in the United States. The authors yet again closed their eyes to the system-wide problems in the United States, such as racism, discrimination against immigrants, the sway of xenophobia and the growing activities of extremist organizations, restrictions on the rights and freedoms under the pretext of combating terrorism, strict regulation and suppression of the media, abuse of power and arbitrariness of the country’s security and law enforcement agencies, which routinely use cruel and inhuman treatment and torture, abduction, large-scale spying on U.S. citizens, as well as grave threats to personal security. Moreover, there is evidence of the United States violating human rights in other countries within the framework of the so-called counterterrorism operations, which has resulted in a large-scale loss of civilian life.” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 03.14.19)
  • During an interview with Fox News, President Vladimir Putin was asked why “so many of the people that oppose Vladimir Putin end up dead or close to it.” Putin responded:
    • “Haven’t presidents been killed in the United States? Have you forgotten about that? Where was Kennedy killed, in the U.S. or in Russia? And what happened to King? As a matter of fact, what happens during clashes between the police and civil society activists, for example, from ethnic African-American organizations? Does this happen in Russia or in the U.S.? This is all taking place in the U.S. You have many challenges within your country.” (Website of the President of Russia, 07.17.18)
  • When asked during an interview with Austria’s ORF Television why he never says Alexei Navalny’s name in public, President Vladimir Putin responded by saying:
    • “We have many rebels here, just like in your country and the United States. In my conversation with your colleague I already mentioned that there was a movement in the U.S. called Occupy Wall Street. Where are they now? Gone. Are there not also plenty of people in Europe and Austria who promote extreme views and try to manipulate the difficulties and problems in society? Specifically, problems related to corruption.” (Website of the President of Russia, 06.04.18)
  • Following the banning of many Russian athletes from the Olympic Games due to the discovery of the drug meldonium in their system, Russian state television channel Rossiya 24 reportedly attempted to equate this with American swimmer Michael Phelps’s use of traditional Chinese cupping, claiming that:
    • “Following the Hollywood trend, the method was adapted by athletes. According to them, vacuum-based massage improves circulation and overall well-being, suggesting that muscle repair happens faster after physical exertion … in other words, the net effect from such practices in many ways is not unlike those of meldonium.” (Mashable, 08.08.16)
  • Asked during an interview with Channel One and AP whether he is worried that a new Russian law banning so-called gay propaganda would become a flashpoint around the Winter Olympics, President Vladimir Putin responded:
    • “I hope it will not have any negative implications, especially because we have no laws against people with non-traditional sexual orientation. You have said about it now, you kind of create an illusion among millions of spectators that we do have such laws, but we do not have such laws in Russia. Russia has adopted the law banning propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors, but these are completely different things. Meanwhile, those who try to teach us, in particular some of our colleagues and friends from the United States, would have to know that in the United States there are a lot of problems with people with non-traditional sexual orientation. Do you know, for example, that in some U.S. states non-traditional sexual orientation is still deemed as a criminal offense? In particular, in Oklahoma, as I was told, and in Texas. Well, probably, those who told me that are mistaken, and you should double-check that. But if this is really true, the situation looks very strange indeed as those who cannot serve as an example try to teach us.” (Website of the President of Russia, 09.04.13)
  • During an interview with journalists from G8 member countries, President Vladimir Putin was asked by a Der Spiegel journalist whether he considers himself a “pure democrat.” Putin responded:
    • “Am I a ‘pure democrat’? Of course I am, absolutely. But do you know what the problem is? Not even a problem but a real tragedy? The problem is that I’m all alone, the only one of my kind in the whole wide world. Just look at what’s happening in North America, it’s simply awful: torture, homeless people, Guantanamo, people detained without trial and investigation. Just look at what’s happening in Europe: harsh treatment of demonstrators, rubber bullets and tear gas used first in one capital then in another, demonstrators killed on the streets. That’s not even to mention the post-Soviet area. Only the guys in Ukraine still gave hope, but they’ve completely discredited themselves now and things are moving toward total tyranny there; complete violation of the Constitution and the law and so on. There is no one to talk with since Mahatma Gandhi died.” (Website of the President of Russia, 06.04.07)
  • Asked by The New York Times to respond to the notion that his past career with the KGB makes “a lot of people in Russia and abroad think that people from the special services have too much influence today in domestic politics in Russia,” President Vladimir Putin said:
    • “You know, the father of the current president of the United States was director of the CIA before becoming president. This did not stop him from being a politician who did a lot for his country, nor did it stop him from being a democrat, a decent and agreeable person, as I was able to see once again when he found the time and did me the honor of being my guest in Sochi.” (Website of the President of Russia, 10.04.03)
  • During an interview with NBC News, President Vladimir Putin was confronted with the notion that “many people cannot understand how a person who in the past suppressed the rights of other people in the interests of the ruling elite can now promote the principles of a democratic state.” Putin responded by saying:
    • “As far as I know from the history of the United States, some former intelligence chiefs have become presidents of the United States. And this did not, I think, provoke the kind of reaction in the West that you have just spoken about. I see nothing unusual there. Ultimately it is up to the citizens to choose. Our citizens saw nothing wrong with that. Commitment to the interests of the state and love of the homeland have always been the absolute priority for any statesman.” (Website of the President of Russia, 06.02.00)

Security, law-enforcement and justice: 

  • During a press briefing following the U.S.-Russia summit in Geneva, President Vladimir Putin was asked, “if all of your political opponents are dead, in prison, poisoned, doesn’t that send a message that you do not want a fair political fight?” Putin responded by saying:
    • “Speaking of who can be killed or thrown in prison. People went to Congress with political demands after the election. Criminal cases have been opened against 400 people, who face up to 20 or even 25 years in prison. They have been declared domestic terrorists and accused of other crimes. As many as 70 people were detained immediately after those events, and 30 of them are still under arrest. It is unclear on what grounds, because the U.S. authorities have not provided us with this information. Several people died; a woman rioter was fatally shot by a police officer on the spot, although she was not threatening him with a weapon. What is happening in our country is also taking place in many other countries. I would just like to point out once again: We feel for the Americans, but we don’t want the same to happen in our country.” (Website of the President of Russia, 06.16.21)
  • During an interview with NBC News, President Vladimir Putin was asked, “Did you order Alexei Navalny’s assassination?” Putin responded by saying:
    • “Of course not. We don’t have this kind of habit, of assassinating anybody. That’s one. Number two is I want to ask you: Did you order the assassination of the woman who walked into the Congress and who was shot and killed by a policeman? Do you know that 450 individuals were arrested after entering the Congress? And they didn't go there to steal a laptop. They came with political demands. Four hundred fifty people have been detained. They're facing—they're looking at jail time, between 15 and 25 years. And they came to the Congress with political demands. Isn't that persecution for political opinions? Some have been accused of plotting to take over government power. Some are accused of robbery. They didn't go there to rob. The people who you have mentioned, yes, they were convicted for violating their status, having been previously convicted—given suspended sentences—which were essentially a warning to not violate the Russian laws. And they completely ignored the requirements of the law. The court went on and turned the conviction into real jail time. Thousands and thousands of people ignore requirements of the law, and they have nothing to do with political activities, in Russia every year and they go to jail. If somebody is actually using political activities as a shield to deal with their issues, including to achieve their commercial goals, then it's something that they have to be held responsible for.” (NBC News, 06.11.21)
  • During an interview with NBC News, President Vladimir Putin was questioned on the prosecution and arrest of political dissenters in Russia, to which he responded by saying:
    • “Well, you are presenting it as dissent and intolerance toward dissent in Russia. We view it completely differently. You have mentioned the law on foreign agents, but that’s not something that we invented. That law was passed back in the 1930s in the United States. And that law is much harsher than ours, and it is directed and intended, among other things, at preventing interference in the domestic political affairs of the United States. And on the whole, I believe that is justified.” (NBC News, 06.11.21)
  • Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova addressed alleged comments from Western countries on the “socio-political situation in Russia” by saying:
    • “Allow me to remind you of some recent events in those countries—riots, violent clashes between protesters and the police, the use of all possible methods and means of suppressing protests, including firearms as in the United States some time ago. There is the never-ending escalation in the level of violence, as we note. This is what our partners need to pay attention to—the situation in their own countries, and not try to rock Russia’s boat.” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 02.04.21)
  • Following the sentencing of Paul Whelan, arrested in Russia on accusations of espionage, the Russian Foreign Ministry responded to allegations that the sentence was unfair and too harsh by saying:
    • “It is necessary to emphasize that punishment for similar crimes in the U.S. and other Western countries runs into dozens of years, up to life imprisonment without a right to a pardon.” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 06.15.20)
  • Responding to allegations that Russian operatives poisoned former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova commented that:
    • “The United States continues to use last year's staged poisoning of the former British agent and his daughter in the U.K. to aggravate relations with Russia. This blatant provocation, whose participants have been protected from exposure, again serves as the pretext to impose sanctions on Russia under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 and a special executive order recently signed by the White House. It should be noted that, in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, Russia eliminated its stockpiles a long time ago (international inspectors had the chance to verify this on more than one occasion), while the United States has such an arsenal today and is in no hurry to part with it.” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 08.02.19)
  • When asked during an interview with NBC News about Russia’s reputation for corruption and stifling dissent, President Vladimir Putin responded by saying:
    • “I want to say that Russia is developing along a democratic path, this is without question so. No one should have any doubts about that. The fact that, amidst political rivalry and some other domestic developments, we see things happen here that are typical of other countries, I do not see anything unusual in it. Speaking of opposition, let us recall the movement Occupy Wall Street. Where is it now? The law enforcement agencies and special services in the U.S. have taken it apart, into little pieces, and have dissolved it. I'm not asking you about how things stand in terms of democracy in the United States. Especially … that the electoral legislation is far from being perfect in the U.S. Why do you believe you are entitled to put such questions to us and, mind you, do it all the time, to moralize and to teach us how we should live?” (Website of the President of Russia, 06.05.17)
  • When asked during an interview with Bloomberg about whether Russia, characterized by the interviewer as a “fairly lawless place,” is “hard to govern at the moment,” President Vladimir Putin responded:
    • “You know, I may assure you that it is hard to govern any country. Would you say that governing the United States is an easy task? Is it easy to address even uncomplicated matters? The Guantanamo detention camp, for example? During his first term President [Barack] Obama said that he would shut it down. Yet it is still there. Why? Is it that he does not want to? Certainly he does. I am sure he does. Yet there emerge thousands of obstacles that prevent him from resolving this issue. In fact, this is indeed awful, but that is a different story. It is hard to govern any country, even a very small one.” (Website of the President of Russia, 09.05.16)
  • When asked during an interview with Russia Today about developments in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing tax advisor who died in a Russian jail, President Vladimir Putin responded:
    • “You see, there are people who need an enemy, they are looking for an opponent to fight against. Do you know how many people die while in prison in those countries that have condemned Russia? The numbers are huge! Look at the U.S., which came up with the so-called Magnitsky list. As you know, there is no death penalty in Russia, while the U.S. still keeps it on the books. Anyone, including women, can be executed. At the same time, all civilized societies know that judicial errors can occur in capital punishment cases, even when people plead guilty. It turns out later on that the convict did not commit the crime.” (Website of the President of Russia, 09.06.12)
  • When asked during an interview with Russia Today about Russia’s corruption problem and how he plans to address it, President Vladimir Putin said:
    • “Corruption is a problem for any country. And … you will find it in any country, be it in Europe or in the United States. They have legalized many things. Let’s take the lobby for private corporations—what is it, is it corruption or not? It’s legalized and so formally is okay, within the law. But that depends on how you look at it. Therefore, I will repeat that this problem is an issue for many countries.” (Website of the President of Russia, 09.06.12) 

 

III. Russia’s relations with other countries 

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries: 

  • During an interview with NBC News, President Vladimir Putin was asked to respond to claims by President Joe Biden that he has caused “a lot of instability and unpredictability.” Putin responded by saying:
    • “The most important value in international affairs is predictability and stability. And I believe that on the part of the U.S. partners, this is something that we haven’t seen in recent years. What kind of stability and predictability could there be … if we remember the 2011 events in Libya where the country was essentially taken apart, broken down? What kind of stability and predictability were there? There has been talk of a continued presence of troops in Afghanistan. And then all of a sudden, boom! The troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan. What, is this predictability and stability again? Now the Middle East events. Is this predictability and stability, what all of this will lead to? Or in Syria? What is stable and predictable about this? I’ve asked my U.S. counterparts, ‘You want Assad to leave? Who will replace him? What will happen when he’s replaced with somebody?’ The answer is odd. The answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ Well, if you don’t know what will happen next, why change what there is?” (NBC News, 06.11.21)
  • Following renewed accusations by the U.S. government that Russia was paying bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded by saying:
    • “We demand that Washington provide the concrete facts that it used to make such groundless statements. Once again, we declare that the charges brought against us are nothing more than the guesswork or the phobias of members of the American intelligence service. Meanwhile, there are persistent reports that the U.S. is itself giving support to terrorist groups, including ISIS, in Afghanistan, and that Washington plans to build up the presence of its intelligence service in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as it withdraws its troops from that country. We are convinced that these circumstances are giving rise to serious concern not only in Russia but in other countries of the region as well. We are looking forward to receiving explanations from the American side.” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 04.16.21)
  • When asked by a reporter to comment on former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments that “Russia continues to threaten Mediterranean stability,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by saying:
    • “In his statement, Mr. Pompeo suggested that Russia should use ‘open democratic means to advance its interests’ throughout the world. This reminded me of the U.S. secretary of state’s recent trip to Africa, where he publicly called on African countries or, rather, demanded that they stop trading with Russia and China, which allegedly pursue bad and self-serving interests in their ties with other countries, and urged them to do business with the United States, which simply wants to help African countries with no strings attached. This is almost exactly what he said. This is not democracy but an open and unscrupulous attempt to suppress competition.” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 12.17.20)
    • “It was very touching to read in that statement about Mr. Pompeo’s concerns about the Orthodox [Christian] religion. He has again accused us of ‘meddling in Greek Orthodox religious affairs,’ even though there is no proof of this, while [the] facts are common knowledge and must be respected. Mr. Pompeo knows very well that in this respect the United States has provided a shining example of promoting its own interests by ‘democratic means,’ as he noted. The United States is promoting a division in the Orthodox world in flagrant violation of democratic—I would like to emphasize this—principles, including by destroying the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and creating the so-called Ukrainian Autocephalous Church. The U.S. administration is actively and absolutely openly using completely undemocratic means to force the other canonical Orthodox churches to support this illegal transformation. We know about similar plans to split the Serbian Orthodox Church and other ‘dissenting’ Orthodox churches.” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 12.17.20)
  • Following comments by U.S. State Department officials that Russia was playing a “destructive role” in Libyan affairs, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded by saying:
    • “We would like to note that the United States is directly responsible for the Libya crisis, which continues to this day. In 2011, in flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, the United States, in conjunction with its NATO allies, launched an armed aggression against the Libyan Jamahiriya, which included destroying state institutions and security agencies in the country while unbalancing interregional and tribe-to-tribe relations. After the Gaddafi government was toppled, the United States, in fact, disassociated itself from Libyan issues and the collective efforts to promote a comprehensive political settlement of the situation in that country. Washington’s passive approach toward preparing and holding the international conference on Libya held in Berlin in January is the latest manifestation of this policy.” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 05.14.20)
  • Following comments by U.S. officials that the presence of “actors external to the western hemisphere” in Venezuela would be regarded as “provocative,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded by saying:
    • “It appears that Washington is judging others by itself when ascribing to Moscow its own plans with regard to Venezuela. Washington has again stated arrogantly that ‘all options’ are open to make Moscow withdraw its forces. We would like to ask in this context what the numerous U.S. military instructors are doing in neighboring Colombia and why the White House is urging another neighbor of Venezuela, Brazil, to join NATO, which is contrary to the charter and the very name of the North Atlantic alliance? In early March, Washington clearly indicated that it was still committed to the colonial Monroe Doctrine, which assigned the role of America’s backyard to Latin America 200 years ago, thereby denying it the right to sovereignty. But Venezuela, which honors the heritage of Simon Bolivar, the famous fighter against the colonizers, has again refused to bow to external dictate and continued to independently decide how it will live and who its friends are. This probably hurts the Washington strategists, but they do not have a time machine to plunge us back into the 19th century.” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 03.30.19)
  • After the U.S. State Department criticized recent Russia-Myanmar agreements on military and technical cooperation, the Russian Foreign Ministry responded by saying:
    • “We believe that military-technical cooperation is a legitimate component of interstate relations, unless it contradicts the decisions of the U.N. Security Council… We would like to recall that the people of Southeast Asia have hardly forgotten the casualties and destruction inflicted on them by U.S. weapons during numerous recent wars conducted by the United States in the region. However, this does not prevent Washington from selling lethal weapons to Southeast Asian countries and building up its military presence in direct proximity to this region.” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 01.26.18)
  • During a state visit to Montenegro, former Vice President Mike Pence accused Russia of attempting to “destabilize” the Western Balkans, to which the Russian Foreign Ministry responded by saying:
    • “We have to state with regret that Washington is sliding more deeply into using primitive ideology-driven clichés of the Cold War era, which are totally out of touch with reality. Imposing on the Balkan countries a blatantly destructive choice of being ‘either with the West or with Russia’ inevitably leads to rising tensions on the European continent and destabilizes the situation in the region and separate states. Moreover, Washington is actively promoting the idea that there is no alternative to the accession of all southeast European countries to NATO and presses ahead with projects based on unscrupulous competition and contradicting economic logic. We would like to remind [everyone] that it was the United States and its allies that blatantly violated international law in 1999 by illegally using force to separate Kosovo from Serbia. This resulted in another conflict spot in Europe. Under harsh pressure from Washington, Podgorica formalized Montenegro’s membership in NATO on June 5, 2017, despite the opinion of the majority of its citizens. The United States and the European Union did not hesitate to ignore the will of the voters in Macedonia and did not allow the party that won the Dec. 11, 2016, elections to form the government. So who is interfering in internal affairs and using force in the Balkans? Is it Moscow or Washington?” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 08.03.17)

Ukraine: 

  • During an expanded meeting of the collegium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, President Vladimir Putin addressed the recent migration crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border by saying:
    • "Just look how the Polish security forces are behaving at the border [with Belarus] – you can watch it on the internet or on television. The first thing that comes to mind is those poor children, there are small children there. And they are shooting water and tear gas at the crowd, throwing grenades. At night, helicopters fly along the border, sirens are howling. I remember well how in 2014, when the Polish government, trying to stop the use of similar equipment by law enforcement forces in Ukraine – [Viktor] Yanukovych was President then – how they said it was unacceptable to use such means against the civilian population. What are they doing now?” (Website of the President of Russia, 11.18.21)
  • When asked during an interview with French broadcasters Radio Europe 1 and TF1 TV to respond to the U.S. claim that it has proof of Russian intervention in the Ukraine conflict, President Vladimir Putin responded by saying:
    • “Proof? Why don’t they show it? The entire world remembers the U.S. secretary of state demonstrating the evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, waving around some test tube with washing powder in the U.N. Security Council. Eventually, the U.S. troops invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein was hanged and later it turned out there had never been any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. You know, it’s one thing to say things and another to actually have evidence. I will tell you again: no Russian troops.” (Website of the President of Russia, 06.04.14)
  • Following a press conference by President Vladimir Putin in March 2014 on the situation in Ukraine, the U.S. Department of State published some of his remarks, characterizing Russia as the aggressor in Ukraine. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich responded by saying:
    • “The United States has no and cannot have any moral right to … preaching with regard to observation of international laws and respect for the sovereignty of other countries. What about the bombings of the former Yugoslavia or the intrusion into Iraq using a falsified cause? If we look at a more distant history, we can find many examples of military interventions by the United States in places located far away from its national borders when there was no real threat to the security of the United States. The Vietnam War took the lives of two million of the local population, without mentioning the totally destroyed country and poisoned environment. Under the pretext of protecting their nationals, who were in areas of conflict, the United States intruded into Lebanon in 1958, into the Dominican Republic in 1965, attacked tiny Grenada in 1983, bombed Libya in 1986, and occupied Panama three years later. Nevertheless, they dare to rebuke Russia for ‘armed aggression,’ when it intervenes on behalf of its compatriots, who make up the majority of the Crimean population, not to let ultranationalist forces organize another bloody ‘maidan.’” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 03.06.14)

Footnotes:

  1. Stevens, Edmund, “Pravda Aces Aim Criticism at Forrestal,” The Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 9, 1947, p. 15.

Aleksandra Srdanovic is a graduate student at Harvard University and a student associate with Russia Matters.

Photo: Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin meeting in 1971 with representatives of Canada's indigenous population in Edmonton. When criticized for their abysmal human rights record, the Soviets often fired back by pointing to the centuries of mistreatment of Native Americans. Photo by Vasily Yegorov/ TASS.