Vladimir Kara-Murza and the Lack of Equivalence Between the United States and Russia

Written by Alexander J. Segal on

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The Vladimir Kara-Murza Case

On February 4, 2017, Roman Goncharenko of Deutsche Welle reported that Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza is in critical condition.1 The report states that he has been placed in an artificial coma due to multiple organ failure.

There are many disturbing aspects to the Kara-Murza case. In May of 2015, Kara-Murza fell seriously ill, and spent several weeks in intensive care after being placed into a coma. Kara-Murza's attorney and confidant reported that the symptoms he is showing now are similar to those he showed in May of 2015. After recovering from his first bout with a mysterious illness, doctors outside of Russia discovered that Kara-Murza had high levels of heavy metals in his body. Quite reasonably, Kara-Murza suspected that he had been poisoned on political grounds — like many other Russian opposition politicians — and requested that the Russian government investigate. Unsurprisingly, no investigation was forthcoming.

Given the Russian government's often-brutal treatment of opposition political figures, it is no surprise that Kara-Murza would be a target. The 35 year-old was a member of the opposition Parnas party, and even after leaving continued his vocal opposition to the current Russian government. For example, the report in Deutsche Welle notes that Kara-Murza is currently the chairman of the Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, named after Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition figure who was murdered under similarly dubious circumstances in 2015.

The report notes that in April 2015 — just a month before he fell mysteriously ill for the first time — Kara-Murza traveled to Washington to deliver a list of “high-ranking Russian journalists and politicians who are allegedly responsible for the public rabble-rousing against Nemtsov.” Kara-Murza publicly called for the United States to sanction the persons on his list. This was not the first time Kara-Murza had called for sanctions against Russian officials. Kara-Murza called for sanctions against Russian politicians for the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Furthermore, Kara-Murza was outspoken after the mysterious death of another Russian opposition figure — Sergei Magintsky — in prison in 2009.

President Trump's Statement

In a pre-Super Bowl interview with Bill O'Reilly, President Donald Trump stated that he respects Vladimir Putin, although that entails no guarantee that he will get along with him. O'Reilly proceeded to press President Trump on the issue, asserting — correctly — that Putin is a “killer.” At this juncture, President Trump could have said, as the noted conservative blogger Allahpundit suggested on Hotair, that President Trump could have acknowledged that Putin is a bad actor, but that sometimes the United States must work with bad actors — as Nixon did with Mao — to achieve positive ends.2 Instead, President Trump took the path of — intentionally or not — painting a false moral equivalence between the United States and the regime of Vladimir Putin, stating: “There are a lot of killers. We've got a lot of killers. What? Do you think our country's so innocent?”3 Then, rather than dig himself out of his hole, President Trump proceeded to reference American failures in Iraq as support for his assertion that the United States is in no position to judge Putin.

It should be impossible to read the story about Kara-Murza, and many similar stories to that one under Putin's Russia, and draw any sort of equivalence between the United States and Russia. Even regarding the Iraq War, there is a difference between errors in strategy and intelligence and Russia's actions in places such as the Ukraine and Syria. To suggest that the United States is a “killer” in the same sense that Putin is, or to suggest any other sort of equivalence, is gravely erroneous.

On CBS's Face the Nation, Vice President Mike Pence endeavored to explain President Trump's remarks. Vice President Pence stated that President Trump's goal was to find common ground between the United States and Russia, but that he had explicitly said he may not “get along” with Putin. Vice President Pence added that he did not see any “moral equivalency” in President Trump's remarks.

Although I supported President Trump in the general election, I am committed to “calling balls and strikes,” criticizing him when he says or does something incorrect [see blog] and praising him when he does well [see blog]. The President's statements regarding Russia to Bill O'Reilly were deeply problematic. As the conservative radio host Mark Levin noted on February 6, 2017, President Ronald Reagan would have never made a comparable remark, even in the name of achieving a mutually beneficial end with the then-Soviet Union.4 Furthermore, Levin noted that had President Barack Obama made the same comment, “we'd [conservatives] all be jumping out of our chairs.”

In his criticism, Levin called President Trump's remark a “flip remark.” I agree with that assessment. I certainly hope that Vice President Pence was correct in assessing that President Trump was endeavoring to express that he hoped to find common ground with Russia, but that it would depend on negotiations. To seek a better relationship with Russia is defensible, but to draw a moral equivalence between Russia and the United States is not. He could draw on many examples from American history under all of our Presidents to support working closely with nefarious actors to achieve beneficial ends. President Trump has the opportunity to clarify beyond any semblance of a doubt that there is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, and that the United States is in a strong position to criticize outrageous actions by Russia such as the use of force against courageous politicians such as Vladimir Kara-Murza. He would be wise to take the opportunity to provide such clarity.

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  1. Goncharenko, Roman, “Kremlin critic Kara-Murza still in intensive care unit,” dw.com/en, (Feb. 4, 2017)
  2. Allahpundit, “Trump on O'Reilly calling Putin a killer: 'Do you think our country's so innocent?'” hotair.com, (Feb. 5, 2017)
  3. Richter, Greg, “O'Reilly to Putin: Don't Hold Breath for Apology,” newsmax.com, (Feb. 6, 2017)
  4. Levin, Mark, “America is Nothing Like Russia. Join Us for a Brand New Levin TV Tonight,” facebook.com/marklevinshow, (Feb. 6, 2017)