Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Putin Caught in His Own Particular Web of Fears, Pastukhov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 19 -- No one, including Vladimir Putin, knows in advance which crimes will strike a chord with the population and generate a reaction, Vladimir Pastukhov says. And as a result, whenever he tries something new, he has to live with the fear that he may provoke chaos, a chaos that sometimes others fear so much that they will beat a retreat.

            Russians intuitively sense this and that is why, the London-based Russian scholar says, they currently hope that the Network case will work out in the way that the Golunov case did, with the population’s angry response leading Putin and his entourage to back down rather than stand fast (

            According to Pastukhov, on this occasion, those who hope for such an outcome are likely to be wrong because in the Network case, the issue is less the crime that those involved in it were accused of than of the draconian punishments that have been meted out to them. That suggests that this case is one that is about Putin personally. And unlike his regime, he won’t back down.

            Putin certainly knew the details of the case, and the decisions of his subordinates reflect his views. “Decisions in the Putin vertical one way or another pass through Putin,” and he makes the decisions either directly or through the understandings of his subordinates, Pastukhov continues.

            Further, “it cannot be any secret for Putin that prisoners in Russian jails are tortured. The massive character of tortures, their broad treatment in the media, and the unprecedented number of decisions of the European Court for Human Rights are direct and incontrovertible evidence that tortures in Russian prisons aren’t excesses … but rather officially approved practices.”

            “I think,” Pastukhov adds, “that historians of the remarkable Russia of the future will uncover circulars specifying how to torture, whom to torture and what get by means of torture.”

            According to Pastukhov, “there is nothing surprising that Putin considers those in the Network case terrorists. It would be strange if he though otherwise” given that those who report to him will certainly have told him that the evidence all points in that direction and those who say otherwise are his political enemies. Whom can he be expected to believe?

            Thus, the charges and the convictions in this case say nothing particularly new about Putin and his regime. What is new and instructive are the draconian sentences that have been handed down. They are unprecedented and they open a window into the mind of Putin at this time.

            Russian courts generally follow the principle of legal proportionality in their sentencing, that is, greater punishments are imposed for greater crimes and lesser ones for lesser infractions. Judges may be told to reorder their ranking of crimes and thus their sentences, and that is what appears to have happened in this case.

            Those accused in the Network case were sentenced “not for actions but for thought, not for crimes actually committed but for [at most] preparations for them.” And yet they were given sentences roughly equivalent to those handed down in the cases of those convicted of actually killing Boris Nemtsov.

            Putin certainly sanctioned this sentence, fully aware that the Network people had not done more than talk.  Why should he have taken that decision? The most likely explanation is that he sees himself as being in a battlefield and has lost any sense of proportion, “political or legal” and “does not see the difference between word and deed.”

            He feels himself on a battlefield in the state of a wild beast surrounded by enemies “who does not understand what is happening” or where the next attack will come. “In this state, he does not feel any sense of proportion “political or legal” and “does not see the difference between word and deed.”

            Instead, “fear is driving him, and he is seeking to instill fear in those around him in response.” This is the only explanation for his sanctioning of such harsh sentences and also for why he is unlikely to mitigate the sentences in any significant way.

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