McCain Sharply Criticizes Putin

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MOSCOW -- In a combative essay published on Thursday in the online newspaper Pravda, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, declared himself to be "pro-Russia" but delivered a blistering attack on President Vladimir V. Putin, describing him as presiding over a failed petro-state, a quasi-dictator who rules "by corruption, repression and violence."

Mr. McCain's article was intended to answer an opinion column by Mr. Putin that was published in The New York Times making the case against President Obama's threatened military strike on Syria. The article on Sept. 12, in which Mr. Putin presented Russia's position as defending international law and respect for state sovereignty, generated fierce debate, including both praise and accusations of hypocrisy.

While Mr. Putin's article focused more generally on American foreign policy, Mr. McCain, who has long been a sharp critic of the Kremlin, focused squarely on the Russian president. In his introduction, though, he first made an effort to dispel the idea that he is anti-Russia, a perception that is widespread here.

"I am not anti-Russian," Mr. McCain wrote. "I am pro-Russian, more pro-Russian than the regime that misrules you today."

"I make that claim because I respect your dignity and your right to self-determination," he continued, addressing the Russian people. "You should be governed by a rule of law that is clear, consistently and impartially enforced and just. I make that claim because I believe the Russian people, no less than Americans, are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Mr. McCain wrote that he did not believe a Russian citizen could publish a similar criticism of the government, though, in fact, criticism of the government appears frequently in the Russian press and especially online, where there is generally no censorship.

Although the government maintains fairly strong control over what is shown on the major television stations, particularly in news reports, commentary in print and on the Internet is often critical of Mr. Putin and the government.

Mr. Putin, speaking on Thursday at a briefing with academics and policy analysts, ridiculed Mr. McCain for submitting the article to Pravda, which he suggested was proof that the American senator was locked in an outdated cold war mind-set.

"I think that he has a certain deficit of information about our country," Mr. Putin said.

"And the fact that he wanted to be published in Pravda, not any other publication, apparently he wants to be published in a most authoritative publication with big circulation," Mr. Putin added, mockingly. "Of course, Pravda is a respectable publication of the now oppositional Communist Party, but its level of distribution in the country is minimal."

Mr. Putin insisted that there was nothing anti-American in his article in the Times, and he said Mr. McCain had been invited to attend the annual policy conference in Valdai where Mr. Putin made his remarks. At the same time, Mr. Putin raised his own complaint with a cold war edge.

"Once we were promised that NATO will not cross the eastern border" of Germany, he said. "We discussed it and Gorbachev was given a promise, though it was not registered anywhere. And now, where is NATO? And where is the border? We were simply duped."

Writing of Mr. Putin and his associates, Mr. McCain said: "They don't respect your dignity or accept your authority over them. They punish dissent and imprison opponents. They rig your elections. They control your media. They harass, threaten, and banish organizations that defend your right to self-governance. To perpetuate their power they foster rampant corruption in your courts and your economy and terrorize and even assassinate journalists who try to expose their corruption. They write laws to codify bigotry against people whose sexual orientation they condemn. They throw the members of a punk rock band in jail for the crime of being provocative and vulgar and for having the audacity to protest President Putin's rule."

Mr. McCain did not make any effort to defend the policies of the United States, but accused Mr. Putin of seeking to shield the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

"How has he strengthened Russia's international stature?" Mr. McCain asked. "By allying Russia with some of the world's most offensive and threatening tyrannies. By supporting a Syrian regime that is murdering tens of thousands of its own people to remain in power and by blocking the United Nations from even condemning its atrocities."

Mr. McCain closed by reiterating his view of himself as pro-Russian. "When I criticize your government, it is not because I am anti-Russian," he wrote. "It is because I believe you deserve a government that believes in you."

Mr. McCain had announced his plan to submit the article, which was titled "Russians Deserve Better than Putin", to Pravda shortly after the publication of Mr. Putin's Op-Ed article. Mr. McCain, however, was not the first member of Congress to publish a response in the Russian news media.

On Monday, Kommersant, one of the Russia's most prominent daily newspapers, printed an open letter to the Russian people written by Representative Steve Israel of New York, who is the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In his letter, which he also posted in English on his own Web site, Mr. Israel noted that he felt a personal connection because his grandparents were born here. "When my grandparents lived in Russia," he wrote, "the prospect of your leader using our cherished freedom of the press in America would have been unfathomable."

In contrast to Mr. McCain's scathing criticism, Mr. Israel explained in leveled language why he would potentially vote in favor of a military strike on Syria, although he praised Mr. Putin's efforts to persuade Mr. Assad's government to surrender its chemical weapons arsenal.

"Diplomacy should always be the first preference," Mr. Israel wrote. "However, if diplomacy proves to not be an option, I believe the U.S. must degrade and deter the further use of chemical weapons, without boots on the ground and in a limited, focused and swift way."

He continued, "Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons repeatedly, and with each new attack that went unanswered by the international community, more innocent men, women and children were murdered." Mr. Israel added, "With a firm response and in the absence of an international agreement, Assad will feel emboldened to continue gassing people."

In a parenthetical chiding of the Kremlin, Mr. Israel urged Russians to watch videos of the aftermath of the Aug. 21 chemical attack outside Damascus "if your government allows you access."

Indeed, such videos have been freely accessible even as Mr. Putin, the Russian foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov and other top officials insist that the Syrian opposition was responsible for the chemical attack last month. Senior Russian officials say Mr. Assad's government has provided evidence that the rebels were to blame.

Mr. Israel said the international response to Syria would be noted by Hezbollah, Iran and North Korea, and he also directly answered Mr. Putin's assertion that it was wrong for President Obama to claim American "exceptionalism."

"As an American, I hold the exceptionalism of my country dear," Mr. Israel wrote. "I also know of the many exceptional achievements our two countries made together, such as defeating Nazism and discovering Space. If your leaders are serious about truly creating a regimen to control and contain chemical weapons in Syria under international supervision in a transparent, verifiable and effective way, then we will be able to add this to the latest example of exceptional achievements partnered by our two nations. Your president has told the United States that he is interested in doing this. Now we await his words turning into deeds."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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