10 April 2022
by Boris Altshuler, chair of the board of the Right of the Child, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Source: Moscow Helsinki Group
“History shows conclusively that all dictatorships and authoritarian systems of government are transient. Only democratic systems are enduring. For all their shortcomings, humanity has not invented anything better. Strong state power in Russia is a democratic, law-based, effective federal state.
V.V. Putin, from ‘Russia at the Turn of the Millennium,’ December 1999.
The Special Operation in Ukraine, launched on 24 February this year on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a graphic demonstration of the justice of his own words, spoken 22 years ago and included here in the epigraph. The authoritarian tendencies that have intensified in Russia in recent years, the concentration of absolute power in the hands of one individual, whose powers are not limited by a system of democratic ‘checks and balances,’ inevitably tend towards the loss of a sense of reality and catastrophic miscalculations. Today, the heads of the FSB’s 5th Service (the Service for Operative Information and International Relations), those top officials who gave the Russian President false information about the combat effectiveness of the Ukrainian army and claimed that Ukrainians would greet Russian ‘liberators’ with flowers, have been remanded in custody.
However, despite this misinformation and the arrests of the guilty intelligence officials, the Special Operation has continued. Unfortunately, it was not stopped either by the mountain of corpses, including children, nor by the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, nor by the obvious threat to national security and even to the very existence of the Russian Federation. This inability to change decisions once taken in the light of changed circumstances is also characteristic of authoritarian systems, where the fate of a country depends crucially on the psychological propensities of one person.
How could this have happened? After all, the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s more than 20 years in power was quite different. There are numerous examples of President Putin’s support for the development of civil society, institutions for the protection of human rights, mechanisms of public control and, in general, the establishment of a stable, democratic form of government in Russia. But alas, and not for the first time in Russia’s tragic history, this was unsuccessful. Once again we find ourselves making the same mistakes that lead to totalitarianism.
At the beginning of the new millennium, 20 years ago, we saw every day TV news reports about the shedding of blood in the Chechen Republic while Russian heavy bombers levelled the Russian city of Grozny to the ground. Not at once, but over the course of three years, Putin managed to stop this nightmare, in doing so overcoming the desperate resistance of the General Staff, the FSB, and the Kremlin elites – of all those who profited from this spilling of blood. The task was extremely important and just how Putin managed to achieve it has still not been disclosed – it is a mystery for future historians to resolve. In February 2015 Putin, having contacted the leaders of the United States, Germany, and France, initiated the Minsk agreements which ended the 10-month-long bloodshed in Donbass. After that, more than a million refugees returned from Russia to their homes in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
However, today the Russian air force is doing to Ukrainian cities what it did to the city of Grozny 20 years ago. And we also know today what is happening to the population of Mariupol, Kramatorsk, and the entire six million population of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine – both those areas that separated off from Ukraine in 2014 and the two-thirds of the territories that, for some reason, Russia decided in February 2022 to cut out of Ukraine. For what reason? Why? After all, according to official statements by the Russian Ministry of Defence, the main battle for these territories is yet to come – with inevitable and incalculable human casualties.
Today, in the XXI century, the importance and greatness of any country is determined by its intellectual potential, not by its geography. And the value of a single human life today is far higher than in previous centuries of human history. The ongoing nightmare is a monstrous anachronism.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February this year came as a complete surprise to me, as it did to many. I do not understand what happened to Vladimir Putin. I call on him to stop, to have the courage to recognize the Special Operation as a mistake, to return to the status quo that existed as of 23 February this year and to legitimize that state of affairs through negotiations. I am sure that the international community will support such an approach that will end the bloodshed.
Translated by Simon Cosgrove