Ornate facades can't mask Putin's murderous system

Learn more about Chris Walsh.
Chris Walsh
Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

A government that imprisons or kills its critics isn’t to be admired; it’s cowardly and stands opposed to American democratic values.

It’s a jarring juxtaposition that Russian political prisoner Alexei Navalny died in jail the same week that Tucker Carlson praised Vladimir Putin’s Russia for its grocery stores and subways.

And certainly, there are Russian grocery stores and subways (especially those intended, in part, as Soviet propaganda) that are classier than their U.S. counterparts.  Still, when you compare data from Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service and the USDA, you find that the average Russian spends more than half of their disposable income on groceries compared to only 11% by Americans.

More importantly, though, Carlson’s main point seems to be that Russia’s authoritarian system is somehow preferable to American democracy.

This is an outrageous claim that rejects the goodness, however flawed, of the American experiment with its focus on liberty, opportunity, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. Frankly, it begs questions as to why a smart guy like Carlson, who has achieved great success through the American system, would become Putin’s mascot in the Unites States.

And that doesn’t mean Americans can’t be dissatisfied with the nature of politics or the substance of policies. No system is perfect, but let’s favor the one that allows 330 million different people to live in relative peace and freedom over the whims of a virtually unconstrained strong man in Moscow. The American system prioritizes individual rights and liberties, emphasizes limited government accountable to the people, provides checks and balances on authorities, and legitimately adheres to due process and the rule of law.

Consider the “town square test” posed by former Soviet dissident and political prisoner Natan Sharansky. He posits that if you go to the center of town and express your views without punishment, you live in a free society. If not, you live in what he calls a “fear society.”

A great source of pride for the United States is its commitment to free expression and peaceful protest. In Washington, D.C. (regardless of who is in power), you can walk by the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court daily to see citizens peacefully demonstrating their discontent over a broad range of issues.

Conversely, we know that in Putin’s Russia, anti-war protestors have been arrested for brandishing signs that are literally blank.

That doesn’t mean American democracy is perfect. It’s not, and never will be, despite constantly striving toward that goal. But there is no moral equivalence to a system that jails and murders opposition leaders or those critical of the government. There is a long track record of this in Putin’s Russia that includes Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-MurzaBoris Nemstov, and Sergei Magnitsky. Not to mention the highly dubious imprisonment of Americans Evan Gershkovich, Alsu Kurmasheva, and Paul Whelan

In the United States, reasonable people may question the justice system periodically, and thankfully they have channels like an independent media, civil society, and individual activism to enact reform and right injustices. Unlike the United States, credible due process is doubtful in Russia because the entire system answers to a single man who holds complete and arbitrary power.

One doesn’t need to be an enthusiastic supporter of a particular government, political party, or politician in our country to recognize that Putin’s Russia should never be the envy of the United States. A government that imprisons or kills its critics isn’t to be admired; it’s cowardly and stands opposed to American democratic values.