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Are you a killer, Mr. President?
"I am always guided by the interests of the Russian state and the Russian people."
I was struck by this excerpt from Vladimir Putin’s pre-summit interview with NBC, for two reasons: Because of how well Kier Simmons did to get an answer, and because of how much better it might have been, had he done a little bit more homework.
Let’s start at the top: Simmons ask the inevitable “killer” question, almost certain to elicit both a groan from the audience and a flippant response from Putin, who obliges:
Simmons: John McCain in Congress called you a killer. When President Trump was told that you are a killer, he didn’t deny it. When President Biden was asked whether he believes you are a killer, he said, “I do.” Mr. President, are you a killer?
Putin: Listen to me, over the course of my work, I’ve gotten used to attacks from different sides, for a lot of reasons, and of varying degrees of quality and pointedness. None of this surprises me. We argue with the people we work with in the international arena. We are not bride and groom. We don’t promise one another eternal love and friendship. We are partners, and in some respects competitors.
But Simmons doesn’t let it go, and his reward is the straightest answer you’ll ever get from Putin to this question: I kill people, because it’s in the national interest (or, at least, in Putin’s interpretation thereof):
Simmons: I don’t think I heard you answer the question, the direct question.
Putin: I’ve heard dozens of these kinds of accusations, especially during the difficult times of our fight against terrorism in the North Caucasus. At the same time, I am always guided by the interests of the Russian state and the Russian people.
Simmons could have called it a day right there, but he smelled blood and went for the kill — and that’s where he made his mistake:
Simmons: Let me give you some names. Anna Politkovskaya – shot dead. Alexander Litvinenko – poisoned by polonium. Sergei Magnitsky – allegedly beaten and died in prison. Boris Nemtsov – shot moments from the Kremlin, moments from here. Mikhail Lesin – died of blunt trauma in Washington, DC. Are all of these a coincidence, Mr. President?
Great question, but can you spot the mistake? Lesin doesn’t belong on this list. He’s not a dissident, not a challenge to Putin’s Kremlin, and the allegations that he was killed are on the shakiest ground. Ask that same question without Lesin on the list - or replacing him with Stas Markelov, Anastasia Baburina, or Natalia Estemirova, for example - and it’s dynamite. But Lesin gave Putin an out, which he promptly took:
Putin: Listen. I don’t want to seem rude, but this all sounds like some kind of stomach disorder, only in words. You listed a lot of people, who did indeed suffer and die at various times, for various reasons and at the hands of various people. You mentioned Lesin. He worked in my administration. I liked him a lot. He died in the US. Died, or was killed – I don’t know. We should ask you – how did he die? I, for one, am still sad that he passed away. In my view, he was a good person. It’s just another provocation, a fake. I don’t know anything about it, at least. The people who talk about it know more than I do, probably. It’s nonsense. Our bilateral relations have degraded to the lowest possible level.
There are two lessons here. One is to do your homework: a little bit of extra digging would have made it clear that Lesin was the odd one out in Simmons’ list, and that his inclusion allows Putin to tar the entire rap sheet as somehow suspect. The second lesson, though, is broader: the reason Lesin ended up on Simmons’ list is because our debate on Russia — and even on Putin himself — has become so caricatured that we have lost the knack for nuance. Is Putin responsible for the deaths of Russian dissidents? Yes. But that doesn’t make every prominent dead Russian a dissident or even an opponent. And it doesn’t make Putin responsible for each and every unexplained death. To assume otherwise makes for bad analysis, bad journalism and, ultimately, bad policy.