MOSCOW — In a combative essay published Thursday in the online newspaper Pravda, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., declared himself to be “pro-Russia” but delivered a blistering attack on President Vladimir Putin, describing him as presiding over a failed petro-state, a quasi-dictator who rules “by corruption, repression and violence.”
McCain’s article was intended to answer an opinion column by 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 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 Putin’s article focused more generally on U.S. foreign policy, 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,” 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.”
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 Putin and the government.
Putin, speaking Thursday at a briefing with academics and policy analysts, ridiculed McCain for submitting the article to Pravda, which he suggested was proof that the U.S. senator was locked in an outdated Cold War mindset.
“I think that he has a certain deficit of information about our country,” Putin said.
“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,” 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.”
Putin insisted that there was nothing anti-American in his article in the Times, and he said McCain had been invited to attend the annual policy conference in Valdai where Putin made his remarks. At the same time, 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 Putin and his associates, 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.”
McCain did not make any effort to defend the policies of the United States, but accused Putin of seeking to shield the regime of President Bashar Assad of Syria.
“How has he strengthened Russia’s international stature?” 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.”
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.”