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The Trial of Sergei Magnitsky and the Putin Doctrine

As the posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitsky got underway in Moscow yesterday (and then didn’t), it’s worth thinking about what’s driving Vladimir Putin to such bizarre ends. Why put a dead man on trial, after all?

A good place to start thinking about such things is AEI scholar Leon Aron’s article in Foreign Affairs from this weekend. Titled “The Putin Doctrine”, the piece tries to put together a kind of rationale for why Putin’s authoritarian regime is the way it is. Key passage for understanding the Magnitsky affair:

In 2004, a few weeks after Chechen extremists took hostages in a North Ossetian school, Vladislav Surkov—the deputy chief of the presidential administration who is now deputy prime minister—laid out a vision of Russia as a besieged fortress. According to Surkov, anonymous foreign malfeasants, hungry for the country’s natural resources, were plotting to “destroy Russia and fill its enormous space with many weak quasi-states.” Furthermore, he added that in the “de-facto besieged country,” outside plotters were helped by “the fifth column” of traitors, the “left and right radicals,” who have “common foreign sponsors,” and that these traitors are united by “the hatred of what they claim to be Putin’s Russia but, in fact, [is the hatred] of Russia herself.” Since then, Surkov’s three themes—the never-ceasing attempts to subjugate or destroy the Russian state, the anti-regime opposition as tools of those behind the plotting, and equating the present government with the Russian nation—have become the staples of the regime’s propaganda. As one might expect, the besieged fortress theme is given most visibility and intensity when the regime’s need for bolstering its legitimacy appears to be the greatest. And the threat of the United States is a common focus.

That’s how we’ve analyzed the case last month. It’s as much an attempt to marginalize domestic opposition and build Putin up at home as it is an attempt to go tit-for-tat with the US over real or perceived slights.

On the one hand, this is standard authoritarian practice. Autocrats have been invoking external threats and conspiracies in order to gain legitimacy from time immemorial. “Be it thy course to giddy busy minds with foreign quarrels,” is King Henry IV’s advice to the young Prince Hal, as Shakespeare put it. Indeed, Chavistas in Venezuela are doing exactly that these days. Seen this way, Aron’s Putin Doctrine is nothing more than a Russian flavor of a fairly common phenomenon.

But the piece is worth reading nevertheless, as it sketches out historical reasons for why Putin’s approach retains broader appeal among many Russians than it might elsewhere. It’s good food for thought. Read the whole thing.

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