After the dispiriting tenure of Rex Tillerson, one way Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could help the State Department “get its swagger back” would be to do what he promised he would do when he arrived at Foggy Bottom. That is, to speak up for American democratic values and for the longstanding bipartisan consensus that the United States prefers as partners those governments that respect fundamental human rights.
“Swagger is not arrogance, it is not boastfulness, it is not ego,” Pompeo told State Department employees at a large town hall meeting in May. “No, swagger is confidence—in one’s self, in one’s ideas. […] It is aggressiveness born of the righteous knowledge that our cause is just, special, and built upon America’s core principles.”
Pompeo will have the opportunity to showcase that confidence, that “righteous knowledge,” and those principles when he visits Helsinki with the President next Monday, and follows up with Russian officials thereafter.
To state the obvious, no one really expects Donald Trump to press Vladimir Putin on human rights. After all, Trump is as pumped up to embrace and celebrate Putin’s “strength” as he was about meeting Kim Jong-un last month, when he remarked favorably that North Koreans “sit up at attention” when their murderous despot speaks. Against the advice of his closest confidantes, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Putin on his fraudulent victory in the March presidential election, and he has been talking him up at Midwestern campaign rallies in recent days. Trump has even said it is time to recognize Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its population of about two million—which in turn would mean an end to the punishing targeted sanctions levied against the Kremlin and those most responsible for the takeover and subsequent crackdown in Crimea.
But that does not mean that the rest of the U.S. government has forgotten America’s principles. Surely a public figure like Mr. Pompeo—first in his class at West Point; elected to Congress from Kansas; whose tenure at the CIA was by all accounts successful, if brief—knows what America stands for. And he seems to know how to mobilize and motivate a government agency.
As anyone who has spent much time in the State Department knows, American diplomats relish opportunities to demonstrate solidarity with the oppressed and to nudge repressive governments in a better direction. This is not surprising, since they often spend years living in countries hobbled by the dysfunction, impoverishment, and insecurity that comes when governments fail to respect their own people’s rights.
The range of human rights issues on which Putin’s Russia has separated itself from the rule of law and respect for the rights of individuals is long and lengthening. Russia’s military occupation of territories in neighboring countries, moreover, has added a particularly cruel dimension by exporting its domestic repression abroad.
Consider, for example, the case of Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker and writer of short stories who peacefully protested against the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. His first two short movies were A Perfect Day for Bananafish (2008) and The Horn of a Bull (2009). Gamer, his first feature length film, debuted at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2012. Sentsov was making plans to produce another film in 2014, but in November 2013 he was swept up in the popular Euromaidan protest movement that eventually prompted Russian-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia. When Putin’s “little green men” spread across the Crimean Peninsula as part of the takeover that commenced the day after the conclusion of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Sentsov helped deliver food and supplies to Ukrainian servicemen trapped in their Crimean bases. He was soon arrested by Russian forces in Crimea and transported into Russia where he stood trial in Rostov-on-Don.
He is now in the fourth year of a 20-year sentence, convicted on fabricated charges of “terrorism” in retaliation for his outspoken opposition to the illegal Russian seizure of his native region. No evidence of any terrorist group existing in Crimea has ever been found, and the only thing that “proved” Sentsov’s membership in the Ukrainian far-Right group Right Sector was a CD in the filmmaker’s possession containing the Soviet documentary Ordinary Fascism. The main witness for the prosecution against Sentsov, implicating him in the supposed terrorist plot, recanted even before the trial concluded, saying he had been tortured into making the false statements. Sentsov himself was beaten and threatened with rape to force a confession. According to Sentsov’s lawyers, investigators refused even to open a case on his allegations, suggesting in reply that his bruises were self-inflicted and that he was keen on sadomasochism. (Sentsov’s gruesome ordeal is captured in a recent documentary by the Russian director Askold Kurov, The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov, which premiered at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival.)
Last year, Sentsov was transferred to Russia’s northernmost prison, the high-security correctional facility Number 8 (also dubbed Polar Bear) which is located just outside the Yamalo-Nenets town of Labytnangi, north of the Arctic Circle. Its inmates are male convicts sentenced for “serious” and “very serious” crimes.
Since May 14, Sentsov has been on hunger strike, demanding not his own release but that of about 70 other Ukrainian citizens currently held in the Russian Federation on political grounds. Most of these prisoners are residents of Crimea, and many are Crimean Tatars, the Muslim people exiled to Siberia by Stalin who returned in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR. Last week, Sentsov’s cousin Natalia Kaplan visited him—and told friends afterwards that Oleg has lost more than 30 pounds off his six-foot, three-inch frame and is in failing health.
Secretary Pompeo’s own spokesperson recently expressed deep concern about the “growing number of individuals—now more than 150” political and religious prisoners held by the Russian Federation, including Sentsov and three other Ukrainians also on hunger strike. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has persuasively described the treatment of the Crimeans, in particular, as “not isolated cases of human rights violations, but a consistent and clearly coordinated policy of Moscow.”
Donald Tusk, the President of the European Commission, on Monday renewed his call for Sentsov and the others to be released and urged President Trump to raise this issue when he sees Mr. Putin next week. Certainly, Secretary Pompeo should do so as well. A strong America needs to recognize that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine includes these unjust imprisonments, in flagrant violation of America’s core principles and international covenants. If there are to be any changes in the U.S. posture toward Russia, Mr. Pompeo needs to make clear, the release of these political prisoners must be a prerequisite. Oleg Sentsov’s case is urgent and he should be released immediately.
If Mr. Pompeo really wants his department to get its swagger back, he needs to demonstrate the kind of confidence he invoked at that town hall meeting two months ago. Foreign service officers want to keep doing what the world has consistently seen them do, and they want their leader to again elevate human rights advocacy as part of the American diplomat’s job.