Skip to main content

Motyl: Putin, just evil enough

By Alexander Motyl
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alexander Motyl says Putin has promoted, supplied Russian and pro-Russian terrorists
  • Motyl: Putin was member of brutal secret police and behind invasions in Georgia, Ukraine
  • He is evil enough for all to condemn, Motyl says; countries' silence implies approval
  • Motyl: France, Germany must end economic ties with Russia; EU must take a moral stand

Editor's note: Alexander J. Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. He was associate director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University from 1992 through 1998. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the former Soviet Union, Motyl is the author of six academic books and several novels, including "The Jew Who Was Ukrainian," "My Orchidia" and "Sweet Snow." He writes a weekly blog on "Ukraine's Orange Blues" for World Affairs Journal. The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Vice President Joe Biden recently confided a sensational bit of news to the New Yorker magazine: In a 2011 meeting with Vladimir Putin, he had actually told Russia's then-prime minister that he had no "soul." Even more remarkable was Putin's response. "And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, 'We understand one another.' "

Many people -- in Ukraine, Europe, America and even Russia -- probably share Biden and Putin's estimation of the Russian president's spiritual condition. In saying Putin has no soul, it means he seems to lack both the capacity to feel emotions and to show empathy.

Russia's leader certainly has a long record of inhumanity. He was an agent of the Soviet secret police, a criminal institution with a record that goes back to the purges of Stalin, a record more bloody than that of the Nazi SS.

Alexander Motyl
Alexander Motyl

John Dunlop of Stanford's Hoover Institution wrote in "The Moscow Bombings" that there is strong evidence to suggest that Putin was in on the plot to bomb two apartment buildings in Moscow in September 1999, in which 300 Russian citizens were killed and several hundred others were wounded. He says the bombings were blamed on Chechen rebels as a pretext to invade Chechnya.

Putin has funded, promoted, supplied and aided and abetted the Russian and pro-Russian terrorists in eastern Ukraine. And by invading Crimea, he created the conditions of war, hatred and fanaticism that led to the destruction of 298 innocent lives aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on that day of infamy, July 17.

Who are Ukraine's pro-Russia rebels?

Is Putin evil? His actions certainly are, if by evil we understand behavior that willfully, consciously and purposely destroys human life. Perhaps we can call his actions undeniably evil and Putin himself "evil enough." Evil enough for what? Evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.

How rebels in Ukraine built up an arsenal capable of reaching the skies

If Putin is "evil enough," what are the implications for policy-makers?

Russia's President Vladimir Putin is a popular but polarizing figure who has dominated Russian politics for more than a decade. Click through to see some highlights of his career. Russia's President Vladimir Putin is a popular but polarizing figure who has dominated Russian politics for more than a decade. Click through to see some highlights of his career.
Putin in power
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
>
>>
Photos: Putin in power Photos: Putin in power
What is Putin's game plan after MH17?
A birthday card found in a sunflower field near the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, on Thursday, July 24. The passenger plane was shot down July 17 above Ukraine. All 298 people aboard were killed, and much of what they left behind was scattered in a vast field of debris. A birthday card found in a sunflower field near the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, on Thursday, July 24. The passenger plane was shot down July 17 above Ukraine. All 298 people aboard were killed, and much of what they left behind was scattered in a vast field of debris.
MH17: What they left behind
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
>
>>
MH17: What they left behind MH17: What they left behind
The Netherlands honors MH17 victims
Sister gives up seat on Flight 17

First, they should openly state that they condemn Putin's behavior. Because silence implies approval, policy-makers must understand that their moral standing, like that of the countries they represent, is on the line. Evil is indivisible. If they refuse to condemn this instance, they effectively surrender the right to condemn any instance of evil.

Second, they should refuse to shake his hand, engage in chitchat, attend photo ops with him and in any way create the impression that they accept his behavior as a socially acceptable. German Chancellor Angela Merkel would not hobnob with a German neo-Nazi; President Barack Obama would not have drinks with the head of the Ku Klux Klan. By extension, neither of them should hobnob with Putin at World Cup soccer games.

Third, policy-makers should avoid doing anything that aids and abets Putin's proclivities. Since those proclivities largely rest on his ability to employ armaments to cause death, any form of assistance to Putin's war machine or repressive apparatus is the moral equivalent of supplying barbed wire and bullets to Auschwitz. Two examples will illustrate this point.

The Dusseldorf-based German defense company Rheinmetall is manifestly abetting Putin's evildoing by continuing to insist that it has "to meet its contractual obligations with Moscow and finalize a combat simulation center where up to 30,000 soldiers could be trained annually." Since Rheinmetall signed the contract with Russia in 2011, when Putin's record was already on full display to the world, it cannot claim ignorance of Putin's evil intentions.

France's continued determination to supply the Putin war machine with two Mistral-class assault ships is no less of a moral outrage.

As Robert C. O'Brien, a former U.S. representative to the United Nations, argues, "With the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight No. 17, it should now be clear to all observers that Russia is fully intent on subjugating and intimidating its former Soviet constituent states and Warsaw Pact allies, and will do so with the most advanced weapons in its inventory.

"There is no reason to believe that the Mistral-class warships, once in the Russian Navy, will not also be used in the Black Sea, Baltic and Pacific to further increase the pressure on Russia's neighbors. Given its recent history, Moscow should not be handed another military tool of the Mistral-class magnitude."

This does not mean that morally concerned policy makers should refrain from talking to him entirely. As professor Walter Clemens, an associate of Harvard's Davis Center, argues in a fascinating paper, "Can -- Should -- Must We Negotiate with Evil?": "If a cruel dictatorship is willing to negotiate security arrangements likely to limit arms competition and make war less likely, democratic governments should engage and seek verifiable arrangements."

So, yes, according to this logic, talk to Putin about making "war less likely" in eastern Ukraine and talk to him about limiting "arms competition." Otherwise, shun him and everything he stands for.

Opinion: Are the pro-Russian rebels terrorists?

Such countries as France and Germany, which have extensive economic relations with Russia, face a difficult moral choice. They must ask themselves whether Putin is evil or evil enough. If they decide his killing spree in eastern Ukraine is neither evil nor evil enough, they must explain -- to themselves and to the rest of the world -- just why they believe the destruction of Ukrainian, Russian, Malaysian, Dutch and other lives is not a form of evil behavior.

If, alternatively, Putin's behavior strikes them as evil, they must either act on that conviction, in the manner suggested above, or explain to themselves and the rest of the world just why their enhancing Putin's war-making proclivities is not wrong.

Pentagon: Russia getting ready to send more powerful weapons into Ukraine

Ultimately, France and Germany, as well as all countries that aid and abet Russia's destructive capabilities, have to decide whether they care more about values or about money. Dictatorships can answer that question easily: Their leaders are indifferent to values.

Prosperous capitalist democracies, and especially prosperous capitalist democracies that are part of a self-styled community of values called the European Union, cannot take the easy way out and pretend values do not matter. In the final analysis, the willingness of France, Germany and all the other states making up the European Union to respond to Putin's evil doing will determine the moral fate of the EU. If they sacrifice morality to arms contracts or gas, the EU will have lost its rasion d'etre. Worse, like Putin, it will be without a soul.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT