McCain disses Putin, but Russians are mostly unimpressed

Published in an online Russian newspaper, McCain's commentary was scathing toward President Putin, but will it change any Russian minds?

Ralph Freso/AP
US Senator John McCain (R) of Arizona listens during a town hall meeting at the Burton Barr Central Library on Sept. 5, in Phoenix. McCain penned a commentary that was scathing toward Russian President Putin, published Thursday, Sept. 19, in Pravda.ru, a marginal online Russian newspaper.

US President Obama apparently felt no need to rise to the challenge of answering Vladimir Putin's Sept. 11 polemical commentary in The New York Times about Syria and US-Russia relations.

But US Sen. John McCain stepped into the breach penning a blistering riposte to Mr. Putin, published Thursday in Pravda.ru, a marginal online Russian newspaper.

The central claim in Senator McCain's broadside is that Putin speaks for a narrow and corrupt Russian elite, which stifles dissent and persecutes innocent minorities, and that the Russian people are being denied the truth. The piece, entitled "Russians Deserve Better Than Putin," opens by taking issue with Kremlin characterizations of him as an "anti-Russian" hawk.

"Since my purpose here is to dispel falsehoods used by Russia's rulers to perpetuate their power and excuse their corruption, let me begin with that untruth. I am not anti-Russian. I am pro-Russian, more pro-Russian than the regime that misrules you today," he writes.

The Kremlin said it didn't intend to continue the debate publicly, though spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed McCain's comments, telling the ITAR-Tass news agency ”I don’t think that point of view of someone across the ocean plays any sort of role in how Russians express their will. ”

The articles by Putin and McCain could hardly be more different – one focused on US foreign policy, the other taking aim at Russia's political system and its leader – though each appears to have drawn passionately mixed reviews from its target audience.

Critics of Putin's piece fell into several categories, including those who didn't think a foreign leader should be lecturing Americans, those who thought his take on Syria was disingenuous, and those who objected to his dig at American "exceptionalism."

In Moscow, reactions to McCain's piece on the Pravda.ru website on Thursday included many who similarly thought US politicians should butt out of Russian affairs. Others said that McCain was mostly right about what's going on in Russia, but not about Syria.

But the comments do suggest that McCain may have misjudged his audience, much as Putin may have missed the mark with his.

"This is yet another confirmation that Putin was right in saying that Americans think of themselves as a higher race, and think they have the right to lecture everybody else," wrote one reader named Alexei Skochilov.

"Putin's piece was intelligent and precise while McCain's reads like an old-fashioned agitation leaflet. Does he think he is speaking to morons? He was supposed to respond to an article about foreign affairs, but chose instead to interfere into the internal policy of a sovereign state," he wrote.

Another reader, Vasily Avtamonov, remarked that it didn't seem a response to Putin's views on Syria at all.

"Nobody denies that [Russian] authorities are corrupt, there is theft and courts lack independence. But this is our crap and we have to deal with it. As for Syria, our authorities are right," he noted.

It's a bit of a mystery why the senator from Arizona chose Pravda.ru, since it has no relationship to the Pravda of cold-war memory, which was the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party. The original Pravda still exists as the house organ of the Russian Communist Party but Pravda.ru is produced by a group that split off from the main Pravda publishers many years ago. News reports said McCain had submitted his commentary to both publications, but the print newspaper said it would publish the piece only if it agreed with the Party's position on Syria.

Nevertheless, it's the first Russian outlet to run a direct response to Putin by a leading US politician in the Russian language. The English-language Moscow Times published a similarly trenchant piece on Wednesday, entitled "Putin's New York Times Blunder," penned the chairman of the US House Committee on Armed Services, Buck McKeon, who is a Republican like McCain.

Though McCain's piece attracted nowhere near the publicity that Putin's piece did in the New York Times, it did prompt lively debate on the commentary section of Pravda.ru, with hundreds of comments being posted by Thursday evening. The government-financed 24-hour news channel "Russia 24" did a full segment on the article, complete with Mr. Peskov's comments, and the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy featured some discussion among its hosts and on its Web site.

In his piece, McCain also slams Putin for silencing dissent, imprisoning opponents, rigging elections, and persecuting gay Russians.

"To perpetuate their power [Russian authorities] foster rampant corruption in your courts and your economy and terrorize and even assassinate journalists who try to expose their corruption," McCain wrote.

One brief passage on foreign policy slams Putin for allying Russia with some of the world's worst tyrants and supporting a Syrian regime that's murdering its own people, all in the name of restoring Russian greatness.

Putin, for his part, raised eyebrows in the US by referencing God to back up his assertion that Americans aren't "exceptional."

McCain may have stepped on the same rake, addressing the Russian public: "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."

Well-known TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov, in an interview in Pravda.ru, dismissed McCain's polemic as a compilation of cold war clicheés that will not impress Russia's younger generation.

"Some of [McCain's points] are fair, some are not fair to Russia. In some places, there is a feeling that the senator believes that God has left people his will in American documents...  What he says about how the Russians should live shows quite a traditional, for Americans, perception that they are entitled to decide for other nations, how to live, whom to elect and how they should control their own destiny," he said. 

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