Journalists don’t have much power. Despite what they sometimes try to imply, they don’t sit in the rooms where fundamental political decisions are made and guns and ammunition are handed out. All they can do—we can do—is stand on the sidelines and try to distinguish among varieties of good and evil. It’s not much. But it’s enough to stir deep paranoia in the men with the guns. Thus, we see the current behavior of Russia and some of the former Soviet republics toward journalists, prominent among them the journalists of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Among those journalists, the latest hostage is Alsu Kurmasheva.
She has both Russian and U.S. citizenship. Working from Prague, she is an editor with RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service, which until recent hostile steps by Russian authorities operated in, among other places, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Her beat isn’t politics or military affairs; she writes about language and culture. She has two teenage daughters.
Kurmasheva also has an aged and ailing mother in Kazan, Russia. In May, despite rising security concerns, she went to Russia to pay her mother a visit, most likely her last Russian trip. While she was there, the Russians accused her of failing to disclose her U.S. citizenship. She also had a piece of bad luck during her trip: The Ukrainians deployed long-range missiles that had recently been provided to them by the United States. The next day, the Russian FSB arrested Kurmasheva, handcuffed her, and marched her into their interrogation quarters, all on video. They added potential charges against her, suspecting she failed to register herself as a foreign agent who gathers information on Russia’s military and military-technical activities to transfer it to foreign sources, so it can be consequently used against the security of the Russian Federation. As a result, Alsu’s potential sentence could expand up to five years of hard labor in a penal colony or imprisonment for the same period. As of this writing, the Russian authorities have delayed their decision and maintained suspense about the charges they will yet visit on Kurmasheva.
When we look at the present war in the Middle East, we see decades of resentment culminating in homicidal anger. When we view the detention of Kurmasheva, we see something different. There is nothing uncontrolled about the Putin regime’s actions; the steps it has taken bespeak settled habit, procedure, and policy. The regime behaves like this as a matter of course.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a brief span in which it looked as if various Cold War tensions might relax. That hope has ended: In one area after another, from Iran to Afghanistan, the tensions have returned to a condition that is as fraught as it ever was. The Russians are insecure; but at the same time, the disorder in international politics—including American politics—has expanded the space in which they are able to practice their disgusting craft.
We see them. We may not sit in the inner councils of power, but we are watching. We can see that RFE/RL houses some of the world’s bravest journalists. We can see that Vladimir Putin’s regime routinely traffics in hostage-taking, blackmail, wrongful imprisonment, and other violations of the rule of law—not as expressions of rage but in calculations of self-interest, which is even worse.
Suzanne Garment is a senior editor of American Purpose.
Image: Alsu Kurmasheva. (Pangea Graphics/Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)
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