When thousands of Russians marched in protest of Vladimir Putin’s regime and the nation’s culture of political corruption on Sunday, police responded by arresting hundreds.
Rallies in 99 different cities across the Russian Federation were peaceful, but the police response was not. Officers in riot gear detained protesters and journalists alike; reporters saw unprovoked violence from the security forces.
Late Sunday evening, American time, President Donald Trump’s administration addressed the crackdown in a written statement bathed in irony. “The United States strongly condemns the detention of peaceful protesters throughout Russia on Sunday,” the statement from acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner — which was not issued until 12 hours after the first reports of mass arrests in Moscow — read.
“The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law, and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution,” Toner added.
“What, you think our country is so innocent?”
Trump himself has long refused to criticize Putin’s record of human rights violations. He previously applauded Putin as a “strong leader,” even in response to questions about the Russian president’s fondness for having his critics killed. He reiterated that stance to Bill O’Reilly shortly after his inauguration.
“There are a lot of killers,” he said, when O’Reilly pressed him on Putin’s record. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
Toner’s words also contrast with Trump’s own pattern of rhetoric and behavior toward dissenters in his own country.
The weekend protests across Russia are not a particularly close analog to the anti-Trump demonstrations that American activists have staged since his election victory. Alexei Navalny, the prime mover behind the anti-Putin protests, is himself a nationalist hardliner whose political platform includes ethnocentric promises akin to Trump’s own stances on immigration, economics, and law enforcement.
But it is nonetheless odd to see criticism of Putin’s crackdown from the government of a man who has called for a criminal investigation into the Movement for Black Lives and encouraged his supporters to beat up protesters.
At rallies throughout his 2016 campaign, Trump relished opportunities to bash protesters — typically pausing his stump speech to peer into the crowd and ask his supporters to remove hecklers by force.
“In the good old days they’d have knocked him out of his seat so fast,” he said of a protester at a February 2016 rally.
“I’d like to punch him in the face,” Trump said from the podium at another.
He even told a crowd in Iowa that he would personally foot the bill if his supporters ended up in court for punching protesters, a promise he later denied making. At one early-2016 rally in Vermont, Trump told security guards to “confiscate their coats” before tossing hecklers out of the building.
Today, Trump’s administration is also pursuing serious felony charges against hundreds of people who were rounded up in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day after a smaller group of black-clad Antifa protesters smashed a few shop windows and, in a handful of cases, scrapped with police.
Many of those facing felony charges were simply nearby when police “kettled” everyone who happened to be within a few blocks of the stores targeted by the radical fringe. Several journalists were arrested and charged with felonies that were eventually dropped by prosecutors.
Many of Trump’s allies share his disdain for dissidents. Milwaukee County Sheriff Dave Clark has said that protests “must be quelled” because “there is no legitimate reason to protest the will of the people.”
State-level Republican lawmakers in several states have introduced legislation curtailing the right to protest, usually by raising the criminal penalties marchers may face and broadening the scope of rioting statutes.
Trump supporters are quick to note that they have faced violence in a handful of cases from anti-Trump protesters as well. But many within his movement refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any demonstration against their leader, including peaceful mass demonstrations like the Women’s March or the human-roadblock protests that often follow high-profile police killings of unarmed black men and women.
Trump’s team insists that such street-level dissent is not sincere but rather a synthetic display manufactured by wealthy liberal donors. The Kremlin is now saying the same about the Navalny-led protesters, many of whom were reportedly in their teens.
Sunday’s anti-Putin rallies were only as large as they were, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, because marchers were “promised financial rewards in the event of their detention by law enforcement agencies.”