RUSSIAN AUTHORITIES shut down the St. Petersburg subway system Monday after a blast ripped through a train, killing at least 11 people, and a separate explosive device was found and disarmed at another station. Terrorism is suspected, in part because President Vladimir Putin was meeting nearby with Belarusan leader Alexander Lukashenko, and in part because of the long bloody history of attacks mounted by Chechen extremists. Memories of attacks like the 2004 siege at a school in Beslan, where Chechen rebels held 1,200 hostage and hundreds were killed, are still fresh.
It’s understandable, then, that Russia’s security elite sees Muslim extremists as an existential threat. But Putin and his regime should not use the carnage in St. Petersburg as an excuse to crack down on dissent that was bubbling up in the streets before the blasts. Public protests have erupted over the last month, in response to corruption in the Russian government. Back when the United States seemed like the world’s most principled democracy, Russian opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny could often count on the US president or secretary of state to give voice to values like human rights and fair elections.
Unfortunately, President Trump’s early stumbles in the high-stakes poker game of foreign policy, coupled with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s inexperience and penchant for secrecy, could have unforeseen consequences for opposition leaders planning a run in Russia’s 2018 presidential election, and for the young protesters flexing their muscles in Moscow and other cities.
Navalny is serving out a short jail term in connection with mass rallies last month. The Trump Administration, and Congress, should make clear their interest in his ultimate release — and his safety. Vladimir Kara-Murza , another leading advocate of democracy and human rights in Russia, returned to the United States in February to be treated for organ failure after what he believes is a second poisoning attempt. Kara-Murza, who holds a US green card, was in Russia promoting a documentary about Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader who was mysteriously shot to death near the Kremlin in 2015. Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, was right to call on Trump and Tillerson to “make Kara-Murza’s cause America’s cause,” and to hold Putin accountable if warranted.
Allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election seem likely to create months of uncertainty here at home. But Russia’s domestic struggles deserve attention too. Trump should make it clear who is calling the shots on Russian policy: Is it Tillerson, Stephen Bannon or, more worrisome, the president himself? A clear commitment to democratic values and clarity about the direction of US policy is needed, or else the United States runs the risk of becoming a bystander to further autocratic crackdowns in a destabilized Russia.