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Opinion: What is Putin afraid of?

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

The images are a cinematic and chilling message to the world but one that is not quite what Russian President Vladimir Putin may have intended. A young woman in a white jacket, yet another prisoner in Russia, is seen led by a masked security officer. The prisoner is Ksenia Karelina, a 33-year-old US-Russian dual citizen, appearing to be blindfolded with her own knit cap as the uniformed man binds her wrists in handcuffs and leads her down a dark stairwell. She eventually appears in a holding cell in a Russian courtroom.

Frida Ghitis - CNN
Frida Ghitis - CNN

It’s the latest effort by the Kremlin to intimidate. But in its attempt to exercise and display its strength, Putin is showing his fear. Why would the absolute ruler of a nuclear-armed power find it necessary to imprison Karelina?

News of Russia’s arrest of the dual citizen, who works as an esthetician in Los Angeles as she pursues her passion as a ballerina, emerged around the same time as the death of opposition leader Alexey Navalny in an Arctic penal colony. Navalny was openly committed to bringing democracy to Russia, to exposing Putin’s corruption and brutality.

But Karelina? How is she a threat to Putin?

It seems Putin doesn’t tolerate the most minimal sign of opposition, even if it’s imaginary.

Multiple Russians were arrested for holding up blank pieces of paper in the early days of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, after thousands more had been jailed for openly protesting Russia’s aggression.

Karelina’s employer says she was arrested on charges of treason. Her crime: allegedly donating $51.80 to Razom, a US charity that supports Ukraine.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the infamous KGB, appears to confirm it, saying her crime was “providing financial assistance to a foreign state in activities directed against the security of our country.”

If convicted of treason, she could spend decades in a Russian prison.

Karelina became a US citizen in 2021. Her boyfriend, Chris Van Heerden, told CNN she was apolitical, didn’t watch the news and had nothing to do with the war. He bought her tickets to go to Russia as a birthday present so she could see her 90-year-old grandmother, parents and younger sister.

Perhaps Putin is feeling more insecure and becoming more tyrannical toward the Russian people, toward visitors and even toward those who have left the country.

What started as an authoritarian leader who was eroding democratic norms looks to be morphing into a totalitarian dictator of the most dangerous kind — the frightened kind.

Security forces have arrested Russians questioning the war in Ukraine, let alone questioning Putin. They arrested hundreds seeking to honor Navalny, even people trying to lay flowers in his memory.

Navalny was in the hands of the judicial system as part of an effort to silence him, to thwart his influence. But he would not be silenced as long as he remained alive.

Some of Putin’s best-known critics have died one by one. Russian investigators never blame the government, of course. There was opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, shot near the Kremlin. There was journalist and human rights advocate Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in the elevator of her apartment building. There’s Navalny, whose cause of death is still unclear. And there are countless others. (The Kremlin has denied allegations of involvement in all).

For US citizens, including those who also hold Russian nationality, the country has become increasingly dangerous to visit. Several US nationals have been jailed, including WNBA star Brittney Griner, freed in a trade for a notorious arms dealer; the ex-US Marine Paul Whelan, sentenced to 16 years on charges of espionage, which he strongly denies, and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, detained almost a year ago in Yekaterinburg — the same city where Karelina was arrested — charged with espionage without Russian authorities revealing a shred of evidence.

Putin is apparently interested in a trade of Gershkovich for Vadim Krasikov, a convicted murderer serving a sentence in Germany for killing an exiled Chechen-Georgian in 2019; what the German court called a “state-ordered murder.” In other words, an assassination ordered by the Kremlin. (The Kremlin denies it.)

To state the obvious, Americans should stay away from Russia.

But staying out of Russia is no guarantee of safety.

According to rights organization Freedom House, Russia has become one of the worlds top perpetrators of transnational repression. While many of Putin critics seem to die in all manner of mysterious circumstances inside Russia, his critics and perceived critics also meet their end abroad.

In late February, Spanish police found the body of Maxim Kuzminov near the city of Alicante. Kuzminov, a Russian defector, escaped into Ukraine in his military helicopter. He told reporters he opposed the war.

Spanish intelligence told local media that they have no doubt that the Kremlin was behind his death. Officially, the government says it is waiting for the results of the investigation. Police say he was shot six times and then run over with a car, according to Spanish media.

Russia says it has no knowledge of the case. But after Kuzminov’s defection, the foreign intelligence chief called him a “moral corpse.” Freedom House says Russia “conducts highly aggressive transnational repression activities abroad,” relying heavily on “assassination as a tool.”

The UK government concluded Russian agents killed exiled intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko in London using radioactive polonium. In 2018, in Salisbury, England, two more Russian officers were charged with nearly killing dissident Sergei Skripal and his daughter using a nerve agent.

The attacks, Freedom House notes, “come against the backdrop of numerous unexplained deaths of high-profile Russians in exile.” Often, the cases may not produce convictions, but Freedom House adds that the use of radioactive isotopes and nerve agents point clearly to the Kremlin, even as Moscow feigns ignorance.

Whatever Russia is thinking with its arrest of an esthetician and semi-pro ballerina, it’s clear that Putin’s repressive regime is lowering the threshold for what it tolerates and raising the bar for how it will respond. A donation to a pro-Ukrainian charity now amounts to treason, punishable with 20 years in prison. Criticism of the war or of Putin can lead to death in a Russian prison camp.

The Kremlin is making Russia a no-go country for foreign visitors, threatening its citizens abroad and, all the while, still pursuing its neo-imperialist war of conquest in Ukraine.

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