It seems as if certain Czechs have once more begun to sing, without understanding the irony, the old pub song: “Where children don’t know their mommies and daddies/That’s the land of evil, the United States.” Following discussions of the Ukrainian crisis on social websites and in television programs based on viewers’ votes, one can often hear the argument that the U.S. is equally terrifying or even worse than President Putin’s Russia. Thus, we must have sympathy for the Russian Federation and its policy toward Ukraine—it’s a Russian sphere of influence, after all, it’s a geopolitical game minimally comparable to the games of the U.S.

“I’m not defending Putin’s Russia, but look at America—it does even worse things,” say many Czechs, mostly, but not only, on the left. Often they’re coming from the standpoint that the Czech Republic should at least regard both countries, Putin’s Russia and the U.S., with equal suspicion and become involved as little as possible in the Ukrainian crisis.

Arguments for Criticism Are Not Lacking

Isn’t there some information lacking in the view, i.e., in the critical opinion of the U.S. comparing it with Putin? Is it seriously justifiable?

Let’s leave aside for the moment those who reject Western democracy and market economics as such and want to replace it with an authoritarian regime—that’s why Russia impresses them; let’s assume that, to the contrary, a portion of those with the aforementioned opinions are critical of America not because of democracy, but because of how the U.S. has behaved or is behaving. It’s fair to say that there exist plenty of arguments for critical stances.

In history we find American foreign policy mistakes, errors and even crimes, quietly overlooking murders and supporting unsavory regimes, justified by the argument that it’s a matter of “the lesser evil” vs. the “greater evil,” i.e. Soviet totalitarian communism. In recent history, we can find the American invasion of Iraq, whose position before international law is, to put it mildly, controversial: The U.S. incursion indeed overthrew a bloody dictator, but it was done on the basis of a rationale which turned out to be untrue—the tyrant was not connected to any international terrorist network and didn’t have WMDs at his disposal, as the American administration had maintained. We can find a couple of shadowy sides to internal conditions: In some parts of American society, we doubtless find expressions of intolerance and instances of police abuse of power, and the war on terror is used to justify considerably controversial measures and violations of privacy.

Putin is not Freedom

Yet in spite of it all, there is one basic difference compared to present-day Russia, and it’s sad when the “America’s no better than Putin” crowd doesn’t realize it. It’s enough to just occasionally peruse American newspapers or websites. America’s transgressions are freely discussed; media which criticize this or that aspect of American foreign policy are not stifled, whereas in Russia, critics of the Crimean annexation are labeled traitors, and editors in chief of even those few critical Russian media outlets are removed and replaced by conformist ones, as happened in the case of the server lenta.ru.

In America, no one bans NGOs monitoring human rights and personal liberties, whereas a couple of days ago in Russia, a court affirmed that the legendary human rights organization Memorial, founded during Gorbachev’s late communist era, is a “foreign agent,” and the institution had better cease its activity in Russia. People speak of American foreign policy transgressions, but the foreign policy there was formed by various presidents from two different parties, who alternate in power on the basis of free elections and who are strongly criticized. In Russia, the president was Putin, then again Putin, and then Putin’s premier Medvedev became president and Putin became premier, and now the president is once again (surprisingly) Putin. Medvedev doesn’t criticize Putin. Don’t you sense any difference there?

Certainly, we can worry about whether the U.S., and other present-day democracies, are powerful enough to defend against authoritarian regimes in the event of a crisis. But, in the language of Westerns, that doesn’t mean that Americans are bad guys just like Putinists. Or that we can’t choose sides in the conflict. Or that we should take Putin’s side.