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Photo by Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin pool photo via The Associated Press / Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a cabinet meeting via a video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

Four thousand miles west of Portland, Oregon, clear across the Pacific Ocean, there are other political demonstrations that deserve our attention.

In Russia's far eastern city of Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border, tens of thousands of angry Russians have turned out for three weeks to protest the arrest of a popular young governor. Sergei Furgal was pulled from his car, bundled off to Moscow and accused of 15-year-old murders, but his real crime was to challenge Vladimir Putin by defeating a Kremlin ally in elections.

What makes these demonstrations so stunning is that Putin has crushed similar protests in far off Moscow, and elsewhere. The Kremlin has also been cracking down on free press remnants and political activists since Putin orchestrated a July 1 referendum that permits him to remain president for his lifetime.

Yet serious economic problems, including low oil prices and the ravages of COVID-19 — along with gross Kremlin corruption — are eating away at Putin's legitimacy.

Khabarovsk is a bracing reminder that, weakened at home, Putin will be even more eager to prove that Russia is still a global great power. That gives him a strong incentive to try again to interfere in a U.S. presidential election in favor of his fervent admirer, Donald J. Trump.

If you want to grasp how post-Soviet Russia was overtaken by thugs, read "Putin's People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West," by investigative journalist Catherine Belton. It traces how Putin and a small group of KGB agents, many from his hometown of St. Petersburg, took control of the country's natural resources and extended tentacles into the United States and Europe.

One must give full credit to the courage of the demonstrators — and Gov. Furgal. Although Putin's popularity is at its lowest since he took power, it still stands at 59%, perhaps because Russians see no alternative, perhaps because they fear pollsters. The people of Khabarovsk know the dangers of challenging Putin and the slim odds of moving the Kremlin, yet they still turn out.

But the Kremlin kidnapping of Furgal is a reminder of Putin's methodology — and of the importance of the 2020 election to the Russian leader. He has made clear his determination to expand Russian influence in Europe, with political and military provocations. He openly seeks to undermine NATO and to weaken the European Union.

Trump has helped Putin in the past — denigrating the EU and NATO, and threatening to quit the security alliance, while inviting Putin back to G-7 talks over European objections. Should Trump be re-elected, many European officials assume he would exit NATO. "If Trump wins, it is not a matter of if, but when NATO goes away," I was told by Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pennsylvania, a member of the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Boyle says this is the firm belief of pro-American officials across the ideological spectrum in Europe.

So Putin has every incentive to intervene again in the 2020 election.

"They don't need to do much, just to take advantage of our volatility," says Fiona Hill, the former National Security expert on Russia who testified at the Trump impeachment hearings. "If they think Biden is going to win, they will try to weaken him. If the election is tight, something small might have more consequences."

Khabarovsk should serve as a warning that an autocrat wounded at home may strike out elsewhere. Pray for the demonstrators. And beware.

Tribune Content Agency

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