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Russia’s Expanding Definition of Treason

Russia’s Expanding Definition of Treason

Treason rarely travels on one-way streets. And during wartime, tolerance for any form of national disloyalty tends to diminish, if not disappear entirely. It’s a reality impartial to era, governing structure, philosophy, or party: whenever two or more gather, treason, and punishment for treason, find its way on the menu. 

Under Vladamir Putin, the Russian Federation’s definition of treason has been prone to shift depending on whichever way the breeze blows on any given week. And as complications continue to plague Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, definitions continue loosening. 

However, the idea that the treason-hounds only exist in states like Orwell’s Oceania is just flatly untrue. American Federal Law, 18 United States Code Section 2381, reads: 

“Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason, and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”

The US has always kept its own star-spangled eye out for its treasonous citizens. During the American Civil War, President Lincoln said, “Congressmen who willfully take action during wartime that damages morale and undermines the military are saboteurs and should be arrested, exiled, or hung.” And who could blame him? Lincoln governed a nation inflicted by treason, the most the United States has ever had to withstand. As the leader of the Union, Lincoln knew it could not continue standing by tolerating broken allegiances, whether from the Confederate states or those within his own administration. 

Then there’s Russia, a government never found wanting for treason allegations. From Imperial Russia to the Soviet Republics to the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation, charges of lèse majesté have flowed as ceaselessly as the Lena River. 

Just last week, Ivan Safronov, a Russian military affairs reporter, received a 22-year jail sentence for being found guilty, after a closed trial, on claims of supplying military intelligence to Czech and German officials. An effort, it was said, purposed to undermine Russian military operations. 

A statement from an alliance of Russia’s independent media agencies claimed, “It is obvious to us that the reason for persecuting Ivan Safronov is not ‘treason,’ which hasn’t been substantiated … but his work as a journalist and stories he published without any regard for what the Defense Ministry or Russian authorities think.” But treason is always what those at the top make it to be. 

Since February 24, when Russia first entered Ukraine, Russian soldiers, scientists, journalists, and government officials have all come under accusations of treason. Back in March, the Russian parliament, with confirmation from President Putin, created a law that increased jail sentences for spreading “false” information about the Russian military.

There are fears that Russian authorities might use a broader definition of treason to target dissenters. Here, a police officer detains a protester wearing white ribbons, a symbol of the Russian opposition, just outside the State Duma in Moscow in June. Image Credits: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Lex Maiestatis: How Governments Define Treason

The Roman Republic, in 48 BCE, was one of the first known governments to construct a system of laws specifically tailored to allegations of treason. They called it “Lex Maiestatis.” During the stages of the Republic, treason law covered matters solely happening within military proceedings. However, the law expanded after the transition to the Roman Empire under Tiberius. Soon, the empire employed spies to monitor and work undercover to find acts of treason among its subjects and government officials. Eventually, simply uttering an anti-Empirical thought could get you lawfully executed. 

The Roman progression of Lex Maiestatis serves as a good rule-of-thumb, as it should always be considered a sign of poor health when any nation’s most active branch of government is the secret police. And again, this isn’t a symptom reserved for totalitarian regimes. 

It would be a lie to say that the United States hasn’t betrayed its own stricter definition of treason. Forms of the Red Scare, which began in the early 1900s, and led to major infractions of privacy and civil rights, linger even today.  

Russia is merely an extreme example and has always led the world on how to broaden the definition of treason and use it to terrorize critics, strengthen propaganda, and cover up the truth. 

Putin’s Treason Accusations

Seven Russian officials attempted to flip the script a few days ago, calling for Putin to be charged with high treason. They stated in a letter, “We believe that President Putin’s decision to begin the [special military operation] is harming Russia’s security and its citizens.” 

One of the official’s tweets regarding the matter said, “His decision to start the Special Military Operation led to 1) deaths of the Russian servicemen, 2) problems in the Russian economy, 3) the expansion of NATO (the border with NATO has doubled!”

Reports say these officials were subpoenaed, brought to the police depot, and charged with discrediting Russia’s military efforts. 

So, with fingers now pointed in every direction and the Russian army suffering significant setbacks as of late, it’s likely that those caught with even a whiff of treason about them will be rewarded with punishments that are increasingly swift and severe. 

Thumbnail Credits: Alexei Nikolsky/AP/RIA-Novosti

Sources: 

  1. Ukraine Blitz Sends Russian Forces Into Retreat
  2. Treason in American History
  3. Ex-Reporter Jailed for 22-Years on Treason Charge
  4. Russia Charges Its Own Soldiers With ‘Discrediting’ the Army
  5. The Roman Law of Treason Under the Early Principate
  6. Russian Lawmakers Accuse Putin of Treason
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