Masha Gessen makes no bones about how to deal with Russian president Vladimir Putin, who, she says, is playing the West for a fool in the Ukraine.
While analysts try to figure out what he means when he denies Russian troops are there, she knows exactly: "What he means is that he can say whatever the hell he wants and what are you going to do about it?"
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Tony Abbott says Russian has invaded Ukraine, so should Russian President Vladimir Putin should be allowed to attend the G20 summit in Brisbane in November?
Gessen should know. She is the author of The Man Without a Face, an account of Putin's rise from KGB bureaucrat to the Kremlin, and more recently Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.
The problem for the West, she says, is that however it responds to Russia, Putin will escalate the situation. With a military response ruled out, there is no strategic choice – only a moral one. "How do you act towards somebody who violates the very principles your country stands for? You isolate him. You stop shaking his hand. You stop reporting his words as though they had any meaning."
So Putin should never have been invited to the D-Day commemorations in France in June. "And he should not be coming here [to Brisbane in November] to the G20." This is particularly after the shooting down of flight MH17 and "after the annexation of Crimea, the first forcible annexation of land in Europe after World War II".
Gessen, a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival, describes Putin as a thug and a bully, but says he has changed over the past two years.
"He has gone from being a post-ideological president who had only Soviet nostalgia-mongering for gathering support. He's gone to being an ideological president and his ideology is anti-Western. There is a real failure to understand that in the West," she says.
What Putin has done in the past couple of years – the anti-gay laws, the foreign-agent laws, the crackdown on civil society and the media and the war in the Ukraine – ties together in a coherent ideology.
"All of that is a war, a war against the West. The ideology behind that war is the idea that there is a clash of civilisation. There's a Western civilisation, which Russia says is free to exist," she says. "But there's no such thing – and this is a very important phrase that keeps coming up – there's no such thing as universal human rights. You can afford your humans the rights you think they deserve, there's nothing universal about them."
Gessen has been lucky. As a teenager she emigrated to the US with her family and so has dual citizenship. She returned to Russia after 10 years and as a journalist covered both Chechen wars. She has been an activist for gay rights, but as a gay woman with partner and children, life has been increasingly difficult. A lawyer told her the solution for her family's problems lay at the airport, so she returned to the US. Now she is working on a book about the Boston marathon bombings.
If she was worried about Putin getting wind of her book, she needn't have been. A few months after it was published in the West, she met him after she had been sacked from the popular-science magazine she edited. He knew nothing of the book or her role in the protest movement. "It was the most interesting thing that ever happened to me – and will happen to me," she says. "I will never have a better story to tell, which is sad."
More sad, perhaps, is her view of Russia's future: "I can't see anything at all hopeful in my lifetime."