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Dear President Trump: Defend American Democratic Values in Meeting with Putin
President Donald J. Trump
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
As you prepare to meet with President Putin, we urge you to demonstrate a strong defense of American interests and democratic values by standing firm on four key priorities: solidarity with NATO allies, Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity, enforcement of the Magnitsky Act, and the release of political prisoners and other victims of persecution in Russia.
The potential significance of this summit cannot be overemphasized. The tone you set in your first official meeting with President Putin will influence the course of U.S.-Russia relations for years to come.
As you know, President Putin has been one of the primary drivers of the global decline in democracy tracked by Freedom House over the last 12 years. Your National Security Strategy notes that the government of Russia is attempting to “undermine the legitimacy of democracies” and has repeatedly violated state sovereignty. President Putin is determined to “weaken U.S. influence in the world,” “weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe, undermine transatlantic unity, and weaken European institutions and governments.”
President Putin has embraced and supported some of the world’s most repressive regimes, including those of Venezuela, Iran, and Syria. He has adopted a policy of belligerence toward America’s democratic allies in the Baltic states, and, even more concerning, ordered the invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula—the first forcible seizure of a European state’s sovereign territory since World War II. Moreover, Moscow has waged aggressive cyberwar against the United States and other democracies, both to advance the regime’s interests and to undermine democratic institutions.
Individuals with Kremlin ties engage in corrupt business practices and money laundering on a global scale. The U.S. Justice and Treasury Departments have frequently pointed to Russian oligarchs with close connections to the political leadership for their role in transnational acts of corruption. As Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has declared, the Russian government “operates for the disproportionate benefit of oligarchs and government elites.”
Human rights violations are rampant in Russia, with egregious attacks on religious minorities, the LGBT community, investigative journalists, opposition politicians, civil society activists, and anyone else who dares to express dissent.
Through its near-monopoly on the domestic media, the Putin regime has conducted a campaign of disinformation and propaganda about the United States that has consistently vilified our leaders, political values, and democratic system.
Under President Putin, Russia’s policies have been inimical to America’s political, security, and economic interests. We therefore urge you to:
Remain firm on Ukraine. Ukraine has made clear its preference for democracy, a free-market economy, and strategic alignment with the United States and Europe, along with its rejection of a system based on political repression and disdain for its own sovereignty. The United States before and during your presidency has supported Ukraine in its struggle for genuine independence. In your discussions with President Putin, we urge you to remain resolute in insisting that Russia respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity as a first step toward improved bilateral ties and a return to the community of nations.
Continue enforcement of the Magnitsky Act. Combined with orders and designations that your administration has issued, the Magnitsky Act has proved to be a valuable instrument in calling out Russian oligarchs and government officials responsible for human rights abuses and transnational acts of corruption. In the absence of a major reversal of Russia’s hostile and repressive policies, we urge the continued, strategic use of the Magnitsky Act and other sanctions mechanisms.
Call for the release of political prisoners. A growing number of political and religious prisoners are confined in Russia’s jails. Many are Ukrainian citizens illegally transferred to Russia. Government critics and investigative journalists have been assassinated, and others have been forced into exile. There is a worthy history of American presidents requesting the release of prominent political prisoners during talks with authoritarian leaders. Both Presidents Nixon and Reagan succeeded in winning freedom for jailed dissidents. We strongly urge you to continue this tradition in your discussions with President Putin, specifically raising the cases of Oyub Titiyev, a leading human rights activist in Chechnya who was arrested on fabricated drug charges, and Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in prison on politically motivated charges for his opposition to Crimea’s illegal annexation.
Coordinate with NATO allies. History shows that America’s goals are best achieved and its successes made most durable when we act in concert with allies who share our interests and values. This country’s network of free and robust alliances gives the United States a form of strategic leverage that no authoritarian state can match. We urge you to maintain this unique advantage by coordinating your Russia policy with our NATO partners in advance of the summit with President Putin.
Skeptics will say that issues like Ukraine and human rights are intractable and therefore not worth raising. The reality is that these matters are of such consequence that if the United States fails to address them, it would hand President Putin unearned victories and allow Moscow to dictate the terms of the bilateral relationship.
Freedom House sincerely hopes that your talks with President Putin lead to more constructive relations and closer ties between the Russian and American people. Achieving this goal will require a dialogue that is based on truth, plain speaking, and an American position that is derived from both our interests and our values.
Michael J. Abramowitz
President, Freedom House
D. Jeffrey Hirschberg
Acting Chair of the Board