Contending with Putin's Russia
A Call for American Leadership
As President Barack Obama enters his second term, relations with Russia present him with a set of thorny problems. The first-term “reset,” a fresh American posture toward the Kremlin that was designed to build productive relations by offering compromises on a range of political and geostrategic issues, has clearly run its course. The Obama administration had partly based its hope for improved ties on the ability of Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012, to achieve liberal reforms, especially on freedom of expression, the rule of law, and the ability of civil society to function without state intrusion. However, substantive reforms never materialized, former president and then prime minister Vladimir Putin remained the dominant force in government, and Russia moved abruptly in a more repressive direction following his return to the presidency in May 2012. Step by step, Putin has pushed through measures to deter public demonstrations, smear and limit funding for nongovernmental organizations, and place restrictions on the internet. He has also made anti-Americanism a central part of his political message. He has accused the United States of fomenting demonstrations against election fraud, shut down all U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs in Russia, withdrawn from a series of cooperative agreements with the United States, and signed a vindictive law that prohibits the adoption of Russian children by citizens of the United States.
There can be little doubt that a new American policy toward the Kremlin is needed. To help inform the discussion on a new approach, Freedom House is publishing this package of materials on the state of human rights and democracy in Russia since Putin took power in 2000. In the centerpiece essay, Freedom House president David J. Kramer and Eurasia program director Susan Corke assess the nature of the Putin regime and advance a series of proposals for American policy in the coming period. Katherin Machalek, the research analyst for Freedom House’s Nations in Transit publication, is the author of a companion piece that lays out the progressive legal restrictions on civil society organizations during the Putin era. The package also includes a chronology of selected developments in Russia from 2000 through 2012 , with a focus on the suppression of the political opposition, independent media, and civil society. The chronology, prepared by Freedom House researcher Marissa Miller, serves as a reminder that the repressive measures enacted over the past eight months do not amount to a new direction for Russia, but rather a continuation, in severe form, of trends that have dominated Russian politics throughout the Putin era. Finally, a series of graphical representations prepared by senior research assistant Bret Nelson illustrate the decline of political rights and civil liberties in Russia as measured by Freedom House’s annual reports.
Proposals for a New Approach
As the administration of President Barack Obama prepares for various foreign policy challenges in its second term, a new approach to dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia should be on the agenda. Since his formal return to the presidency in May of last year, Putin has overseen the worst deterioration in Russia’s democracy and human rights situation since the collapse of the Soviet Union and is attempting to reestablish a fear of dissent in society. The Russian government’s malign influence also extends beyond the country’s borders, as it has propped up authoritarian systems ranging from that of Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka to the murderous Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Attention to the Russia problem should not translate into undue attention to Putin himself. As the leader of a major power, he cannot be totally ignored, but U.S. and allied leaders should not lend him undeserved legitimacy or invest much time with him. Personalizing the policy approach to Russia under Putin, as President Obama did through his first-term “reset” with Putin’s stand-in, Dmitry Medvedev, will neither advance U.S. interests and values nor strengthen the forces in Russia that seek a more democratic future. Putin never appeared to buy into the reset policy and instead plays the anti-Americanism card whenever it is politically expedient. A democratic Russia, fully integrated into the international community, would be an important contributor to global security and stability. But as long as Putin remains in office, Russia may be incapable of realizing that vision.
Before devising a new approach to dealing with Putin’s Russia, policymakers must first understand the nature of the problem—namely, Putinism. Over the past year, driven by a fear that the democratic spirit of the Arab awakening would creep toward Russia, Putin and his adherents have launched a series of initiatives designed to close down civil society and eliminate any and all potential threats to his grip on power. New legislation has been crafted to increase criminal penalties for opposition protesters, censor and control the internet, taint nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive overseas funding as “foreign agents,” prohibit U.S. funding of Russian NGOs involved in “political activities,” drastically expand the definition of treason, and recriminalize libel and slander. Arrests, arbitrary detentions, and home raids targeting opposition figures are occurring on a level not seen since Soviet times. One opposition figure was even kidnapped from Kyiv, where he was seeking asylum, and brought back to Russia to be prosecuted based on a coerced confession. A Putin critic living in Britain, Aleksandr Perepilichny, died under mysterious circumstances last November, recalling the poisoning death of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006. Also during 2012, the Russian government forced the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) out of the country; the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute soon followed. The legal and practical space for civil society and political opposition in Russia is closing quickly.
It is worth noting that none of these actions represent a radical departure from the Putin regime’s past behavior. The government has long restricted its citizens’ rights and freedoms by holding stage-managed elections and increasing control over the media, particularly television. Civil society and Putin’s political opponents have been under duress for many years, with an escalation in state pressure coming in the wake of the “color revolutions” in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004). And tactics like spy mania and anti-Americanism, seen most recently in the spiteful adoption ban in December, have regularly been deployed to divert attention from atrocious governance failures and foster nationalist support for the thoroughly corrupt Russian leadership. The population bears the costs of such policies.
Moreover, the Russian government’s more aggressive behavior of late should not be misread as a sign that Putin’s position is stronger than before. At heart, his recent actions represent a paranoid and compensatory response to the understanding that the system he built is growing increasingly vulnerable. The Kremlin is determined to thwart democratic uprisings anywhere in the world because each event thins the protective global herd of dictators and is potentially transferable to Russia itself. At the same time, Putin’s personal behavior is becoming more erratic, with stunts ranging from his flight with Siberian cranes in September to his public embrace of disgraced French actor Gérard Depardieu. Mounting speculation about his health is chipping away at Putin’s image as a vibrant, invincible leader, and his poll numbers are steadily declining.
Since the mass protests that spanned the period between the December 2011 parliamentary elections and Putin’s inauguration last spring, the regime’s ability to keep a lid on dissent has been sorely challenged. Surveys show that an increasing number of Russians, especially the younger generation, are interested in emigrating from the country. They are fed up with daily corruption and a stagnant political outlook that was exacerbated by Putin’s decision in September 2011 to return to the presidency. Many Russians simply cannot bear the prospect of another two six-year presidential terms with an aging Putin at the helm. Public support for the president has fallen below 50 percent in some recent surveys, and even lower in Moscow, while civic activism is on the rise. More than 100,000 Russians signed a petition on Novaya Gazeta’s website to oppose the U.S. adoption ban, and even several government ministers spoke against it. As Levada Center director Lev Gudkov recently stated, “This is a very stable trend: falling confidence, the declining legitimacy of the authorities.” The general sense of decay is reinforced by the warped, hydrocarbon-based economy, disintegrating infrastructure and social supports, and a long-term demographic decline.
Putin’s authority essentially rests on personal support from the governing elites and security services, as opposed to electoral legitimacy, the rule of law, or formal state institutions. If these elites sense that he is losing his grip or his ability to enable their graft, the whole authoritarian system could come tumbling down amid defections and infighting. As New York University professor Mark Galeotti put it, “The power of the center is, after all, as much as anything else rooted in imagination and belief; if people think Putin weak, then weak he will be.” Economist Anders Aslund summed up the problem this way: “He represents no real values and therefore lacks any source of legitimacy other than stability and economic growth that will not last forever.”
In fact, Putinism is rooted in corruption. The regime uses the pliant legal system as an instrument to suppress all forms of opposition and protect the corrupt division of economic resources among loyalists. The most senior officials and business magnates are given control over valuable sectors of the economy, especially extractive industries. Such short-sighted perversion of economic forces almost ensures the system’s decline, preventing competition, diversification, and modernization. Meanwhile, the lower tiers of this patronage system parasitize the nation’s wealth in other ways. Legitimate businesses and ordinary Russians are plagued by the constant threat of shakedowns, arbitrary investigations, or prosecutions by corrupt officials, and even when they are not the source of the problem, neither the police nor the courts can be relied upon to provide any meaningful redress. Many Russians are fully aware and deeply resentful of the degree to which corruption has become part of their daily lives and undermines their own prosperity.
Corruption also affects the government’s decision making. While genuine national interests may play a role in some decisions, the private interests of powerful individuals or groups often drive Russian policy, posing an additional challenge for U.S. and other democratic officials seeking strategic cooperation and honest negotiation.
Shaping a Different U.S. Policy
Against this backdrop, how should the Obama administration approach Russia in the second term? Ultimately, of course, it falls to the Russian people to ensure that their government abides by its constitutional obligations to protect basic freedoms and democracy. But the U.S. government, in solidarity with NGOs and in concert with other countries, must stand up for the beleaguered citizens and activists in Russia who seek a more democratic future, and apply pressure against the defenders of the authoritarian status quo.
In contrast to the reset policy of the first term, policy toward Russia in the second term should require that President Obama himself, not just his representatives, speak out against Putin’s human rights abuses and crackdown on civil society. In the nine months since Putin’s return to the presidency and the associated deterioration in Russia’s human rights situation, President Obama has not uttered a single word of criticism, including when the two leaders met in Mexico for the Group of 20 summit in June 2012.
The Putin regime demonizes the United States, heaps abuse on its officials, derides its democratic values, and treats the humanitarian motives of its people as somehow suspect—and the White House says virtually nothing in response. The Obama administration meekly accepted Putin’s decision to expel USAID without ever pushing back or thinking through the precedent such a move would create. The very fact that it was the U.S. State Department that announced Russia’s decision to end USAID’s 20-year presence sent the wrong message. It should have been no surprise when Putin quickly followed up by ejecting the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), ending the Nunn-Lugar nuclear nonproliferation program with the United States, and banning American adoptions of Russian children. At the end of January, Russia ended a bilateral counternarcotics agreement. Absent any pushback from Washington or indications that such steps would damage the relationship, Putin feels free to ratchet up his authoritarian, xenophobic campaign. Democratic forces expect and look to the American president to stand with them, and to stand up to Putin.
Given Putin’s demonstrated inclination to view both domestic and foreign affairs in zero-sum terms, the administration should abandon its talk of seeking “win-win” cooperation with the Kremlin. Such rhetoric only feeds the impression in Moscow that the Obama administration needs and wants a good relationship more than Putin does. The United States undermines its own credibility in the world when it comes across as too forgiving and desirous of good relations at all costs instead of proactively asserting its interests and values. The administration does not need to subscribe to the zero-sum game, but it should be clear and direct in saying that it cannot and will not enhance its partnership with Russia as long as Putin persecutes his own people, impedes progress on Syria and other international crises, and makes anti-Americanism the centerpiece of his propaganda efforts.
The Russian press has reported that Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, is planning to visit Moscow soon, raising concerns that the reset policy—with its emphasis on arms control and neglect of human rights and democracy—will pick up where it left off prior to the U.S. election. But with U.S.-Russian relations at their lowest point since Obama came to office, and the situation inside Russia at its worst since the Soviet era, now is the time to place the onus on Putin to demonstrate that he is interested in improving the relationship.
The new U.S. approach should also entail reversing one of the key tenets of the reset policy: rejection of the linkage of bilateral issues. Linkage may not always be the perfect solution, but taking it off the table as a policy option, as administration officials did publicly and repeatedly, sends all the wrong signals. The reset was based on a hopeful notion (held faithfully by the U.S. government, but not by the Russian government) that easy policy issues should stay in one lane, and more complicated issues in other lanes—and never are the lanes to meet. Putin has changed lanes repeatedly, however, most recently by banning American adoptions in response to a U.S. law designed to punish human rights abuses. Moreover, his truculence on virtually every subject has left very few “easy” policy agreements to protect. The restoration of linkages between different issues would allow the United States to better pursue both its interests and its values, and indicate to Putin that he does not have a green light to engage in human rights abuses with impunity.
The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act is an excellent example of issue linkage and a practical illustration of how U.S. policy works. In passing the measure last December as part of a bill rescinding the Jackson-Vanik amendment, the U.S. Congress recognized the connection between economic issues and human rights, even if the administration sought to keep them distinct. While Jackson-Vanik was in place, Russia had to undergo annual certification of its human rights record to qualify for normal trade relations with the United States. Thus it made perfect sense for Congress to ensure that human rights remained part of the equation as it granted Russia permanent normal trade relations.
Under the Magnitsky Act, if Russian officials are involved in gross human rights abuses, they will be denied the privilege of visiting or doing business in the United States. The Putin regime vigorously opposed the measure precisely because it struck a nerve. The Russian elite are united by a common interest in accumulating ill-gotten wealth, but because they know it is ultimately not safe in such a lawless country, they keep (and spend) much of this wealth overseas. The Magnitsky Act, particularly if replicated by other countries, forces Russian officials to face the risks as well as the rewards of the system they have created. The Obama administration should aggressively implement the Magnitsky Act and encourage democratic allies to pass similar legislation.
Russia’s interest in joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) offers another possible linkage point. The country joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) last August, but Russian officials are already indicating that they may not abide by all of the WTO’s rules and policies. Allowing Russia to join yet another rules-based organization only to undermine its standards, as it has already done in the Council of Europe (COE) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), is not in U.S. interests. As long as Putin continues his crackdown at home, there should be no U.S. support for Russia’s bid to join the OECD. Any such support should be conditioned on achievement of a proactive formula of human rights protections and political freedoms.
Another issue to which Russia’s human rights situation should be linked is Putin’s invitation to Obama to visit Russia, either before Russia hosts a Group of 20 summit in September or for the summit itself. Obama should think twice before traveling to Russia. Putin, after all, snubbed him by skipping the May 2012 Group of 8 summit in Maryland, which had been moved from Chicago to accommodate Putin’s sensitivities about the following day’s NATO summit. Given the adoption ban and other antidemocratic and anti-American legislation, a visit by Obama would risk glossing over, rather than addressing, the United States’ legitimate and fundamental differences with Putinism. Absent a radical change in Moscow, the American leader’s valuable time would be better spent on other countries and more promising agendas.
The new approach to Russia should include a sustained effort to overcome regime obstacles and find innovative ways to support groups and individuals working for political liberalization inside Russia. Without outside support, a number of respected Russian human rights organizations would go out of business. This effort will require coordination with allies and, importantly, a certain degree of tact. Last spring, U.S. officials clumsily announced the administration’s interest in creating a new $50 million fund to support democracy activities in Russia. The statements were designed in part to forestall the inclusion of the Magnitsky Act in the legislation lifting the Jackson-Vanik amendment, but they had the effect of painting an even bigger bull’s-eye on American funding for Russian civil society.
Another important tool for any new policy toward Russia is already in place. To improve conditions from afar, the United States should aggressively investigate potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in Russia. It should also reward companies for efforts to promote FCPA compliance in the country. Experience has shown that anticorruption training for Russian employees and due diligence regarding Russian business partners help to promote ethical business conduct and the rule of law. The administration should similarly support the efforts of the OECD Working Group on Bribery to ensure that Russia enforces its own antibribery legislation among both Russian and foreign companies.
Adopting a new approach to Russia will not be easy, but it is neither realistic nor prudent to continue on the current path. While there will certainly be tradeoffs for a linkage policy, it would better reflect how the U.S. policymaking process actually works. There is a misperception that linkage is inherently negative, but in practice it consists of both sticks and carrots. And the United States simply cannot lead unless it positively and proactively asserts an integrated agenda.
To be successful, the shift in U.S. policy will require close cooperation with other democracies at the international level. As a group, the United States and its allies should not only press the Russian government to abide by—and face consequences for falling short on—its obligations as a member state of the United Nations, the OSCE, and the COE, they should also challenge the various authoritarian groupings in which Russia plays a prominent role, such as the Eurasian Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In some cases, these groups are aimed at presenting countries such as Ukraine with a false choice between Russia and the West. They also subvert the election-monitoring role of the OSCE by blessing fraudulent elections in their member states.
Addressing Russia’s deteriorating human rights situation does not mean closing all doors to Moscow. On the contrary, the United States should work with Russia wherever possible, including on arms control. It is worth recalling that in the 1970s, when Jackson-Vanik was passed by the U.S. Congress, arms control was a major theme in the U.S.-Soviet relationship, proving that it is both unnecessary and indeed counterproductive to downplay human rights while pursuing security goals. Russia’s geography, resources, and position in international organizations require some level of engagement, and the challenges posed by Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Middle East peace efforts, and international terrorism all present the United States and Russia with overlapping interests. But when the Russian government obstructs international efforts to uphold democracy and human rights and prevent atrocities, the Obama administration should search for ways to work around or without Russia.
Similarly, with support from friends and allies, the United States should use regional forums such as the OSCE and the Arab League to shine a spotlight on Russian policies that destabilize neighbors or support international pariah states. The Russian government should pay a high political price in the international community for such policies as its appalling support for the Assad regime in Syria. The United States cannot dictate to the Kremlin what policy course it should pursue on critical strategic issues, but the administration can increase the relevant costs and benefits to encourage Moscow to make the right choice.
Finally, terminology and tone matter. When publicly criticizing state abuses in Russia, U.S. officials should take special care to distinguish between the Russian government and the Russian people. They should explain how U.S. support for human dignity, democracy, and freedom is in the Russian public’s interest. And they should always be clear and direct in addressing how badly Russia is governed, what a drain corruption is on the country, and the ways in which the government has failed to meet its own human rights commitments. A complete policy should also outline the elements of a positive future for U.S.-Russian relations, even if such a future must wait until Vladimir Putin has left the scene.
Policy Recommendations for the U.S. Government:
- Actively challenge—rhetorically and through policy decisions—the authoritarian actions of the Putin regime, and do so at the highest levels of the U.S. government, starting with President Obama.
- Abandon talk of seeking “win-win” cooperation, since Putin views power relations in zero-sum terms and will not pursue such mutual benefits in good faith.
- Implement aggressively and fairly the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act to deny those Russian officials involved in human rights abuses the privileges of U.S. travel and banking services.
- Restore the notion of “linkage” as a policy tool to make clear that human rights and democracy are part of and will affect the broader bilateral relationship.
- Stand in solidarity with Russian activists—financially and vocally—by finding innovative ways to continue supporting those who seek political liberalization in Russia. This will be most effective when it is coordinated with allies.
- Delay a decision on President Obama’s attendance at the Group of 20 meeting in Moscow in September, and indicate that an earlier trip to meet with Putin in Russia is not possible without a serious turnaround in the country’s human rights situation.
- Withhold support for Russia’s bid to join the OECD unless and until Moscow starts abiding by the rules and norms of organizations to which it already belongs.
- Aggressively investigate potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in Russia.
- Work with Russia whenever possible, but when its leaders obstruct international efforts to uphold democracy and human rights or prevent atrocities, search for ways to work around or without Russia.