The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Resetting Russian reset, and the rest of Obama’s foreign policy

While the president and new Secretary of State John Kerry are resetting reset, they would be wise to take a look at Freedom House’s new report on Russia. It is a sober assessment of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and where U.S. policy should go from here.

Authors David Kramer and Susan Corke explain:

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.

They remind us that “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.”

Rather than ignore Russia, as the administration is hinting it may do, the authors propose a series of smart readjustments in U.S. policy:

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.

These common-sense steps also suggest principles that can be applied elsewhere in the administration’s foreign policy agenda: Speak out forcefully in defense of human rights, link progress on human rights to other issues and be sober about what we get out of relations with despotic regimes (very little). It should also, whether the topic is Iran or Syria or North Korea, counsel that multilateral bodies are extremely limited in their usefulness when their actions can be checked by rogue regimes.

It is time to start acting in concert with like-minded regimes with whom we have some common interests and values (e.g. Jordan, Morocco, India, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Canada and democracies in our hemisphere) rather than fruitlessly trying to endear ourselves to regimes that are inherently opposed to our interests.