U.S. presidents of both parties looked the other way as the Kremlin leader went after Russian media and the political opposition, tamed parliament and rigged elections, oversaw a mammoth spiraling of repression, and challenged democracies all over the world. As veteran diplomat Victoria Nuland (now nominated by Biden as undersecretary of state) noted in a recent article, “in no small measure, the United States and its allies have enabled Putin’s boldness.”
Many Western leaders assumed that anti-democratic abuses in Russia could be ignored as long as they can “do business” with Putin on other issues. This approach failed to account for a fundamental maxim of Russian history: that domestic repression is always followed by foreign aggression. For Putin, it was a short path from the closure of Russia’s last independent TV network to the annexation of Crimea, the first time one European nation seized territory from another since World War II. Appeasement is not only morally wrong but practically ineffective.
The Biden administration has an opportunity to make a fresh start. The new president certainly has the right instincts. On his trip to Moscow as vice president in March 2011, Biden went straight from his meeting with Putin to see Russia’s opposition leaders — including Boris Nemtsov, Putin’s most prominent opponent (who would be gunned down in the shadow of the Kremlin four years later). The Russian activists called for targeted U.S. sanctions on corrupt officials and human rights abusers, vigorous international oversight to counter election fraud, and more attention to the plight of political prisoners — themes that still resonate a decade later. For his part, Biden noted that he had “looked into Putin’s eyes and saw no soul.”
It is not for the United States, or any other foreign power, to effect political change in Russia. Russians should — and will — do this themselves. The signs of growing restlessness are unmistakable, from the humiliating losses for Putin’s party in local elections to large-scale street demonstrations to trends in public opinion, including the 59 percent of Russians calling for “comprehensive change” and 62 percent who want to age-limit Putin out of the presidency.
Contrary to Kremlin propaganda, those of us who oppose Putin are not asking foreigners for money, political support or regime change. All we ask from the West is that it stay true to its values and stop enabling the Putin regime’s kleptocracy on a global scale.
It is estimated that personal Russian holdings abroad range from $800 billion to $1.3 trillion, with much of this wealth linked to Putin himself. Few things would be as effective — or as popular in Russia — as going after this money. Just before opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned to Russia over the weekend (where he was arrested upon arrival), he said that “sanctions aren’t working because the West has refrained from sanctioning the people with the money.”
In a groundbreaking step, Congress recently banned anonymous shell companies that had long facilitated money laundering. The U.S. government could go further by identifying and freezing the assets plundered from the Russian people and stashed away in U.S. banks and real estate markets, with a view to releasing them to their rightful owners once Russia has a democratically elected government — following the precedents established with Libya and Kyrgyzstan.
If Russia’s parliamentary election in September fails to meet basic standards of fairness — for example, with regime opponents being disqualified from the ballot — the United States should not recognize its results as legitimate. Washington could send an even more powerful signal by refusing to accept Putin’s power grab in 2024, when he is expected to run for yet another presidential term in violation of constitutional term limits, which he waived for himself in a sham and widely condemned plebiscite last summer. Should he move ahead with this plan, the world’s democracies should deny Putin recognition.
Above all, the Biden administration must not equate Russia with its abusive regime. Too many Western leaders fall into this trap. “Punish the scoundrels, not the country,” was Nemtsov’s message to Biden at their meeting. Such a stand should include sincere outreach to the Russian people, outlining the benefits of future cooperation. The United States should invest in public diplomacy and expand people-to-people exchanges between Russians and Americans. It should restore the foreign broadcasting operations the last administration damaged. And it should resume the normal issuance of visas, giving young Russians more opportunities to engage with their American peers. Nothing counters false propaganda narratives like seeing the reality.
“We reject … the tired theory that our values and our interests must compete for influence over our politics,” Biden told students at Moscow State University on his 2011 trip. “We will continue to stand up for our principles. And I believe those principles make all of us, Americans and Russians alike, more secure, more prosperous, and more free.”
Truer words were never spoken. It is time to translate this vision into policy.