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Opinion A congressional proposal reveals the Kremlin’s Achilles’ heel

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a cabinet meeting via video link at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on Nov. 24. (Mikhail Metzel/AP)

Rarely has a congressional resolution jolted the halls of power in Moscow as did House Resolution 806, a bipartisan initiative introduced last week. In a two-page draft referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) offer the “sense of the House of Representatives” that recent constitutional amendments in Russia waiving President Vladimir Putin’s term limits were “illegitimate.” The text further stipulates that any attempt by Putin to remain in power after the end of his final term in 2024 “shall warrant nonrecognition on the part of the United States.”

The proposal should not come as a surprise. Extensive legal analyses have concluded that last year’s amendments enabling Putin to become, in effect, president for life were adopted with serious breaches of legal procedure. Among other things, the process violated the legal requirements that amendments be passed individually rather than en bloc and that the meaning of the first two chapters of the Constitution should remain unchanged. The farcical “plebiscite” that ratified them violated both domestic electoral law and Russia’s commitments to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

A March legal opinion from the Venice Commission — the top legal body of the Council of Europe, which includes Russia — assessed the amendments as “a serious danger for the rule of law” and the procedure for their enactment as “clearly inappropriate.” In September, the European Parliament called the amendments “illegal” and condemned “any attempt by President Putin to remain in office beyond the end of his current and final presidential mandate on 7 May 2024.” The Kremlin and its talking heads responded with customary criticism.

By contrast, the news from Capitol Hill unleased hysteria. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced the Cohen-Wilson resolution as “aggressive” and “unacceptable.” Foreign Ministry press officer Maria Zakharova accused the United States of “interference in the affairs of a sovereign state.” Parliament Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin declared that the United States is attempting to “weaken and destroy” Russia. Senior Kremlin-allied lawmakers condemned the initiative as a “provocation” and “violation of international law,” and even threatened to break off diplomatic relations with the United States.

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Needless to say, the House proposal is neither provocative nor unusual. The notion of withholding recognition from illegitimate foreign rulers is well entrenched in U.S. foreign policy precedent — from President Woodrow Wilson’s refusal to recognize self-proclaimed Mexican leader Victoriano Huerta to President Ronald Reagan’s withdrawal of recognition from Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos. More recently, and more relevantly, the United States refused to accept the fraudulent election “victories” of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. To this day, the two men are not recognized by Washington as legitimate leaders. Given the similarities between the regimes in Belarus and Russia, derecognition of Putin would bring a welcome consistency to U.S. diplomatic standards.

The difference, of course, would be in the impact. However authoritarian and corrupt at home, the regimes of Maduro and Lukashenko are not as integrated as Putin’s into the global system, and not as dependent on their stakeholders’ personal access to Western countries, banks and financial institutions. Kremlin officials and oligarchs have long treated our country as a looting ground — while taking the spoils of their loot to the West, where their money is protected by the very same rule of law they deny our citizens. It is estimated that private Russian assets abroad range from $800 billion to $1.3 trillion, with much of this wealth likely linked to Putin himself. Recent exposés by investigative journalists, including the Panama Papers and the Pandora Papers, offered only small glimpses into the vast foreign holdings of Putin’s inner circle.

For a globally integrated kleptocracy, the prospect of international nonrecognition presents an existential threat in the way it couldn’t for insular autocracies such as Lukashenko’s. The nervous reaction in Moscow betrayed the sense of insecurity the Kremlin usually hides behind an assertive facade. In effect, the Cohen-Wilson resolution revealed the Putin regime’s Achilles’ heel for all to see.

It goes without saying that the fate of Russia can, and should, be decided only by Russians themselves. Despite a devastating crackdown on civil society, the signs of public discontent with Putin’s two-decade rule — from his collapsing poll numbers to large-scale street protests to electoral defeats — are becoming difficult to hide. The rubberstamp election in 2024 intended by Putin to extend his rule yet again could end up backfiring on him, as happened to other autocrats in the post-Soviet neighborhood.

The very least the world’s democracies can do is refuse to help Putin with his unlawful power grab. House Resolution 806 is an important step in this direction.