Dealing With Russia

Western leaders have been largely silent while President Vladimir Putin unleashes a campaign of police-state tactics against Russians who voice opposition to him. Yet by emphasizing human rights, the West can inspire those in Russia who seek more freedom, without putting at risk most other important goals with Russia.

Russia is not a totalitarian Soviet Union redux. But the measures Putin has employed since large demonstrations against his rule began appearing in late 2011 suggest a Soviet-like arrogance of power. On the defensive, Putin is shoring up his political base by mobilizing nationalists and xenophobes.

Independent groups such as Golos, which monitors elections, and Memorial, which promotes human rights and honest history, may soon close because they refuse to register as “foreign agents,” a term that in Russian connotes spies. In recent weeks Garry Kasparov, a chess grandmaster, Pavel Durov, founder of Russia’s largest social media company, and Sergei Guriev, who led the country’s top economics school, have opted to stay abroad for fear of politically motivated arrest.

A dozen participants in a May 2012 anti-Putin protest are on trial for inciting violence that most observers say security forces initiated. Alexei Navalny, a popular political blogger who says he wants to run for president, is being tried on trumped-up charges. Conviction, which is likely, would render him ineligible to run for office.

Journalists critical of officialdom have been beaten. Other Russians are arrested on concocted charges, a tactic designed to intimidate the increasingly alienated urban middle class. State-controlled television feeds viewers a diet of harsh anti-U.S. propaganda uncommon even in Soviet times.

Despite the rapid decline in freedoms, most Western leaders have refrained from strong criticism. They may fear that it would hurt the attainment of other important goals, but this is unlikely. Most Western ties with Russia are transactional and would be little affected. Russia sells energy to Europe, America reimburses Russia for space launches to the international space station, and NATO allies pay for transport access through Russia to support their forces in Afghanistan. Russia needs Western technology to develop energy deposits in the Arctic, and it profits from the growing land transport between Europe and China.

To be sure, cooperation with Russia in some areas is uncertain, but for reasons unrelated to Western policy on human rights. Moscow resists pressuring the Assad regime in Damascus, and likely sees a prospective international conference on Syria as a way to buy time while it continues to arm the regime.

Negotiations on a new U.S.-Russian nuclear arms accord, touted by President Obama on Wednesday in Berlin, may founder because the Kremlin seeks to protect a huge advantage in nonstrategic nuclear weapons and objects to U.S. missile defense plans. Russia seeks easier visa rules with the West, but criminality and overstay problems undermine prospects.

In the 1990s, the West lost popular support in Russia by advising the privatization of state properties but then not criticizing corrupt implementation. The West ought not to err in the same way today by failing to defend those who face heightened repression.

Western leaders could begin by calling the Kremlin to account for rights violations. In July 2009, at Guriev’s New Economic School in Moscow, Obama pointed to the value of freedom of speech and assembly. Since then he has been cautious in criticizing Russian abuses, and unfortunately was silent about them publicly after meeting with Putin on Monday in Northern Ireland.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has been more forthright. Last November, in front of Putin, she condemned the sentencing of young women who peacefully protested in a Moscow cathedral, and in April she said independent organizations in Russia deserved a “good chance.”

Western leaders should realize that Putin’s campaign to limit freedoms will increasingly constrain the political space in Russia for cooperation with the West.

In lower-key ways as well, the West can do more. It should offer more venues for independent groups to present evidence of abuses. The West can provide more training outside Russia to leaders of beleaguered organizations. Even parents skeptical of Western influences want their children to obtain a more globalized education abroad or at home, which the West can facilitate.

It is past time for Western leaders to rebalance their policy toward Russia by putting human rights and political freedoms back on the agenda.

The pursuit should not be a crusade. Rather, it ought to become a more integral part of Western policy. This would also send a welcome message to abusers and victims elsewhere.

Denis Corboy, a visiting senior research fellow at Kings College, London, served as European Commission ambassador to Armenia and Georgia. William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, and special assistant to the president for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. Michael Haltzel, senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, was staff director for Europe at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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