The deep roots of the U.S.-Russia crisis

As a former prime minister of Russia, I was pleased to see that President Obama decided Wednesday to cancel his bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin when he travels to St. Petersburg next month for the Group of 20 economic summit. Obama now has the opportunity to reinforce this strong message by speaking out during his visit against Russian officials who have engaged in electoral fraud, malicious propaganda and the oppression of civil activists.

Political relations between Russia and the United States have been steadily fraying. Although the immediate explanation for Obama’s cancellation is connected to Russia granting temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor wanted on espionage charges, the roots of this crisis run much deeper. In fact, while the two countries have always held divergent views on many issues, since the fall of the Soviet Union they have never been at such odds as they are today.

These differences go well beyond current bilateral affairs and involve Russia’s violation of universal values of human rights, freedoms and democratic principles that both countries have committed to supporting. These include the aggressive assault by Russian authorities on independent nongovernmental organizations and civil activists; politically motivated harassment of ordinary citizens who participated in peaceful protests against the government; and such unthinkable proceedings as a posthumous trial for whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured to death in a Russian jail. No longer can the United States and Russia’s other democratic partners tolerate such actions.

It seems that business as usual — trying to engage Putin whenever and wherever possible in desperate pursuit of solutions to international concerns, such as the Syrian crisis and Afghanistan transit routes — became too difficult to sustain. The U.S. tactics of appeasement — engaging with Russia through the “reset” in relations between the two nations — have clearly reached their limit. Not only has this approach borne little fruit, but it has also resulted in long-term collateral damage to other essential causes, including the deterioration of political and civil liberties in Russia.

Moscow’s leaders customarily use summits between the United States and Russia to send strong signals to their domestic audience. First, these meetings allow Putin and his team to borrow democratic legitimacy that they evidently lack. This quest has become especially important following the tainted elections of 2011-12, which woke up Russian society to the state’s abuses and led to mass civilian protests in the capital and other cities. Sitting as an equal with U.S. leaders helps Putin create the impression that his system is more or less the same in nature and at least as decent as the American one.

This impression has only been reinforced by the persistent reluctance of the United States to publicly articulate the scope of serious disagreement between the two countries regarding freedom and democracy. When U.S. officials have delivered these messages privately, they have remained unheard and unappreciated by the Russian public.

Second, the notion, inherited from the Soviet Union and the Cold War era, of a global zero-sum game is still alive within Russia’s ruling group: Any advance by Washington is still seen as a loss for Moscow, and Washington’s failures mean a gain for Moscow. Therefore, the United States’ pragmatic engagement is read by the top Russian brass as weakness and as a readiness for further concessions. Against this backdrop, Putin has used such summits to demonstrate his importance, firmness and strength; without any doubt, he would have done so once again in September.

The new U.S. posture carries a cost, as it means giving up possible — though limited — gains in cooperation with Russia on the presidential level. But in the end, the United States will reap much more by showing that it upholds its own principles, particularly by supporting Russians who suffer from government harassment and corruption because they want to help their country be a free and democratic state. This can also send a strong signal around the world to other repressive regimes and their citizens. Over the long term, it will be quite a smart political investment.

Mikhail Kasyanov was the prime minister of Russia from 2000 to 2004 and is the co-leader of the Party of People’s Freedom, a Russian opposition party.

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