The Real Russia Problem

As the free world tries to formulate an effective response to Russia’s recent incursion into Georgia, the focus understandably remains on how to ensure the withdrawal of troops from Russia’s democratic southern neighbor. But policymakers might want to consider for a moment how we got to this point.

The situation in Georgia is the culmination of a failed post-Cold War policy toward Russia. Central to this failure has been ignoring the inherent connection between internal freedom and external aggression. As democracy was rolled back within Russia, the world abandoned an approach that had been so effective during the later stages of the Cold War, when relations with the Kremlin were linked to the expansion of freedom inside the Soviet Union.

Linkage began in 1974 with the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which tied preferential trade terms with the United States to the freedom to emigrate from the Soviet Union. It continued with the Helsinki Accords in 1975, which helped shine an international spotlight on Soviet human rights abuses, and it reached its apogee with the remarkable moral clarity of President Ronald Reagan, who made the level of Soviet tyranny a barometer of superpower relations. This policy was a spectacular success, mobilizing world opinion to bring the Cold War to a peaceful end.

The establishment largely mocked the revolutionary notion that foreign policy pressure could be used to help to transform the U.S.S.R. from within. Fortunately, for me and millions of others, leaders such as Sen. Henry «Scoop» Jackson, a Democrat, and Reagan, a Republican, disagreed. They believed that such a transformation was not only possible but essential to their nation’s security. They correctly understood that regimes that do not respect the rights of their own people do not respect the rights of their neighbors.

In late 1987, on the eve of Mikhail Gorbachev’s first U.S. visit and less than two years after I was released from the gulag, I helped spearhead a massive rally in Washington to demand freedom of emigration for Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Some of my fellow organizers worried that the rally could undermine hopes for peace that had surfaced in the wake of Gorbachev’s ascendance. It was not at all clear to them how Reagan would feel about it, since he had developed a good personal relationship with the new Soviet premier.

So I requested a meeting with Reagan to ask him directly. After I expressed this concern, he minced no words: «Do you think I am interested in a friendship with the Soviets if they continue to keep their people in prison? You do what you believe is right.»

Linkage, correctly applied, is as much about saying yes as saying no; a Kremlin moving toward liberalization had to be engaged and supported, while one retreating on that path had to be confronted and penalized. After the Cold War ended, this hardheaded yet principled policy was quickly discarded.

For example, when he first came to power, President Vladimir Putin, who many hoped would continue to move Russia in a positive direction, wanted Congress to repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. The law had been a spectacular success: Russians were now free to come and go as they pleased. U.S. lawmakers could have recognized the historic changes that the law had helped bring about and repealed it, but instead they let it be used as a weapon by the U.S. agricultural lobby in a petty trade spat with Russia. For those of us who paid a heavy price for supporting this amendment, it was disheartening. For leaders in the Kremlin, it was «proof» that the supposed idealism behind the amendment had been a cover for cynical self-interest all along.

Thus, the «carrot» of the amendment’s repeal was foolishly withheld; likewise, «the stick» has not been used. As Putin grew bolder in reversing democratic reforms — from taking over media outlets to menacing independent journalists to nationalizing industries — there was barely a hint of protest. When he brazenly arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a billionaire and potential presidential rival, there were those in the Kremlin who warned of serious negative consequences. But such advisers quickly lost credibility when, after Western democratic leaders paid their traditional lip service to human rights and democracy, it was business as usual.

Sadly, a clearsighted policy of linkage was transformed into a strategic and moral muddle that neither rewarded good behavior nor punished bad. Perhaps most egregiously, a regime that would have been willing to pay a high price to join the Group of Eight, let alone to host a summit of the leading democratic powers, was given these privileges for free. Did anyone even consider asking something of the Kremlin?

Now the free world stands at a dangerous crossroads. Restoring Georgian independence and the confidence of Russia’s other democratic neighbors is critical. But if the root of the problem is to be addressed strategically, the focus must return not to this or that specific foreign policy action by Russia but rather to the matter of democracy within Russia itself. This linkage must be broad and deep, and it must be reinforced by an international community willing to shine a light on Russia’s retreat from democracy.

The threat to Georgia, Russia’s other democratic neighbors and America ultimately arises from a lack of democracy within Russia. Changing that should be the focus of statecraft today — if we want to ensure that the Kremlin poses no threat to peace tomorrow.

Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident, chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author most recently of the book Defending Identity.