Why President Barack Obama should not visit Russia.
- By Leon AronLeon Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced last week that President Vladimir Putin had called to congratulate Barack Obama on his reelection and claimed that the American president accepted an invitation from Putin to come to Russia. Obama’s plans, which have not yet been publicly announced, seem truly puzzling.
In the past 12 months, Putin’s foreign and domestic policies have been nothing but a brazen, in-your-face challenge to U.S. interests and values. Russia has sided with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria as it slaughtered tens of thousands of its own citizens, casting three vetoes in the U.N. Security Council to shield Damascus from international sanctions. Moreover, it has signaled the end of its already limited and caveat-ridden support for international efforts to contain a nuclear-bound Iran.
Closer to home, Kremlin-sponsored goons have heckled and hounded Obama’s own ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, and Kremlin-controlled television networks have aired vile, Soviet-style propaganda "documentaries" accusing McFaul, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and, the United States more broadly, of organizing and funding Russia’s anti-Putin, pro-democracy opposition.
Domestically, the regime has been relentless in ratcheting up repression. Under laws passed in quick succession following Putin’s inauguration in May, the government has meted out huge fines and lengthy prison terms for participants in "unsanctioned" demonstrations; branded humanitarian and civil rights organizations as "foreign agents" for accepting international funding; introduced Internet censorship; and established stiff penalties for "libel" against state officials. A few weeks ago, with barely any protest from the White House, the Kremlin expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development from the country after 20 years of work and billions of dollars spent by U.S. taxpayers to promote democracy, civil society, and economic development in Russia. Just last week, Putin signed into law new legislation vastly expanding the definition of treason (which can be punished by up to 20 years in jail). One can be considered a traitor in today’s Russia for as little as providing or receiving information from a foreign organization deemed hostile to Russia’s interests. (Amnesty International, for example, could qualify.)
In August, two members of the punk band, Pussy Riot, who sang at the altar of the Christ the Savior church in Moscow and called on the "Mother of God to rid us of Putin," were sentenced to two years in prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Aged 22 and 24, one is the mother of a five-year-old boy and the other of a four-year-old girl. They petitioned to serve in or around Moscow — as is normal practice for convicted Muscovites. Instead, they were sent to notorious prison camps in Mordovia and Perm, where tens of thousands died in Stalin’s gulag and where the Soviet government tormented the most dangerous dissidents. Meanwhile, the 17 protesters arrested on the eve of Putin’s inauguration on May 6 are still in "pre-trial detention" where they could spend months or even years in conditions that would be considered torture in Europe or the United States. (One of them has already been sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail).
Possibly signaling the regime’s transition from "softer" authoritarianism to a more traditional repression, the Kremlin further tested the waters with indictments against Russia’s two top opposition leaders: blogger and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny and socialist Sergei Udaltsov. The former is accused of stealing 13,000 cubic yards of timber and the latter of plotting to overthrow the regime with the assistance of the Georgian government. Now two of Udaltsov’s closest associates have already been arrested; the third, Leonid Razvozzhayev, was kidnapped by the FSB in Kiev, brought to Moscow, and held handcuffed without water, food, or access to a toilet until he "confessed" to plotting, with Udaltsov, to instigate mass riots to bring down the government It is almost certain that both Navalny and Udaltsov are headed for arrests, trials, and lengthy prison terms.
Given this record, both the Russian opposition and the regime would undoubtedly interpret Obama’s visit as a show of support for the Kremlin as it continues to crack down on a non-violent opposition that demands free and fair elections, equality before the law, freedom of speech, and the end of corruption.
Occasionally, in the conduct of foreign policy, statesmen are forced to choose between their respective country’s values and their interests. This, however, can hardly be the case here. Russia is no help — or worse — with Iran or Syria. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will end what has been Moscow’s main contribution to U.S. national security: its permission to transport troops and weapons across Russia through the so-called Northern Distribution Network.
This leaves only one conceivable reason for the White House’s neglecting what should be an overarching U.S. goal of facilitating Russia’s transition to a freer, more democratic, stable, and prosperous state: the administration’s aim to make even deeper reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal in pursuit of Obama’s declared goal of a "world without nuclear weapons," as he put it in his 2009 speech in Prague, by means of another arms control agreement with Russia.
If that’s the case, then turning a blind eye to the regime’s increased repression and Obama’s visit to Moscow can’t be the only conditions for the Kremlin’s cooperation. Surely, Putin will continue to demand the scuttling of missile defense systems in Europe.
I, for one, have often given the Obama White House the benefit of the doubt where the Russia policy was concerned. But it would be hard to do the same this time if core U.S. values and security goals are being sacrificed on the altar of a hardly urgent "arms control" deal with a regime in Moscow that has been so hostile to both. The president should stay home.