How Obama should handle Russia and the Putin factor

How Obama should handle Russia and the Putin factor

President Obama has before him an opportunity to promote U.S. values and a more comprehensive policy toward Russia because of the political and economic needs of Vladimir Putin and his "court." The right action now will promote U.S. interests, arguably the interests of the Russian people, and make it possible for the United States to have a better relationship with what we hope will be a more democratic Russian government in the not too distant future.

Russia’s Prime Minister and de facto power center, Putin, currently finds his position not as stable as he’d like it to be. Poll numbers for his party remain low, cynicism remains high, all around him many of the world’s autocrats and corrupt regimes are collapsing or wobbling, and the Russian economy and standard of living is stagnating even in a time of high oil prices.

This perhaps explains Russia’s renewed effort to gain entrance into the WTO. This is good news in and of itself as free trade is a boon to all countries, but the U.S. policy should not be simply to say "amen" and push for Russia’s accession with no other considerations. Russia’s desire to join the WTO is just one of several levers that the president can use as part of a strategy to support Russia’s becoming a more democratic country and the delegitimization of those trying to return it to tsarism.

The strategy the president should pursue could be comprised of three parts. First, a "reset" on U.S. policy toward Russia in terms of how we react to the government’s treatment of dissidents and democratic activists. This effort is actually already in motion in that the president plans to nominate Michael McFaul to be the next ambassador to the Russian Federation. Dr. McFaul is a well-known and respected expert on Russia; but more importantly, he is an expert on democratic development and a firm supporter of same. His nomination alone sends a strong signal that the Obama administration is serious about its concerns regarding Russian politics. McFaul should go to Moscow with the full backing of the president to be an influential voice for democratic governance; he should be instructed to meet with dissidents and democratic activists. The timing is excellent: some of the best known democratic leaders in Russia have formed a new party and petitioned the government to allow it to participate officially. The U.S. position should be clear that such a party should be welcomed. Perhaps Putin will grasp that doing this makes Russia look good for WTO purposes if he needs a reason beyond just doing the right thing.

Second, the president also has at his disposal the Agency for International Development and the State Department’s bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor that fund various worthy institutions of the National Endowment for Democracy, such as the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. These have not been the workhorses in support of democracy and economic and political rights that they were under the previous two administrations due to President Obama’s greater interest in using foreign aid to combat poverty and disease. (NB: The latter are certainly worthy causes, but there is a reason that many countries are now in their 50th year of accepting help from the West to combat these problems: as non-democracies, they are unable — or unwilling — to apply their resources to those basic needs of their citizens. Stable and prospering democracies that respect property rights and the citizen’s right to self-government do not need much help combating mosquitoes, securing clean drinking water and other rather vital but mundane tasks. ) The Obama administration should reinvigorate USAID and DRL and in particular, the programs relevant to Russian democrats who want and need the support of the West. The president doesn’t have to call it the "Freedom Agenda" if he doesn’t want to, but if Putin and his ilk’s slide continues such that true democrats actually get a shot at power, it would be good for them to have a favorable view of a United States because we stood with them, the democrats, and not the autocrats and kleptocrats.

And finally, the president will have some help from the Congress: Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) introduced legislation in May to restrict visas for corrupt and human rights abusing Russian officials. Gary Kasparov, chess master turned democratic activist, notes that enactment of this bill would be a significant blow to Putin and his forces of autocracy who have heretofore been understood as immune from prosecution or consequences for their actions. Of course, many in the State Department and certain White House officials oppose the bill, but the president should at least show great interest in it even if he cannot bring himself to support it ultimately in its current form. U.S. values should be upheld in our foreign policy; besides, who really will want to go to bat for those in the Kremlin who engage in corruption, human rights abuses and political murder?

So the president should support Russian accession to the WTO (as long as Russia complies with all WTO stipulations), but not without taking advantage of some of the levers at his disposal to influence Russia for the good of democracy and in support of U.S. values. Putin’s machine is searching for ways to improve its performance in the eyes of the public and finally being let in to the trading club will help him. But at the same time that we support this, we should also make sure there are consequences for Russian leaders who abuse human rights and practice kleptocracy and we should find ways to encourage and support Russian democrats who put their lives on the line, literally, every day.