The Russian Bear – A Long Dark Night of Repression and Hibernation?

More and more reports are coming out of Moscow that President V. Putin is intent on a salami slicing process of deep repression and authoritarian Soviet style rule. His actions have included repression against NGOs in Russia that take money from abroad and those that don’t, the passing of legislation that limits freedom of expression, including the protests against them, criticism of the Kremlin, and  the clamping down on freedom of the press.  The goal is a top down government from the Kremlin.

In the realm of foreign affairs the probation of adoption by American families of orphans, along with indications that Putin is perhaps in an angry mood toward America and the West, seems to be pursuing a series of policies that are at cross purposes with those of the U.S. and of other Western democracies.

Now, news comes out that further legislation aimed at cutting the ties of Russians with the outside world are in the process. These may include a ban on Russian officials having connections abroad, such as wives and children living or being educated outside of Russia and the former Soviet Union. Putin has also closed down local broadcasting by VOA in Russia. Corruption is endemic and tolerated especially if it is by Putin’s favorites.

Beyond these moves is a decidedly strong trend towards the kind of extreme xenophobia and the suppression of anything that smacks of “Western” or the culture of and civic support for real “democracy.”

There seems at the same time, a trend by Putin, to increase defense/military spending at the expense of the funding of domestic needs like health care, which is already appalling.  Also, Putin has instituted his stronger control over the regional governments at the expense of local autonomy.

In the background, there is a growing resentment by the middle class of Putin’s policies and a desire for a more open society. In the end, it will be the citizens of Russia that will likely move the regime or rid it of its authoritarian overlay. Meanwhile, this increasingly corrosive overlay of society is accompanied by public cynicism or even support. There are signs of a more open debate of resentment and opposition to the authoritarian and corrupt elements. My guess is that this desire for a modern and open society will in the end carry the day, but at a very high cost to the Russian people who have waited centuries for some sense of dignity and real civil rights.

The question for America and its allies is what can be done, if anything, to persuade Vladimir Putin and not least the Russian people that both repression at home and belligerence abroad is not in their own interests? The Russian Federation now faces not only years of possible reaction, but also possible loss of inward investment, and a possible loss of its main revenue if either oil or gas prices fall or non-Russian supplies are supplanted from other regions.

The first thing that should not be done is to overreact ourselves mindlessly and preemptively act in ways that would only reinforce Putin’s obsessions and other right wing nationalists and play into their hands in creating an isolated and besieged Russia. This would give “rational” to the Kremlin to adapt authoritarian acts to “defend” its sovereignty and “Security” interests.

Those in America who wish to isolate Russia and make them a forever “enemy” and recreate a new “Cold War” are as much a danger to wise policy and the integration of Russia into the community of responsible nations. These “neocom” right wing “war hawks” wanted a mindless war with Iraq, they wanted us to confront China rather than engage them and push the “inevitable” coming conflict with China, and now they want to do the same with Russia.

What is needed instead is a wise long-term strategy of encouraging cooperation and confidence of the Russian people and also, especially of the growing better educated elite and middle class to recognize that Putin trajectory means only greater poverty of its people, less growth in modern technology and knowledge, and will destine Russia forever to be backward and solitary.

Our first step must be to once again reassert to the Russian people that we desire partnership and collaboration for the benefit of both our nations and to continue our “reset” dialogue with Russian leaders even when it seems almost hopeless to persuade them of its efficacy to their own interests. We need to devise a comprehensive agenda of useful initiatives and to hold out its benefits and break down the walls of communication between our society and theirs – even over the heads of the current regime if necessary.

Obama will be visiting Russia in the fall for a G-20 meeting and before that meeting there needs to be a major focused effort to engage in the kind of diplomacy, which reconnects our two nations and emphasizes those areas of mutual interest. Also, there should be an emphasis on a “full court press” of public diplomacy and the use of what many call “third tract” “back door” and a quiet effort to reach Russian citizens directly with the theme that America is not their enemy, but rather that together we can have the kind of cooperation that respects Russian’s real interests. The issues to be addressed early on in a quiet way include missile defense in Europe, Iran’s nuclear weapons, Syria, North Korea, our exit from Afghanistan, trade opportunities, investment and above all nuclear weapons and non-proliferation. That short list illustrates the still importance of the reasons behind the original “reset.”  Secretary Kerry and President Obama now need to put enough attention and energy into this necessarily long-term strategy, which for a host of reasons is of the greatest importance to global security for everyone.

After reading this article, be sure to look at our Student National Security-Foreign Policy Solutions Essay Contest page to submit your essay today!