I’m sure some readers are growing weary of the back-and-forth on Russia over the past few months, but I hope they will indulge me in one more response to Thomas Graham’s reply to me and other critics of his original piece. Replies from several of us generated his latest, “A Response to the Critics.” Several of his most recent points warrant further consideration.
In responding to Andrew Wood’s posting of March 29, Graham writes: “The United States should not shy away from defending and promoting its values (although Wood and I might differ on the best way to do that).” Graham never explains how he would do this in the case of Russia beyond exchange programs and the like, and later in his piece, he drops his passing support for promoting our values. Instead, he reverts back to his emphasis on engaging the Putin regime in other ways. Indeed, he alleges that “[I]f our goal is to advance the cause of democracy in Russia, then we must take care that our actions do not in fact limit the space for its progress.” According to Graham, the United States bears some responsibility for Russia’s current plight through things like “triumphalism in Washington over the ‘color revolutions’” and the Magnitsky Act, both of which, Graham claims, fed into the Kremlin’s paranoia and “inclined the Kremlin to deal more harshly with the systemic opposition.” To be clear, the Magnitsky Act was passed by Congress in December 2012; Putin had already pursued many ways to crack down on civil society and the opposition in Russia before the Magnistky Act became law.
Graham goes on to argue the following:
The United States would like to see a change in essence. To that end, it should amplify the pressure for such change by, for example, drawing Russia deeper into the globalized economy, ensuring as free an international flow of information as possible, and pressing the frontiers of technological advance. We also urgently need to fix our own society to provide a model of success for emulation. But we should leave to Russians the management of the internal politics of this change. It is, after all, their country. And why shouldn’t those who believe in democracy have some confidence that in the end the Russians will make the right choices, without mentoring and interference from the West?
Why should we support Russia’s membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—since Moscow has already joined the WTO—but exempt Russia from U.S. efforts to “defend and promote” values? Why would we want to let it join another rules-based organization—and then defy its rules? It already does this in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe and ignores its commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; it is even raising concerns in the WTO. Let’s think twice before welcoming Russia into more organizations where it can undermine their integrity.
Moreover, Russia’s biggest obstacle to becoming more deeply integrated into the globalized economy has nothing to do with American support or opposition; instead, the root cause of Russia’s problem is the rampant corruption that drives away badly needed foreign investment, as well as dampening internal investment and entrepreneurship. It is why capital flight remains a huge problem and why 45 percent of Russian students and 38 percent of Russian businessmen in a recent Levada Center poll would leave Russia, if given the opportunity.
Yes, the United States is facing problems of its own, but waiting until we fix those—or until we become “a model of success for emulation,” whatever that means—before we promote our values sounds like a reason or excuse to do nothing.
Graham refers to the challenges posed to the Russia system by economic globalization and economic cooperation and the need for Russia to adapt norms including rule of law and sanctity of contracts. Graham suggests that the “important question is not whether Putin will stay on in 2018, but whether the system can adapt to these new circumstances without changing in essence.” Is the jury really still out on the regime’s ability to adapt toward a more rule-of-law based system? With more repression every passing day, Putin is constructing an authoritarian regime that shows no respect for its own people or the law. Knowing or assuming this, however, would defeat the whole point and purpose of engaging in a strategic dialogue with Putin’s Russia.
In fact, Graham’s call for a strategic dialogue with a regime that is moving further away from us every day in terms of values risks legitimizing a regime that does not trust, and is losing the support of, its own people. “A strategic dialogue,” Graham writes, “one that looks to the long-term, could help break down stereotypical thinking so obvious in much of the discussion about U.S.-Russian relations in both countries. It could lead each country to see the other in a different, more positive light.” Then again, it might not. Indeed, Graham’s apparent dismissal of my interpretation of Putin’s Russia today as a bunch of stereotypes may instead reflect wishful thinking that Russia can “restore its dynamism” and adapt to a rule-of-law based system. The United States should not aid and abet Putin by legitimizing him through an empty strategic dialogue. Russia under Putin’s leadership can never become “dynamic”—it will only become more rotten and stagnant but also more repressive and authoritarian, for this is the only way for Putin to maintain control.