With a coronation-like Russian presidential election coming in March, it easy to forget that exactly six years ago Vladimir Putin seemed to be wobbling on the edge of political oblivion. In disastrous December 2011 parliamentary elections, his United Russia party—in a rigged election—officially won less than half the votes cast. Russian and Western analysts alike were wondering if he would even survive the March 2012 election that Putin envisioned as his triumphant return to the helm at the Kremlin. This was the year of the Arab Spring, after all, with autocratic allies of Moscow (and Washington) being driven from their palaces across the Arab world. Peaceful democratic upheaval was trending!
A recent news report underscored how nervous Putin was then—and how anxious he clearly remains today—about his electoral viability. Surely the most important overlooked news story of 2017 was the December 8 report by John Hudson in BuzzFeed that Vladimir Putin sent a senior envoy to Washington last July to propose a mutual non-aggression pact regarding elections. I have confirmed independently that Hudson’s account is accurate. Why is it important?
This high level diplomatic foray not only provided solid confirmation from a senior Russian official that Moscow indeed sought to disrupt America’s 2016 elections, but it also made clear its motive. For all his bravado and saber rattling, Putin is terrified that he cannot win a fair (or even an unfair) election. This is why he jails, disqualifies or has murdered his political rivals, and firmly controls the broadcast media on which Russians depend for their news. Anyone who has watched Moscow’s official English-language propaganda television outlet, Russia Today or has listened to Radio Sputnik (whose official motto “telling the untold” translates back into Russian as “telling the untrue”), can imagine what gets broadcast every day in Russia!
At the same time, Putin cannot fathom why so many Russians came out to protest his electoral shenanigans the last time he was on the ballot, three months after those Duma elections. Following those discredited legislative elections—the first time that thousands of volunteer videographers uploaded to YouTube footage of ballot box stuffing and other fraud—it was the election monitors who were prosecuted, not the election riggers. New laws were soon enacted to throttle GOLOS, the civic network trained by American experts and supported by numerous Western governments to provide independent analysis of the overall election process, as counterparts are doing on every continent these days.
Starting on the day after those December Duma elections, tens and then hundreds of thousands of Russians across the country came out to protest the corruption that was endemic in Russia and was so blatant in the elections. These were the largest public protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many of the people wore white ribbons, and were not only peaceful, but often joyous. Young families with children in strollers were coming out to demand a better Russia. These were not the marginalized and the angry; these men and women were part of the nascent modern Russian economy—they were the successful and the angry. True, some made it personal; many of the hand-lettered signs called for “Russia without Putin” or declared “Putin is a thief.” Putin was not amused. He was angry, and he was afraid.
The protests continued and grew larger, through Putin’s own fraudulent March election—when 99.82 percent of the voters in Chechnya were reported officially to have voted for the man who razed their capital city of Grozny—right up to his inauguration day in May. Once back in the presidential office, Putin embarked on a campaign to stifle future protests. Over many months, show trials of individuals arrested at the protests delivered the message that even passive participation would be punished. Laws were quickly enacted to hobble civic groups and make it harder to organize in public. By September 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development was kicked out of Russia—for having supported independent civic and media voices, as USAID does worldwide. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov archly informed Secretary of State Clinton that USAID was being expelled, during a “bilat” at the APEC meeting in Vladivostok that month, he mentioned closing GOLOS as one of the rationales.
Throughout the ensuing six years, however, the thing that appears to have rankled Mr. Putin most about the unrest that attended his finagled election was a straightforward statement made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the day after those December Duma elections. Echoing the preliminary statement of the hundreds of observers deployed countrywide by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the GOLOS network, Clinton said at a meeting of OSCE Foreign Ministers in Vilnius, “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve to have their voices heard and their votes counted, and that means they deserve fair, free, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them.” I was sitting behind Secretary Clinton in the plenary meeting, a member of her delegation, and I recall seeing the steam coming out of Lavrov’s ears as Clinton spoke.
Putin later said that this public statement, coming after the fraud was exposed and after the protests had emerged, somehow “sent a signal” to secret American agents in Russia to stir up the protests, and he consistently exaggerated the amount of grant money USAID and the State Department were dispensing to Russian beneficiaries—even though amounts and recipients of the grants were publicly listed on websites.
So let’s return to the next presidential election, slated for March 4, 2018, and Moscow’s renewed effort to further diminish American support for honest elections in Russia, which means a return to John Hudson’s scoop. It is hard to imagine a scenario that would better illustrate the immense gulf in understanding between the American and Russian governments than the conversation he reported. In the July meeting with Under Secretary of State Tom Shannon, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, in effect: “If you stop trying to make Russian elections more transparent and genuine, so that the right of the people to choose who governs is respected, we will agree to cease stealing private communications and manipulating the American people with false and misleading narratives that confuse the issues and the personalities.” Ryabkov even presented the American side with a draft document to memorialize the proposed non-intervention compact. Both governments essentially confirmed Hudson’s reporting, in press briefings in Washington and in Moscow days later.
In the statement by Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Russians rather bizarrely invoked a pre-World War II precedent:
There was nothing new in this proposal since the same principle was stipulated when our countries restored diplomatic relations on November 16, 1933. . . . [T]he Foreign Commissar of the USSR Maxim Litvinov and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt exchanged personal notes stipulating the indisputable right of each country to order its own life within its own jurisdiction in its own way.
Much has happened since 1933 to refine the global sensibility about “the indisputable right of each country to order its own life within its own jurisdiction in its own way.” World War II. The Holocaust. The United Nations. Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Decolonialization of half of the world. And much, much more in the subsequent 50 years. Oh, yes: also including the end of the Soviet Union, more than a quarter century ago.
When the USSR collapsed as a result of its own economic, political, and security failures, the United States set out to do for Russia and its neighbors what it had earlier done for Germany and Japan and other vanquished foes over the years: help the country get back on its feet and become a contributing member of the world community. For more than two decades, the United States spent billions of dollars to help Russia modernize, democratize and become a more prosperous country engaged productively with the rest of the world.
But when Putin decided to reclaim the presidency in Russia – after a four-year hiatus as Prime Minister while his protégé Dmitry Medvedev served as President – and when it appeared the people of Russia were not as keen for his return as he was, he decided that Russia no longer needed this help. Economic and security cooperation with the West was not more important than Putin’s personal grip on power and the wealth he and his circle were amassing. Since U.S. assistance to Russia included as a matter of course support for democratic processes and institutions, it would all have to end.
The good news is that U.S. policy remains forward-leaning; the professional diplomats, foreign service officers and civil servants alike, continue to profess and support American values, even while waiting for their president and secretary of state to come around. Officials have said repeatedly that they will provide support to those democratic-minded individuals and organizations that want American assistance. These are not large amounts, and the recipients are scattered and under constant harassment from Russian authorities. As much as any tangible benefit they might provide, these grants are intended to send a political message—not to the government of Russia, but to the Russian people. The United States supports democracy and wants them to be able to exercise their internationally recognized human rights.
That is the message that Ryabkov brought back to Moscow last July after his meeting at the State Department. As Hudson reported the exchange, a
senior State Department official said any potential gains would come at too high a cost. “We would have to give up democracy promotion in Russia, which we’re not willing to do,” said the official.
Russians know this, and it encourages them to stand up for themselves. Putin also knows this, and it frightens him. Watch how he conducts the upcoming presidential election. Watch how he continues to disrupt our elections.
Editor’s note: Corrected, 12/29/2017.