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Conference Review: Strategies to Defend Democratic Institutions and the Rule of Law in the Westand Is Propaganda Protected Speech

Sep 06 2019

Jeremy W. Lamoreaux

Three Requirements for Democracy

The history of humankind has been dominated by authoritarian-type governments, with democracies considerably less common for a number of reasons, three of which I would like to emphasize here. Firstly, democracy only functions properly when the populace is informed and engaged on political issues. In the case of a direct democracy, the executive is directly responsible to, and derives his authority directly from the people. This type of democracy requires the people to be well-informed about laws affecting them, and to participate in the political process to pass and amend those laws.

In the case of a representative democracy, the executive is accountable to, and derives his power from representatives who, in turn, derive their power from and are accountable to the people. This type of democracy does not require the people to be as well-informed about issues and laws affecting them, but they must be informed enough to at least choose appropriate representatives to make and uphold rules for them. In either case, democracy functions best when the populace is well-informed and engaged in political processes.

Authoritarian regimes, however, work best without an informed, engaged populace. Historically, this condition was not difficult to satisfy because most societies until the 19th -20th centuries were agricultural. This meant people did not need to be literate, they had a rural lifestyle, and were geographically and communicatively isolated from each other and from those in power. However, it is becoming much more difficult for authoritarian regimes to sustain themselves because most of our contemporaries are literate and have a relatively easy access to any type of information. Consequently, authoritarian regimes benefit from policies that keep the populace as ignorant as possible (for example, by controlling the media) and preclude them from participating in political processes.

Secondly, democracy only functions properly when there is a universally applied and universally applicable rule of law. The very concept of the rule of law is somewhat misleading. The concept, itself, simply implies that everyone within a constituency is accountable to the same laws. It says nothing about what those laws may be. Consequently, those laws may be very limited, or they may be very extensive. Within a functioning democracy, however, rule of law generally implies that there is a universally applicable, and universally applied basic set of human rights, very much akin to the U.S. Bill of Rights. This sort of rule of law is only available in a functioning democracy where laws are created with the input from the populace (through democratic political processes) and where the executor of those laws (the executive) is accountable to the people.

At times it may appear that authoritarian regimes also observe the rule of law. However, as opposed to democratic rule of law which ought to be universally applicable and universally applied, rule of law in authoritarian regimes is selectively applicable and selectively applied, favoring elites over non-elites, favoring those in power who, then, use the rules to strengthen their hold on power and lengthen their tenure in power.

One of the primary ways in which authoritarian regimes control power and establish a selective “rule of law” is by owning or controlling primary means of economic growth within the country. Within democracies, governments most often fund projects through taxes. In paying taxes, the people have a claim on government spending. However, authoritarian regimes that own the means of economic growth do not always require extensive taxes. Thus, the populace does not have a clear claim on government spending. Rather, anything the government spends on the people is often seen (by the government) as a gift to the people.

Thirdly, democracy only functions properly when a society is, by and large, at peace with itself: not without disagreements, but feeling united even with differences. Perhaps the most destructive thing to democracy are aggravated societal divisions. When a society is hyper-divided, societal stability is at risk. Individuals in some groups start to see themselves as better than individuals in other groups and start to treat them accordingly. When one group is treated differently/preferentially to another group, this is known as relative deprivation (i.e. one group is deprived relative to another group). When relative deprivation is formally institutionalized (people elect representatives who establish and sustain societal segmentation), those who are deprived perceive the institutions as the cause of the problem. The impetus becomes to change the institutions, in the worst-case scenario leading to an overthrow of democracy.  

Surprisingly, authoritarian regimes also strive to establish societies without major rifts. Or, at least, without rifts sufficiently major to destabilize the country. Their tactics involve suppressing dissent and placating people— in other words, enforcing relative deprivation wherein the elites support policies keeping them at the top and separate from the “common” people.

Communication is critical to both the societies that seek fairness (democracies) and those seeking to institutionalize deprivation (authoritarian regimes). As democracies seek to alleviate inequalities, they engage in open and honest communication, where a willingness to hear out the “other” side improves understanding. On the other hand, to remain in power, authoritarian regimes resort to manipulation, censorship and even “weaponization” of information.

Liberal Norms, a Threat to Democracy?

Democracies, too, are oftentimes challenged by well-informed and engaged populaces, freedom of information and open communication. A policy issue one person holds as important may be ignored completely by another. Furthermore, not all information is equal. Factual, relevant and quality insights compete for attention with a surfeit of misinformation, disinformation, blatant lies, and trivial information. Therefore, even an engaged populace does not guarantee the best representatives. Oftentimes the people are ignorant— whether misled, selectively uninformed, or willfully ignorant. Furthermore, election results do not always reflect preferred policies of the voters, but rather can become popularity contests among candidates and ideologies. The people vote for a representative because they have affinity with that person, and elected representatives promise policies because they think such policies are what the people want. In either case, the result can often be policies that are not actually beneficial to the people.

Russia and the West

This Political Science 101 refresher is offered here as a theoretical backdrop for the recap of the two conferences hosted by Free Russia in Summer 2019: Strategies to Defend Democratic Institutions and the Rule of Law in the West (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jcupy9J9UE ) and Is Propaganda Protected Speech? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyxJfCL6ymU). Indeed, the question of what is required for a democracy to function echoed throughout presentations and discussions at these two events.

Both conferences focused on the confrontation between the Russian state apparatus and Western democracies, primarily the United State and Europe (EU, NATO and partner countries). The West extolls the values of democracy and the rule of law. Though democracy is still something of an experimental government type in the long history of human kind, the West is used to it, likes it, and appreciates its benefits (primarily, it provides equal representation which can then directly affect societal and economic equality). Russia, on the other hand, had a brief experiment with democracy for about a decade during the 1990s and decided that it did not work. Consequently, over the past two decades, the Kremlin has guided Russia back to the track it has known for centuries and millennia: authoritarian government that does not offer equal representation or any sort of laws that can provide for societal or economic equality.

Despite these diverging attitudes and paths, Russia and the West today are more interconnected than ever, and this trend is likely to be sustained into a foreseeable future. Their economies are intricately linked in such a way that all would suffer if the relationship were to be severed. Russia and the collective “Western democratic community” have foreign policy interests in similar locations (the Middle East, Asia, Eastern Europe, etc.). This inevitably brings them into a potential conflict (or potential cooperation) with each other. However, powerful militaries (and in case of Europe, the might provided by NATO membership) preclude outright confrontation and necessitate careful maneuvering from all.

It came as something of a surprise to many, then, that Russia began to meddle extensively in the political situation in the West, primarily when it became obvious that the Kremlin had an agenda in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and in the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK. Clearly, Russia had committed to weaken to the rule of law, democracy, and any democratic institutions within the West. In hindsight, though, most of the Kremlin’s efforts have been directed at undermining societal unity. This was a very shrewd decision considering that democracy cannot function well in a divided society. The division, itself, and the perceived (or real) relative deprivation prevent its function. However, the Kremlin not only attacked and attempted to divide society. It also propagated disinformation which, among other things, called into question the very institutions and values which are key to a functioning democracy such as free speech, checks and balances between branches of government, free and fair elections, and the role of an unbiased media.

These two conferences brought together prominent experts from European and U.S. governments, NGOs, think tanks, private companies, intergovernmental organizations, watchdogs, and academia to assess the tools the Kremlin uses to destabilize the West and articulate approaches for countering the Kremlin’s malign influence campaigns. The results of the conferences were vast, varied, thorough and impressive. Some of the instruments used by the Kremlin in its attack on democracies include:

  • Obfuscation of the rule of law and human right by creating shadow institutions whose actual purpose is to promote a “new” set of rules and rights which is hierarchical and limited
  • Stealing wealth from its on people and hiding it in Western and offshore accounts for the benefit of elites
  • Exporting corruption
  • Using Western institutions, such as judiciaries, to ensure their ill-gotten gains are hidden “legally”
  • Using those institutions to protect Kremlin lackeys from prosecution throughout the West
  • Intimidating and punishing opponents, both within Russia and abroad, through criminal networks and through Western security organizations such as Interpol
  • Controlling other countries through “alliances” with political parties and individual politicians within those countries
  • Establishing controls over media outlets and home and abroad; using traditional media, social media, and the broader online world to promote a Kremlin agenda, to undermine any Western agenda, to undermine Western institutions and values, to undermine relations across the West, including spreading disinformation, misinformation, blatant falsehoods, and challenging the very idea of “truth”
  • Controlling interior ministries abroad (again, through political parties)
  • Acquiring intelligence from Western political parties linked to the Kremlin
  • Exacerbating and manipulating ethnic tensions across the West
  • Controlling corporations throughout the West
  • Tying Russia’s economy to the global economy, raising the risk of economic turmoil if the West is too hasty in excluding the Russian economy
  • Creating and funding NGOs/GONGOs throughout the West that, then, push a pro-Kremlin agenda
  • Using military might to force neighbors into submission through war or threats of war, and to counter Western military interventions in the Middle East
  • Relying heavily on China to create alternatives to the U.S.-led global power structure that is not democratic, yet allows authoritarian regimes everywhere to thrive

Proposed countermeasures included:

  • Continuing to engage with the Kremlin, while recognizing that the Kremlin is not Russia and the people of Russia deserve to be treated with fairness and respect by the West
  • Strengthen the U.S. bonds with Europe, primarily our economic bonds
  • Encouraging the U.S. diplomats to continue raising the issues of human rights and the rule of law in all interactions with the Kremlin
  • Fund NGO’s that promote Western values
  • Strengthen legal and bureaucratic mechanisms that strengthen transparency on corporate and media ownership
  • Insist on transparency and oversight across international organizations, including the ability to expel members (read Russia and states that cooperate with Russia in abusing those institutions) for violations of policy (Interpol and NATO as key examples)
  • Encourage NGOs and national governments to reach across ethnic lines, further integrating ethnic minorities
  • Continue to engage, actively, with countries in Central and Eastern Europe to prevent further Kremlin military aggression and political elites cooptation in the region
  • Publicize the names of Western politicians who advance the Kremlin’s agenda to the detriment of their own nations
  • Publicize instances of media outlets that deal in disinformation and misinformation, including individual propagandists. Both primary propagandists (those directly in the employ of the Kremlin) and secondary propagandists (those who propagate the views of the primary propagandist)
  • Increase spending for countering disinformation, including news beats in traditional media that focus on exposing fake news
  • Support fact-checkers
  • Promote collaborations between Western journalists and Russian opposition journalists
  • Stress the need to reevaluate journalistic approaches to covering information emanating from the Kremlin, or state-sponsored media outlets
  • Commit to ethical leadership from our own leaders in the West. They should stand up for the rule of law, freedom and democracy at home and abroad, and should actively promote societal unity
  • Work on societal, economic and political rifts at home. Once we have put our own house in order, we can promote Western liberal norms abroad
  • Improve technological ability to crack down on disinformation
  • Pass laws countering disinformation and outlets that promote it
  • Pass laws ensuring that owners/operators of social media accounts are not anonymous
  • Educate law-makers about the Kremlin’s perceptions and tactics, so they can create policy specific to those
  • Do not use the Kremlin’s own tactics against it:  it’s a slippery slope which ends in authoritarianism

Most of these solutions touch on the symptoms of a much deeper, and much more destructive ill—the growing divisions within Western society. If this root problem is not addressed, the effect of these measures will be limited.

Consequently, I propose to refocuse our attention on three foundational questions:

  1. Who bears the ultimate responsibility for Russia’s meddling in the West?
  2. What are the strategic implications of Western relations with Russia going forward, especially in regards to the issues discussed at these conferences?
  3. How do the answers to the above two questions inform evaluation of any proposed solutions to this meddling?

The following analysis addresses each of these questions in turn.

Responsibility

With whom does the responsibility lie for Russia’s meddling? The most obvious answers, according to conference participants, include the Kremlin, the Russian propaganda machine (including Kremlin-sponsored media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, and subsidiaries), troll factories, and individuals and groups associated indirectly, but still heavily influenced by, the Kremlin. In the West, the responsibility lies with governmental organizations that had not taken threats seriously enough; politicians who have downplayed the Kremlin’s meddling (or even benefit from it), as well as politicians who are more intent on “winning” than on resolving societal and political problems; media outlets who deal in sensationalized (and misleading) news, and media and social media companies whose profit structures lend themselves to “clickable” content above accurate content.

However, underlying all of this is the deeper issue that people in Western societies, broadly speaking, are individualistic and self-interested. This gets into the psychology of democracy, and of people in general. What makes people in the West tick? What drives them to consume what they do, what shapes their preferences and controls ways in which they spend time and money? And, what does this have to do with democracy?

The short answer is that individuals in Western societies like to feel special and valued. Every person can espouse several identities, and the relative importance of those identities change across time and space— i.e. it’s dynamic. For example, a person may think of herself, first and foremost, as an employer. However, two hours later, she may think of herself, first and foremost, as a community leader and, still two hours later, as a member of a family. While none of these is antithetical to the others, the decisions she makes while acting as one of these, is not necessarily the same decision she would make while acting as another of these identities. However, each decision is made with the intent of benefitting that identity and, often, others who share that identity. 

This same concept is influential in the working of a democracy. Democracy is, ultimately, about people making decisions vis-à-vis their specific identities. It this case, it is most often about voting for a person, or policy, which will be best for their most important identities. The consequence of such behavior, however, is that where someone wins, someone else loses. The winning produces a sense of being valued, while losing produces the sense of a lack-of-value. Consequently, people want to win. They want to feel valued and winning is one way of achieving that feeling.

And, this is where we run into problems. The pull of individualism and self-interest often leads people to make decision that are not always logical for the long-term benefit of that person, or their various identities. Rather, too many people make decision based on acquiring value for themselves, in the short run, and to identities that are, long-term, less important. Within democracies, this looks like (ironically) groupthink, a lack of critical thinking, information selection bias, othering, dehumanizing, a lack of transparency, etc. All of these nurture the individualism and self-interest that are part of Western society, driving individuals to pursue “wins” (or feel valued) vis-à-vis another person or group of people, but ultimately may not result in good decisions for them or anyone else.

Bringing back the discussion to Kremlin meddling in, and negatively influencing, the West, who is to blame? Ultimately, fault must lie with the people and individualistic, self-interested nature of the society we’ve created for ourselves. The desire for feeling valued and winning vis-à-vis the “other” lead us to: believe voices that praise our identities over the identities of others; consume media that talks to those identities;  “like” and share media that caters to our identities; and, ultimately, vote for representatives whose policies will protect our identities at the expense of others including dehumanizing (and justifying ill behavior toward) those who disagree with us. Afterall, if they’re not for us, they’re against us.

In short, the Kremlin is not solely responsible for causing societal divisions, but is certainly exacerbating them. It promotes divisive messages that make groups feel deprived relative to other groups. It promotes misleading, or blatantly false “news” with the intent of furthering these divisive messages. It supports divisive individuals, politicians, societal groups, political parties, special interest groups and broad agendas. And the reason this is possible is because the nature of democracy is exclusive.

Strategic Implications

The strategic implications of Western individualism, democracy, and Kremlin meddling are domestic, regional, and international.

Domestic Implications

The domestic strategic implications of Kremlin meddling are introduced above: a divided populace and the undermining of democracy and the rule of law. However, those are just the beginning. The more strategically destructive implications surround the US military, the largest military in the world. The military answers to the executive (the president), but military spending is controlled by the legislature (congress). The executive and the legislative both have a say in what the military can, or cannot, do. Importantly, though, both the executive and legislative are meant to be accountable to the populace. If that holds, then, the decision on military spending and activity are to be decided by the populace.

Unfortunately, this is only part of the picture. The other part of the picture is that many politicians are accountable not only to their respective constituents, but also to special interest groups ranging from societal equality groups to corporations. Indeed, some believe that special interest groups, campaign donors, and lobbying groups, are more powerful than constituents in informing political decisions. Whether this is accurate or not is up for question. What is not up for questions, however, is that the Kremlin, through their extensive propaganda machine, does influence public opinion in the United States and on the decisions, policies and procedures of corporations and organizations. Consequently, whether constituents or special interests and lobbying groups are more influential in determining what military decisions policy makers make, there is a distinct possibility that those influences (and the resulting policies) are informed by Kremlin interests. This could result in decreased military spending in favor of domestic issues (such as Trump’s decision to use military funds to build a wall on the US/Mexico border). Conversely, it could result in increased military spending on issues that are the pet-issues of the military industrial complex, such as the White House decision to increase spending on nuclear deterrence. Whether either of these decisions are “good” or “bad” is subjective. What is not subjective is the potential that the Kremlin is informing such decisions by influencing the public or special interest/lobby groups. Thus, policy makers need to be extremely cautious in analyzing how the Kremlin stands to benefit from such decisions.

Finally, the ability of special interest groups, corporations, and lobbyists to inform policy is potentially detrimental to democracy. There is a well-established pattern of Russian money being hidden in Western bank accounts, and of Russian individuals (often with clear links to the Kremlin) investing in Western economies including part ownership of corporations. It is not a stretch to say that, in this as well as most cases, money talks. Those who hold the purse strings often get the result they want. The recent case of Russian money invested in Mitch McConnell’s (the current Senate Majority Leader) own district, and the implication that it is informing his political decision making, are a solid example of this. The implications are that the Kremlin is not just influencing policy makers by influencing the public, but directly through special interest and lobby groups. The ability of such groups to influence policy can easily translate into policy about military spending and military behavior.

Now, two short disclaimers: first, not all lobby and special interest groups are bad, nor do they all undermine democracy. There are numerous such groups who represent legitimately, and widely, held perceptions of the populace. Furthermore, there are numerous such groups that further the causes of democracy, rule of law, and human rights. But, there are also many whose sole purpose is to lobby for the interests of a limited agenda, a limited number of people, or even the rights of corporations and organizations above the rights of the populace (such as the case of the anti-fracking lobby being influenced by Kremlin propaganda). Consequently, special interests and lobbies, even with the purest of intentions (and the policy makers they influence) risk becoming subservient to Kremlin interests if they are not attentive to who is informing, or paying for, their agenda.

The second disclaimer is that the description of these domestic implications is focused on the United States. However, the concerns expressed here are by no means limited to the United States. They are generalizable to all democratic country, especially those where the people are influenced by media, and where policy making is informed by special interests and lobbies.

Regional Implications

The two most prominent strategic regional issues at risk of Kremlin meddling surround the Transatlantic institutions: NATO and the EU. It is no secret that the Kremlin would love to see an end to the North Atlantic Treaty, the withdrawal of US forces from Europe, an end to transatlantic security structures and institutions, and for the US to become indifferent (or, at the most extreme, opposed) to European security. A second, but no less important strategic issues, is the general withdrawal of Western influence from Central and Eastern Europe.

Until 2016, these concerns seemed farfetched, particularly regarding NATO. However, two events since then, both of which were influence by the Kremlin, certainly pose a risk to Euro Atlantic strategic unity: the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the Brexit referendum results in the UK. Donald Trump has made it amply clear that he is not opposed to a weakening of US strategic ties with Europe, including threatening a dialing down of US forces in Europe if member states did not increase their military spending. It is not obviously known the extent to which the Kremlin has influenced this decision. But, it is also no secret that Trump has a fondness for Putin and that the Kremlin did meddle in the elections. The strategic implications of both of these is not positive for Europe, no matter how it is presented.

Furthermore, the Kremlin has influence among NATO governments, particularly the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Italy, and NATO partner Austria. In these cases, Kremlin influence means that partner countries will no longer share intelligence with these governments, and that Kremlin influence is growing politically and economically.

As for the second event, Brexit, the implications are particularly concerning for Eastern Europe. Within the European Union, and particularly among the large western countries (France, Germany, UK) the UK was the primary supporter of pro-Eastern Europe and anti-Russia sentiment and policy. The UK pushed hardest for Russian sanctions following the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin’s dirty war in Ukraine, and the missile attack on flight MH17. The UK was also a major factor in encouraging expansion of the EU (and NATO) into Eastern and Central Europe. The UK has troops in Baltic States and Poland as part of the NATO mission there. Finally, the assassination of Litvinenko, and the attempted assassination of the Skripals has solidified UK opposition toward much of the Kremlin’s agenda vis-à-vis Europe. Of course, this is not to say that London does not welcome Russian money (it very much does), but at least the UK actively opposes many anti-democratic and anti-Western policies emanating from the Kremlin while Paris and Berlin are borderline accomplices of Kremlin influence in Europe.

One potential result of a possible US drawdown of military force in Europe, and UK withdrawal from the EU, is the rise of EU-based defense and security structures headlined by France and Germany. While such a move would likely be welcome in Western Europe, there is no guarantee that such structures would prove beneficial to countries in Central and Eastern Europe, even if they are part of the EU. As of yet, there is no clear indication that they would not involve the CEES, but Paris and Berlin have extensive ties to the Kremlin including economic and political ties (though the extent to which the Kremlin influences Berlin is not certain, there are known examples of Kremlin hacking, political influencing, and economic influencing). The concern among many in the CEES is that an EU security structure without the UK would leave them on the outskirts and open to increased Kremlin influence.

International Implications

The Kremlin’s global ambitions include retaining primary influence on their near abroad and limiting US global influence. This first ambition is accomplished through military, political and societal means. Militarily, the Kremlin annexed Crimea, is operating/backing a hot war in eastern Ukraine, continues its frozen conflicts in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Moldova, and supports governmental forces in Syria and (until recently) Venezuela.

More particularly, the Kremlin is strengthening its alliance with China. The Kremlin knows that China is likely to become the militarily, economically and politically stronger of the two, but as long as it counters US influence globally, the Kremlin is content with a stronger China. Either way, the implication is that they provide an alternative global structure, one that welcomes authoritarianism instead of encouraging democracy, and that thrives on corruption, secrecy and elite kleptocracy. This certainly looks appealing to several regimes across the globe. In creating something of a “coalition of the authoritarian willing”, the Kremlin and China also find a market for their arms industries which are cheaper than US and Western arms, but still very effective in maintaining the position of elites vis-à-vis internal and external threats. Ultimately, this means that US influence, in areas heavily influenced by the US and China, will be curtailed. When US and Western influence is curtailed, so too are the values and norms (such as democracy, rule of law, transparency) that make the US and West special. It also emboldens military aggression from authoritarian regimes, such as we are currently seeing in Ukraine.

The ultimate implication across the board is that the Kremlin does not need to militarily attack the West to undermine its values and influence. Through disinformation, media manipulation, and political and economic coercion, the Kremlin can enhance societal divisions to such an extent that it undermines Western military strength and unity, and stymies support for Western causes across the globe. In the process, it strengthens its own (and allies) military and political influence. As this continues the US will cease to be a global hegemon and the international geostrategic system will, truly, become multi-polar or bi-polar wherein one side is the democratic West (though divided), and the other the authoritarian “east” comprised of China, Russia, and other like-minded regimes.

Solutions

The underlying causes of any threat to the West and its institutions and values (democracy, rule of law, human rights, transparency) are the self-interested and individualistic nature of Western society, and the nature of democracy in which there are winners and losers. The Kremlin is able to exacerbate societal differences with a mixture of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda, and to abuse democratic means and institutions to drive political, economic and societal division across the West.

Yet, the most viable solution to Kremlin influence is not to significantly alter the nature of society or democracy, but to use their existing strengths to counter Kremlin influence. All of the recommendations outlined above have value and, where possible, should be pursued across Western democracies. However, they are not enough. Because in representative democracies (as are nearly all Western democracies) political power lies with the people, and they select representatives to do their will, solutions must include cleaning up democracy and returning power to the people. This can be accomplished in several ways, four of which are presented here.

First, limit the influence of lobby groups, special interest groups and corporations. For those countries (primarily the US) where candidates for public office can receive private campaign donations, prohibit donations from any donors other than individuals: this includes prohibiting donations from lobby groups, special interest groups, corporations, or even political parties. Furthermore, clearly limit the total amount of donations any individual may receive, and the total amount they may receive from any one donor. These steps would limit the Kremlin’s influence through groups and corporations, and influence from individuals who may also be coerced by Kremlin disinformation.

Second, implement term limits on all public offices, whether elected or not. Term limits reduce the risk of an institutionalized elite (who, generally, are closely tied with societal and economic elites) and the risk of malign foreign influence through established relations. Furthermore, constantly rotating political elites, in addition to limiting the power of special interests, lobbies, corporations means representatives will be more likely to listen to and adhere to the interests of their constituents.

Third, all official interactions with representatives from other countries must be attended by at least three individuals, one of whom must change every interaction, and all interactions (unless for strategic reasons) must be made available, in full, to any member of the public.

Fourth, and I believe most important, adopt a code of conduct for representatives which outlines accepted (and unaccepted) behavioral and speech norms. These norms will allow them to disagree with other representatives and peopl, without being disagreeable. It will be structured so as to foster openness and honesty in all public discourse (whether debates and campaigning, interactions within governmental branches, interactions with any foreign actors, or any other official dialogue). Representatives who violate these norms will be subject to discipline ending, eventually, in removal. Such a policy would not limit freedom of expression but would ensure that all formal communication is civil.

The first three recommendations mean that democracy will truly be more democratic than at present. When democracies truly engage the demos, the laws are more representative. This, alone, will begin to unite society. The fourth recommendation will ensure that our representatives, our leaders, provide a solid example of how our interactions with each other ought to be: civil.

Now, my concluding argument is to embrace the policies proposed at the conferences. Those proposals were well-thought-out, timely, practical and, ultimately, would be effective at hobbling Kremlin influence in the West. But, they are not enough. They, alone, will not solve the deeper problem. And, if we do not address the root problem, the Kremlin will continue to find new ways of dividing society and, in the process, weakening democracy. A wholistic solution involves legislation that counters Kremlin assaults directly, and policies that strengthen and unify democracy as outlined above.

Jeremy W. Lamoreaux is an associate professor of international studies and political science at Brigham Young University – Idaho. His research focuses on relations between the West and Russia as played out in traditional and non-traditional security arenas. He has published in European Security, European Politics and Society, Geopolitics, Journal on Baltic Security, Journal of Baltic Studies, Palgrave Communications, IJSCC,  and with Routledge and Rodopi. His current research focuses on the EU-Russia relationship post-Brexit and on the role of religion in that relationship. He was one of the contributing authors on the May 2019 White Paper on the Russian Strategic Intentions published by the Pentagon’s Office for Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA)

In the case of a representative democracy, the executive is accountable to, and derives his power from representatives who, in turn, derive their power from and are accountable to the people. This type of democracy does not require the people to be as well-informed about issues and laws affecting them, but they must be informed enough to at least choose appropriate representatives to make and uphold rules for them. In either case, democracy functions best when the populace is well-informed and engaged in political processes.

Authoritarian regimes, however, work best without an informed, engaged populace. Historically, this condition was not difficult to satisfy because most societies until the 19th -20th centuries were agricultural. This meant people did not need to be literate, they had a rural lifestyle, and were geographically and communicatively isolated from each other and from those in power. However, it is becoming much more difficult for authoritarian regimes to sustain themselves because most of our contemporaries are literate and have a relatively easy access to any type of information. Consequently, authoritarian regimes benefit from policies that keep the populace as ignorant as possible (for example, by controlling the media) and preclude them from participating in political processes.

Secondly, democracy only functions properly when there is a universally applied and universally applicable rule of law. The very concept of the rule of law is somewhat misleading. The concept, itself, simply implies that everyone within a constituency is accountable to the same laws. It says nothing about what those laws may be. Consequently, those laws may be very limited, or they may be very extensive. Within a functioning democracy, however, rule of law generally implies that there is a universally applicable, and universally applied basic set of human rights, very much akin to the U.S. Bill of Rights. This sort of rule of law is only available in a functioning democracy where laws are created with the input from the populace (through democratic political processes) and where the executor of those laws (the executive) is accountable to the people.

At times it may appear that authoritarian regimes also observe the rule of law. However, as opposed to democratic rule of law which ought to be universally applicable and universally applied, rule of law in authoritarian regimes is selectively applicable and selectively applied, favoring elites over non-elites, favoring those in power who, then, use the rules to strengthen their hold on power and lengthen their tenure in power.

One of the primary ways in which authoritarian regimes control power and establish a selective “rule of law” is by owning or controlling primary means of economic growth within the country. Within democracies, governments most often fund projects through taxes. In paying taxes, the people have a claim on government spending. However, authoritarian regimes that own the means of economic growth do not always require extensive taxes. Thus, the populace does not have a clear claim on government spending. Rather, anything the government spends on the people is often seen (by the government) as a gift to the people.

Thirdly, democracy only functions properly when a society is, by and large, at peace with itself: not without disagreements, but feeling united even with differences. Perhaps the most destructive thing to democracy are aggravated societal divisions. When a society is hyper-divided, societal stability is at risk. Individuals in some groups start to see themselves as better than individuals in other groups and start to treat them accordingly. When one group is treated differently/preferentially to another group, this is known as relative deprivation (i.e. one group is deprived relative to another group). When relative deprivation is formally institutionalized (people elect representatives who establish and sustain societal segmentation), those who are deprived perceive the institutions as the cause of the problem. The impetus becomes to change the institutions, in the worst-case scenario leading to an overthrow of democracy.  

Surprisingly, authoritarian regimes also strive to establish societies without major rifts. Or, at least, without rifts sufficiently major to destabilize the country. Their tactics involve suppressing dissent and placating people— in other words, enforcing relative deprivation wherein the elites support policies keeping them at the top and separate from the “common” people.

Communication is critical to both the societies that seek fairness (democracies) and those seeking to institutionalize deprivation (authoritarian regimes). As democracies seek to alleviate inequalities, they engage in open and honest communication, where a willingness to hear out the “other” side improves understanding. On the other hand, to remain in power, authoritarian regimes resort to manipulation, censorship and even “weaponization” of information.

Liberal Norms, a Threat to Democracy?

Democracies, too, are oftentimes challenged by well-informed and engaged populaces, freedom of information and open communication. A policy issue one person holds as important may be ignored completely by another. Furthermore, not all information is equal. Factual, relevant and quality insights compete for attention with a surfeit of misinformation, disinformation, blatant lies, and trivial information. Therefore, even an engaged populace does not guarantee the best representatives. Oftentimes the people are ignorant— whether misled, selectively uninformed, or willfully ignorant. Furthermore, election results do not always reflect preferred policies of the voters, but rather can become popularity contests among candidates and ideologies. The people vote for a representative because they have affinity with that person, and elected representatives promise policies because they think such policies are what the people want. In either case, the result can often be policies that are not actually beneficial to the people.

Russia and the West

This Political Science 101 refresher is offered here as a theoretical backdrop for the recap of the two conferences hosted by Free Russia in Summer 2019: Strategies to Defend Democratic Institutions and the Rule of Law in the West (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jcupy9J9UE ) and Is Propaganda Protected Speech? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyxJfCL6ymU). Indeed, the question of what is required for a democracy to function echoed throughout presentations and discussions at these two events.

Both conferences focused on the confrontation between the Russian state apparatus and Western democracies, primarily the United State and Europe (EU, NATO and partner countries). The West extolls the values of democracy and the rule of law. Though democracy is still something of an experimental government type in the long history of human kind, the West is used to it, likes it, and appreciates its benefits (primarily, it provides equal representation which can then directly affect societal and economic equality). Russia, on the other hand, had a brief experiment with democracy for about a decade during the 1990s and decided that it did not work. Consequently, over the past two decades, the Kremlin has guided Russia back to the track it has known for centuries and millennia: authoritarian government that does not offer equal representation or any sort of laws that can provide for societal or economic equality.

Despite these diverging attitudes and paths, Russia and the West today are more interconnected than ever, and this trend is likely to be sustained into a foreseeable future. Their economies are intricately linked in such a way that all would suffer if the relationship were to be severed. Russia and the collective “Western democratic community” have foreign policy interests in similar locations (the Middle East, Asia, Eastern Europe, etc.). This inevitably brings them into a potential conflict (or potential cooperation) with each other. However, powerful militaries (and in case of Europe, the might provided by NATO membership) preclude outright confrontation and necessitate careful maneuvering from all.

It came as something of a surprise to many, then, that Russia began to meddle extensively in the political situation in the West, primarily when it became obvious that the Kremlin had an agenda in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and in the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK. Clearly, Russia had committed to weaken to the rule of law, democracy, and any democratic institutions within the West. In hindsight, though, most of the Kremlin’s efforts have been directed at undermining societal unity. This was a very shrewd decision considering that democracy cannot function well in a divided society. The division, itself, and the perceived (or real) relative deprivation prevent its function. However, the Kremlin not only attacked and attempted to divide society. It also propagated disinformation which, among other things, called into question the very institutions and values which are key to a functioning democracy such as free speech, checks and balances between branches of government, free and fair elections, and the role of an unbiased media.

These two conferences brought together prominent experts from European and U.S. governments, NGOs, think tanks, private companies, intergovernmental organizations, watchdogs, and academia to assess the tools the Kremlin uses to destabilize the West and articulate approaches for countering the Kremlin’s malign influence campaigns. The results of the conferences were vast, varied, thorough and impressive. Some of the instruments used by the Kremlin in its attack on democracies include:

  • Obfuscation of the rule of law and human right by creating shadow institutions whose actual purpose is to promote a “new” set of rules and rights which is hierarchical and limited
  • Stealing wealth from its on people and hiding it in Western and offshore accounts for the benefit of elites
  • Exporting corruption
  • Using Western institutions, such as judiciaries, to ensure their ill-gotten gains are hidden “legally”
  • Using those institutions to protect Kremlin lackeys from prosecution throughout the West
  • Intimidating and punishing opponents, both within Russia and abroad, through criminal networks and through Western security organizations such as Interpol
  • Controlling other countries through “alliances” with political parties and individual politicians within those countries
  • Establishing controls over media outlets and home and abroad; using traditional media, social media, and the broader online world to promote a Kremlin agenda, to undermine any Western agenda, to undermine Western institutions and values, to undermine relations across the West, including spreading disinformation, misinformation, blatant falsehoods, and challenging the very idea of “truth”
  • Controlling interior ministries abroad (again, through political parties)
  • Acquiring intelligence from Western political parties linked to the Kremlin
  • Exacerbating and manipulating ethnic tensions across the West
  • Controlling corporations throughout the West
  • Tying Russia’s economy to the global economy, raising the risk of economic turmoil if the West is too hasty in excluding the Russian economy
  • Creating and funding NGOs/GONGOs throughout the West that, then, push a pro-Kremlin agenda
  • Using military might to force neighbors into submission through war or threats of war, and to counter Western military interventions in the Middle East
  • Relying heavily on China to create alternatives to the U.S.-led global power structure that is not democratic, yet allows authoritarian regimes everywhere to thrive

Proposed countermeasures included:

  • Continuing to engage with the Kremlin, while recognizing that the Kremlin is not Russia and the people of Russia deserve to be treated with fairness and respect by the West
  • Strengthen the U.S. bonds with Europe, primarily our economic bonds
  • Encouraging the U.S. diplomats to continue raising the issues of human rights and the rule of law in all interactions with the Kremlin
  • Fund NGO’s that promote Western values
  • Strengthen legal and bureaucratic mechanisms that strengthen transparency on corporate and media ownership
  • Insist on transparency and oversight across international organizations, including the ability to expel members (read Russia and states that cooperate with Russia in abusing those institutions) for violations of policy (Interpol and NATO as key examples)
  • Encourage NGOs and national governments to reach across ethnic lines, further integrating ethnic minorities
  • Continue to engage, actively, with countries in Central and Eastern Europe to prevent further Kremlin military aggression and political elites cooptation in the region
  • Publicize the names of Western politicians who advance the Kremlin’s agenda to the detriment of their own nations
  • Publicize instances of media outlets that deal in disinformation and misinformation, including individual propagandists. Both primary propagandists (those directly in the employ of the Kremlin) and secondary propagandists (those who propagate the views of the primary propagandist)
  • Increase spending for countering disinformation, including news beats in traditional media that focus on exposing fake news
  • Support fact-checkers
  • Promote collaborations between Western journalists and Russian opposition journalists
  • Stress the need to reevaluate journalistic approaches to covering information emanating from the Kremlin, or state-sponsored media outlets
  • Commit to ethical leadership from our own leaders in the West. They should stand up for the rule of law, freedom and democracy at home and abroad, and should actively promote societal unity
  • Work on societal, economic and political rifts at home. Once we have put our own house in order, we can promote Western liberal norms abroad
  • Improve technological ability to crack down on disinformation
  • Pass laws countering disinformation and outlets that promote it
  • Pass laws ensuring that owners/operators of social media accounts are not anonymous
  • Educate law-makers about the Kremlin’s perceptions and tactics, so they can create policy specific to those
  • Do not use the Kremlin’s own tactics against it:  it’s a slippery slope which ends in authoritarianism

Most of these solutions touch on the symptoms of a much deeper, and much more destructive ill—the growing divisions within Western society. If this root problem is not addressed, the effect of these measures will be limited.

Consequently, I propose to refocuse our attention on three foundational questions:

  1. Who bears the ultimate responsibility for Russia’s meddling in the West?
  2. What are the strategic implications of Western relations with Russia going forward, especially in regards to the issues discussed at these conferences?
  3. How do the answers to the above two questions inform evaluation of any proposed solutions to this meddling?

The following analysis addresses each of these questions in turn.

Responsibility

With whom does the responsibility lie for Russia’s meddling? The most obvious answers, according to conference participants, include the Kremlin, the Russian propaganda machine (including Kremlin-sponsored media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, and subsidiaries), troll factories, and individuals and groups associated indirectly, but still heavily influenced by, the Kremlin. In the West, the responsibility lies with governmental organizations that had not taken threats seriously enough; politicians who have downplayed the Kremlin’s meddling (or even benefit from it), as well as politicians who are more intent on “winning” than on resolving societal and political problems; media outlets who deal in sensationalized (and misleading) news, and media and social media companies whose profit structures lend themselves to “clickable” content above accurate content.

However, underlying all of this is the deeper issue that people in Western societies, broadly speaking, are individualistic and self-interested. This gets into the psychology of democracy, and of people in general. What makes people in the West tick? What drives them to consume what they do, what shapes their preferences and controls ways in which they spend time and money? And, what does this have to do with democracy?

The short answer is that individuals in Western societies like to feel special and valued. Every person can espouse several identities, and the relative importance of those identities change across time and space— i.e. it’s dynamic. For example, a person may think of herself, first and foremost, as an employer. However, two hours later, she may think of herself, first and foremost, as a community leader and, still two hours later, as a member of a family. While none of these is antithetical to the others, the decisions she makes while acting as one of these, is not necessarily the same decision she would make while acting as another of these identities. However, each decision is made with the intent of benefitting that identity and, often, others who share that identity. 

This same concept is influential in the working of a democracy. Democracy is, ultimately, about people making decisions vis-à-vis their specific identities. It this case, it is most often about voting for a person, or policy, which will be best for their most important identities. The consequence of such behavior, however, is that where someone wins, someone else loses. The winning produces a sense of being valued, while losing produces the sense of a lack-of-value. Consequently, people want to win. They want to feel valued and winning is one way of achieving that feeling.

And, this is where we run into problems. The pull of individualism and self-interest often leads people to make decision that are not always logical for the long-term benefit of that person, or their various identities. Rather, too many people make decision based on acquiring value for themselves, in the short run, and to identities that are, long-term, less important. Within democracies, this looks like (ironically) groupthink, a lack of critical thinking, information selection bias, othering, dehumanizing, a lack of transparency, etc. All of these nurture the individualism and self-interest that are part of Western society, driving individuals to pursue “wins” (or feel valued) vis-à-vis another person or group of people, but ultimately may not result in good decisions for them or anyone else.

Bringing back the discussion to Kremlin meddling in, and negatively influencing, the West, who is to blame? Ultimately, fault must lie with the people and individualistic, self-interested nature of the society we’ve created for ourselves. The desire for feeling valued and winning vis-à-vis the “other” lead us to: believe voices that praise our identities over the identities of others; consume media that talks to those identities;  “like” and share media that caters to our identities; and, ultimately, vote for representatives whose policies will protect our identities at the expense of others including dehumanizing (and justifying ill behavior toward) those who disagree with us. Afterall, if they’re not for us, they’re against us.

In short, the Kremlin is not solely responsible for causing societal divisions, but is certainly exacerbating them. It promotes divisive messages that make groups feel deprived relative to other groups. It promotes misleading, or blatantly false “news” with the intent of furthering these divisive messages. It supports divisive individuals, politicians, societal groups, political parties, special interest groups and broad agendas. And the reason this is possible is because the nature of democracy is exclusive.

Strategic Implications

The strategic implications of Western individualism, democracy, and Kremlin meddling are domestic, regional, and international.

Domestic Implications

The domestic strategic implications of Kremlin meddling are introduced above: a divided populace and the undermining of democracy and the rule of law. However, those are just the beginning. The more strategically destructive implications surround the US military, the largest military in the world. The military answers to the executive (the president), but military spending is controlled by the legislature (congress). The executive and the legislative both have a say in what the military can, or cannot, do. Importantly, though, both the executive and legislative are meant to be accountable to the populace. If that holds, then, the decision on military spending and activity are to be decided by the populace.

Unfortunately, this is only part of the picture. The other part of the picture is that many politicians are accountable not only to their respective constituents, but also to special interest groups ranging from societal equality groups to corporations. Indeed, some believe that special interest groups, campaign donors, and lobbying groups, are more powerful than constituents in informing political decisions. Whether this is accurate or not is up for question. What is not up for questions, however, is that the Kremlin, through their extensive propaganda machine, does influence public opinion in the United States and on the decisions, policies and procedures of corporations and organizations. Consequently, whether constituents or special interests and lobbying groups are more influential in determining what military decisions policy makers make, there is a distinct possibility that those influences (and the resulting policies) are informed by Kremlin interests. This could result in decreased military spending in favor of domestic issues (such as Trump’s decision to use military funds to build a wall on the US/Mexico border). Conversely, it could result in increased military spending on issues that are the pet-issues of the military industrial complex, such as the White House decision to increase spending on nuclear deterrence. Whether either of these decisions are “good” or “bad” is subjective. What is not subjective is the potential that the Kremlin is informing such decisions by influencing the public or special interest/lobby groups. Thus, policy makers need to be extremely cautious in analyzing how the Kremlin stands to benefit from such decisions.

Finally, the ability of special interest groups, corporations, and lobbyists to inform policy is potentially detrimental to democracy. There is a well-established pattern of Russian money being hidden in Western bank accounts, and of Russian individuals (often with clear links to the Kremlin) investing in Western economies including part ownership of corporations. It is not a stretch to say that, in this as well as most cases, money talks. Those who hold the purse strings often get the result they want. The recent case of Russian money invested in Mitch McConnell’s (the current Senate Majority Leader) own district, and the implication that it is informing his political decision making, are a solid example of this. The implications are that the Kremlin is not just influencing policy makers by influencing the public, but directly through special interest and lobby groups. The ability of such groups to influence policy can easily translate into policy about military spending and military behavior.

Now, two short disclaimers: first, not all lobby and special interest groups are bad, nor do they all undermine democracy. There are numerous such groups who represent legitimately, and widely, held perceptions of the populace. Furthermore, there are numerous such groups that further the causes of democracy, rule of law, and human rights. But, there are also many whose sole purpose is to lobby for the interests of a limited agenda, a limited number of people, or even the rights of corporations and organizations above the rights of the populace (such as the case of the anti-fracking lobby being influenced by Kremlin propaganda). Consequently, special interests and lobbies, even with the purest of intentions (and the policy makers they influence) risk becoming subservient to Kremlin interests if they are not attentive to who is informing, or paying for, their agenda.

The second disclaimer is that the description of these domestic implications is focused on the United States. However, the concerns expressed here are by no means limited to the United States. They are generalizable to all democratic country, especially those where the people are influenced by media, and where policy making is informed by special interests and lobbies.

Regional Implications

The two most prominent strategic regional issues at risk of Kremlin meddling surround the Transatlantic institutions: NATO and the EU. It is no secret that the Kremlin would love to see an end to the North Atlantic Treaty, the withdrawal of US forces from Europe, an end to transatlantic security structures and institutions, and for the US to become indifferent (or, at the most extreme, opposed) to European security. A second, but no less important strategic issues, is the general withdrawal of Western influence from Central and Eastern Europe.

Until 2016, these concerns seemed farfetched, particularly regarding NATO. However, two events since then, both of which were influence by the Kremlin, certainly pose a risk to Euro Atlantic strategic unity: the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the Brexit referendum results in the UK. Donald Trump has made it amply clear that he is not opposed to a weakening of US strategic ties with Europe, including threatening a dialing down of US forces in Europe if member states did not increase their military spending. It is not obviously known the extent to which the Kremlin has influenced this decision. But, it is also no secret that Trump has a fondness for Putin and that the Kremlin did meddle in the elections. The strategic implications of both of these is not positive for Europe, no matter how it is presented.

Furthermore, the Kremlin has influence among NATO governments, particularly the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Italy, and NATO partner Austria. In these cases, Kremlin influence means that partner countries will no longer share intelligence with these governments, and that Kremlin influence is growing politically and economically.

As for the second event, Brexit, the implications are particularly concerning for Eastern Europe. Within the European Union, and particularly among the large western countries (France, Germany, UK) the UK was the primary supporter of pro-Eastern Europe and anti-Russia sentiment and policy. The UK pushed hardest for Russian sanctions following the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin’s dirty war in Ukraine, and the missile attack on flight MH17. The UK was also a major factor in encouraging expansion of the EU (and NATO) into Eastern and Central Europe. The UK has troops in Baltic States and Poland as part of the NATO mission there. Finally, the assassination of Litvinenko, and the attempted assassination of the Skripals has solidified UK opposition toward much of the Kremlin’s agenda vis-à-vis Europe. Of course, this is not to say that London does not welcome Russian money (it very much does), but at least the UK actively opposes many anti-democratic and anti-Western policies emanating from the Kremlin while Paris and Berlin are borderline accomplices of Kremlin influence in Europe.

One potential result of a possible US drawdown of military force in Europe, and UK withdrawal from the EU, is the rise of EU-based defense and security structures headlined by France and Germany. While such a move would likely be welcome in Western Europe, there is no guarantee that such structures would prove beneficial to countries in Central and Eastern Europe, even if they are part of the EU. As of yet, there is no clear indication that they would not involve the CEES, but Paris and Berlin have extensive ties to the Kremlin including economic and political ties (though the extent to which the Kremlin influences Berlin is not certain, there are known examples of Kremlin hacking, political influencing, and economic influencing). The concern among many in the CEES is that an EU security structure without the UK would leave them on the outskirts and open to increased Kremlin influence.

International Implications

The Kremlin’s global ambitions include retaining primary influence on their near abroad and limiting US global influence. This first ambition is accomplished through military, political and societal means. Militarily, the Kremlin annexed Crimea, is operating/backing a hot war in eastern Ukraine, continues its frozen conflicts in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Moldova, and supports governmental forces in Syria and (until recently) Venezuela.

More particularly, the Kremlin is strengthening its alliance with China. The Kremlin knows that China is likely to become the militarily, economically and politically stronger of the two, but as long as it counters US influence globally, the Kremlin is content with a stronger China. Either way, the implication is that they provide an alternative global structure, one that welcomes authoritarianism instead of encouraging democracy, and that thrives on corruption, secrecy and elite kleptocracy. This certainly looks appealing to several regimes across the globe. In creating something of a “coalition of the authoritarian willing”, the Kremlin and China also find a market for their arms industries which are cheaper than US and Western arms, but still very effective in maintaining the position of elites vis-à-vis internal and external threats. Ultimately, this means that US influence, in areas heavily influenced by the US and China, will be curtailed. When US and Western influence is curtailed, so too are the values and norms (such as democracy, rule of law, transparency) that make the US and West special. It also emboldens military aggression from authoritarian regimes, such as we are currently seeing in Ukraine.

The ultimate implication across the board is that the Kremlin does not need to militarily attack the West to undermine its values and influence. Through disinformation, media manipulation, and political and economic coercion, the Kremlin can enhance societal divisions to such an extent that it undermines Western military strength and unity, and stymies support for Western causes across the globe. In the process, it strengthens its own (and allies) military and political influence. As this continues the US will cease to be a global hegemon and the international geostrategic system will, truly, become multi-polar or bi-polar wherein one side is the democratic West (though divided), and the other the authoritarian “east” comprised of China, Russia, and other like-minded regimes.

Solutions

The underlying causes of any threat to the West and its institutions and values (democracy, rule of law, human rights, transparency) are the self-interested and individualistic nature of Western society, and the nature of democracy in which there are winners and losers. The Kremlin is able to exacerbate societal differences with a mixture of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda, and to abuse democratic means and institutions to drive political, economic and societal division across the West.

Yet, the most viable solution to Kremlin influence is not to significantly alter the nature of society or democracy, but to use their existing strengths to counter Kremlin influence. All of the recommendations outlined above have value and, where possible, should be pursued across Western democracies. However, they are not enough. Because in representative democracies (as are nearly all Western democracies) political power lies with the people, and they select representatives to do their will, solutions must include cleaning up democracy and returning power to the people. This can be accomplished in several ways, four of which are presented here.

First, limit the influence of lobby groups, special interest groups and corporations. For those countries (primarily the US) where candidates for public office can receive private campaign donations, prohibit donations from any donors other than individuals: this includes prohibiting donations from lobby groups, special interest groups, corporations, or even political parties. Furthermore, clearly limit the total amount of donations any individual may receive, and the total amount they may receive from any one donor. These steps would limit the Kremlin’s influence through groups and corporations, and influence from individuals who may also be coerced by Kremlin disinformation.

Second, implement term limits on all public offices, whether elected or not. Term limits reduce the risk of an institutionalized elite (who, generally, are closely tied with societal and economic elites) and the risk of malign foreign influence through established relations. Furthermore, constantly rotating political elites, in addition to limiting the power of special interests, lobbies, corporations means representatives will be more likely to listen to and adhere to the interests of their constituents.

Third, all official interactions with representatives from other countries must be attended by at least three individuals, one of whom must change every interaction, and all interactions (unless for strategic reasons) must be made available, in full, to any member of the public.

Fourth, and I believe most important, adopt a code of conduct for representatives which outlines accepted (and unaccepted) behavioral and speech norms. These norms will allow them to disagree with other representatives and peopl, without being disagreeable. It will be structured so as to foster openness and honesty in all public discourse (whether debates and campaigning, interactions within governmental branches, interactions with any foreign actors, or any other official dialogue). Representatives who violate these norms will be subject to discipline ending, eventually, in removal. Such a policy would not limit freedom of expression but would ensure that all formal communication is civil.

The first three recommendations mean that democracy will truly be more democratic than at present. When democracies truly engage the demos, the laws are more representative. This, alone, will begin to unite society. The fourth recommendation will ensure that our representatives, our leaders, provide a solid example of how our interactions with each other ought to be: civil.

Now, my concluding argument is to embrace the policies proposed at the conferences. Those proposals were well-thought-out, timely, practical and, ultimately, would be effective at hobbling Kremlin influence in the West. But, they are not enough. They, alone, will not solve the deeper problem. And, if we do not address the root problem, the Kremlin will continue to find new ways of dividing society and, in the process, weakening democracy. A wholistic solution involves legislation that counters Kremlin assaults directly, and policies that strengthen and unify democracy as outlined above.

Jeremy W. Lamoreaux is an associate professor of international studies and political science at Brigham Young University – Idaho. His research focuses on relations between the West and Russia as played out in traditional and non-traditional security arenas. He has published in European Security, European Politics and Society, Geopolitics, Journal on Baltic Security, Journal of Baltic Studies, Palgrave Communications, IJSCC,  and with Routledge and Rodopi. His current research focuses on the EU-Russia relationship post-Brexit and on the role of religion in that relationship. He was one of the contributing authors on the May 2019 White Paper on the Russian Strategic Intentions published by the Pentagon’s Office for Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA)

“We are agents of change.” The speech by FRF’s President Natalia Arno at the European Parliament

Jun 05 2023

On June 5-6, 2023, the European Parliament in Brussels at the initiative of Lithuanian MEP Andrius Kubilius and others, hosts a two-day conference “The Day After”, with the participation of over 200 representatives from Russia’s anti-war and opposition groups, journalists, prominent cultural figures, as well as European politicians.

On June 5, 2023, Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation spoke at the European Parliament in Brussels. In her opening remarks to the inaugural session of the Brussels Dialogue— Roundtable of EU and Democratic Russia Representatives, Ms. Arno described the heroic efforts by Russian civil society to stop the war and stand up to Putin’s regime; and called for a closer cooperation between Russian and European democratic forces to support Ukraine’s victory and ensure a lasting peace in Europe.

Below is the transcript of her full remarks.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished members of the European Parliament and EU institutions, esteemed representatives from across the transatlantic community, and my dear friends and colleagues who are selflessly fighting for a free and democratic Russia, 

Thank you all for being here today. My special thanks to the MEP from Lithuania, Standing Rapporteur on Russia, Andrius KUBILIUS and to Shadow Rapporteurs – Messrs. CIMOSZEWICZ, GUETTA and LAGODINSKY – and their amazing teams who worked tirelessly to gather us all for this historic event. We are thankful for a very timely realization at the EU level that we, pro-democracy anti-war anti-regime Russians, are an important actor in efforts to stop the war and the key force in transforming Russia into democracy. 

The Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February shook the world with its brutality and aggression, wretchedly echoing World War II. This war has been the first war watched on social media, brought to our living rooms– with every brutal death, every destroyed hospital, every orphaned child—staring into our face, breaking our heart, hundreds of times per day. But it’s not something that only exists on a computer screen. The reality on the ground is both unspeakable destruction and human cruelty that defies who we crave to be as humans. This war is black and white. The fight between the evil and the good, between the dictatorship and the democratic world with Ukraine on the front lines. There are no half tones, no moral ambivalence. Just like Hitler, Putin is perpetrating a criminal atrocity not only against Ukraine, but against freedom, democracy and our civilized way of life. 

This war is a huge tragedy for Ukraine, but it is also a catastrophic disaster for Russia. It’s a tragedy for so many Russians who understand what this war is, and it’s a tragedy that there are so many Russians who don’t understand it at all. 

This war has forced the world to take a new look at Russia. What is this country and who are these people engaged in unspeakable acts of brutality? Who are these people who passively watch as their army kills and destroys without any reason? They must be pure evil reincarnated! 

As the world, in pain and anger, looked for ways to respond, some of your governments shut your borders to all Russian passport holders, cancelled air traffic from Russia, pulled out businesses, denied services to all Russians, equated all Russians to Putin. We understood the reason for this. 

But let me remind you something. The Russian civil society and independent media were the first victim of Putin’s regime. We were the first ones to warn about the dangerous, corrupt, criminal, murderous nature of Putin’s regime. We were those telling you that his internal repressions will lead to external aggression. We were those who exposed the Kremlin’s export of corruption, influence campaigns in Europe and elsewhere. We were those who discovered Prigozhin’s factory of trolls and other disinformation tricks. We were the ones pleading the West not to enable Putin, not to operate with “realpolitik” and “business as usual”. In Putin’s war against freedom and democracy, Russian civil society has always been one of his priority targets. Many of us have paid a terrible price ourselves – losing our homeland, in many cases losing our freedom to imprisonment and to some of us, losing lives or family members. 

While we often hear there are no good Russians, I know many. All of us who are here today were invited by the European Parliament for our merits. We and our colleagues have moved mountains. Hundreds of us here represent civil society organizations, media outlets, grassroots initiatives with dozens of thousands activists and journalists in our networks. We communicate to millions through our YouTube and Telegram channels, newspapers, programs, and events. All of us are in exile now.

Inside Russia, many keep resisting, too. According to OVD-info, a portal tracking activism inside Russia, since the full-scale invasion there have been only 25 days without arrests for anti-war protests. There is the story of a Siberian grandmother— anti-war activist Natalia Filonova from my native Republic of Buryatia, whose special needs son was taken away from her in retribution for her protests and sent to a remote orphanage, while she herself is in jail awaiting trial. Another political prisoner Ilya Yashin, has just published a story about Natalia Filonova. Yashin himself is in jail for 8.5 years for telling the truth about Bucha.

Another real Russian patriot is a dear friend and man whom most of you know personally— Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has survived two assassination attempts by Putin’s regime, two comas, and still went back to Russia to testify to what is right and what is true. He is now in prison on a Stalin-era 25year sentence. 

Yesterday it was the birthday of Alexey Navalny who also survived Novichok poisoning and is slowly being killed in prison. 

All these names and many others will be mentioned at this conference and shouldn’t be forgotten. There are tens of thousands of documented stories like these. Tens of thousands of “good” humans arrested and prosecuted for their anti-war and pro-democracy stance. 

Why am I telling you all of this? In hopes that you see that Russian civil society was the first front in Putins war on democracy and peace.  As Western leaders dined and shook hands with Putin for 20 years, as Europeans accommodated Putin’s regime in exchange for cheap energy, as they offered citizenships to his associates, Putin was busy eradicating the Russian political opposition, independent media and civil society. 

Today, we address a pressing issue that lies at the heart of our shared destiny and demands our immediate attention and decisive action. Through all this shock from the devastating tragedy that we are all experiencing, I want to bring to you a message of resilience, hope and an urgent plea for solidarity. We, pro-democracy anti-war anti-regime Russians, are not only first victims of Putin’s regime, and not only targets for friendly fire and problems for your governments because we need visas and bank accounts, but most importantly, we are agents of change. Not foreign agents or undesirables as the Kremlin labels us, but agents of change, agents of the Russian people and Russia’s future. We are the part of the solution. We are the ones who are willing to transform Russia, to make it normal and civilized.

No doubt that Ukraine will win, but after the war it won’t be easy. We understand doubts about Russia’s democratization prospects, but we, pro-democracy anti-war anti-regime Russians, can’t afford to believe that freedom and democracy is not possible in our home country. Democracy in Russia is the only guarantee of sustainability of Ukraines victory and a key factor of stability and security in Europe and globally.

Those of us invited to this event have been working tirelessly as supporters of change for years. Our collective resume includes rallies against media capture and Khodorkovsky’s arrest in Putin’s early days, election observation missions proving massive fraud in all levels of elections throughout the country, “Dissenters Marches”, rallies on Bolotnaya and Sakharova and many other squares throughout the country and throughout the years, against the annexation of Crimea and invasion to Eastern Ukraine then and the full-scale invasion now. Our collective resume includes advocating for sanctions, both personal and sectoral, advocating for enforcement of sanctions and for making it harder for the Kremlin to circumvent them. Our collective resume includes assistance to Ukraine – evacuations from the war zone, search for Ukrainian POWs, litigation and advocacy on behalf of Ukrainian hostages of Putin’s regime held in Russian jails, cooperation on international justice mechanisms including the Tribunal and on documenting war crimes, humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians including shelters, clothing, medication. Our collective resume includes huge efforts by Russian independent media, bloggers, influencers, grassroots initiatives to tell the truth about this brutal war, to disseminate the factful information, to counter Kremlin’s narratives, to influence public opinion inside Russia. Our collective resume also includes discussions on how to achieve political transition, how to conduct sustainable reforms, how to make deputinization and even desovietization of Russia. 

We are not Europe’s headache, we are your asset. We ask our European partners to use our expertise, because nobody knows Russia better than us. Nobody knows Putin regime and his methods better than us. Nobody knows the Russian people better than us. Individually we do a lot. Collectively as a Russian pro-democracy anti-war movement we can do even more. With your solidarity, with the support of the democratic world, we can win. Working together is a force multiplier.

When I looked on your website yesterday, the main stated aims of the European Union within its borders are: to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its citizens. 

How do we promote peace now? We do everything we possibly can to make sure Ukraine wins this war. But it is clear, that until there is a real political change in Russia, until democracy and civil rights are reestablished for the Russian people, until Putin’s regime is brought to justice, no lasting peace is possible. It’s very practical for the Western democracies to support, strengthen and grow us— inside and outside of Russia. 

I am here to call on the EU as a community— to give voice to pro-democracy anti-war Russians at European institutions. Regular sessions of this conference, new report on Russia by the EU Parliament, EU Special Representative for Russia and other working mechanisms are important to discuss plans on reconstructing Ukraine after the war, prosecuting war criminals, and reforming Russia after Putin. So that Russians inside Russia see that Putin is wrong— the West does not seek to destroy Russia, and that Russians who are for democracy are not outcasts but are embraced by the international democratic community. 

We need a coherent Europe-wide strategy on how to stabilize the Russian civil society— save us from peril, prevent us from quitting the fight, help us mobilize and engage Russian society. This means clear legalization policies; some standard approach to our ability to work and travel. That means the end of the punitive measures such as denial of services that are not only counterproductive but also are illegal under the EU law. That means judging us on the basis of our values and our actions, not on the basis of our citizenship and nationality. That means support of our programs and initiatives.

In this room there are Russians from different regions and organizations, of different backgrounds, with different opinions and you might see some debates and disagreement throughout the program, but we have one unified position: Ukraine must win the war, and Russia must change from the inside to be a reliable and stable partner for the democratic world. Russia must return to its fundamental values of producing great poets, composers, physicists, and philosophers instead of being hackers, invaders, and war criminals. We in this room are here to join hands with our European partners and work with you to make this happen.

From the Board of Free Russia Foundation

May 18 2023

While traveling abroad recently, Free Russia Foundation’s president fell ill under circumstances that cause great concern. The matter is under investigation.

The health and safety of our staff and beneficiaries are our paramount concern.

Free Russia Foundation continues its work for a free, democratic, peaceful and prosperous Russia, reintegrated into the international community as a constructive and positive actor.

Statement on the Sentencing of Vladimir Kara-Murza

Apr 17 2023

Dear colleagues and friends,

Today, on April 17, 2023, the Russian judicial system handed down a monstrous sentence to Vladimir Kara-Murza, a politician, journalist, historian, our colleague and friend — a 25-year prison sentence, which effectively means the rest of his life. The verdict was reached based on false accusations, despite the absence of any evidence to support them.

We are at a loss for words to express our outrage and indignation at this unjust and merciless verdict. This is a clear act of revenge, without any basis or justification. The Putin regime no longer even attempts to make its accusations appear plausible. This is not merely a kangaroo justice, but rather a repeat of Stalin’s criminal statutes, his allegations, and his sentences. It is a new version of the year 1937. The Russian authorities are repeating the errors of the past, and leading the country directly towards the Gulag. In one of his letters from prison, Vladimir Kara-Murza wrote, “When evil is not recognized, condemned, and punished, it will inevitably return. This is the terrible lesson that post-Soviet Russia has taught the world.”

Many of us know Vladimir Kara-Murza not only as a public figure but also as a hero, a fighter for freedom and justice in Russia, and a close associate of Boris Nemtsov. Despite surviving two severe poisonings in 2015 and 2017, which brought him close to death, Vladimir continued to fight for the freedom and rights of Russian citizens. However, his health has significantly deteriorated since being imprisoned, and he is experiencing a loss of sensation in his limbs. Before our eyes, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a true patriot of Russia, is slowly dying in prison and may become another victim of Vladimir Putin’s regime.

The trial of Vladimir Kara-Murza was a ploy to silence his voice and remove him from the path of those who are willing to maintain their power in Russia at any cost. This is a clear act of political revenge from the Kremlin, in response to his longstanding pro-democracy stance and opposition activities, his active participation in advocating for personal international sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, and his public criticism of Vladimir Putin’s war on the people of Ukraine.

Vladimir Kara-Murza is a prisoner of conscience and must be released immediately and unconditionally. The criminal charges against him must be dropped.

Free Russia Foundation is urging the international community, public figures, and human rights organizations to increase their pressure on the Kremlin to release Vladimir Kara-Murza from detention, or to exchange him as part of humanitarian programs. We invite everyone to join our #FreeKaraMurza campaign and condemn this unjust sentence. We strongly believe that only through unity and solidarity can we secure Vladimir’s freedom.

We also want to express our support for Vladimir Kara-Murza and his family during this difficult time for them.

Free Russia Foundation will continue to fight for freedom and democracy in Russia until fundamental rights are reinstated. We encourage all Russian citizens to remain courageous, not to succumb to threats, and to resist evil. Justice will always be on the side of truth and freedom, and light will inevitably overcome darkness.

The U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Russians Involved in the Prosecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza

Mar 03 2023

Today the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions on several Russian officials responsible for the incarceration and prosecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a politician, journalist, human rights activist, and prisoner of conscience. The update from the U.S. Treasury Department included the names of six Russians who faced sanctions: Oleg Sviridenko, Ilya Kozlov, Elena Lenskaya, Danila Mikheev, Diana Mischenko, and Andrey Zadachin.

Oleg Sviridenko, the Deputy Minister of Justice of the Russian Federation, supervised the department for NGOs in the Russian Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for placing individuals on the register of “foreign agents.” Elena Lenskaya is the judge of the Basmanny District Court in Moscow who ordered Kara-Murza’s detention. Andrei Zadachin is the prosecutor of the Investigative Committee, who ruled to initiate a case of “fakes” against the politician. Danila Mikheev is the Director of the “Independent Expert Center for the Development of Humanitarian Expertise,” whose expertise has formed the basis of a number of criminal cases against Russian opposition figures. In the case against Mr. Kara-Murza, Mikheev acted as an expert and provided a report that served as the basis for the prosecution. Diana Mishchenko is the judge who issued the initial order for Kara-Murza’s arrest and sentenced him to 15 days in jail. Ilya Kozlov is the judge who rejected Kara-Murza’s appeal of Mischenko’s administrative detention order.

The sanctions imposed by the U.S. include asset freezes and entry bans into the country for individuals responsible for human rights violations and suppression of the Russian opposition activist’s freedoms.

“The U.S. Treasury joins our many national and international partners in calling for Vladimir Kara-Murza’s immediate and unconditional release,” said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson. “His arbitrary detention is another instance of the Kremlin manipulating Russia’s legal system to silence dissent. Kara-Murza, Alexei Navalny, and so many others in Russia who are unjustly imprisoned are not forgotten, and we will continue to promote accountability for perpetrators of these abuses on the international stage.”

In 2022, U.S. senators and leading human rights organizations called on President Biden to impose sanctions on those responsible for Kara-Murza’s unjust imprisonment. Amnesty International recognized Kara-Murza as a prisoner of conscience in May 2022, and in September of that year, Senators Jim Risch and Robert Menendez urged President Biden to make determination on whether Kara-Murza’s arrest constituted a gross violation of human rights and whether sanctions would be imposed on those responsible. Last October, Human Rights First formally recommended sanctions to the U.S. Treasury Department and State Department, identifying 13 Russians involved in Kara-Murza’s arrest and prosecution. In November 2022, Canada became the first country to impose sanctions on the persecutors of the Russian opposition activist.

The politician has been imprisoned in Russia since April 2022 and has been facing continuous expansion of charges against him. Initially, he was accused of spreading false information about the Russian military (under Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation), which was initiated after his speech at the Arizona State House of Representatives in the United States where he referred to the bombing of residential areas and social infrastructure facilities in Ukraine. He was later charged under Article 284.1(1) of the Criminal Code for participating in the activities of an “undesirable” organization and subsequently charged with high treason (under Article 275 of the Criminal Code) for making three public appearances in Lisbon, Helsinki, and Washington, D.C., where he criticized the Russian authorities. If convicted, Vladimir Kara-Murza could face up to 25 years in prison.

In December 2022, Kara-Murza was prohibited from talking to his children on the phone by the prosecutor, who claimed that such conversations “could create a real threat to the proper conduct of criminal proceedings, as well as interfere with the production of the case.”

In March 2023, Vladimir Kara-Murza’s was placed in a punishment cell. His health deteriorated, and he began to lose sensitivity in his feet. His lawyer Vadim Prokhorov stated that his client had developed peripheral polyneuropathy as a result of two severe poisonings with military grade chemical agent.

Vladimir Kara-Murza has been involved in political activities for over 20 years. Together with Boris Nemtsov, one of the leaders of the Russian opposition, he actively contributed to the promotion of the so-called “Magnitsky List” in the U.S. in 2012. The document launched the practice of personal sanctions against Russian officials involved in the violation of basic human rights for the first time. On February 27, 2015, Nemtsov was shot right outside the Kremlin. Kara-Murza himself nearly died in May 2015 as a result of severe poisoning with military grade chemical agent at the direction of Putin’s government. In 2017, he was hospitalized again with similar symptoms. In honor of the assassinated Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Kara-Murza organized a series of renaming of streets and squares in world capitals where Russian embassy buildings are located.

In 2022, Kara-Murza was awarded the Václav Havel Prize for Human Rights and the German Axel Springer Stiftung Prize for Courage. In 2023, the Estonian Foreign Ministry handed over the state award for Vladimir Kara-Murza – the Distinguished Service Cross II degree – to the politician’s wife, Eugenia. In letters and articles that Vladimir Kara-Murza regularly writes from SIZO No. 5, he often emphasizes that he does not regret anything, as “the price of silence is unacceptable.” He also expresses support for Russian political prisoners and their aspirations to end the war in Ukraine.

Statement on the Anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine

Feb 24 2023

Dear colleagues and friends,

Today we are marking a dark date — the anniversary of the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine, one of the most tragic events in the history of modern Europe. This senseless and brutal act of aggression has taken lives of tens of thousands, destroyed cities and villages, and rendered deep wounds that will take a long time to heal.

We express our deepest condolences to all those affected by this unfathomable tragedy — to those residents of Ukraine who lost their loved ones, friends, homes, and livelihood.

Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine has gone on since the morning of February 24, 2022. Russian military is launching airstrikes against military and civilian infrastructure, destroying not only airfields, military units, or oil depots, but also power plants, schools, kindergartens, hospitals, and churches. The shelling of residential areas is carried out with artillery, multiple rocket launchers, and ballistic missiles, in violation of the rules of warfare, moral standards, and religious precepts.

On this day, we remember the victims of this tragedy and express our deepest sorrow to the families and friends of the victims. The hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians dead and wounded, the millions of broken lives, and the cities razed to the ground — they cannot be brought back nor forgotten. We remember those who continue to languish in the shadow of the war, suffering from its consequences.

We denounce the aggressive policy of Putin’s regime as the main cause of this war. For years, the Kremlin had conducted hybrid operations, violating Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity with impunity. Free Russia Foundation condemns Vladimir Putin and his accomplices for their role in perpetrating countless crimes against humanity. International law and Ukrainian sovereignty are inviolable and should never be threatened by other states.

Today we recognize not only the pain, loss, and suffering, but also the courage and resilience of Ukrainians who defied evil and stood shoulder to shoulder to defend their homeland. When Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, his delusional plan was for the Russian military to capture Kyiv in three days. One year later, the Russian military is nowhere near achieving that objective. We express our admiration and unconditional solidarity with the people of Ukraine who fearlessly fights for their rights to life, freedom, and independence. We pledge our support in this struggle every step of the way.

We are grateful to the Russian anti-war activists and organizations who are courageously speaking out against this war and Putin’s aggressive policies, to those who said without equivocation “No to war!” We commend the Russians who continue to fight to end this conflict. Ending this war is an absolute prerequisite for any positive future for the Russian nation.

We must not remain silent or inactive in the face of Putin’s regime and its aggressive foreign policy. Such complacency will only serve to bolster his hold on power and further his expansionist agenda. We call on our fellow compatriots in Russia to take action against Putin’s rule using all available methods, to disseminate information about the situation in Ukraine and human rights violations in Russia, to support independent media and journalists, and to endorse anti-war initiatives. Let us stand together in solidarity and fight for a better future, free from the clutches of tyranny.

We demand an immediate and unequivocal end to the inhumane war that has plagued Ukraine, and we call for the swift withdrawal of all Russian troops. Furthermore, we firmly assert that those responsible for the heinous crimes committed during this conflict must be held accountable for their actions and face justice to the fullest extent of the law. 

We urge all those who cherish peace and democratic ideals to join efforts for ending this senseless violence and offer unwavering support to those who strive for freedom and human rights of Ukrainian citizens. Light will always triumph over darkness.