It is a popular misconception that human rights and foreign policy do not coexist. As has been proven time and again by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, such a vision can have dangerous consequences.
In “Reality Check #4: Focus on interests, not on human rights with Russia,” the authors, Emma Ashford and Mathew Burrows, note that while then-US President Jimmy Carter had initially pledged to put human rights at the top of his agenda in relations with the USSR, he scaled back his promise for pragmatic reasons. The authors imply that this was a good, rational move. It wasn’t.
A close look at history reveals that what followed was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the downing of a South Korean civilian aircraft in 1983, and one of the darkest periods in the US-Soviet relationship in the early 1980s. The US-Soviet relationship improved under Mikhail Gorbachev when human rights were put back on the menu.
While it is hard to say definitively that the West’s firm stance on human rights was the key issue that “caused the Soviet collapse,” it certainly added strong tailwinds to the positive changes that were taking place at the time.
In the early 2000s, when Russia cracked down on democratic freedoms and shifted toward one-party rule, the West responded with concern, but little action. The West viewed Russia as a key global partner on “strategic” issues. As long as Russia had a transactional relationship with the West, its bad behavior would be overlooked in favor of “strategic” considerations. How the Russian government treated its domestic political opponents was not a concern. This was a terrible mistake; one that should never be repeated.
The West’s weak response emboldened Putin. He realized he could get away with disregarding the rule of law. What flowed from this realization was Russia’s attempt to expand its territory by attacking Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
Russia’s actions may have come as a surprise to the West, but not to those of us in Russia who realized early (and wasted no time warning our Western friends) that once Putin completes his authoritarian consolidation at home he will inevitably seek to export it abroad. Sure enough, after reinstating Russia as a dominant force in the post-Soviet space, Putin went on to meddle in Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Africa, the list goes on.
A couple of lessons can be drawn from recent history.
First, human rights violations and domestic political crackdowns are early warning signs that a regime has no regard for the rule of law. If not contained, the regime will inevitably seek to export this lawlessness into foreign relations because it is confident that it can get away with such behavior as long as the West’s strategic interests are being met.
It is wrong for “rational strategic thinkers” in the West to expect that Putin will push back when shown a stick and behave when offered a carrot. Such a belief grossly underestimates him. Putin is a wily strategist who knows the West’s weaknesses all too well.
It is only a matter of time before someone in Washington will ask why there is a need to defend Ukraine or Estonia or even Europe against Russia. They may say: “Let’s focus on our ‘strategic interests’ and just withdraw and leave European affairs to the Russians!” Unfortunately, such ideas are not fantastical. They have increasingly been voiced in the US policy debate in recent years.
Putin is patiently waiting for more “rational strategists” to appear on the Western political scene who would be willing to forego human rights, or even allies, for the sake of achieving strategic interests.
The second lesson is that there is enough evidence that Putin has no regard for any rules. He breaches them at will. Putin’s strategy is to outwit the West’s attempts to bring Russia back into the rules-based space, and to erode this effort through attempts to reinstate transactional politics.
Ashford and Burrows wrongly suggest that Russia can be a “reliable” transactional partner on “strategic” issues even if it breaches the rule of law elsewhere. How can anyone seriously suggest that the United States enter into a new “strategic” agreement with Putin that runs the risk of being breached? When was the last time Russia honored its international commitments? To encourage “resets” would give Russia a free pass to continue to disregard the rules-based order.
Ashford and Burrows lightly dwell on false narratives. Take, for example, their assertion that Western sanctions on Russia are not working because they haven’t brought about a policy change. This is a popular misconception in the West. There is a need for a fair and objective review of what the sanctions have (and have not) achieved. But two points are worth noting.
First, sanctions require patience and continuity. Second, sectoral sanctions have virtually cut off Russia’s corporate sector from borrowing in the West; major Western players have withdrawn from key projects, which has contributed to a lack of meaningful economic growth in Russia since 2014; and the economic situation is a key factor in Putin’s plunging popularity and his current domestic political troubles. In the upcoming Duma elections in September 2021, for example, the ruling party faces the prospect of losing a majority for the first time since 2003.
Ashford and Burrows write: “democratization in Russia would not necessarily be good for US foreign policy interests.” This echoes talking points often used by Russian government-backed celebrities who turn up on TV before an election declaring “political change is scary because fascists would come, and things will be worse.” This mantra, usually crafted by the Kremlin, resonates with a lot of Russians who fear change.
Ashford and Burrows go on to say: “Alexei Navalny… is an open nationalist who is widely known to agree with Putin on many foreign policy questions; he backed the Russian seizure of Crimea and has made racist and Islamophobic remarks.” In fact, Navalny condemned the annexation of Crimea; he merely said that it will be politically difficult to return Crimea to Ukraine for reasons that were beyond his control. As for the claim that Navalny has made racist and Islamophobic remarks, his comments on immigration policies are often misinterpreted.
While the prospect of democratization of Russia remains an open question, human rights must not be ignored. Ashford and Burrows wrongly suggest policymakers “resist further sanctions” on Russia and shift focus away from human rights. US sanctions are, in fact, a response to Russia’s violations of the rules-based order. Reconsidering sanctions for “strategic” considerations will only embolden Putin to further expand his sphere of influence at the expense of the West.