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How to Stand Up to the Kremlin

11 19 271
22.10.2020

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in an existential struggle between two antithetical systems. Either the Soviet bloc would “bury” the West, as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened in 1956, or Western principles of democratic accountability, individual rights, and the rule of law would triumph over Soviet totalitarianism. The eventual outcome—the demise of the Soviet system and the expansion of the U.S.-led international order—showed that military power is essential to American national security but also that the United States must advance its goals through the quiet resilience of democratic institutions and the attractive pull of alliances.

After the Cold War, Western democracy became the model of choice for postcommunist countries in central and eastern Europe. Guided by the enlightened hands of NATO and the EU, many of those countries boldly embarked on the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Remarkably, most succeeded. Post-Soviet Russia also had an opportunity to reinvent itself. Many in Europe and the United States hoped that by integrating Russia into international organizations (such as the Council of Europe, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund), they could help Russia become a responsible member of the rules-based international order and develop a domestic constituency for democratic reforms. Many Russians also dreamed of creating a democratic, stable, and prosperous Russia. But that dream is now more distant than at any time since the Cold War’s end.

Today, the Russian government is brazenly assaulting the foundations of Western democracy around the world. Under President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has launched a coordinated attack across many domains—military, political, economic, informational—using a variety of overt and covert means. At the extreme, in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine, Russia has invaded neighboring countries to block their integration into NATO or the EU and to send a message to other governments in the region that pursuing Western-backed democratic reform will bring dire consequences. More frequently and more insidiously, it has sought to weaken and subvert Western democracies from the inside by weaponizing information, cyberspace, energy, and corruption.

At its core, this assault is motivated by the Kremlin’s desire to protect its wealth and power. The Russian regime that emerged from the ashes of the Soviet collapse consolidated immense authority and privilege in the hands of a small cabal of former intelligence officials and oligarchs. They appear strong from the outside, but their power remains brittle at the core—a fact that Putin and the top members of his regime understand better than anyone. Without a chokehold on civil society, the adoring applause and sky-high approval ratings they generally enjoy could quickly descend into a storm of boos and whistles, as Putin has discovered on more than one occasion. The regime projects an aura of invincibility that masks the shallow roots of its public support, particularly among younger, urban, and educated Russians.

To safeguard its kleptocratic system, the Kremlin has decided to take the fight beyond Russia’s borders to attack what it perceives as the greatest external threat to its survival: Western democracy. By attacking the West, the Kremlin shifts attention away from corruption and economic malaise at home, activates nationalist passions to stifle internal dissent, and keeps Western democracies on the defensive and preoccupied with internal divisions. This allows Moscow to consolidate its power at home and exert untrammeled influence over its “near abroad.”

To fight back, the United States must lead its democratic allies and partners in increasing their resilience, expanding their capabilities to defend against Russian subversion, and rooting out the Kremlin’s networks of malign influence. The United States has the capacity to counter this assault and emerge stronger, provided that Washington demonstrates the political will to confront the threat. However, since the Trump administration has shown that it does not take the Russian threat seriously, the responsibility for protecting Western democracy will rest more than ever on Congress, the private sector, civil society, and ordinary Americans.

TYRANNY BEGINS AT HOME

The first victim of the Kremlin’s assault on democratic institutions was Russia itself. Opposition politicians have been harassed, poisoned, and even murdered. Basic freedoms of expression and assembly have been restricted, and Russian elections have become choreographed performances that are neither free nor fair. In recent years, Russian human rights groups have even claimed that the horrific Soviet-era practice of using psychiatric institutions to imprison dissidents has been quietly revived.

In contrast to the Soviet Union, however, contemporary Russia offers no clear ideological alternative to Western democracy. Russia’s leaders invoke nationalist, populist, and statist slogans or themes, but the Kremlin’s propaganda machine shies away from directly challenging the core precepts of Western democracy: competitive elections, accountability for those in power, constitutionally guaranteed rights, and the rule of law. Instead, the Kremlin carefully cultivates a democratic façade, paying lip service to those principles even as it subverts them. Thus, it grants nominal opposition parties representation in the Russian parliament but thoroughly co-opts and controls them. It allows independent media to operate (although not in broadcast television), but journalists are regularly threatened and sometimes beaten or killed if they report on taboo subjects. It permits civil society groups to exist but brands them as “foreign agents” and crushes them if they demonstrate political independence. It oversees a vast repressive apparatus—recently augmented by the creation of a new National Guard force of around 350,000 members—to deter and respond to dissent. In short, Russia’s leaders have built a Potemkin democracy in which democratic form masks authoritarian content.

This cynical and heavy-handed approach is driven by intense anxiety. Having watched with a mix of shock, horror, and sorrow as the Soviet Union disintegrated, today’s Russian leaders worry that their own system could meet a similar fate. The Russian economy is utterly dependent on hydrocarbon exports, so its health is tied to the price of oil and gas; as those prices have plummeted in recent years, the state-owned gas giant Gazprom’s market capitalization has shrunk, from about $368 billion in 2008 to around $52 billion today. Meanwhile, long-term demographic decline is sapping Russian society; the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration has projected a 20 percent decrease in the population by 2050. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, life expectancy in Russia ranks 153rd in the world, far below the world’s developed democracies and lower even than developing countries such as Nicaragua and Uzbekistan. Finally, endemic corruption has stunted Russia’s potential for economic growth based on innovation and integration into global value chains, portending a period of prolonged stagnation.

WEAKNESS DRESSED UP AS STRENGTH

In the face of these negative trends and the possibility that they could contribute to organized resistance, the Kremlin appears to have concluded that its best defense is a strong offense. But not content to merely crush dissent at home, it is now taking the fight to Western democracies, and especially the United States, on their turf.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, the United States and its democratic allies pose three distinct threats. First, Russia harbors an erroneous but stubborn—perhaps even obsessive—belief that Washington is actively pursuing regime change in Russia. There is no truth to that idea; the United States has never sought to remove Putin. But Putin and his associates have long peddled a conspiracy theory that accuses the United States of engineering popular uprisings in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and 2014, Kyrgyzstan in........

© Foreign Affairs


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