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US-Russia relations expert calls for balancing democracy promotion with pragmatic approaches
Professor at the Catholic University of America Michael Kimmage (Michael Kimmage) specializes in the history of the Cold War and US-Russian relations. The author of a number of books and numerous publications on the intellectual foundations of American diplomacy, from 2014 to 2016 he was one of the assistants to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in charge of policy towards Russia and Ukraine. In an interview with the Voice of America Russian Service, he shared his assessments of the possible priorities of the Joe Biden administration’s policy towards Russia..
Michael Kimmadge called the verdict of Alexei Navalny “sad news”, noting also that the court’s decision had become “predictable”.
The expert welcomed the statement by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, in which he called on the Russian government “to immediately and unconditionally release Navalny, as well as hundreds of other Russian citizens illegally detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights, including the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”.
“This statement reaffirms the universal principles of human rights, including the right to a fair trial, and underlines the apparent unjustness of Navalny’s arrest and sentence,” said Professor Kimmage.
The expert also noted that Blinken’s statement “was coordinated with similar statements of foreign ministers of a number of European states.”.
“This indicates that after the lack of transatlantic unity, characteristic of the period of President Trump, Europe and the United States are trying to create a common approach to policy towards Russia,” the expert continued. – Noteworthy is the fact that such a general approach does not yet include economic sanctions. This is especially noteworthy against the backdrop of the growing conflict between Berlin and Washington over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which could become a serious irritant in US-German relations if Germany and Russia complete its construction. “.
Professor Kimmadge believes that the main dilemma for the West is “the lack of leverage that could lead to the release of Navalny.” “In reality, the West has little or no leverage over the Russian government,” he said. “Therefore, we need to be careful not to allow Western policy to turn out to be, in fact, rhetorical, or aimed at the moral satisfaction of the Western audience. Western policy should have a real effect on Russian policy “.
“Another, more subtle dilemma is that open Western support for Navalny – not as a victim of Putin’s despotic rule, but as an opposition politician – could bring a geopolitical dimension to the growing standoff between the Kremlin and the Russian opposition, and this is likely to diminish prospects opposition in Russia itself, – continued Kimmadzh. “Thus, Blinken’s task is to take into account the dynamics of growing conflicts within Russia when developing a sustainable and credible strategy for realizing the interests of the West in relations with Russia.”.
Professor Kimmage explained his train of thought:
“First, I don’t think the United States should decide who should be the leader of Russia. The very idea that we are able to determine who should govern Russia seems to me to be fundamentally flawed. We can support democratic processes – and the Biden administration has already spoken out in favor of free elections, freedom of assembly, the rights of the political opposition in Russia, and all this is quite legitimate. But taking the next step and speaking out about whether Putin should lead Russia is, in my opinion, crossing the red line. We have to accept this limitation. We may not like Putin, we may consider him an enemy, we may think that he is harmful to Russia itself – all these assessments have a right to exist, but they do not reflect the real ability of the United States to determine the future political course of Russia. “.
“Secondly, there is a practical dimension of our policy. The future of Alexei Navalny is important to the United States in terms of values and principles. At the same time, the United States must deal with Russia as one of the nuclear powers. The United States must deal with Russia as a world power in Syria, in Ukraine, in a situation with Belarus, which could potentially acquire a military dimension. This does not mean that we should praise Putin or please him. This does not mean that we should avoid complications in our relationship. But we must preserve the possibility of conventional diplomacy. If we proclaim Putin an illegitimate leader because he is immoral or simply a bad person, we deprive ourselves of half of the diplomatic tools at our disposal. “.
“From a practical point of view, I believe that we should preserve these tools and limit our criticism to issues of principles, not personal qualities of Vladimir Putin,” the expert added..
Mikhail Gutkin: In your recent New Republic article, you warn the Biden administration against “promoting democracy with the fervor of a missionary.” What do you mean and why the United States should not be zealous in promoting democracy?
Michael Kimmage: I wrote that promoting democracy should be the “ambitious theme” of American foreign policy. We must affirm the principles of democracy as universal.
As for Russia, we must ask ourselves: Do the Russians want the United States to play that role? I’m not sure if the answer is yes. Some part of the population will say yes. Probably, Alexei Navalny would like to receive US support. But apart from Navalny’s supporters, do Russians want the American government to actively interfere in their affairs – not American journalists, human rights activists, and NGOs, but the American government? I’m not sure, and I suspect the answer will be no. At least this is the question to be asked.
There is also a practical aspect to this question: what leverage do we have? The United States has imposed sanctions against Russia, not only over the past 5 years, but since the adoption of the Magnitsky law. These sanctions are designed to improve governance in Russia and change the Kremlin’s behavior. How effective are they? I think that sanctions can be an effective instrument of influence, but in this case I do not see a positive effect..
Does the US have the military capability to promote democracy in Russia? On the contrary: the higher the military tensions in US-Russian relations, the less space for reforms in Russian society..
Let’s say the United States openly declares: we support Alexei Navalny, and he should be the next leader of Russia. But the US is not a neutral party with a voice of reason capable of determining what is good and what is bad. The United States is a country that has certain geopolitical relations with Russia. And many in Russia, and especially in the Kremlin, will regard such a statement in a geopolitical vein as an attempt to gain advantages in US-Russian relations, sow discord and weaken Russia..
The United States should not create such a perception of its intentions. So this is a very delicate balance: to defend principles without crossing the line of deep involvement in the internal politics of another state and without creating the impression of a geopolitical game. This is why I call for caution.
The Biden administration emphasizes that it is not interested in a new “reset” in relations with Russia. This is historically clear: all previous “reset” under Obama, Bush and during the Cold War failed to some extent. Therefore, the Biden administration wants to avoid naive approaches, given Russia’s interference in the 2016 US elections (which may have contributed to Trump’s election and that Democrats will never forget), recent hacker attacks on the Solar Wind system, rewards for the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan (oh than Biden spoke to Putin in their telephone conversation) and the general level of tension between the two countries. From this, we can conclude that Biden, instead of public dialogue or even communication through conventional diplomatic channels, preferred to start from a very confrontational position. There is logic in this; this approach was outlined during his campaign, and this is what his team is calling for.
However, this approach has a price: it means that there will be no high-level conversations between the United States and Russia about Ukraine or Belarus. You will not be able to exchange views, discuss potential problems, create structures to prevent crisis situations. The Biden administration says “we will work together wherever needed.” This is the approach advocated by (former US ambassador to the Russian Federation – ed.) Michael McFaul and other analysts: “if you need to carry out de-conflict in Syria, talk to the Russian military, but you should not go beyond such purely practical questions.”.
MG: It seems to me that the Mr. McFaul you mentioned and other analysts who propose a tougher framework for interaction with Russia proceed from the assumption that Putin is “incorrigible”, that he will always oppose the United States. And if so, then why and what to talk to him about? Why the US shouldn’t try to limit his influence or even try to displace him?
MK: That’s a good question. It is not so much that Putin is “incorrigible,” but that McFaul and other analysts see his position as weak, or weakening. They look at demonstrations in support of Navalny and come to the conclusion that Putin has come into conflict with part of the Russian population. They compare the situation with Ukraine, where demonstrations (against Yanukovych – ed.) Were met with violence, which sparked more demonstrations, more violence, and at some point ended with the fall of the dictator. If the situation in Russia develops according to a similar scenario, then, indeed, why enter into diplomatic interaction and even more so make any concessions if the position of the dictator is weakening?
I do not share the opinion that Putin’s position is so weak. I am also not sure that if Putin falls, he will be replaced by a leader who will be easier to work with. In this sense, I would compare Russia not with Ukraine, but with Egypt, where the dictator fell as a result of popular protests, and after a while the military took power into their own hands. To me, such a scenario seems likely in Russia, in which case we will be dealing with a supporter of an even tougher line than Putin..
But if the point is only that Putin is “incorrigible”, I would ask a rhetorical question: is he the only one on the world stage? If not, what is the nature of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, which had ties to the 9/11 attacks and where journalist Khashoggi was killed; or with Pakistan, which indirectly supported the Taliban in Afghanistan and possibly harbored Osama bin Laden? What is the nature of our relationship with China, which seeks advantages in confrontation with the United States on many issues, and nevertheless, the United States interacts with Beijing for economic and other reasons. The list goes on.
So, in my opinion, declaring that Putin is “incorrigible”, that it is difficult to deal with him, that he often plays a dishonest game and is not trustworthy, one should not put an end to this. All this may be true, but such is life … Diplomacy plays an even greater role when you are dealing with difficult partners than when you interact with friends and those who are already on your side.
MG: Do you think the Biden administration will listen to your or similar arguments?
MK: It is difficult to say exactly where the decision-making center will be located in the Biden administration. In this administration, we see the return of Obama’s foreign policy team. In particular, professional diplomat Victoria Nuland holds a higher position in the State Department than she held until 2016. I think she is convinced that the United States should give a powerful impetus to “democratic energy” in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, providing, in particular, material support. She sees this as America’s destiny. And at the same time, she believes that pressure should be exerted on Putin, his opportunities should be limited, and new sanctions should be introduced. In particular, I am confident that she will support sanctions against Russian oligarchs close to Putin from the list of Navalny’s supporters. In short, she is for supporting democracy and putting pressure on Putin. This is one pole in the Biden administration.
On the other hand, the head of the National Security Council, Jake Sullivan, who is responsible for a wide range of issues, while not rejecting Nuland’s strategy in general, will nevertheless say that we need to balance this approach with the search for situations in which Russia can become part of the solution to problems. He can say, for example, that we need Russia in order to renew the nuclear deal with Iran. He will be more inclined to seek practical solutions to the global problems facing the United States..
For the past couple of years, Jake Sullivan has been developing a concept of integrating US domestic and foreign policy that would reduce military spending and maximize assistance to the American economy. If we get involved in a new “cold war” with Russia, all of his efforts will be in vain. Thus, one can expect a more pragmatic line from the National Security Council and more – for lack of a more precise term – ideological approaches from the State Department. It is difficult to say who the president will listen to to a greater extent. But if you ask me to make an assumption, I will say that Joe Biden in matters of policy towards Russia would rather listen to the arguments of Victoria Nuland than to a more cautious, pragmatic approach..
I worked in the Obama administration for two years and know well many people working in the Russian direction. I share the desire of many of them to see democratic changes in the region and intuitively understand the extreme irritation that Putin is causing them. But at the same time I say: let’s not proceed from these emotions. If, as a result of the analysis, we arrive at the same point, so be it, but let’s start with the most accurate analysis of American national interests. Such an analysis leads me to different conclusions, although I understand my colleagues.