Dictators are supposed to be clever, smart, and effective. Otherwise, how could they rule over millions of people? Yet Vladimir Putin recently demonstrated the opposite.
Rather than sweeping away all opposition, his factotums exhibited serial incompetence, failing to kill Alexie Navalny and then confessing their efforts. Next they arrested Navalny on his return to Russia, reinforcing his national stature and triggering demonstrations across the country. Although none of the protests were large enough to threaten Putin’s hold on power, they drew many first-time activists. The regime’s maladroit behavior suggests that Putin has lost his dictatorial touch.
Unsurprisingly, a hue and cry went up in Washington (and Brussels) to do something! True, a terrible injustice had been committed. But what, exactly, should the Biden administration do? Washington foreign policy analysts too often act like they are masters of the universe, able to micro-manage events around the globe. In truth, however, they usually can do little more than preen for the cameras as they ineffectively huff and puff. It should be evident by now that Americans have only limited ability to influence internal Russian politics.
Putin has been in power for two decades. Although former KGB, he was no communist ideologue. Like many of his compatriots, he appeared to imbibe a healthy dose of worldly cynicism as the Evil Empire collapsed around him. He rose politically in the chaotic aftermath, in which the U.S. cheerfully intervened, in 1996 promoting reelection of the unpopular Boris Yeltsin against a candidate of the revived Communist Party. A surprise choice to be prime minister by Yeltsin, Putin ended up on top when the former, an unhealthy, discredited drunkard, resigned on New Year’s Eve in 1999.
Putin transformed a corrupt, ineffective, violent, and fraudulent democracy into a tidier authoritarian state, more characteristic of the old empire. He captured a gaggle of once influential business oligarchs, turning them into regime vassals. However, the new czar showed little animus toward America. Rather, he acted like a traditional nationalist, dedicated to restoring Moscow’s influence.
The resulting regime is ugly. But Putin does not seek global hegemony, which would be far beyond his nation’s capabilities. In fact, the Russian Federation looks a lot like the old Russian Empire, desiring to protect its borders, extend its influence, and safeguard its interests. It is no totalitarian predator state. There is no ideological competition between Moscow and Washington.
Still, both Navalny’s treatment and the larger human rights environment "are a deep concern to us," said Secretary of State Antony Blinken. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan demanded that Navalny be released "immediately," with those who attempted to assassinate him "held accountable." There have been calls in Washington and Europe to punish Moscow, whether adding more sanctions or even canceling the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. Navalny urged Western government to sanction Putin’s business supporters.
However, Russia’s domestic repression does not threaten the US. Moscow is a standard-issue autocracy. Reports the group Freedom House: "Power in Russia’s authoritarian political system is concentrated in the hands of President Vladimir Putin. With loyalist security forces, a subservient judiciary, a controlled media environment, and a legislature consisting of a ruling party and pliable opposition factions, the Kremlin is able to manipulate elections and suppress genuine dissent. Rampant corruption facilitates shifting links among bureaucrats and organized crime groups."
The result is repression – terrible, of course, but neither unique by global standards nor worse than in many other nations. Washington routinely deals with allies (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates), adversaries (China, North Korea), and others (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) that also are awful. Russia’s authoritarian environment makes it difficult to gauge Putin’s popularity, but in his early years, at least, he almost certainly would have won free elections. Even now, he retains substantial support among older and more traditional Russians.
As for foreign policy, Moscow unhesitatingly pursues its interests, which often conflict with those of America – at least, with those of the interventionist "crusader state" that the US has become. However, Russia has not threatened the territory, lives, liberties, or prosperity of the American people. If nothing else, the power differential is too great. (Moscow possesses an equivalent nuclear arsenal, but its use would invite devastating retaliation.) Equally important, the two nations’ core interests do not conflict.
Unfortunately, however, after the end of communism the US, filled with hubris as the "hyper-power" and "essential nation," refused to treat its recovering superpower rival with minimal respect, and thereby did much to turn Russia into an adversary. Indeed, an outsider could be forgiven for believing that Washington and Brussels intended to humiliate Moscow and its people at most every turn, perhaps to illustrate how history had ended and left the West in charge.
For instance, violating assurances given to Soviet and Russian officials – confirmed by declassified documents in recent years – NATO, Moscow’s bete noire throughout the Cold War, expanded to Russia’s border, ending up about 100 miles away from St. Petersburg. The process has yet to stop, with the organization most recently admitting Montenegro and North Macedonia. (Presumably next up will be the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, featured in the novel The Mouse that Roared.)
The allies also launched an aggressive and illegal war against Yugoslavia, which had historic ties to Russia, dismantling the former and attempting to deny the latter any role in the aftermath. Only a mad rush of Russian troops to Pristina, Kosovo, enabled Moscow to participate in the resulting occupation. Even then NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark sought to block the Russian forces, recklessly ordering his subordinates to open fire, if necessary; thankfully, the British commander on the ground disobeyed Clark’s mad instruction. After pushing a faux negotiation predicated on Belgrade’s surrender, Washington and most European states recognized Kosovo as an independent state over Moscow’s objections.
In ensuing years Western governments aided anti-Russian political activists in both Georgia and Ukraine, resulting in the installation of governments hostile to Moscow. The US treated both countries as putative allies and in 2008 won NATO’s promise to eventually bring them into the transatlantic alliance. In 2014 the European Union pushed an agreement to redirect Ukraine’s trade toward Europe while Washington and Brussels backed a street putsch against the elected president who was friendly to Moscow.
These events triggered Russian annexation of Crimea, historically part of Russia and hosting the naval base of Sevastopol. Moscow also backed ethnic Russian separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Claims that Putin planned to conquer the entire country proved false. With 45 million people, many descendants of nationalists who resisted Soviet occupation, Ukraine would not have been digestible. Anyway, Putin’s ambition always appeared to be much more limited: create conflict in Ukraine (as in Georgia six years before) that would prevent its inclusion within NATO.
Russia’s behavior was brutal, destructive, and unjustified, but not particularly threatening to America or Europe. Moscow’s hostility also should have been unsurprising: imagine how Washington policymakers would have reacted in similar circumstances. If the Soviet Union had sought to redirect Mexican commerce to friendly states in South America, promoted a street revolution against the elected, pro-American president of Mexico, and invited the new government to join the Warsaw Pact, the outraged screams in Washington would have been heard across the Atlantic. The president would have been expected to use means fair and foul to, again, do something.
Beyond that have been complaints that Russia did essentially what America does, intervened around the world to advance its interests. Which means Moscow has often acted against Washington’s plans and preferences. However, US policymakers vastly inflated the importance of these issues. In fact, Moscow’s policies have been unexceptional – after all, multiple American administrations spent the Cold War backing, subsidizing, and supporting ugly authoritarian regimes in the name of security. Russia deserves criticism, but nothing that it has done post-Cold War has harmed nearly as many people as did Washington’s invasion of Iraq.
For instance, in Afghanistan there have been complaints, without evidence, of Russia paying the Taliban to kill Americans. The charge made no sense, since the insurgents were negotiating to convince Washington to withdraw, and there were few American battle casualties at the time. Moreover, the angry US response belied the fact that Washington has armed the Ukrainian military to kill Russian soldiers and ethnic Russian insurgents.
Syria was never important to Washington, but US officials decided that they wanted to oust the Assad government, empower largely nonexistent moderates, confront Iranian forces backing Damascus, and drive out Russia, which had been allied with Syria for decades. Moscow forcefully intervened, ensuring failure of America’s foolish and unrealistic policy. Washington suffered a painful lesson on how to play the foreign policy game.
In North Korea Washington sought to impoverish and oust or denuclearize the North Korean regime, which Moscow had supported going back to its creation in the aftermath of World War II. The US similarly used immiserating sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela, hurting their populations more than governments, which were long friendly with Moscow. Russia intervened just enough to unsettle Washington. Without the least shame, American officials who had denounced the idea of spheres of interest then complained that the Putin government was violating the Monroe Doctrine, which claims the entire Western hemisphere to be a US sphere of interest.
American policymakers were right to believe that North Korea, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela are bad regimes. And that the Taliban is a terrible movement. However, Washington’s standard MO of starving hapless civilians and fomenting bitter civil wars is both immoral and ineffective: it rarely works and typically hurts the wrong people. Moreover, there is nothing nefarious or surprising about Moscow’s refusal to accept Washington as global dictatress.
What is striking is not American hypocrisy. After all, most nations’ diplomacy is suffused with outrageous inconsistencies. Instead, Washington officials truly excel at sanctimony, being filled with moral certitude even as they behave like those they are righteously denouncing. It was impossible as an American to listen to the squalid and Pharisaic Mike Pompeo without feeling a mix of embarrassment and contempt.
Now comes the latest contretemps over Russia’s mistreatment of Navalny. Moscow’s behavior is outrageous. However, there is little that the West can do about it. And if pressure from the US and Europe "worked," whatever that would mean exactly, these governments might come to rue their success.
Presidents often talk big when it comes to the sins of other nations. Last year candidate Biden said: "I’ll defend our democratic values and stand up to autocrats like Putin." But how will he put such fine sentiments into practice?
First, unless NATO plans to invade and occupy Russia, the allies won’t be able to force Putin and his cronies to democratize. Governments have no higher objective than self-preservation and repression is the most important tool available to authoritarians. Diplomatic suasion – such as Biden’s mention of the issue in his conversation with Putin – has little impact: Putin is more interested in retaining power than winning foreigners’ affection.
Which leaves sanctions. Targeted "Magnitsky Act" measures are beloved in the West because they hit malefactors. Policymakers feel good about themselves – and benefit politically by flaunting their concern to the world. However, such measures achieve little more than discomfiting the guilty. They have yet to overthrow one dictatorship or create one democracy. Who imagines that it will be different this time, that Putin’s crony capitalist friends will organize a liberal democratic revolution so they can again get visas to America?
Which leaves more general economic penalties, against Gazprom, perhaps, or the Russian banking system, which would more broadly damage the Russian economy. Putin’s government might lose revenue, but so far even much stricter controls have not forced North Korea or Iran to submit. The public always suffers the most; in contrast, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Kim Jong-un, and other miscreants never missed a meal. Penalizing the victims of tyranny serves no purpose. When has a population starved by America ever risen, overthrown its oppressors, and established a liberal democracy which lived happily ever after?
There’s also the question of the ultimate objective. Threaten sanctions if Navalny is jailed or killed? Or if he is barred from the next presidential election? Or if no opposition candidates are allowed? What of other activists? How about elections for regional governors and the Duma? Control of the media? Permission for demonstrations? An independent election commission? And so on. Unfortunately, there is no way to sanction Russia into becoming a democracy.
Moreover, this debate, if it deserves to be called such, over US policy seems based on the premise that free elections in Russia would deliver a liberal and pliant government, followed by transatlantic hand-holding and soaring renditions of Kumbaya. Unfortunately, liberalism was destroyed as a political force during the Yeltsin years. In contrast, nationalist sentiments are widely shared and Putin is by no means the most extreme actor.
There is no reason to suppose that his overthrow would result in a democratic process that met American and European standards, leaders who would be feted by Washington and Brussels think tanks, and foreign policy objectives agreeable to the US and European Union. Argued the Jamestown Foundation’s Janusz Bugajski: "Despite Western hopes, democrats in Moscow are unlikely to transform the country into a liberal state. Instead, the regime will be most acutely challenged by regionalists, autonomists, and frustrated ethnic groups."
Indeed, Navalny is no Russian Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, or George Washington. To the contrary, some who knew him when he was obscure warn that he trends both authoritarian and nationalist: that is, he disagrees with Putin over who should rule, not how Russia should be ruled.
In fact, Navalny has publicly taken hard nationalist positions. He marched in the annual Russian March, backed the 2008 war against Georgia, criticized the role of ethnic non-Russians, and even was expelled from the liberal Yabloko party in 2007. His then-colleague Engelina Tareyeva termed "Aleksei Navalny the most dangerous man in Russia," adding ominously: "You don’t have to be a genius to understand that the most horrific thing that could happen in our country would be the nationalists coming to power."
Which raises the question: should the Biden administration work so hard to replace Putin with a new, better model – someone younger and more effective, tech-savvy, and charismatic? The US and Europe might find themselves facing a much more dangerous foe.
In the past Biden has been harshly anti-Russian, treating Moscow as a greater threat to America than China. That judgment, it should be obvious, is errant nonsense. Rather than ensure enduring hostility, it would be better for Washington to search for a modus vivendi, most obviously based on halting NATO expansion, to regularize America’s and Europe’s relations with Moscow. One of the most important benefits would be to stop pushing Russia toward China. Sharing a common foe has caused Putin to set aside his country’s many differences with Beijing.
The Putin government’s treatment of Navalny is wrong. It also is stupid. Washington should remember Napoleon’s advice to not interfere when one’s enemy is destroying himself. Left alone, the Putin regime will bear the full blowback of its ill-considered actions. Observed democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza: "As history shows, most dictatorships fall not under the power of their opponents but under the weight of their own mistakes. It seems that Putin’s will not be an exception."
The desire to accelerate Putin’s eventual exit is understandable. However, imposing another round of sanctions, as many policymakers advocate, would not improve human rights in Russia. Washington should practice the Hippocratic Oath, first do no harm. After years of failed attempts to influence Putin, the US should stop pretending that it can control events in Russia. It would be better to let him fail on his own.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.