Transatlantic Take

Supporting Russia’s Democratization is an Important Investment

5 min read
Photo credit: Bogomolov.PL

Photo credit: Bogomolov.PL

As Donald Trump enters the White House 25 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, relations between Russia and the United States have deteriorated to Cold War levels. Accusations of Russian interference in the presidential election are causing a political firestorm in the United States and stoking fears of similar behavior in elections in Europe this year. Russia’s apparent interference in elections in the West comes after years of Vladimir Putin blaming the West for meddling in his country’s politics through democracy promotion.

Most observers predict that Trump will try to cozy up to Putin so as to bring U.S. and Russian foreign policies into alignment. Trump seems to have no interest at all in democracy promotion but rather a fondness for authoritarian leaders in general and specifically for Putin. Against this background, it seems difficult to imagine that the United States will take any interest in Russia’s domestic political situation in the next four years.

However, this would be a mistake. If Europe and the United States do not want to be faced one day with an even more authoritarian and confrontational Russia than the one they face today, it is in their interest to support democratic activism in the country. When the Soviet system eventually collapsed, there were political actors in Russia who, however flawed they were, steered events in a relatively democratic and peaceful direction. The nationalist, reactionary, and autocratic alternatives would have been far worse for Russia and the world.

Those in the United States who still engage in democracy promotion are concerned about what a Trump administration will mean for their work, including the limited assistance they are still able to provide to Russians. Russian human rights groups have also expressed fears of losing what remains of U.S. support.[1] But while Trump has never said anything in favor of democracy promotion, nor has he expressed virulent antipathy towards it, as he has, for example, toward trade liberalization. It is therefore not yet clear whether he will try to eliminate this area of government policy — he may simply not care enough about it to prioritize rolling it back.

Nor is it clear that he will succeed in this even if he does try, as Thomas Carothers points out.[2] He could face resistance from other figures in his administration, especially at the middle level. That Secretary of State designate Rex Tillerson included mainstream boilerplate about values in his Senate confirmation hearing suggests that the incoming administration might also see it as politically unwise to set out a purely realpolitik agenda. Even arch-realist Henry Kissinger, who has been advising Trump, talks about values these days.[3]

Crucially, many in Congress, including senior Republicans, also still favor democracy promotion and take a hard line toward Russia. This could help protect the main institutions of U.S. democracy promotion. For example, the National Endowment for Democracy is funded and supported by Congress, while the fate of democracy assistance structures in the State Department and USAID will not be clear until Trump’s political appointees are announced and in place, which could take a while.

Since Putin became Russian president in 2000, the U.S. and European governments have rarely tried hard to promote democracy in Russia. It was also easy to overlook the country’s political deterioration when its foreign policy was friendlier. Today’s combination of internal repression and external confrontation should encourage them to re-engage more with this difficult issue. –

Some Western donors and nongovernmental organizations have not completely given up despite the drastic crackdown by Russia’s authorities on their ability to operate in the country. As I show in a new policy brief, in order to provide a long-term lifeline to democratic activists in Russia, they have shifted to “offshoring” and “onlining” methods, to working through expatriates, and to broader civil-society support.[4] These low-key efforts also have drawbacks. But continuing and building on them is important to help the survival of democratic elements in Russian society. Funding them more fully would represent a small investment, especially in the context of governments’ overall aid budgets.

Trying to ensure the survival of democratic actors who can gradually campaign for change in Russia, or play a positive role in the aftermath of any crisis that shakes or even topples the system, can complement a U.S. and European strategy of containment. The argument that doing so would “provoke” Russia holds less weight given that it already opted for confrontation when there were only small efforts at providing democracy assistance to Russians.

At the same time, it is important that the United States and Europe are realistic and recognize the limits of, and timeframe for, what can be achieved. There are no silver bullets. What matters is long-term engagement and flexibility in methods. The shift to a longer lifeline timeframe and to wider civil-society support is therefore a positive development.

Given the challenge of dealing with the regime’s confrontational foreign policy and its campaign to stamp out of any form of democracy promotion, the path of least resistance for the United States and Europe would be to decide that it is not worth trying to help progress in Russia. But history, not least Russia’s own, shows that undemocratic systems that appear immutable can encounter potentially fatal turbulences unexpectedly. That means that investing carefully in what might come next is worthwhile and prudent.