These days, friction between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the West is the norm, and with good reason. Russia-U.S. relations don’t need another "reset." Instead, the United States must carry out an honest recalculation of what it can expect to obtain from Putin — and at what price.
Conventional wisdom holds that Russian cooperation on a range of issues is so valuable — and U.S. leverage over Putin so minimal — that antagonizing officials in Moscow over human rights isn’t worthwhile. The U.S. should rethink that assumption, not merely because Putin’s approach to democracy and human rights is even worse than expected, but also because he has failed to deliver on critical national-security issues, such as Iran, North Korea and Syria.
On Iran, Russia voted for United Nations sanctions in 2010, but has since cozied up to the Tehran regime.
On Syria, Putin has used Russia’s UN Security Council veto to give President Bashar Assad diplomatic cover. The Russian president has enabled the Syrian government’s continuing atrocities by supplying fuel, ammunition, mortar shells, spare parts for attack helicopters and Russian financial services.
Russian officials would have us believe that the world would be a safer place if the U.S. would stop reacting to gross violations of universal rights and "meddling" with their country’s sovereignty. Yet suppose the U.S. were to capitulate to Moscow by repealing the Magnitsky Act, which sanctions Russian officials involved in heinous human-rights abuses, and promising not to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Would Putin prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons and delivery systems, persuade North Korea to warehouse its missiles, or force Assad to leave Syria? It’s doubtful. Russia lacks the will or the capability to do so.
Is Russian help on other matters still so vital that the U.S. should make further concessions to secure it? On most issues, the status quo should now be acceptable to Russia. The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was finally ratified; the U.S. has agreed to scrap the last phase of a European missile- defence program that had infuriated Russia; the Jackson-Vanik amendment has been repealed; Russia has ascended to the World Trade Organization, and there is no immediate prospect that either Ukraine or Georgia will join NATO.
True, Russia has helped the U.S. in Afghanistan, and Russian hostility could make withdrawal more difficult. But President Barack Obama will bring that conflict to a close in any case. And Putin would continue to fight a resurgent al-Qaida threat on his borders. Russia proved that counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. is in its own interest when officials in Moscow warned their U.S. counterparts about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers.
Putin will continue to act in his own interests, and he may respond to domestic political pressure. The notion that the U.S. could buy his cooperation by refraining from provoking him on human rights has been proved wrong during years of friendlier relations.
Why would the Russian people like or respect the U.S. more if it stands silent while Putin crushes his opposition, abandoning the values that America championed for five decades during the Cold War?
There are better options.
First, as the administration implements the Magnitsky sanctions, it should also begin imposing penalties on Russian and other international banks that finance exports to Syria. This would require U.S. financial institutions to also cut off the bank accounts of Syria’s financiers. That would enrage Putin. But it would hasten an end to the killing, and send an important signal to Russian oligarchs that arming Assad has financial consequences.
Second, the administration should re-impose sanctions on Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-owned arms exporter. Some members of Congress are already calling for this step. The U.S. lifted a ban in 2010, and the Pentagon immediately started buying Russian helicopters for Afghanistan — the cheapest and fastest way to rebuild an Afghan air force whose pilots were already familiar with Russian aircraft. It’s time to stop relying on the Russian defence industry and invest in a Western helicopter that could be used in "hot and high" environments, including Afghanistan and other places where they are likely to be needed in future.
Finally, the U.S. shouldn’t stand by and shrug while Putin kicks out the Agency for International Development, raids nongovernmental organizations and intimidates election-monitoring groups. Congress should release the $50 million reprogramming request for a Civil Society Fund for Russia that was held over from the George W. Bush administration.
The money could be held offshore, providing technical help and Internet training to democracy advocates who travel abroad, if such assistance isn’t possible on Russian territory. It isn’t a violation of Russian sovereignty to support citizens who seek to bring about peaceful democratic change by exercising their universal rights to expression, assembly and association. And it is in the U.S.’s national-security interests.
Putin could retaliate by using his UN Security Council veto to thwart further action against Iran, North Korea or Syria, or by strengthening ties with China, imposing financial sanctions against U.S. entities, or even pressuring neighbours such as Uzbekistan to impede the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
These are serious hurdles, but they are manageable. Retaliation by Putin would only isolate Russia, trigger further ire in the U.S. Congress and erode Putin’s support among his international business elite, who want access to Western capitals and markets.
By taking such steps, Obama would signal that a Russia that violates basic human rights cannot be a strategic partner.
Elisa Massimino is president and chief executive officer of Human Rights First.