Dealing with Russia
Tougher love needed
When it comes to understanding Vladimir Putin, trust Angela Merkel’s instincts not Barack Obama’s
Jun 1st 2013 |From the print edition
IN THE year since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin as president his rule has become increasingly repressive. He has harassed or shut down non-governmental organisations, put opposition leaders on trial and had pop-star protesters jailed on flimsy charges. Corruption is entrenched, the judiciary has been nobbled and critics are routinely branded as treacherous foreign agents. The evidence is clear; the question is how the West should respond.
So far, there has been a curious inversion of past practice. European countries, led by Germany, which is Russia’s biggest trading partner, have long been in favour of a soft approach. Their argument used to be that stability mattered more than democracy in such a vast and unruly country, that Europe needed Russian oil and gas, and that criticism from outside was unlikely to make much difference. The Americans, in contrast, mostly preferred a tougher stance, insisting that the West should support human rights and democracy everywhere and firmly denouncing the slide towards autocracy. These days, however, Barack Obama supports the pragmatic approach that underpinned the “reset” of his first term, arguing that he needs Russian help in the fight against terrorism, for arms-control treaties and in such trouble spots as the Middle East. It is Germany’s Angela Merkel who is most outspoken in attacking Mr Putin’s repression.
Mrs Merkel is right and Mr Obama is wrong, for three reasons. First, holding back criticism may not in fact make Mr Putin any more helpful. It is true that the Kremlin can lash out in retaliation in specific cases or against particular countries. But more broadly Russia, like the West, pursues what it sees as its own interests. So it will co-operate on international terrorism, for instance over the Boston bombers who came from the north Caucasus, and it may do so over arms control. But it will not over Syria, as it showed yet again this week by promising to ship sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Bashar Assad’s vile regime. Indeed, Mr Putin’s rule at home has become increasingly bound up with his confrontational attitude towards the West in Syria and elsewhere (see article).
The second reason is that criticism can count for more than sceptics believe. Mr Putin and his cronies are not suddenly going to embrace liberal democracy. But they are conscious of their image (and assets) abroad and they like to be judged by Western standards. Mr Putin values his country’s international standing. Russia will chair the G8 next year and he plans a summit in Sochi. He badly wants the Sochi winter Olympics to be a success. He may not change in response to foreign critics but he is not impervious to them. Nor is his position at home invulnerable, given Russia’s growing economic problems and the slide in its oil and gas revenues.
How the West can win
The third and most important reason is that the West should defend its democratic values in order to lend support to the opposition to Mr Putin. Opponents of autocratic governments everywhere are disheartened if they see the West pulling its punches or even embracing dictatorships. Those who prefer business to politics often favour engagement with such regimes and oppose any strident criticism, on the basis that nothing is ever likely to change. Yet recent experience in places as far apart as the Arab world and Myanmar argues against such pessimism. One day change will come to Russia—as it will to Syria. When that happens, among the losers will be those who appeased or backed the dictators. It is far better for Mr Obama to identify himself strongly with those who embrace the West’s values, in Russia as everywhere else.
From the print edition: Leaders