A strategy for countering Russia’s rising revisionist power


National Endowment for Democracy

Many analysts wrongly assume that Russia is a declining power, but such analysis is outdated, argues Stanford’s Michael McFaul. It has reemerged, despite negative demographic trends and the rollback of market reforms, as one of the world’s most powerful countries—with significantly more military, cyber, economic, and ideological might than most Americans appreciate. Putin wields considerable ideological power as well, he writes for Foreign Affairs: 

He has invested heavily in the instruments of soft power, including state-owned and Kremlin-friendly television, radio, and  social media platforms (on which Moscow has become adept at covert disinformation operations). RT, which claims to be the most watched news channel on YouTube, has an annual budget of $300 million. Putin’s regime has also encouraged the creation of numerous parastatal organizations and quasi-private security forces to advance Russian interests abroad, including the notorious Internet Research Agency, the private military Wagner Group, the Foundation for National Values Protection, the International Agency for Sovereign Development, and the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation.

In a democracy the battle for power involves elections, media skirmishes and the occasional metaphorical stab in the back. In Russia it is literally a matter of life and death, the Economist adds. To oppose President Vladimir Putin requires not only charisma and clear vision but also physical stamina and courage. Alexei Navalny possesses these qualities in abundance.

In addition to power, Putin has purpose. He is highly motivated by a set of orthodox, illiberal, antidemocratic, anti-Western ideas, adds McFaul, a former Regan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED):

Once he had moved up the ranks, Putin gravitated toward illiberal, nationalist, and orthodox values. In his first decade in power, he focused on advancing those values within Russia by suppressing democratic practices and liberal ideas, asserting greater control over state media, rewriting history books, passing anti-LGBTQ laws, and courting ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. In his second decade in power, he devoted greater attention and resources to promoting his illiberal values abroad.

The poisoning of Navalny and his detention in Moscow should spur the EU into finally adopting a tough and united strategy toward Putin’s Russia, Carnegie’s Judy Dempsey adds.

Putin has declared liberalism obsolete; the Biden administration must prove him wrong—first and foremost by renewing American democracy at home. At the same time, the incoming president must make good on his campaign promise to elevate values in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, especially with respect to Russia—by calling out antidemocratic behavior and human rights abuses but also by following those words up with action, notes McFaul, author of Advancing Democracy Abroad:

  • The Biden administration should also restructure the U.S. government to more effectively advance liberal democratic values. It should fold the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor into the Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, so as to better align U.S. values and strategic communications.
  • The Biden administration should simultaneously work with other democracies around the world to develop a common set of laws and protocols for regulating Russian government–controlled media, including bots and trolls.


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