‘In search of lost time’: standing up to Putin


Russia and the West are sliding into “a new Cold War,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned the recent 2016 Munich Security Conference, going on to ask: “Are we living in 2016 or 1962?”

The answer is that we are living in 2016, and the world is very different than it was in 1962. It is no longer bipolar, but multipolar, argues Stefan Meister, Head of Program for Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

There are not two competing ideologies and systems; the economic, scientific, and military potential of today’s Russia is much lower than that of the Soviet Union. Local and hybrid conflicts, not superpower proxy wars, drive international relations today, he writes for the Berlin Journal:

But we cannot compare the Putin regime to the Soviet leadership. It is much weaker in terms of economic performance and self-confidence. It is a crony regime, lacking any long-term strategy except staying in power. The cessation of economic reform along with the high cost of imitating global power will further weaken Russia – and the weaker Russia becomes, the more aggressively its leadership will act to distract from its failures. With this regime no deal is possible, because it is not willing, and sometimes not able, to fulfill its agreements. For Putin there are no rules except the power of the strongest.

Russia is only as strong as the West is weak. Europe and the United States have no answer to Putin’s aggressive approach in Syria and elsewhere because they themselves lack a clear strategy, notes analyst Mathieu von Rohr:

The West has underestimated Russia and must expect further foreign policy adventures from Moscow, be it in Eastern Europe or in its already tense relationship with Turkey. Putin needs these adventures in order to maintain his popularity, even though his own people are becoming poorer. If the West wants to avoid being outmaneuvered again in future conflicts, it cannot allow itself to be intimidated — and neither can it strive for appeasement.

U.S leadership is vital if the democracies are to confront the authoritarian offensive and the threat of non-state actors like ISIS, former Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman writes for the Washington Post.

But many officials and analysts do not know what stated U.S. policy toward Russia is today, according to Simond de Galbert and Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). After an exhaustive 15-month review of its policy toward Russia, the Obama administration has done very little publicly to discuss its policy toward Russia, which falls along four lines of effort, they observe:

(1) counter and deter Russian malign influence, coercion, and aggression;

(2) strengthen, build resilience, and reduce the vulnerability of allies and partners;

(3) communicate and cooperate with Russia on key global challenges; and

(4) preserve the potential for Russia’s integration as a responsible global player.

During Vladimir Putin’s 15 years in power, the Kremlin has attempted to cast human rights values as alien to Russia by labeling recipients of foreign funding as “foreign agents” — which in Russia can only mean “traitor”, notes Ludmilla Alexeeva (right), chair and a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

It’s not only that the Kremlin and state-controlled media have poisoned the public mind against independent groups in this way. There are also real legal consequences for leaders of civic groups, including up to two years in prison if they refuse to comply with the law. Dozens of groups are tied up in lawsuits with the government. Many have had to close. The Justice Ministry recently accused Memorial, a leading human rights organization, of using foreign funding to harm Russia and asked the Prosecutor General’s Office to investigate.

The Kremlin has also prompted the Prosecutor General’s Office to ban 12 organizations as “undesirable,” including donors “who helped Russian groups get off the ground 25 years ago and remain a crucial source of support to this day,” Alexeeva adds, such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Foundations.

But I refuse to abandon hope, she writes for the Washington Post:

So do the hundreds of activists who are putting everything on the line — their freedom, their families — to continue human rights work in Russia. They’re fighting for the values that attracted Western aid in the first place. Donors need to find ways to support them. Surely they have faced bigger challenges elsewhere in the world. Surely the project of defending freedom in Russia is worth pursuing while there are Russians willing to stand up for it.


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