How Progressives Can Engage Russia

How Progressives Can Engage Russia

America’s security depends on defeating oligarchy abroad and at home.


What is the left’s foreign-policy approach to Russia?

Long before the advent of the Trump presidency, progressives had been vocal critics of US actions overseas. Yet they have given much less thought to what US foreign policy should be in the plausible event that a left-leaning Democrat wins the White House in 2020.

Whoever the next president is, one immediate problem facing him or her will be how to deal with Russia, which most Democrats—as well as independents like Bernie Sanders—hold responsible for interfering in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump. Even apart from this apparent meddling, managing relations with Russia will be a top priority for any new administration. The next president will face immediate pressure from the national-security establishment to implement a tougher approach to Russia in Trump’s wake. This could include new and rigorously enforced sanctions, increased arms sales to Ukraine, a renewed push for NATO expansion, more pressure on Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, a new cyberoffensive against Moscow in retaliation for 2016, and covert support for opposition movements in Russia and its former satellites.

This agenda is unlikely to make America or the world more secure, since it will simply further escalate the current dangerous tensions with Russia and increase the risk of future attacks on US institutions. So what should the next president do instead?

Take On Russia’s Oligarchs—by Taking On America’s

Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia has been largely opaque, but from the indictments issued so far, as well as the recent subpoena of the Trump Organization’s records, it is clear that a central issue is money laundering. Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his deputy, Rick Gates, have been indicted on a variety of charges, from laundering millions of dollars to tax evasion, bank fraud, and violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by working as unlicensed lobbyists. Yet what many in Washington have portrayed as shady financial maneuvers in a new Cold War looks a lot like something else: large-scale white-collar crime.

It should not have taken an international political scandal before the perpetrators were held accountable. Unfortunately, much of the illegal activity that Manafort and Gates were allegedly engaged in is common in Washington and New York, where foreign governments, both allies and adversaries, routinely funnel money in order to promote their interests. Consider the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is under scrutiny from Mueller not only for his contacts with Russia, but also because officials in the United Arab Emirates, China, and Israel sought to influence him. This is the context in which Russian interference should be understood: not as an unprecedented attack on US institutions, but as an especially dramatic example of how those institutions have been made vulnerable to manipulation by foreign governments and financial interests.

Most Democrats and Republicans in Congress are committed to punishing Vladimir Putin and the network of oligarchs surrounding him by expanding the sanctions regime first imposed by the Obama administration following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Congress has attempted to force Trump’s hand by imposing new sanctions in retaliation for the alleged election interference, but the Trump administration has been lax in enforcing them. However, even properly enforced sanctions cannot solve the underlying problem: Russia is functionally a kleptocracy, and the United States bears some responsibility for making it that way.

In the 1990s, Washington encouraged the rapid and blatantly rigged privatization of Russia’s economy, resulting in skyrocketing inequality, the impoverishment of millions, and the elevation of a tiny billionaire elite. While Putin has claimed credit for a revival of economic stability and a measure of prosperity in the 2000s, driven to a large extent by high energy prices, over time he has consolidated power at the top of a fundamentally corrupt system. The United States has emerged as a leading destination for Russia’s elite to park their fortunes, often at the expense of middle-class Americans in major real-estate markets like New York, and with the help of banks and law firms happy to turn a blind eye to corruption overseas. Russian money laundering through high-end real estate is also a major issue in London, where Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has proposed tackling it in response to the recent poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Going after the money is far more likely to produce meaningful results than expelling diplomats, the strategy that the United States and its European allies have so far pursued. Some of the recent sanctions, which target a list of wealthy Russians for enumerated corrupt activities, are more promising, but they still represent a flawed attempt to punish individuals close to Putin rather than a comprehensive effort to reduce global corruption.

The United States has little standing to condemn Russia’s oligarchs while the Trump administration openly loots the public with a tax-reform bill designed to benefit the wealthiest Americans and with taxpayer dollars constantly funneled through Trump Organization properties. The next administration should make the case that the transnational oligarchy stretching from New York to London to Moscow poses a national-security threat by undermining the integrity of our political process. It should expand FARA and end foreign lobbying, both legal and illegal, on K Street. It should crack down on money laundering through banks and real estate, as well as offshore tax havens.

Contrary to what some writers on the left have argued, the American public is legitimately interested in the Trump-Russia scandal and isn’t going to stop paying attention. But rather than singling out Russia, the next president should pledge to take on kleptocrats everywhere, using Trump’s outrageous corruption (including but certainly not limited to his Russia ties) to make the case for a more just economic order.

In addition, the next president should place a champion of global environmental justice in charge of the State Department, rather than an ExxonMobil CEO (the recently departed Rex Tillerson) or an outspoken Islamophobe and climate-change skeptic (the yet-to-be-confirmed Mike Pompeo), to make clear that the oil-and-gas industry is not in charge of US foreign policy. Exxon, like other energy companies, has lobbied for normalized US-Russia relations so that it can exploit Russia’s vast natural resources, and was even fined by the Treasury Department for violating the sanctions regime against Russia by signing an agreement with the oil giant Rosneft while Tillerson was still CEO.

Work for Peace and Recommit to Disarmament

The consensus in Washington is that the United States must contain Russia’s imperial revanchism on every front, as though the Cold War never ended. But this only encourages a similar consensus in Moscow, empowering hard-line nationalists who see their country encircled by US proxies and consider neighboring former Soviet republics to belong in Russia’s rightful sphere of influence. Those countries, including flash points like Ukraine and Georgia, are entitled to sovereignty under international law, and Russian encroachment on that sovereignty, from Crimea and the Donbass to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, deserves condemnation. But the next president must also make clear that the United States does not intend to expand its own sphere of military influence via NATO or in any other capacity.

Moscow opposed, and still deeply resents, the expansion of NATO into the Baltic states and Eastern Europe in the 1990s and 2000s, in particular the 1999 NATO military campaign against Yugoslavia, which proceeded despite a Russian veto at the UN Security Council. With considerable justification, Russian military planners see NATO as existing primarily to surround and isolate Russia.

For better or worse, Washington is now committed to the security of its Baltic allies. But the next president should affirm that the United States does not have long-term designs on a military alliance with Ukraine, Georgia, or any other country on Russia’s border. This does not mean abandoning those countries; the United States and its European allies should commit to negotiating a just peace that will preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and must work to ensure that Russia complies with the 2014 Minsk Protocol. Russia must not be rewarded for the illegal annexation of Crimea, which should not be recognized as long as Putin is in power. Down the line, negotiations on a UN-sponsored referendum to determine Crimea’s fate could be held if tensions ratcheted down. The reality, as most policy-makers in Washington are well aware, is that the citizens of Crimea would be unlikely to choose to return to Ukraine in any fair and independent vote.

With respect to Syria, Washington is understandably wary of rewarding Russia’s horrific conduct in defense of Assad’s regime. While there is no justifying Russia’s or Assad’s atrocities, the United States also played a role in stoking this civil war in the first place and bears responsibility for its interventions in Iraq and Libya, which Putin opposed and whose results have been catastrophic. Moscow views Washington’s enthusiasm for toppling dictators as destabilizing, and while this view is motivated by Russian geopolitical interests, that doesn’t make it wrong. The next president must be willing to work for a negotiated peace between all factions in Syria, accepting that Assad will be left in control of much of Syria’s territory for the foreseeable future, with the long-term goal of withdrawing US and Russian forces from the region.

Finally, the next administration should seek to once more engage Russia in negotiations over nuclear weapons. During the Obama administration, the United States and Russia signed the 2011 New START accord aimed at dramatically limiting the deployment of strategic nuclear arms by both countries. Trump, however, has disparaged the treaty and recently committed the country to a new nuclear-arms race. If there is one lesson to be drawn from Trump’s volatile and unpredictable behavior as president, it’s that nuclear weapons are far too destructive for any nation to possess. The United States and Russia must recommit to diplomacy with the aim of further arms reductions and a stronger global nonproliferation regime.

Break Up Tech Monopolies

It is reasonable for the United States to want to hold Russia accountable for its 2016 interference, including the dissemination of fake news via social media and the e-mail hacks of the Democratic National Committee. A proportionate response would be to release embarrassing information about the shady finances of Putin and his inner circle. But this may have already occurred in the form of the Panama Papers, a giant info dump on the global oligarchy published in early 2016 that Putin blames on the US government (along with distorting evidence in the Russian Federation’s Olympic doping scandal).

It is in neither country’s interest to pursue this tit for tat indefinitely, although arguably both Americans and Russians benefit from the exposure of their elites’ secrets. Ultimately, there will have to be negotiations, including other major powers like China, to establish rules of the road for cybersecurity. At the same time, the United States should embrace strong campaign-finance laws in order to insulate itself from interference not only by foreign powers but by oligarchs and corporate interests everywhere.

But if the United States wants to prevent Russian cyberattacks in future elections, one crucial step would be to begin dismantling the tech monopolies that have left the US electorate exposed to foreign influence. In 2010, Russia’s then-president, Dmitry Medvedev, visited Silicon Valley as part of the Obama administration’s ill-fated “reset” policy. An impressed Medvedev met with the CEOs of companies like Apple and Google. While Medvedev’s dream of a Russian Silicon Valley remains unrealized, Russia has plenty of homegrown tech talent, as seen in the “troll factory” that sought to manipulate American swing voters.

The next US president should make clear to the public that the biggest tech companies have gotten too powerful, and that their hoarding of private data for profit undermines national security and election integrity. Social media can be a powerful tool for political organizing and protesting authority, but when it is regulated only by the free market, it becomes a way for wealthy interests—including foreign governments—to manipulate people. Renewed antitrust enforcement should be a priority in general, but with regard to Silicon Valley it would offer the additional benefit of countering foreign influence and restoring the credibility of real news.

Russian hackers have exposed a flaw in the US political system created by years of coddling unaccountable monopolies. Lawmakers have pressured companies like Facebook and Twitter to crack down on Russian bots, but this doesn’t address the underlying threat that for-profit social networks pose to the democratic process. The extent of this threat is clear from the revelations about how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data, acquired without the consent of Facebook users, to help the Trump campaign target voters. As Tamsin Shaw, a professor at New York University who has written about cyberwarfare, told The Guardian, “Silicon Valley is a US national security asset that [Russia has] turned on itself.” The only effective solution is to break these monopolies up and regulate them like utilities.

Support Human Rights, Not Regime Change

Despite the claim by New York Times national-security correspondent Steven Lee Myers that Putin is “a hero for the world’s populists, strongmen and others occupying the fringes of global politics, both left and right,” few on the left are under the illusion that Russia is a utopia. As Jeremy Corbyn wrote recently, “Labour is of course no supporter of the Putin regime, its conservative authoritarianism, abuse of human rights or political and economic corruption. And we pay tribute to Russia’s many campaigners for social justice and human rights, including for LGBT rights.” Bernie Sanders has voiced similar sentiments, stating that “our goal is to not only strengthen American democracy, but to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the globe, including in Russia. In the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism, we intend to win.”

Putin has attacked civil society, consolidated control of the media, and marginalized opposition parties. One of the most prominent opposition leaders, Alexei Navalny, was barred from running for president this year in what everyone understands were sham elections. Many journalists and politicians have been murdered, and LGBTQ people have faced discriminatory laws throughout Russia and a brutal purge in Chechnya. And with the close cooperation of the Orthodox Church, Putin has stoked xenophobic nationalism, homophobia, misogyny, and jingoism, not only at home but with his support for far-right parties across Europe. The left has an interest in countering this influence, but the next president must do so in a way that is not a cover for empire and is not aimed at regime change in Russia. Putin uses the perception of Western designs on Russia to maintain his legitimacy and to justify his most aggressive policies.

Putin will eventually leave power, but it is not Washington’s place to facilitate this, nor is it an inherently desirable outcome. No one knows what will follow in Putin’s wake, or who could fill his role after nearly two decades (and counting) in the Kremlin. And no one doubts that Putin is genuinely popular, although support for him in the largest cities, where he has faced mass protests from educated younger Russians, has slipped.

The United States should not ignore human-rights abuses in Russia. But principled criticism is only undermined by the perception that civil-society groups in Russia serve as fronts for US intelligence, and Russia has become increasingly hostile to such groups. The next administration should make clear that the United States is not trying to bring Putin down, and that its support for human rights is genuine. It should be wary of directly supporting opposition figures, who are easily tarred as US puppets. And it should lead by example and hold its allies accountable for their human-rights abuses and elite corruption as well.

Ultimately, the best way the United States can help civil society in Russia is by normalizing relations enough that private civil-society groups from the United States and other countries can more effectively work in tandem with their Russian counterparts. It is hard to argue that the US-Russian tensions following the failure of Obama’s attempted “reset” have done Russian civil society any favors.

Punish the Real Culprits

In short, the next president’s Russia policy should reflect an agenda of combating corruption, inequality, and abuses at home. If the US political system is vulnerable to interference from abroad, it is only because it has decayed from within. Thus, while Russia should be held accountable for its intervention, the greater priority must be to hold accountable those Americans who accepted Russia’s assistance in order to enrich themselves at the expense of the public. The most important thing the next administration can do to prevent another 2016 is to root out the institutionalized corruption in Washington that Russia successfully exploited, and to investigate, expose, and prosecute everyone in Trump’s orbit who knowingly facilitated Russian interference. The only way to secure American democracy from foreign influence is to make America more genuinely democratic.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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