Thursday witnessed a confluence of great minds descending upon the Heritage Foundation to discuss Russia in the wake of Obama and Putin’s re-election. Four of those minds made up the discussion panel, and though they came from notably different walks of life (Russian and American, liberal and conservative), they were remarkably united in their negative outlook.
The backdrop of the discussion involved President Obama’s much-touted “reset” of relations, and the various ways this policy had failed to change anything. On the contrary, all the panelists cited a growing strain of anti-Americanism, fueling laws like “DimaYakovlev,” banning Americans from adopting Russian orphans.
There is still much room for hope. Vladimir Kura-Murza, senior policy advisor to the Institute of Modern Russia, described how a growing civil society that had turned out against Putin’s re-election for the largest “political” protests since 1991. This group was primarily urban, middle class, connected to the internet, pro-democracy, and going nowhere fast.
On the other hand, Mr. Kura-Murza, buttressed by comments from Dr. Steven Blank, explained that Putin’s regime is quickly expanding its portfolio of repression. This includes expansions in what it means to commit an act of “high treason.” Anyone thought to undermine “constitutional order, sovereignty and territorial and state integrity” counts, and they can even be tried and fined posthumously. The panel also made it very clear that “the Gulag is back,” citing numbers of political prisoners held since Putin’s inauguaration.
Dr. Katrina Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation, emphasized that serious human rights violations are difficult to track and cover in an environment of state-controlled media, where organizations that receive outside funding are required to register as “foreign agents.” She also commented on a growing amount of tension for non-orthodox religious groups as the Duma seeks to make blasphemy a criminal act.
All of this happens to be congealing in a period of U.S. disengagement. Mr. Kura-Murza noted that the State Department blandly congratulated the Russian people on their successful election on the same day as the election protests. As the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan and quietly stops talking about a “new silk road,” they cede Central Asia to Russia’s sphere of influence. Finally, Russian moves to block action in Syria and Iran have so far met no apparent American resistance.
The panel explained that Russia was bent on an anti-democracy trajectory, and that this stood out as the lynch pin to understanding their stance towards America. By staying true to its principles, America should eventually be able to find a worthy response.