Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have meant well in stating that Russia’s December 4 State Duma elections were “neither free nor fair” and that the Russian people “deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted.” Unfortunately, meaning well and doing good aren’t always the same. U.S. leaders should be careful in reacting to the elections and to the resulting protests, in which tens of thousands took part on December 10.
With her initial statements, Clinton provoked an immediate and wholly predictable response from Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. Putin accused the Obama administration of fomenting protests in Russia and attempting to undermine Moscow’s authority because it is a “major nuclear power” and Washington doesn’t want its leaders to “forget who is the boss on our planet.”
State Department officials should have expected the response; Putin has often leveled such accusations in the past. In the present environment, Clinton’s statement was a soft pitch to a slugger. There is also some history: as a presidential candidate, Senator Clinton said that Putin “doesn’t have a soul,” which elicited the tart reply that “at a minimum, a state official must at least have a head.” Early in the administration, she publicly expressed preference for outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev over Putin—another miscalculation.
Megaphone diplomacy rarely brings out the best from international leaders. While administration officials doubtless felt pressure to say something about Russia’s elections and may have chosen a statement by Clinton over a higher-profile statement by the president, Clinton’s remarks were poorly formulated. The secretary invited Russia’s prime minister to respond as he did and provided a tailor-made opportunity for Putin and other Russian officials to attempt to divert attention from Russia’s very real problems to the United States, which many in the country already view skeptically. (Note that she also contradicted Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s confident assertion that “elections in Russia took place on the highest level and our observers saw no violations.”)
Some in the administration, and outside it, must believe that Russians turn on their computers, smartphones or televisions after every major development in their country to wait for the U.S. reaction. In fact, there is no clear audience for Clinton’s comments in Russia, where its two main liberal parties—Yabloko and Right Cause—received only a combined 4 percent of the vote. Members of these two generally pro-Western parties might pay attention to what the United States says, but few others will.
The parties that picked up seats in the election, the Communists, the social-democratic Just Russia party and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, have limited interest in editorial comments and policy recommendations from American officials. Their supporters—who total 43 percent of voters in the election—may not agree with Putin on much, but they seem to share his irritation with perceived U.S. efforts to butt into their politics. Alexey Navalny, the blogger who energized opposition voters with his attacks on Russia’s corrupt authorities, has visibly aligned himself with nationalists rather than liberals.