Behind the Clinton-Putin Face-Off

Behind the Clinton-Putin Face-Off

The recent State Duma election—and especially Clinton's response to it—suggests that the United States is profoundly disconnected from Russia’s electorate.

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.

Moreover, while Russia’s election campaign and its voting were marred in many respects, the results generally match exit polling from reliable agencies. Taking this into account, the 4 percent figure for Russia’s liberals is probably not far from their actual public support, despite a ham-handed government attempt to help the Right Cause party earlier in the year by orchestrating billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov’s elevation to party leader. (Prokhorov quickly abandoned the party, declaring it a “Kremlin puppet.” Interestingly, some have suggested that Prokhorov took the post after Medvedev blocked former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, a long-time Putin aide, from leading Right Cause. Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets, just announced that he will run against Putin.) Kremlin political aides have long fretted that there is no liberal party in the Duma to provide some balance to the opposition’s pronounced leftward tilt and have sought more than once to create one. Vladislav Surkov, one such aide who some have termed a Russian Karl Rove, recently complained that Russia lacks “a mass liberal party, or more precisely, a party for the annoyed urban communities.”

This is ultimately the biggest problem with the Obama administration’s policy toward Russia, though it was a shortcoming of the Bush and Clinton administrations as well: American officials ostentatiously meet with Russia’s opposition leaders whenever they visit Moscow but give vastly disproportionate time and attention to people with a tiny political constituency. Lower-level officials do the same, concentrating on individuals and groups that often receive U.S. government funding. This is no way to understand what is happening in Russia, much less to develop policies to manage events there.

The December 4 State Duma election suggests that the United States is profoundly disconnected from Russia’s electorate. If Russia’s domestic politics do begin to matter, and opposition parties actually gain a degree of real influence any time soon, Washington might find itself profoundly disconnected from Russia’s political system as well. While it is not fully known whose supporters were in the streets—and in Moscow and St. Petersburg, many of the demonstrators may well have been liberals—at least 43 percent of Russian voters just endorsed three left-of-center nationalist parties. How do the White House and the State Department plan to reach them and to engage with their leaders? Some in Russia’s opposition espouse principles that put them off-limits, but most do not. The United States is in a similar position in much of the Middle East, where administration officials are likewise behind the curve.

Most broadly, the State Duma election starkly demonstrates that democracy in Russia is unlikely to solve the many challenges in U.S.-Russian relations and might even make them more troublesome. In other words, be careful what you wish for—you might get it.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.