The United States and its allies must acknowledge that for the Russian government and elite, there is no issue more sensitive and more fundamental than their ability to remain in power, without foreign interference. The Navalny Affair is heightening Russian sensitivities to the prospect of a fresh color revolution aided by the West. If Russia’s ruling strata believes it is under Western attack, no major cooperative arrangements can be reached, let alone sustained. But Moscow should know that if it does not cross Washington’s red lines, then some kind of mutually satisfactory modus vivendi can be found with America. There must be a clear distinction between letting less-than-democratic regimes know that their domestic practices harm their opportunity for cooperation with the United States and communicating to them that, no matter how well they work with the United States internationally, Washington will always be prepared to challenge them domestically. After all, a core problem with autocratic elites is that they do not detach their personal fortunes from the fundamental well-being of their nations. Rather, when backed into a corner, they often lash out. In demanding that Russia release Alexei Navalny and make other concessions, Biden may even be doing Putin an inadvertent favor. Such tough talk worked well in the past for Vice President Biden in dealing with corrupt but Western-leaning Ukraine. In confronting Moscow, however, it allows the Russian leader to wrap himself in a patriotic mantle as the protector of his country against a foreign diktat. With just nineteen percent of Russians approving Navalny’s activities, in comparison with sixty percent for Putin (according to a recent respected Levada poll), standing up to Biden may well be to Putin’s political advantage.
Recent pressure on the Russian government over Navalny seems to have only stiffened Putin’s spine. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned that if push comes to shove, Russia may be ready to break relations with the European Union. His deputy Sergei Ryabkov stated that in order to prevent “aggressive interference in its internal affairs,” Russia should engage in “containment” of the United States, including military containment. This is the toughest the Kremlin has sounded since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
THERE CAN be no doubt that (nuclear weapons notwithstanding) survival is not enough; in relations with adversaries like Russia, fear of nuclear war should not exert a paralyzing effect that incapacitates the pursuit of fundamental national interests. To dismiss the threat of nuclear war entirely, however, would be a sharp departure from political common sense. Increasingly, U.S. officials, members of Congress, and commentators appear to interpret any approach short of freezing out Russia as tantamount to appeasement.
The new Western conventional wisdom assumes that the root cause of Russian aggression is the very nature of Putin’s oppressive regime, which requires an external enemy. In Russia’s consumer-oriented, middle-class-minded society, however, the government benefits more from emphasizing prosperity at home and partnership with the West. That is why, despite the West’s demonstrable view of Russia as an adversary, Putin and his advisors publicly call America and its allies partners and emphasize their interest in renewed cooperation. The Russian political elite, on the other hand, assume that they were naïve in the past about Western intentions and are determined to pursue their interests at home and abroad, regardless of foreign condemnation and pressure.
Still, the challenge from a resurgent Russia should not be over-dramatized or oversimplified. Like most challenges in history, it can be addressed through a combination of force and inducement. Inducement alone will not be enough, but force and coercion without inducement and dialogue are unlikely to work either—and they have the potential to bring about the end of history, not in a triumphalist fashion, but rather in the form of the end of human civilization.
Dimitri K. Simes, publisher of The National Interest, is president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest.