As Joe Biden selects his national security team, American policy toward Russia will occupy a prominent part in his deliberations about charting a fresh course in foreign affairs. A major new policy paper from the Atlantic Council, which is written by two experienced former diplomats, Alexander Vershbow and Daniel Fried, seeks to offer the incoming Biden administration suggestions on how to accomplish that. But while the Atlantic Council has often showcased a variety of important views, the Vershbow-Fried paper, “How the west should deal with Russia,” may not deliver quite as much as it promises.
One of Vershbow and Fried’s principal suggestions is that America should engage in “Exchanges, support for free media, and contact with a broad range of Russians—including, but not limited to, the opposition…” Vershbow and Fried acknowledge that “Putin’s regime will not like that, and will continue to stigmatize Russians who engage with the West as foreign agents. The United States needs to persevere despite the obstacles.” They also write that America should "fight back in the information space." This may sound uncontroversial and sensible. But such efforts could also inadvertently boomerang, leading to an even greater crackdown on civil society in Russia. The danger is not simply that Putin’s regime “will continue to stigmatize Russians,” but that the more pressure America tries to exert on Russia, the more draconian Moscow’s moves become internally toward anyone connected with the West.
Indeed, a new Russian law was just introduced in the Duma called the “Foreign Agents” bill. It would render most outside support for local organizations potentially illegal. Under the proposed law, all NGOs, non-registered organizations, and individuals engaged in political activity must term themselves foreign agents and report all instances of foreign funding in an affidavit submitted no less than twice a year. That funding includes any foreign entity, not just governments, and encompasses all third-party transactions. They must also report any conditions associated with all external funding and the specific steps they took to implement said conditions, potentially opening them up to further criminal prosecution. Moreover, any political candidates found to have received external funding must label themselves as agents of a specific foreign country and publicly disclose all of their interactions with nationals of that country.
There’s more. The law also renders it illegal for all foreign media outlets operating in Russia to promote or hinder a political candidate, or to take a stance on ongoing Russian referenda. Western outlets with Moscow bureaus stand to lose accreditation and, with it, the ability to operate in Russia, if they were to follow the report’s recommendation to “fight back.” This law—and others like it—has been conceived in no small part as a reaction to precisely the kind of Western intervention in Russian civic society that is being proposed by the authors. The result is to create a negative feedback loop that makes it more difficult, not easier, for opposition groups to flourish. In calling for vigorous Western support for the Russian opposition, the authors inadvertently hamstring the ability of that very opposition to function at the most basic level.
The report ends with a series of policy guidelines, calling for continued containment and selective rollback of “Kremlin aggression,” and avoiding any “grand bargains” with the Putin administration. There can be some limited cooperation on such piecemeal issues as the New START and climate change, but the authors stress that the gulf in values and strategic visions is so vast that there cannot be meaningful improvements in the relationship without a change of leadership in Moscow. Vershbow and Fried are right to point to the tensions afflicting the relationship between Washington and Moscow, but ultimately they don’t really offer any bold new suggestions for improving it.
In truth, the most intriguing aspect of the report may be its own genesis. At the rollout for the report, Maria Logan, a trustee of the Future of Russia Foundation, spoke briefly. The foundation supported the report as part of its “Future of Russia” collaborative series with the Atlantic Council. Introduced by Logan as a “UK charity,” Future of Russia is a registered non-profit that was co-founded in 2002 by exiled Russian oligarch and Kremlin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky occupies an ambiguous position in Russian society. As the head of Yukos, he was one of the most ruthless businessmen in Russia. In the play “Kleptocracy,” which was staged at the Arena Theater in Washington, the ghost of Vladimir Petukhov, the murdered mayor of Nefteyugansk, appears in Khodorkovsky’s prison cell covered in blood. In 2015 the Russian federal Investigative Committee accused Khodorkovsky of having the mayor murdered. Khodorkovsky’s wife Inna sued the playwright and director of “Kleptocracy” in March 2019 for libel, claiming that it was part of a Kremlin plot to defame him. U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich threw out the case this past January, noting, “the play is a work of fiction.” In Russia, he was sentenced twice for financial crimes but the motive was political as he was not hiding his political ambitions, including contemplating the possibility of becoming a prime minister with parliamentary support in 2003 against Vladimir Putin’s will.
In more ways than one Khodorkovsky has remained in the limelight. Since his release from prison in December 2013, after he was pardoned by Putin, Khodorkovsky has been one of the leading benefactors and proponents of anti-Kremlin efforts across the Western world. The “Future of Russia” series marks the latest effort by Khodorkovsky to influence American think-tanks. Khodorkovsky has previously spoken at Freedom House, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Atlantic Council. He has established multifarious proxy groups to forward his hardline views. Now, his foundation’s work with the Atlantic Council as well as Chatham House in London marks an intensification of his efforts to bolster legitimacy for his mission to transform Russia itself. Khodorkovsky is not a disinterested party seeking to disseminate new information about Russia, but an active participant in trying to bolster his own power in the country, including jockeying for influence with another opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.
The Atlantic Council report may not lead to the kind of regime change that Khodorkovsky champions. The series that he is funding does, however, help to bolster his own very personal mission to shape American foreign policy toward Russia. At a moment when concerns about Russian political interference remain acute, Khodorkovsky himself is becoming an increasingly active and intriguing participant in the Washington influence game.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.