It’s winter in Russia, which is not a season for the faint-hearted. The pandemic is still hitting the country hard, with the number of new COVID cases hovering around 20,000 a day, which has cumulatively put the country in the global top five in terms of infections.
Under these inauspicious conditions, if you are brave enough to face down the cold and COVID to protest openly against the government of Vladimir Putin, your reward may well be a trip to jail. If you’re very good at your job of protesting, you might win the grand prize of an attempt on your life.
Yet, for the last two weeks, Russians have poured into the streets in the tens of thousands. Even in the Russian Far East, protesters turned out in Yakutsk (45 below zero) and Krasnoyarsk (22 below).
Putin has predictably responded with force, throwing more than 5,000 people into jail.
Media coverage of the Russian protests focus, not surprisingly, on Alexei Navalny. After recovering in Germany from an assassination attempt, the Russian opposition leader returned to Moscow on January 17. He was promptly arrested at the airport where his plane was rerouted. His close associates, who’d shown up at the original destination of his flight to welcome him home, were also detained. These arrests, and the government’s desire to lock Navalny away in prison for as long as possible, triggered the latest round of demonstrations throughout the country.
Vladimir Putin has ruled over Russia for more than two decades. Because of the constitutional changes he rammed through last year, he has effectively made himself leader for life. Will these latest protests make a dent in his carapace of power?
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Russian governments this week exhibited a modest form of engagement by extending the New START treaty on nuclear weapons for another five years. Despite this hopeful sign, no one expects anything close to a full reset of U.S.-Russian relations during a Biden administration.
But as Putin faces protests in the street and Biden deals with recalcitrant Republicans in Congress, the two countries might at least avoid direct conflict with one another. More optimistically – and can you blame a boy for dreaming? – the two countries could perhaps find common cause against the global scourges of nuclear weapons, climate change, and pandemic.
Putin vs. Navalny
Although they face each other across the Russian chessboard, Vladimir Putin and Alexei Navalny share some basic attributes. They are both adept politicians who know the power of visuals, symbols, and stories. They rely on the media to sustain their popularity, Putin using state-controlled media and Navalny exploiting social media.
And they have both been willing to adjust their messages to grow their appeal among everyday Russians by turning to nationalism. Putin started out as a rather conventional Soviet bureaucrat, with a commitment to all of the ethnic groups within the Soviet Union. Even when he became the leader of Russia in 1999, he thought of himself as the head of a multiethnic country. Particularly after 2014 and the conflict with Ukraine, however, Putin began to make appeals to russky (ethnic) Russians rather than rossisky (civic) Russians. He has made the defense of ethnic Russians in surrounding regions – Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltics – a priority for his administration.
Navalny, meanwhile, started out as a rather conventional Russian liberal who joined the reformist party Yabloko. Liberalism, however, has never really appealed to a majority of Russians, and parties like Yabloko attracted few voters. Navalny began to promote some rather ugly xenophobic and chauvinistic messages. As Alexey Sakhnin writes in Jacobin:
He participated in the far-right Russian Marches, waged war on “illegal immigration,” and even launched campaign “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” directed against government subsidies to poor, ethnic minority-populated autonomous regions in the south of the country. It was a time when right-wing sentiments were widespread, and urban youth sympathized with ultra-right groups almost en masse. It seemed to Navalny that this wind would fill his sails — and partly, it worked.
Navalny used nationalism to wipe away any memories of his unpopular liberalism, but it was difficult to compete with Putin on that score. So, increasingly, the oppositionist focused on the corruption of the Putin regime, publishing exposes of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wealth and most recently a video tour of a huge palace on the Black Sea said to be the Russian president’s (which Putin denies).
With these critiques of the ruling elite’s corruption, Navalny can bring tens of thousands of angry protesters, particularly young people, onto the streets. Unlike present-day Belarus or Ukraine 2014, the Russian protestors don’t represent the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens. Vladimir Putin remains a relatively popular figure in Russia. Although his approval ratings have dropped from the 80 percent range that were common five years ago, they still hover around 70 percent. U.S. presidents would be thrilled with those numbers. Approval of the Russian government is considerably less – around 50 percent – which suggests that Putin has successfully portrayed himself as somehow above everyday politics.
Still, the Russian leader is worried. In his latest speech at the World Economic Forum, Putin spoke in apocalyptic terms of a deteriorating international situation. “The pandemic has exacerbated the problems and disbalances that have been accumulating,” he said. “International institutions are weakening, regional conflicts are multiplying, and the global security is degrading.”
His comments on the global situation reflect more parochial concerns. Because of COVID, the Russian economy contracted by 4 percent in 2020. Although the government implemented various measures to cushion the impact, many Russians are suffering as a result of rising unemployment and falling production. The Russian economy depends a great deal on sales of oil and natural gas. Any further reduction in global trade – either because of the pandemic or tariff wars – would complicate Russia’s economic recovery and consequently undermine Putin’s political position.
The immediate challenge comes from the parliamentary elections later this year. Putin’s United Russia party currently holds a comfortable majority in the Duma. The other two top parties are led by nationalists who are equally if not more fanatical – Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party. But a political force coalescing around a figure like Navalny could disrupt Putin’s balance of power.
That’s why Navalny returned to Moscow. And that’s why the Russian court decided this week to lock Navalny away for more than two years – for violations of a parole that required him to report to the authorities that tried to kill him. Navalny has taken an enormous risk, while Putin is taking no chances. The Russian leader has long deployed a preemptive strategy against any potential rival. Those who dare to oppose him have been killed (Boris Nemtsov), poisoned (Vladimir Kara-Murza), jailed (Mikhail Khodorkovsky), or forced into exile (Garry Kasparov).
Civil society is also under siege in Russia, with activists vulnerable to charges of being, basically, spies and saboteurs under a “foreign agent law.” Yet the environmental movement, the women’s movement, the LGBT community, and others continue to protest against the country’s authoritarian system. And these protests are not just taking place in relatively liberal enclaves in the western part of the country like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Large-scale demonstrations took place at the end of 2020 in Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East, over the arrest of the region’s independent-minded governor. While Navalny gets the press, civil society activists have quietly built up networks around the country that can turn people out onto the streets when necessary.
Like all authoritarians, Putin uses “law and order” arguments to his advantage. Russians have a horror of anarchy and civil strife. They have long favored an “iron fist” approach to domestic politics, which helps explain the persistent, posthumous fondness for Stalin, who had a 70 percent approval rating in 2019. According to polling conducted last year, three in four Russians believe that the Soviet era was the best period of time for Russia, and it certainly wasn’t the dissident movement of that period that made them nostalgic.
The protesters thus have to tread carefully to avoid losing popular support among a population fond of an iron fist but also deeply disgusted by the corruption, economic mismanagement, and social inequality of the Putin era. The Russian opposition also has to grapple with the distinct possibility that getting rid of Putin will usher in someone even worse.
The extension of New START, the last nuclear arms control treaty in effect between Russia and the United States, is a spot of good news in an otherwise dismal outlook for relations between the two countries. Biden has prided himself on his knowledge of and commitment to arms control. So, if the two countries can agree on terms of selective engagement, the next four years could be profitably taken up by a series of negotiations on military weaponry.
New START merely establishes ceilings on nuclear warheads for both sides and addresses only strategic, not tactical, nukes. So, as Stephen Pifer argues, a follow-on treaty could establish a ceiling on all nuclear warheads, for instance at 2,500, which would cover battlefield nuclear weapons and result in at least a 50 percent cut in the arsenals of the two sides. Another option for bilateral negotiations would be to focus on limitations to missile defense or, at the very least, cooperation to protect against third-party missile attacks. A third option would be to focus on conventional weaponry and constraints on weapons sales.
The Biden administration could even move more quickly with an announcement of a no-first-use policy of nuclear weapons – something Biden has supported in the past – and agreeing with Moscow to de-alert ICBMs much as Reagan and Gorbachev de-alerted another leg of the nuclear triad, strategic bombers, back in 1991.
This arms control agenda is only part of a larger potential program of selective engagement. The United States and Russia could return to their coordination around the Iran nuclear deal. They could explore ways to cooperate on global challenges like climate change and pandemics. They could even start addressing together the harmful effects of economic globalization, a topic Putin brought up in his recent Davos speech.
To do so, however, the two countries will have to manage the numerous points of friction in their relationship. For one thing, they’ve gone head-to-head in various proxy battles – in Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya. Russia is legitimately furious that NATO expanded to its very doorstep, and the United States is legitimately concerned about Russian interventions in its “near abroad,” most recently in Ukraine. The United States has lots of evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election – not to mention Russian involvement in a coup attempt in Montenegro that same year and its meddling in the presidential election in Madagascar two years later – and Russia is pissed off at U.S. “democracy promotion” in the Color Revolutions and within Russia itself. Russia is eager to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bring natural gas to Germany, while the United States is eager to sell its own gas to its European ally. Then there’s Russia’s penchant for assassinating Russians in other countries and repressing protestors at home.
Any of these issues could scuttle cooperation between Moscow and Washington. One way of negotiating around this minefield is to delink the agendas of cooperation and conflict. Arms control advocates have a long history of doing just that by resisting calls to link other issues to arms control negotiations. Thus, the Iran nuclear deal focuses exclusively on the country’s nuclear program, not its missiles, not its relations with other countries in the region, not its human rights situation. The same lack of linkage has historically applied to all the arms control agreements between Washington and Moscow.
This strategy of delinking doesn’t mean that these other issues are completely off the table. They are simply addressed at different tables.
Those who desperately want a new cold war with Russia will not be happy with such a practical solution. They don’t want to talk with Putin about anything. As repugnant as I find the Russian leader, I have to acknowledge that he heads up an important global player and he has the support (for the time being at least) of much of his population. So, even as we challenge the Russian leadership’s conduct at home and abroad, we must also work with Moscow in the interests of global peace, prosperity, and sustainability.
Of course, there’s another word for all this.
This article has been republished with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.