Putin’s Wars at Home, and Abroad

Among the lesser noted but most revealing aspects of Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was that it took place on the same day, May 12th, that members of Russia’s democratic opposition released a report on the Kremlin’s involvement in Ukraine.

Titled “Putin. War,” the report was begun by Boris Nemtsov, the politician and former deputy prime minister, who was murdered on February 27th. It estimates the number of deaths of Russian soldiers at more than 200, the Kremlin’s expenditures as exceeding $1 billion, and alleges that control over the separatists enclaves in eastern Ukraine runs directly to the Kremlin.

The report’s significance isn’t as much the allegations it makes about Russian men and matériel, which are fairly well known. Rather, it’s in the courage of the authors, who publicly reject the aggression in Ukraine as “against the interests of Russia”—no small thing in a violent environment in which critics are smeared as traitors.

For these reasons, Secretary Kerry owed the report and its authors deference and respect. Instead, Kerry met with Putin for eight hours, ostensibly about Iran, Syria, and Ukraine, thanking him afterward for his time and “directness.” Kerry should have pressed Putin on democracy and human rights, Nemtsov’s murder, and the quickening pace of repression. Rather it appears that during these lengthy frank talks, Kerry found no time to mention Russia’s international obligations to hold free and fair elections, which the democratic opposition has recently united to contest.

The word “reset” may have been dropped from the administration’s vocabulary, but its approach is the same: pursue cooperation, even when it is not forthcoming, and set aside concerns about the character of the regime, which is responsible for the Russian government’s behavior at home and abroad. 

The political scientist Peter D. Feaver once described US pursuit of “constructive engagement” with Beijing as based on the premise that “If we avoid demands and embrace concessions, the Chinese will see us as reasonable and friendly rather than as weak and hostile.” 

When we overlook a Chinese challenge to preserve engagement, however, the Chinese can draw one of two inferences: that a weak United States is unwilling or unable to defend its interests, or that a strong United States is accommodating and reasonable. Constructive engagement depends on their drawing the latter inference.

Nothing about Kerry’s efforts to pursue cooperation with Russia suggests Putin has drawn the latter inference.

Obviously Putin will not be swayed only by words from the secretary of state, but so long as the Obama administration is unwilling to express American support for democracy in Russia, Putin will have reason to doubt American resolve, and Russia’s democrats will wage an increasingly life-or-death struggle alone. 

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