At this writing, it seems that the hundreds of trucks sent by Moscow with supplies for the residents of Eastern Ukraine will be delivered without further incident. For over a week, the long convoy wended its way toward the Ukrainian border, carrying with it the prospect for a spike in tensions between Moscow and Kiev. Concerns over the trucks’ contents—were they humanitarian supplies, or was the convoy a Trojan Horse, filled with weapons and munitions?—have been resolved. Even so, the drama over the convoy is unlikely to be the last in Moscow’s months-long campaign to sow instability in Ukraine.
After all, the Russian president’s main objective is to prevent the consolidation of a modern, democratic state in Ukraine, with economic prospects and political freedoms exceeding those he allows his own people. For him, hiving off Crimea in March to redeem a revanchist Russian claim wasn’t enough. By destabilizing Ukraine, Putin hopes to prevent its newly elected government from providing an attractive model for Russia’s citizens.
It wasn’t so long ago that Putin faced a similar challenge from within his own country. Just a few years back, stunning demonstrations in Moscow and other cities prompted predictions that Putin would soon leave power. Despite government control of television and the electoral administration, and obvious signs of fraud, Putin’s ruling United Russia party failed to clear the 50 percent mark in the December 2011 Duma elections that ignited the protests. Exit polls and independent monitors suggest that the real result might have been considerably lower.
Putin, however, was determined to stay in power. In March 2012 he reclaimed the presidency in elections also tainted by fraud, and set about using vindictive prosecutions and repressive laws to destroy the political opposition and civil society.
This has continued, even while the Kremlin sponsors subversion in Ukraine. In April, with the world’s attention focused on Ukraine, the Duma paved the way for the abolition of direct elections for mayors and legislative councils in dozens of cities. Prohibitive requirements for ballot access have effectively sidelined a leading, registered opposition party, the Republican Party of Russia–People’s Freedom Party (RPR-PARNAS, by its Russian acronym). Among other things, the party’s legal status enabled Alexei Navalny, an anticorruption campaigner who shot to prominence during the protest movement, to make a strong showing in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election. For the upcoming Moscow Duma (city council) election this September, the authorities have used signature requirements to disqualify a number of popular independent candidates. In July, several respected organizations dedicated to human rights and rule of law were formally labeled “foreign agents,” making it difficult if not impossible for them to continue their work.
Even so, Putin has reason to worry. Aside from revealing significant dissatisfaction with him and his clique, the protests unleashed sentiments common to democracy movements everywhere, regardless of culture or history. Protesters described themselves as motivated by a hunger for “decency,” “honesty,” and “conscience.” Tracking Navalny’s campaign for mayor, the British writer Peter Pomerantsev observed that campaign workers cared “less about the man himself and more about a desire for personal dignity and clear rules of the game. ‘I don’t want to live in lies’ was a common phrase, as was ‘There must be an alternative to this system.’ ”
Such values are inimical to the exclusive Russian culture, hostile to individual rights and universal values, that Putin promotes to stoke tensions with the West and distract attention from his misrule. It also puts him at odds with the liberal opposition, says Max Trudolyubov, opinion editor at the business daily Vedomosti, who dismisses Putin’s cultural determinism as “wrong science.” “Rules and institutions change culture,” he says, not the other way around.
In recent years, Putin hasn’t had to worry that the West feels the same way. Writing about the West’s policies of “reset” and “partnership” with the Kremlin in the American Interest in 2012, Lilia Shevtsova, a Russian political scientist, asked why the West no longer emphasizes liberal principles in its approach to Russia. Perhaps, she ventured, it is because of the disappearance of the Soviet Union as an ideological competitor, a backlash against the Bush era, or even the lure of “sweet deals.” “I can tell you how it looks from the outside,” Shevtsova wrote. “It looks, first and foremost, like doubt that liberal democracy could appeal to the nondemocratic world, and secondly, like a condescending attitude toward nations supposedly unable to accept liberal democratic principles.”
Leaders of Russia’s democratic opposition see the connection between Putin’s aggression abroad and his domestic agenda. They reject as “flimsy” the pretext—protecting ethnic Russians—on which the Ukraine aggression is based. “The main reason” for the aggression in Ukraine, said Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemtsov, co-chairmen of PARNAS at the outset of Putin’s assault on Ukraine, “is the reluctance of the Russian authorities to recognize the Ukrainian people’s sovereign right to its own fate. . . . Putin is trying to stifle freedom not only in Russia, but also in a neighboring country.”
Western governments have yet to appreciate this. Announcing new U.S. sanctions against Russia’s banking, energy, and arms industries on July 29, President Obama cast the measures as addressing only the “very specific issue of Ukraine.”
The West should seek more than just an “off-ramp” for Putin in Ukraine. Russia is already committed to free elections and human rights through its membership in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe. Restoring these principles to a central role would begin to address the link between Putin’s domestic agenda and his foreign adventurism, now on display in Ukraine, later perhaps elsewhere. Neglecting them will allow Putin to exempt Russia from universal values and make the work of Russia’s democrats much harder. Until the West takes these principles—and the Russians who want to live under them—seriously, it will treat only the symptoms rather than the cause of Putin’s aggression.
Ellen Bork is director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.