On September 1, 1983, Korean Airlines flight 007 left New York and strayed some 300 miles off course en route to Seoul, finding itself over Soviet airspace. A Soviet fighter jet shot the 747 out of the sky, killing all 269 aboard.
Victor Sebestyan’s excellent “Revolution: 1989” recounts the Kremlin’s top brass gathering to stake out a response. The strategy was simple: deny! “Don’t worry,” Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov told Secretary General Yuri Andropov, “Nobody will be able to prove a thing. The Americans can never find out.” The Soviet military, Sebestyan writes, didn’t like to admit mistakes.
Unlike 1983, Putin can’t black out news of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. But he has stood aside as Russia media spouts all types of conspiracy theories: the CIA, Ukrainian air traffic controllers, or—my favorite—maybe even zombies may be responsible, depending on which Russian broadcast you’ve seen.
Harsh, broad American-European sanctions are a welcome, if tardy, response to Russia’s involvement in the slaughter of nearly 300 innocents. The punishment alone will likely make Putin think twice before his next foreign policy adventure.
But sanctions won’t likely alter Russia’s near term behavior. Putin is far too invested and too popular at home—sporting an 83 percent approval rating—to do anything but throw good money after bad. There is no exit strategy.
The root problem underlying Putin’s opaque, destructive behavior is obvious: Russia is not a democracy. If Russia had a free media and fair elections, Putin could not act in such an aggressive manner while remaining extraordinarily popular for long. Just ask George W. Bush. There’s no domestic price tag for what he’s done in Ukraine.
What, if anything, can the West do to help foster pluralism, transparency, and openness in Russia?
Let’s be realistic. No matter what policies the U.S. and E.U. adopt, Russia will not transform itself into a Jeffersonian democracy overnight. The West can, however, foster change at the margins. Since Putin has rewritten the constitution so he almost certainly remains in power until 2024, then slow, methodical progress may yield real progress over the coming decade. Two avenues are most attractive:
The first is to shame Russia in the court of public opinion. President Obama and European leaders have powerful pulpits from which they can call out Russia’s human rights record, sham elections, and censored media. American Internet companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are required to move their servers onto Russian soil by September 2016 if they want to do business there.
Good work is being done by Western NGOs—like the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute—to develop political parties of all stripes in Russia. When they inevitably come under attack the president and other leaders must be prepared to take up their cause.
Obama has backed off previous commitments to promote openness and freedom in Russia, and this is a mistake. Public presidential support works. It makes dictators self-conscious, and consistently applied, can shed light on a closed system.
The second option is to fight the narrative that Putin is restoring Russia to its rightful place among great nations. The West can effectively send messages directly to the Russian public that state-influenced media can’t spin. Its leaders’ actions have turned the country into an international pariah. The goal is to symbolically hit Russian pride.
The next G20 meeting is set for Australia in November, and Putin is still on the guest list. Disinvite him. Deny visas to Russian athletes competing international sporting events, through the International Ski Federation, International Skating Union, and, if necessary, the 2016 Olympics. Quietly tell FIFA, soccer’s ruling body, to move the Russian-hosted 2018 World Cup. Then publicly threaten a multi-country boycott if FIFA, with governance challenges of its own, doesn’t respond. And possibly most painfully, ban Russia from the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest. No matter what the Russian press says, more eyebrows will raise.
The West should never back down when working to open Russian society to democratic pluralism. However, economic and these symbolic sanctions can be lifted after Russia ends support for rebels in eastern Ukraine and withdraws from Crimea.
Arkedis is the president of 4D PAC, a multi-candidate political action committee that endorses candidates with strong national security platforms, and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project.