The detention this week in Moscow of anti-corruption activist Aleksey Navalny means that the incoming Biden administration will immediately face profound choices about its strategy toward the Kremlin. In this case, the sudden crisis around Navalny — whom Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinErdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system EU 'denounces' Russian malicious cyber activity aimed at member states Navalny knocks Apple, Google for removing voting app MORE’s thugs unsuccessfully attempted to murder a few months ago with a banned chemical weapon — points the way to what should be the new U.S. approach: namely, unambiguous alignment with the Russian people in their growing demands for rule of law, political freedom, and economic opportunity.
Such a policy would represent a sharp break from recent history. For the past 20 years, U.S. presidents entering office have ignored Russia’s internal politics. Instead, they have pursued partnership with the Kremlin on issues of strategic interest — whether combating terrorism, reducing nuclear weapons, or dealing with the rise of China.
Implicit in this attitude was a wider disillusionment in Washington about the prospects for democracy in Russia. After the chaos of the 1990s, many in the West were prepared to accept that perhaps Russians are simply predisposed by their culture and history towards despotism. In this view, Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power is not tragic accident of fate but a reflection of his country’s true national character.
As the growing popularity of Navalny and his wider movement illustrate, however, this interpretation is wrong. Indeed, Putin himself clearly fears the desire of his own population for democratic change — to the point that he and his government representatives refuse to utter Navalny’s name. It is also for this reason that the Kremlin has fought so ruthlessly to destroy democracy in Ukraine and to stamp out the recent uprising against the dictatorship in Belarus.
Yet the Kremlin’s failure to kill Navalny — and his subsequent exposure of the bumbling agents who were behind the assassination attempt — underscores the extent to which, beneath its elaborate displays of strength, Putin’s regime is not the all-powerful force it tries to portray. In fact, it is riddled with incompetence and rot.
Ultimately, Russia’s fate will be determined by the Russian people, not outsiders. Contrary to Putin’s self-serving conspiracy theories, the real driver of Russian unrest is not Western conspiracy but his regime’s own kleptocratic corruption, repression of universal freedoms, and failures at governing.
The U.S. must not stand aloof. Let us double down our efforts to expose Kremlin corruption and human rights abuses. Let us slam the door on laundering of money stolen from the Russian people. And, most importantly, let us actively and comprehensively engage the Russian people, using the latest digital communications, encouraging them in their demands for decent government that will yield a better way of life.
U.S. policy should be driven by the bold vision of Russia evolving toward liberal democracy, with real elections, a free press and the rule of law; a prosperous Russia constructively engaged with the West. Achieving that vision should be our goal.
Such a vision-driven policy of freedom, opportunity and the rule of law would be highly congruent with President Biden’s call for a Summit of Democracy to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world” and “to fight corruption, defend against authoritarianism, and advance human rights.” It would also be consistent with bipartisan actions such as enactment and enforcement of the Magnitsky Act, which sanctions abuses of human rights in memory of the Russian fighter for justice, Sergei Magnitsky who was killed by Putin’s thugs.
The sudden dissolution of the Soviet Union reminds us it’s a mistake to discount the possibility of rapid political change in Russia. As in the ’80s and ’90s, there is growing discontent reflected in persistent protests in Moscow and far-off cities like Khabarovsk. Almost half of Russians aged 18 to 24 tell pollsters they want to emigrate, frustrated by the country’s stagnation and corruption.
Realism requires U.S. policymakers to recognize that true stability in U.S.-Russian relations is impossible until Russian citizens bring about fundamental change. With our support, that change could materialize sooner than Washington or Moscow now imagine.
Gordon Humphrey served as a U.S. senator from New Hampshire from 1979- 1990. Joe Lieberman served as a U.S. senator from Connecticut from 1989-2013.