After talks with Putin, Biden must act to support democracy and human rights

President Biden and Russian President Putin shake hands in Geneva
Getty Images

First meetings often set the tone for relationships, and this week’s meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin certainly provided an indication of what the U.S. administration can expect from Moscow on human rights and democracy. Putin made very clear that he will not end his repression of civil society or even guarantee the life of his country’s most prominent activist and opposition figure, Alexei Navalny. When asked directly about the Kremlin’s silencing of dissent, Putin avoided committing to basic and universal human rights standards.

Given the backdrop of a 15-year global decline in democracy, many observers looked to the summit for reassurance that the United States will once again aspire to become a  beacon of freedom and democracy for the world. While Biden plainly stated that the Russian regime’s antidemocratic behavior at home and interference abroad are major barriers to the bilateral relationship, Putin’s brazen rejection of any accountability suggests that Washington will need to do more to rein in his abuses. 

As the White House explained in May, Biden’s meeting with Putin was not a “reward.” Engagement with authoritarian states on matters of security and human rights is a fundamental part of U.S. foreign policy, and the ongoing erosion of democratic standards around the world is a major strategic concern that Biden should be addressing personally with his counterparts. 

In recent decades, repressive regimes in every region have consolidated power domestically and extended their reach across international borders — with disturbingly little pushback from leading democracies. If that trend continues, the U.S. could soon see its democratic alliances unraveling and its security in general deteriorating as autocrats violate the rule of law, stoke armed conflicts and attack exiled dissidents with impunity. American companies will see their overseas investments increasingly threatened. 

After flirting with democracy in the 1990s, the Russian regime has become one of the world’s most repressive. Since December 2019, the Kremlin has steadily ramped up its persecution of the political opposition, civil society and independent media through a series of actions under vaguely written laws on extremism, terrorism and “foreign agents.” In the past year alone, Russian authorities have arrested, charged and jailed thousands of protesters and opposition figures. 

It is important to note that the Russian government’s tyranny is not contained within its own borders. Moscow is among the world’s most prolific perpetrators of transnational repression, accounting for seven of 26 known extraterritorial assassinations or assassination attempts against regime critics since 2014, as well as assaults, detentions, unlawful deportations and renditions in eight foreign countries, mostly in Europe.

President Biden’s assertion on Wednesday that standing up for human rights was “part of the DNA of our country” was encouraging, as was his promise that the Kremlin would face “devastating consequences” if Navalny were to die in prison. But these statements must be followed up with action. The U.S. government has many tools for responding meaningfully to increased repression, such as the Russia-specific Sergei Magnitsky Act, the Global Magnitsky Act and the newly created Khashoggi Ban, all of which provide for targeted sanctions against alleged perpetrators. Biden should not hesitate to use his legal authority to deter and punish human rights violations, whether they occur in Russia or elsewhere.

Following Navalny’s poisoning last year and his imprisonment by the Russian government in January, protests sprang up across the country. Not only were they focused on the Putin regime and its endemic corruption, unlike many recent locally oriented demonstrations, but they also featured the largest turnout since the Bolotnaya Square protests of 2011–12. The Russian people’s determination to make their voices heard despite the threat of violence and imprisonment is part of a global pattern in which popular demands for freedom and good governance have risen in response to growing government repression and malfeasance. To survive and prevail in harsh environments, however, such grassroots movements need tangible support and solidarity from democracies such as the United States.

President Biden must show that he can effectively prioritize democracy and human rights alongside other vital issues like the pandemic and its impact on the economy. In conjunction with partners and allies, the U.S. should continue pressing the Russian government to release all political prisoners and repeal repressive legislation, and it should publicly condemn abuses whenever they occur.

Biden should galvanize fellow democracies to impose coordinated, targeted sanctions on perpetrators and push back on Moscow’s exploitation of open societies, including its intimidation of dissidents abroad. As a first step to curb the Kremlin’s manipulation of Interpol notices to trigger the detention of its critics in other countries, Congress should immediately pass the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act, which contains measures to reduce Interpol abuse in the United States and policies designed to encourage reform at Interpol itself.

Biden was right to deliver his message on democracy and human rights directly to the Russian leader. Putin, along with other dictators and beleaguered democrats around the world, will be watching closely to see whether the administration supports its stated principles with strong and sustained action. 

Michael J. Abramowitz is the president of Freedom House.

Tags Alexei Navalny Biden-Putin meeting Corruption in Russia freedom house Joe Biden Magnitsky Act Politics of Russia Russia Sergei Magnitsky Vladimir Putin

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