By the Democracy & Human Rights Working Group*
Russia’s authoritarian political system under President Vladimir Putin shows no signs of letting up on its domestic repression or its foreign activities. The courts, the legislative branch, most of the media, and the security services are all controlled by the Kremlin, with private sector oligarchs beholden to Putin and corruption the glue that holds it all together. Regional elections in 2019 resulted in all 16 governorships being won by Kremlin-backed candidates, while opposition candidates were excluded from Moscow’s city parliament elections. Freedom of assembly and expression continue to be suppressed, as nongovernmental organizations struggle from fines and intimidation campaigns under the “foreign agents” law and the ban on “undesirable” foreign organizations. In November 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the “For Human Rights” movement – one of Russia’s oldest human rights organizations — must shut down. Journalists remain targets of attacks, arrests, raids, and threats. Impunity for violence, including in Chechnya, persists, as well as impunity for torture, mistreatment, and domestic abusers throughout the country. According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2020, Putin signed a law in May 2019 allowing authorities to cut off access to the internet in Russia in response to “security threats;” it came into effect in November 2019 and will be fully in force in January 2021.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given Putin another excuse for cracking down on civil liberties. As of June 2020, Russia has the third highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, after the United States and Brazil, though its reported death toll — just over 6,300 — is suspiciously low compared to the tens of thousands of deaths in the other countries near the top of the list. Interestingly, the number of reported deaths in Russia from pneumonia has grown about 70 percent over last year. Official media sources offer disinformation rather than the accurate facts and figures that citizens crave. There are increased restrictions on freedom of speech and movement; the requirement in Moscow for a QR or SMS code to go more than 100 meters from one’s home is being called by some a “digital gulag” and is combined with 170,000 facial-recognition cameras on the streets. New laws put journalists covering the pandemic at risk with sentences of up to five years in prison for spreading “false information.” Some hospitals have closed because medical professionals have not been given personal protective equipment and have gotten sick, and those who criticize the regime risk serious repercussions. In early May, The Moscow Times reported on the third instance of a health care professional “falling out” of a hospital window over the course of two weeks, after at least two of them had expressed concerns about the authorities’ handling of the coronavirus crisis.
At the same time, corrupt oligarchs continue to benefit from their ties to the ruling class, building their own hospitals, buying ventilators for themselves, and ensuring that at least they are protected. Perhaps the decision of greatest concern, however, is the nationwide vote on changing the constitution that was scheduled for April 22 but rescheduled for July 1 due to the pandemic; the proposed changes would reset Putin’s terms in office to zero so that he can run again in 2024 for another two six-year terms, as well as other changes of concern, such as designating the supremacy of Russian law over international law and norms. If passed, Putin would remain in office until 2036, making him Russia’s longest serving leader in history. Also troubling are the amendments passed by the parliament on May 13, 2020 that will allow for voting electronically and by mail during the pandemic. While in many countries, including the United States, this is a normal voting procedure, experts see it as a way for Russian officials to conceal the vote count as proper oversight is unlikely. Further, the requirements for the registration of independent candidates have been made even tougher, making it extremely difficult for opposition candidates to participate in Russian elections.
On the international stage, Russia continues to be a threat to others, particularly democratic countries. There is no doubt that Russia is still trying to disrupt elections in both the United States and Europe. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine continues, but it is also making creeping annexation efforts into Georgian territory. Putin persists in pressuring President Lukashenko about a Russian union with Belarus, while stirring up trouble in the Western Balkans to try to disrupt further EU or NATO integration. Russia has not ended its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s civil war, support that has included war crimes committed by Russian forces. Russia has also propped up the illegitimate regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, viewing this as an opportunity to assert itself geopolitically in a region it views as the United States’ “near abroad.”
Russia under President Putin is a threat to the West and to its own people. While the West has worked to counter Russia through a variety of “sticks,” it is also important to explore the use of “carrots,” in particular aimed at the Russian people. Recommendations for the U.S. administration, Congress, and the 2020 presidential candidates for supporting democracy, human rights and rule of law in Russia include:
- Maintaining, even enhancing, sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act and other statutes, as they are effective in pressuring the elites but still allow for humanitarian aid.
- Maintaining sectoral and financial sanctions, which have effectively put Putin’s state-run businesses under an international credit blockade and can significantly constrain their external ambitions, unless and until Putin withdraws Russian forces from Ukraine.
- Continuing to provide support to Russian civil society organizations, especially by training human rights lawyers, both within and outside of Russia, and by working with them to fight the legal tools (i.e. “foreign agents” law and ban on “undesirable” foreign organization) being used by the Kremlin to stifle independent civil society.
- Ending the enabling of Russian oligarchs who buy assets, in particular cash-based real estate purchases, in the United States as a means of protecting their corrupt wealth, and urging other countries to do the same.
- Countering Russia’s disinformation efforts by supporting independent media and media literacy campaigns relating to the virus (origins of COVID-19, prevention measures, etc.), elections in Russia and the Kremlin’s efforts to influence elections abroad, human rights violations, and prisoner rights.
- Monitoring the state of political prisoners in Russia and urging their release, as they risk a death sentence if they remain in cramped prisons without protection from COVID-19.
- Coordinating with allies in Europe to develop a global response to the COVID-19 pandemic that is based on science and meets the needs of those most affected, with the intent of providing needed assistance to Russia and other countries whose governments are not addressing the crisis effectively, including considering providing needed medical supplies to Russia to fight COVID-19.
- Providing support for countries neighboring Russia, both with regard to fighting the coronavirus as well as other needs, such as providing enhanced security cooperation and assistance.
- Renewing New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) before it expires in February 2021, as arms control is an area where Russia and the U.S. still share common goals.
* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.