Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny arrested Kirill Kudryavtsev/Getty Images

Trump’s Bigger Russia Problem

Donald Trump’s stated desire to improve US relations with Russia is understandable; indeed, it is a goal shared by the last several US administrations. But betraying core American values for the sake of short-term gains is not worth the bargain.

WASHINGTON, DC – Shortly before taking office, US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to outline his vision for his country’s relationship with Russia. “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he declared in one tweet. “When I am President,” he proclaimed in another, Russia and the US “will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD!”

Of course, Trump is not wrong to try to improve relations with Russia. (The last several US presidents all sought the same goal.) But he must recognize that achieving that objective is not worth selling Russia’s pro-democratic activists down the river.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has effectively eliminated popular dissent in Russia. In 2012, soon after Putin’s return to the presidency, the Duma enacted the so-called foreign agent law, which focused on silencing organizations that receive funding from abroad and engage in anything that can be labeled “political activity.”

Since then, Russia’s government has unilaterally declared 88 organizations to be “foreign agents” – a term that sounds a lot like “spy.” The list includes a respected election-monitoring group, human-rights activists, pollsters, and even some scientific research groups. Their mandates vary, but the government’s message to them and others is clear: be critical of the Kremlin, and you will be silenced.

Russia’s government has taken several more steps to suppress dissent over the last five years, including labeling as “undesirable” several international organizations that have supported democracy activists and criminalizing Russian citizens’ involvement with them. It has also expanded the security agencies’ authority to track citizens’ online activities and curtail their right to free speech, while intensifying discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals and persecuting religious groups. And Kremlin critics have been arrested and even assassinated.

Such activities have apparently not fazed Trump. Even after the detention of thousands of anti-corruption protesters in more than 100 cities across Russia in March, the Trump administration issued only a tepid statement. On his visit to Moscow the following month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson mirrored this approach, eschewing the State Department tradition of meeting publicly with civil-society activists, despite urging from the US Congress.

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Trump and Tillerson, it seems, are fully willing to ignore the Kremlin’s repression of its opponents – not to mention its interference in America’s own democratic election, new evidence of which emerges almost daily – if it means avoiding uncomfortable conversations with Putin. They evidently believe that this approach has yielded results – most notably the fragile Syrian ceasefire that the US and Russia brokered in July.

But Russia took that deal out of self-interest, not because of the Trump administration’s obsequiousness. In fact, it is American interests that are being undermined by the Trump administration’s determination not to poke the Russian bear.

Whatever short-term “win” Trump might be able to secure by pandering to Russia, it means little compared to America’s long-term interest in the life, liberty, and equality of all human beings, as well as in the safeguarding of self-government. This is not to say that the US should not engage or collaborate with governments that operate on different principles. But we must be clear about what we are not willing to accept – beginning with the quashing of political dissent.

Upholding America’s core principles is not just the right thing to do; it is smart strategy. Putin’s authority may appear unshakeable, but it is actually propped up by propaganda and fear. When the US betrays its own values to avoid challenging Russia, it strengthens Putin’s hand considerably. Meanwhile, the perception that he has the US on the ropes enables Putin to continue silencing his opponents.

In the run-up to next year’s presidential election, Putin will not hesitate to take advantage of the leeway foreign leaders give him. Already, he has ensured that the opposition leader Alexei Navalny was convicted of embezzlement, giving the government an excuse to bar him from the ballot.

But Navalny, who has already withstood years of Kremlin pressure, will not give up so easily; nor will other opposition activists. Earlier this month, more than 200 Putin opponents won seats on local councils in Moscow’s municipal elections. Anti-corruption protests have continued throughout the year. And Navalny has just released a new exposé on Putin’s secret dacha near the border with Finland.

To be sure, Putin is expected to win a fourth term in office easily. But he will not lead Russia forever. Until then, the entire Russian population deserves to participate in democratic elections. Yet none of those held during Putin’s long tenure has been assessed as free or fair by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. By extending public support to election monitors and activists working to uphold democratic principles, the Trump administration could hearten the Russian opposition and advance a different vision for Russia’s future.

In the short term, a little hypocrisy may seem like a small price to pay for a quick victory. But both US foreign policy and America’s national narrative are long games. And, in the long term, the US would be much better off engaging with a democratic Russia where human rights were protected and political dissent tolerated.

Russia’s 2018 elections represent an important opportunity for Trump to advocate for such an outcome, and prove that American values are not up for negotiation. The US would not stoop to Putin’s level and interfere covertly in Russia’s electoral processes. But it should stand up for democracy and human rights – and stand with those who aspire to build free societies. The world must know that the US still has a soul.;
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