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January saw violent protests in both Washington and Moscow. Supporters of then U.S. President Donald Trump stormed the United States Capitol ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, and in Russia, opponents of President Vladimir Putin demonstrated against the imprisonment of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Chaos, anger, and arrests: the imagery, even the language, was similar—the Kremlin media routinely describe protests as “attempted insurrections”—but beyond these superficial parallels, the equivalence ends. The Russian protesters were trying to establish the rule of law; the Americans to overthrow it.
The Trump presidency and its final act, in particular, revealed the fragility of American democracy. In the eyes of Russia—and of many others—the stature of the United States was diminished. As a result, Washington’s default approach to Moscow is no longer tenable. With the exception of Trump, who openly sought Putin’s approval, every U.S. president since the end of the Cold War has used moral grandstanding as a means to influence Moscow. If Biden revives this approach—as the rhetoric coming out of the White House and some of his new appointments indicate he might—then U.S.-Russian relations are likely to continue their downward spiral of animosity and “whataboutism.” Lecturing Putin about human rights will only anger the Russian president and could end up hurting the democratic reformers Washington aims to support.
But with humility and pragmatism, the Biden administration can still seek to influence Russian behavior for the better, albeit more modestly than Washington has done in the past. It will require working cooperatively with allies and acknowledging the limits of American power. Having relinquished its exclusive claim to moral leadership, the United States would be wise to scale back its ideological ambitions abroad in favor of self-improvement at home.
The riot on Capitol Hill, blasted across Russian screens via social media, punctured the myth of American moral superiority. It also seemed to vindicate the Kremlin’s portrayal of the United States as a divided, racist, and hypocritical nation. Whereas police officers had cracked down violently on Black Lives Matter protesters just months earlier in cities across the United States, they now stood back and let a mob of Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol.
The spectacle invited some predictable gloating from Russian officials and state media. But even more telling was the dismissive, almost indifferent response from the highest echelons of the Russian government. Putin was largely silent on the American presidential transition. And on the day of Biden’s inauguration, the Kremlin issued a statement saying that it was “not preparing for the inauguration. Nothing will change for Russia; it’s been around for many hundreds of years and will continue to be.” For the first time in decades, Moscow was saying it does not especially care what the United States does or thinks.
Asked to comment on the riots on Russian television, Konstantin Kosachev, chair of Russia’s Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, described the U.S. government as aloof from society and American democracy as broken. Vyacheslav Volodin, chair of Russia’s parliament, the Duma, and an influential architect of domestic policy, penned a statement arguing that the standards “imposed by the U.S.” should be reassessed based on the events in Washington. “The U.S. political system is not only closed, but it’s been frozen in development for about 70 years,” Volodin wrote. “Two parties have a monopoly on power, not allowing other political forces” to play a role. He concluded with a call for the United States to get its own house in order and to “build its [foreign] policy based on non-interference in the affairs of other sovereign states.”
The riot on Capitol Hill punctured the myth of American moral superiority.
Volodin had a point. One need not buy into conspiracy theories about the “deep state” stealing the election from Trump to consider that maybe, just maybe, the political crisis in the United States was not purely the result of Russian meddling in 2016, that Trump was as much a symptom of deeper societal conflict as a cause of it, and that U.S.-Russian relations cannot—and should not—simply go back to the way they were pre-Trump.
Even the Russian opposition has been skeptical of attempts to blame everything on Trump and Trumpism. Navalny denounced the former U.S. president’s ban from Twitter, and other members of Russia’s liberal opposition have been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. The term “pro-Western opposition” is misleading when applied to antigovernment movements in Belarus and Ukraine and meaningless when applied to such movements in Russia. The Kremlin’s opponents no longer share a universal allegiance to the West. And those who are pro-Western are no longer necessarily pro-American.
As the Biden administration seeks to support opponents of the Kremlin, it may find itself harming more than helping. The Russian government has long accused its political opponents of colluding with hostile powers—an ugly and effective tactic increasingly widespread in the United States, as well. The Kremlin will spin any U.S. support for Navalny, his supporters, and other opposition figures as proof that they are U.S. plants and use it to justify further repression.
A more promising U.S. policy toward Russia would be based on interests rather than ideals. For many years, the buzzword among diplomats and policymakers in Moscow has been “multipolarity”: an international order in which there is no longer a single great power. The Kremlin seeks to navigate and capitalize on an emerging multipolar world by doing business not with ideological allies but with ephemeral, pragmatic partners. Instead of looking for shared values, Moscow looks for shared interests, whether in trade, security, or anything else.
When the Kremlin feels that the nascent multipolar order—or Moscow’s regional sphere of influence—is threatened, it acts aggressively (and sometimes illegally) to demonstrate that Washington is no longer the only power that can throw its weight around with impunity. But unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Russia does not want to replace the United States as a political or moral hegemon. It just wants to cut the United States down to size.
When Russia interferes or meddles outside its borders, it does not seek to impose its vision on the world but rather to advance its national interests. Perhaps as a result of this self-interested worldview, the Kremlin sees the United States as similarly motivated. Washington may dress up its intentions in the garb of freedom, universal rights, and democracy, but in U.S. foreign policy the Kremlin still sees a mirror image of its own.
In his inauguration address, Biden said the United States would lead not by “the example of our power but by the power of our example.” But to which examples can Biden credibly point? In Syria, for instance, Russia saw a wrong-headed American intervention couched in moral terms spawn the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. By contrast, Moscow believes that it applied a legal and practical rationale for backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: it supported the strongman not because he was a good guy who did well for his people but because he was the established leader and a Russian ally who guaranteed access to an important naval base.
In U.S. foreign policy the Kremlin still sees a mirror image of its own.
Biden’s ambition to lead by example is similarly challenged on the home front. Russia might invade its neighbors and poison its political opponents, but from Moscow’s perspective American denunciations are rendered meaningless by the United States’ own brutality toward Black Americans. The Kremlin does not think Washington has a right to preach, nor does it think American leaders actually believe what they say.
A better approach would be for Washington to accept a greater degree of multipolarity and dial back the public criticism of Putin in favor of private diplomacy. Russia may be in no mood to listen to the United States, but there are others—American allies—whose communications with the Kremlin are less fraught. Germany, a major Russian energy partner and an important mediator in the Ukraine conflict, might prove to be a more effective interlocutor with Moscow. So might Canada, Denmark, or Norway, all of which are members of the Arctic Council, giving them influence over Moscow as it seeks to develop the “High North.” In short, there are many U.S. allies that would receive a more sympathetic hearing in Russia. Rather than insisting that it has to lead, Washington can partner with and even simply support these allies as they seek to influence Moscow on areas of mutual interest.
American policymakers will need to abandon unrealistic expectations about their ability to change Russia’s political culture and accept that real change will come gradually, from within, and at its own pace. Standing up to abuses of power may sound like the right thing to do, but U.S. sanctions such as the Magnitsky Act have often backfired—prompting Russia to halt investigations that would have resulted in greater accountability, for instance. In light of Navalny’s imprisonment and Moscow’s brutal crackdown on his supporters, this may seem like counterintuitive advice. But U.S. policymakers should ask themselves whether sanctions, pressure, or moral grandstanding will help or hurt Navalny or his supporters. Very often, such initiatives are more about signaling American virtue than about actually helping Russians stand up for themselves. The Biden administration should do what works best, not what feels best.
Rising political unrest and waning influence can make the Russian and American pictures look similar. But the difference is that Russia looks after its interests alone, while the United States—under Biden, if not under his predecessor—still believes that it can do good in the world. Washington wants to counter Moscow’s meddling abroad and halt its abuse of political opponents at home. It is by no means impotent on these issues. But accepting that it no longer has—nor can lay claim to—an exceptional moral position in the eyes of Russia will allow Washington to recalibrate its dealings with Moscow, change the tone of the dialogue, and improve the effectiveness of its policy.
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