Politics & Diplomacy Russia
Reality Check March 5, 2021

Reality Check #4: Focus on interests, not on human rights with Russia

By Emma Ashford and Mathew Burrows

Key points

  • The arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny – and the Biden administration’s decision to impose sanctions – highlights the tension between Washington’s desire to promote human rights and US strategic interests.
  • Given the risks of undermining US interests–and US relations with key European allies–policymakers should avoid a human-rights-first approach to Russia.
  • Instead, the Biden administration should seek to build a less aspirational policy toward Russia, minimize the use of sanctions, and look for incentives that might induce Moscow to take steps in line with US interests.

What’s the issue?

On January 17, just three days before the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Alexei Navalny returned to Moscow from Germany, where he was receiving medical treatment following a failed Kremlin assassination attempt. Within a week of his return, the noted dissident had been arrested, tried, and sent to prison. The Biden administration has promised both to support human rights and to engage with adversaries to advance American interests. It fulfilled the first of these promises on March 2, when it issued new sanctions against Russian companies and individuals linked to Navalny’s poisoning.

However, these sanctions – in effect, making human rights the focus of Washington’s Russia policy – may well undermine critical US interests. Russian behavior on human rights is deplorable, but the United States has other salient interests pertaining to Russia. Nuclear and strategic stability talks to shore up arms control or effectively deter Russian interference in US elections are more important than imposing largely symbolic sanctions because of human rights abuses. Policymakers should prioritize strategic stability accordingly.

What’s the issue?

The tension between human rights and American strategic interests is not new. Throughout the Soviet period, US presidents faced pressure from Congress and civil society to support dissidents and push back on human rights abuses. The most notable case was the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act, in which Congress explicitly used trade policy to pressure the Soviet Union to permit Jews to emigrate to Israel. The issue of human rights was not entirely one-sided: prior to the US civil rights movement, Soviet leaders found America’s poor treatment of minorities to be a useful propaganda tool.

Today, the tension between Washington’s competing objectives continues. Jackson-Vanik was replaced in 2012 by the Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the use of financial sanctions on Russian officials because of corruption and human rights abuses. In recent years, some members of Congress and human rights groups have pressured the White House to hold the Russian government accountable for the murders of journalists like Anna Politkovskaya or dissidents like Boris Nemtsov. Similarly, the attempted murder of Alexei Navalny with an illegal chemical agent prompted New York Times columnist Bret Stephens to call for “a foreign policy that puts dissidents first.”

Yet, despite the appeal of focusing on human rights – and the myth that such policies caused the Soviet collapse – human rights issues have never formed the core of US-Russian relations, which have typically focused on more concrete geopolitical issues. For example, as President Ronald Reagan navigated the end of the Cold War, he supported nondemocratic states as bulwarks against communism. Even President Jimmy Carter – who famously declared that America’s commitment to human rights must be “absolute” – ultimately tempered his approach in light of arms control concerns and other priorities.

Why is a focus on human rights problematic?

The tension over US priorities vis à vis Russia is likely to be particularly acute in the Biden administration, thanks to the president’s pro-human rights rhetoric and desire to distance himself from President Donald Trump’s transactional foreign policy tendencies. Unfortunately, in the case of Russia, doubling down on human rights raises fears about regime security and could further damage productive relations for the sake of an effort that is unlikely to succeed.

Indeed, US efforts to promote human rights and democratization throughout the post-Soviet space have often produced a backlash from Moscow. The “color revolutions” of the mid-2000s in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine were regarded with suspicion by the Kremlin; Vladimir Putin apparently believes these efforts were covertly backed by the United States. Though a color revolution is unlikely to occur in Russia, Putin’s fear of such a development appears to be real. This makes it harder for the United States to work with Russia on strategic issues. After a bumpy but productive start to relations during the Obama administration, for example, US-Russia relations declined markedly in 2011-12 after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced support for protests in Moscow. Though many date the decline to the March 2014 invasion of Crimea, in fact, relations had already soured substantially before that time over human rights concerns–to the extent that the Obama administration sent no high-level officials to the Sochi Olympics in February of that year.

A human rights-centric policy should be resisted for other reasons. First, Washington’s past efforts to impose sanctions because of human rights abuses have been relatively unsuccessful. Cases like the Jackson-Vanik Amendment–where economic penalties led to the emigration of over a million Soviet Jews–have been rare. The Magnitsky Act and post-Crimean invasion sanctions have instead caused economic damage but no policy change. The Kremlin has largely been able to insulate its closest domestic supporters from the worst effects of recent sanctions. Despite these measures, the regime has murdered journalists and activists and cracked down on civil society. Worse, in Russia’s closed media ecosystem, Vladimir Putin has been able to use the sanctions as propaganda.

A continuation of this approach will most likely create blowback and feed Russian paranoia about US democracy promotion, while producing few positive dividends.

Second, Washington’s focus on human rights risks driving a wedge between the United States and Europe. The United States’ European allies disagree among themselves over the best way to handle Russia; the small states closest to Russia have often emphasized a harder line, while Germany, Italy, and other states with closer trade ties to Russia are less keen. German leaders have called openly for Navalny’s release, but they have resisted American and French calls to end participation in the Nordstream-2 project. American sanctions–such as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions on German energy companies–risk undermining core transatlantic relationships for limited gain. 

Third, US support for human rights and democracy promotion has sometimes been counterproductive. The Kremlin has taken steps in recent years to mitigate the risks of a color revolution: in 2012, it compelled all nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” implying that they are tools of a foreign government. The Kremlin has also repeatedly suggested that dissidents like Alexei Navalny are merely tools of the CIA. The new sanctions are likely to intensify this kind of backlash–and make it easier for state-run media to vilify dissidents.

Finally, democratization in Russia would not necessarily be good for US foreign policy interests. Alexei Navalny, for example, is an open nationalist who is widely known to agree with Putin on many foreign policy questions; he backed the Russian seizure of Crimea and has made racist and islamophobic remarks. Broader academic research on regime change indicates that it does not typically alter a nation’s foreign policy orientation. In addition, there is always the risk of political uncertainty–never a good thing in a nuclear power like Russia.

What is the solution?

A human-rights-first approach to Russia is fraught with problems. A continuation of this approach will most likely create blowback and feed Russian paranoia about US democracy promotion, while producing few positive dividends. Russia is not Belarus or Myanmar. It is not a small, weak state that can be nudged by US penalties toward improving human rights. Policymakers should remember that Russia is a nuclear power, a country with significant global influence, and a major oil producer—and should subordinate human rights concerns to the vital necessity of stabilizing the relationship.

To be clear, there is little hope of improvement in the US-Russia relationship and no prospect of a “reset.” Nonetheless, stabilization would be preferable to the status quo. A more realistic approach to Russia–one that deprioritized human rights and prioritized concrete US interests–could lower tensions, create effective deterrence on critical issues, and allow the United States to reengage on topics of mutual interest. Policymakers can reframe the US-Russia relationship by taking three steps:

1 Resist further sanctions. In recent years, sanctions have become the go-to tool for policymakers as a response to everything from invasions to assassinations. They often appear costless and therefore are a tempting response to human rights violations. Yet sanctions have so far been ineffective in inducing policy change, while increasing tensions. There are also long-term concerns: sanctions overuse is likely to weaken the power of the tool over time. Policymakers cannot and should not rule out the possibility of imposing additional punitive sanctions for issues of high importance – such as further election-meddling – but they should resist the temptation to use them in other cases. A sternly worded statement will often have the same, minimal effect as sanctions – with fewer downsides.

2 Adopt a realistic attitude. The US-Russian relationship has too long been predicated on the fantasy that Russia could be reshaped – whether through aid or coercion – into a Western, liberal democracy. However, there is little prospect of transformation or of ending human rights abuses. Policymakers must be clear-eyed about Russia: it is not a minor power that can be punished for its transgressions, but a powerful autocracy with the capacity to undermine US interests and act as a global spoiler. This does not mean that policymakers should ignore Russia’s bad behavior. They should, however, more clearly define US interests within the limits of what Washington can and cannot achieve. This will mean a sharper focus on concrete US interests like strategic stability, nonproliferation, and ongoing conflicts such as Syria.

3 Find carrots. US policy toward Russia has become punitive. Though sanctions are ostensibly framed as deterrence or coercion, existing frameworks offer no real way for sanctions to be removed even if Russian behavior improves. In some cases, the United States has painted itself into a corner, demanding unrealistic policy change (i.e., that Russia relinquish its hold on Crimea) in exchange for sanctions relief. In others, as in the recent CAATSA legislation, the law makes it difficult for the president to act on sanctions without congressional approval. This turns a policy tool into little more than retribution and offers no incentive for Russia to change its behavior. Policymakers should instead seek to draw specific and credible redlines on key issues and offer incentives for improvements in Russian behavior. From sanctions removal to steps like readmitting Russia to the G8, incentives are more likely to yield positive results than another round of punitive sanctions.

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