Opinion: American Democratization Efforts for Russia are Counterproductive

Whether and how fast Russia democratizes does not fall on American shoulders. Russia's domestic affairs are for Russians to decide.

A professor of mine in graduate school once said to our class “if you see a neighbor beating his wife and children, will you call the police? or we shouldn’t interfere in the internal affairs of others?” This was convincing at the time, and there are cadres of such new missionaries who believe in the improvements that democracy brings: less corruption, not going to war with other democracies, etc, and they are right. However, there are two problems.

First, the analogy about the neighbor is bad because it creates the illusion that intervention solves such problems when we know that revolutions (the favored American method) most often bring other non-democrats to power (and also tend to be destructive).

The second problem is that any time there is a disagreement between these new missionaries and American geopolitical interests, the new missionaries lose every single time. This can be seen in the close US friendship with the Saudis, and support for other anti-communist or pro-American autocrats, and over the past 100 years. So the face and the real drivers of US foreign policy are not the same (I’m sure it is normal for a country to prioritize its interests where they don’t align with improving foreign governments). Were the US to prioritize democratization, the approach should be different, at least this is clear in the case of Russia.

In general, fomenting democratic revolutions is an outdated approach. The post-Soviet moment is over, and we see: (1) travel bans (e.g. Cuba) preventing locals from seeing that Americans are not bad, as well as hurting economic development. (2) American sanctions still usually hurt the masses (in the hopes that life will get bad enough for revolution), and hence also hurt economic development. These policies work against the idea of Modernization: as societies develop economically, people’s priorities change from bread and butter issues to those of political fairness. That the percentage of people fooled by propaganda decreases, and there is evolution toward a better government.

In the case of Russia specifically, supporting activists and the “development of civil society” divides and weaken the democratization-desiring people of a country. Liberals are divided between those who take Western support and those who see support from an adversarial country as a trap. In fact, many Russian liberals are often tainted by the fact that their talking points often mirror those of foreign adversaries.

Liberals don’t equal democratization, but they are needed for healthy political progress. The classical definition of liberals is people pushing for change, sometimes not fully aware of the potentially disastrous consequences. Conservatives understand the value of stability. Compromise between these two leads to gradual, incremental, progress. Crippling one of these two groups slows down natural political progress — the political evolution Russia needs to democratize.

The crippling effect on Russia’s liberals is exacerbated by the poor opinion and fear Russians have about the US. Their opinions seem likely to be affected by over-the-top US rhetoric about Russia and never acknowledging Russia’s good actions. For example, Russia’s recent role in stopping the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russian fear and rallying around the flag may also come from the US having certain advantages over Moscow, and working against even positive Russian initiatives to gain zero-sum benefits. For example, blocking the Kozak Memorandum to solve Moldova’s frozen conflict, and blocking the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, both on the grounds that the Russian government is bad. Notwithstanding that money from a project like Nord Stream 2 goes into government coffers which, regardless of corruption, largely goes to pay for Russians’ healthcare, pensions, etc.

One of my liberal Russian friends recently asked me “is it more realistic an adversary wants to strengthen our country or have reasons to block its projects thereby getting them for itself?” If it were possible to at least tone down US rhetoric, that should help change many Russians’ opinion that America hates them. This in turn should, on the margins, help Russian liberals, and may have the added benefit of keeping Russia from being driven to America’s true competitor: China.

Negative perceptions of American intentions make the US “help” to Russian democracy activists be seen as doing the work of an adversary. This hurts political progress in Russia in general. Moreover, surveys show Russians want the things Western political scientists use to describe democracy. They also show that the majority of Russians support President Putin, and do not want a revolution. This may seem contradictory, but not when you take into account the societal collapse of post-revolution Russia in the 90s. It seems clear that modernization is the best approach, especially given that this is what Russians themselves want.

Whether and how fast Russia democratizes, of course, does not fall on American shoulders. Russians bear the responsibility for that. The US can play a significantly helpful or harmful role, but right now very ineffective American efforts to make a democratic revolution in Russia are only counterproductive. Washington needs to take an honest account of the results of its democratization efforts in Russia. Currently, Russians have to talk about reforms despite foreign adversaries backing those reforms. I want democracy for Russia, and hence I am against US democratization efforts there, because they have the opposite of their intended effect.

Serge Korepin has a Masters degree in Russian/Eurasian Studies from Johns Hopkins SAIS and a Masters in Political Science from UNC-Chapel Hill.