A few months ago, nobody could foresee Russia’s geopolitical jiu-jitsu with the West. The Obama administration, fatigued by constant diplomatic contretemps with the Kremlin, decided to maintain the status quo while formulating a new policy towards the Putin regime. In the meanwhile, unconstrained by Western influence, Vladimir Putin has redrawn the international order by annexing a part of Ukraine. Enraged by the extent of popular discontent in the streets of Kiev, Russia’s autocrat sends a strong message to the West and Russian civil society alike: stay put or face repercussions.
Russian society is deeply split along political lines. Having no access to objective information regarding the Crimean crisis, the majority of the people sincerely believe that Russia acted as a defender of ethnic Russians in Ukraine against neo-nazis from Right Sector and their bosses in Washington and Brussels. Given that brainwashing is one of the regime’s crucial pillars, it is not difficult to understand whence this thinking stems. At the same time, Russian nationalists (who generally dislike Putin) applauded the Kremlin’s efforts to expand the boundaries of a newly emerging Empire. Those who oppose Russia’s actions in Crimea and support Ukraine’s territorial integrity have been labeled the “fifth column” by Putin. The picture is as clear as mud.
I am, myself, a proud member of the “fifth column.” I do not believe that Russia needs any further expansion. We can hardly fix what is broken in our cities and small villages across Russia’s vast territories. I do not believe in the power of international law, but I do reckon that global security rests upon a set of rules, which must not be breached for the good of all. If China all of a sudden decides that Russia’s Far East belongs to her, I would like to see international agreements, not brute force, play a role in solving such a crisis. I feel sorry for Ukraine and her people who are still fighting for their freedom. Without wanting to sound like an apologist, I want to ask Ukrainians to forgive the unconsciousness segments of Russian society. They know little more than what the Goebbels-TV foists on them.
I am confident that democracy in the post-Soviet world is only possible under democratic Russia. While it makes a lot of sense to support pro-democratic indigenous forces in every part of the globe, Russia needs it more than any other country today. The Putin regime is building capacity to crush domestic opposition and continue its confrontation with the West in the coming years. Russian civil society will be the main target of Putin’s repression. Western powers need to invest in helping pro-democratic forces in Russia, because civil society actors are critical to democratization in Russia and elsewhere in the post-Soviet realm.
How can the West support Russian civil society? Yesterday, Russia’s opposition leader, Alexey A. Navalny, published an online poll about the candidates for sanctioning and an op-ed in the New York Times. A day after, the Obama administration adopted a sanctions bill including most of the people, which civil society picked out. It is good to be heard, indeed. Russian society, immature as it is today, is very ambivalent with regard to the Kremlin and its population. Whereas Putin’s popularity skyrocketed in recent days, ordinary Russians still despise Putin’s corrupt functionaries. Targeted sanctions are a perfect mechanism to persuade the people that Putin is just a member of a criminal gang that perpetuates itself through brainwashing and repression. As soon as this understanding takes root, the Putin regime will face very hard times.