Despite the hopes of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Russia has returned as a security threat to its neighbors, to the United States, and to our allies. No one believes that Russia is now on a path to becoming a peaceful liberal democracy that respects national sovereignty, human rights, and free speech.
The new Russian threat is not grounded in Communist ideology. It is led by one man, Vladimir Putin. He has manipulated a surge in Russian nationalism and sits at the top of an extensive oligarchy that presents itself as the legitimate expression of the Russian people. His grip on power remains strong despite international criticism, the sanctions employed by the Obama Administration, and a drop in energy revenues. Could the U.S. Congress mount a more effective challenge to Putin? How?
The urgency of the threat is substantial and growing. On February 12 Putin allowed (or directed) Russian troops to continue their attack on the beleaguered Ukrainian city of Debaltseve, notwithstanding the ceasefire agreement that had gone into effect that day. On February 14 a Russian bomber headed toward British airspace. The plane only withdrew when met by the British Air Force. Then on February 27 Boris Nemtsov, the toughest of Putin’s critics and a leader of the Russian opposition was gunned down in cold blood on the streets of central Moscow. Although Putin’s role in this assassination is not clear and never likely to be so, accusations abound. More recently Putin has announced that he was willing to involve nuclear forces in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, invited the North Korean despot Kim Jong-un to the Kremlin, and permitted the sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.
This past February the European Union committee of the UK’s House of Lords noted with regret that Europe had “sleepwalked” into the Ukrainian crisis. Europe, they said, had acted on the mistaken assumption that Putin was on his way to becoming the leader of a democratic country. British Prime Minister David Cameron denied that Europe was at fault but acknowledged that it was time for the West to respond. The blame, he asserted, “lies absolutely squarely with Vladimir Putin and Russia. . . . What we need to do now is deliver the strongest possible message . . . that what has happened is unacceptable.” Cameron is right, but it is time to think clearly about the message Putin has received so far. Criticisms of Putin and sanctions aimed weakening him seem to have strengthened his support among many Russians.
Clearly, Putin is the threat, and to counter the threat, Putin needs to be weakened and removed from power. This requires effectively interrupting the flow of support he receives from key forces inside Russia, including the Russian people.
Putin’s downfall can be achieved by exploiting the contradictions within his rule: its reliance on corruption, fear, and the perception that he is the true expression of Russian nationalism. He has used these elements masterfully, but in reality they conflict with one another and are inherently unstable.
Putin’s power is based upon suppressing criticism with fear and violence and buying the loyalty of his oligarchic cronies with resources stolen from the Russian people. The reality of the Putin regime means that he never has been a true Russian patriot; his power depends on his being a parasite, stealing wealth and freedom from the Russian people.
Publicly and continuously documenting this corruption—this fundamental contradiction in the Putin regime—strikes at the heart of Putin’s power. If he is increasingly seen as nothing more than the king of the thieves, stealing from every Russian, his posture as a Russian patriot and a legitimate world leader will be discredited. Similarly, publishing information about the individuals within Putin’s corrupt network will weaken them and can make them subject to international sanctions and legal action outside of Russia. Finally, documenting the non-Russian individuals and institutions that enable Putin’s corrupt oligarchy to retain its power will open these institutions and individuals to the same risks and stigma that settles on Putin. This will further destabilize the foundation of his tyranny. It is even possible that some of the individuals thought to be holding wealth for Putin himself will realize that, if he were gone, it could belong to them. The rats may start feeding on themselves.
There is already much information in the public realm that can be deployed against Putin. In the introduction to her 2014 book, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, Karen Dawisha states, “I conclude that from the beginning Putin and his circle sought to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit cabal…who used democracy for decoration rather than direction.” Her book, based on extensive research, traces Putin’s ascension from a mid-level KGB agent to the tyrannical President of the now-expanding Russia. Summarizing the book in the New York Review of Books, Anne Applebaum writes that “instead of attempting to explain the failures of the reformers and intellectuals who tried to carry out radical change [in Russia], we ought instead to focus on the remarkable story of one group of unrepentant, single-minded, revanchist KGB officers…. [T]hey stole money that belonged to the Russian state, took it abroad for safety, reinvested it in Russia, and then, piece by piece, took over the state themselves. Once in charge, they brought back Soviet methods of political control—the only ones they knew—updated for the modern era.”
Dawisha is just one scholar in this area, and whole archives are coming online. One example of this can be found here at the Hudson Institute, where the Kleptocracy Initiative has identified a significant group of outside experts on Putin’s crimes. These private reports are important, but releasing such information from an institution of great stature and power holds the greatest promise of weakening Putin swiftly.
The Obama Administration seems unwilling to mobilize a large sustained effort to destroy Putin’s power. This is a mistake, for the case to be made against him is not ambiguous. Everyone willing to look knows the truth about Putin’s Russia, the only question is whether that truth can be marshaled to bring contempt and repudiation. When Putin is contemptible, he will fall. This is precisely the area in which the U.S. has profound moral standing. This is the area in which America’s soft power advantage can be used for very hard ends.
Congress has the necessary stature to publish—under its authority—the truth about Putin’s Russia. With the eager help of outside experts, congressional staff can easily gather public information and verify that it is reliable in relation to classified government intelligence (a prudent step when the subject is a KGB-trained master of disinformation). Both Democrats and Republicans could get behind such an effort, as well as members from several committees. Yet it does not require a large and unwieldy group. In fact, even one Senator or House Member could, with the aid of a competent staffer, gather the details from public sources and release them several times a year.
There are two essential ingredients for success in this strategy against Putin—focus and steadfastness. The point to be made repeatedly and relentlessly is that Putin is a criminal, not a legitimate leader of Russia.
Some may complain that there are many corrupt oligarchs in the world, and moral consistency requires they should all be confronted. Nonsense. Putin is the most dangerous, and perhaps the most vulnerable; therefore he should be singled out. Creating many targets at the same time will only blunt the impact of this effort. Moreover, if this attack against Putin succeeds, the method can then be turned to other dangerous oligarchs—in Iran and China.
Many, especially among the elite, will complain that this is not the “proper” way to conduct foreign policy. Foreign policy cannot be accomplished by public attacks on the legitimacy of a foreign leader, and in any case they ought to be conducted by the President. Perhaps…but telling the truth about Vladimir Putin does not deplete the authority of the President. In fact, there are advantages to this kind of “soft power” or asymmetrical warfare (to our advantage) if led by Congress. It will be characterized less as a personal battle between leaders if it comes from the branch of government closest to the American people, and it can rest on sources national and international that are much broader than the executive agencies. Of course this strategy is not traditional; it is an alternative to the old ways, which always rested in some way on armed conflict. Putin will probably make threats (and deploy his American lobbyists). If so, this may be a sign that he sees serious danger. But each of his threats should be brushed aside or met with reports of new bank account numbers, new details of crony corruption, and new evidence of crimes against the Russian people.
Others may be concerned that if Putin falls, his second-level oligarchs will simply replace him. But they are unlikely, even as a group, to have the particularly dangerous combination of desires and abilities that Putin possesses. One wolf is more dangerous than a hundred cockroaches.
The real question may be: will a courageous portion of the U.S. Congress bring Putin to his knees?