Should the U.S. put the fate of dissidents at the core of its Russia policy? The question has become unavoidable. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government seems set on killing, slowly or quickly, jailed regime critic Alexei Navalny.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has warned that there will be unspecified consequences if that occurs. That Navalny ended his hunger strike and his life isn’t in imminent danger — for now — doesn’t remove the underlying issue.
Today’s debate harkens back to the history of U.S. policy toward Soviet dissidents during the Cold War. The lesson is that support for the liberal opposition can be morally and strategically worthwhile, even though it surely won’t transform Putin’s regime any time soon.
The relevant Cold War history is often told as follows. During detente in the 1970s, U.S. officials unwisely tolerated the repression of Soviet dissidents in their quest for stability with Moscow. In the 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan reversed this craven orthodoxy by standing up for critics of the Soviet regime, thereby helping bring an evil empire crashing down from within.
Important pieces of this narrative are true, but the overall story is more complicated.
Here’s what is true. Reagan did make solidarity with dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov, then languishing in internal exile, a central pillar of his Cold War strategy. He publicly blasted the Soviets for jailing and harassing their domestic critics. He privately pressed Soviet leaders to release political prisoners and reform the Soviet legal system. He even met openly with Soviet dissidents on a trip to Moscow in 1988.
He did so because moral clarity was a tool of political warfare. Highlighting the political and ethical bankruptcy of the Soviets was a way of pressuring that regime domestically and isolating it diplomatically. Reagan also believed, correctly, that political reform would eventually make the Soviet Union a less authoritarian and less threatening enemy.
In the end, the policy worked brilliantly. Soviet dissidents were inspired by what they called “Reaganite readings” — speeches in which Reagan castigated Moscow for its sins. (The president even announced “Andrei Sakharov Day” from the White House Rose Garden in 1983.) Kremlin leaders admitted, privately, that Reagan’s “especially strong anti-Soviet agitation” was energizing domestic critics and delegitimizing the Soviet Union abroad.
In the late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev realized that the regime could not repair its relations with the West until it changed its approach to political liberties and human rights. Support for dissidents was part of an ideological offensive that brought excruciating strain on a totalitarian state.
Yet this isn’t the whole story. For one thing, Reagan wasn’t the first U.S. leader to focus on Soviet repression. Congressional human-rights advocates such as Democratic Sen. Henry Jackson had started doing so in the 1970s, and President Jimmy Carter had infuriated Soviet leaders by pressing them, face to face, on the well-being of particular dissidents.
America’s European allies had also begun focusing attention on Eastern Bloc human-rights violations during the 1970s, through the Helsinki Accords, and often helped the Reagan administration push multilaterally on this issue during the 1980s.
More important, none of that advocacy — by Carter, Reagan or the Europeans — meaningfully improved political conditions in the Soviet Union through the mid-1980s.
Soviet leaders, like most authoritarians, knew that relaxing repression of dissidents was a dangerous game, because it could set off growing resistance to an unpopular government. They felt so threatened by Carter’s and Reagan’s ideological warfare that they responded by squeezing dissent and dissenters even harder.
“The leadership is convinced that the Reagan administration is out to bring their system down and will give no quarter,” one Soviet commentator explained in 1983. “Therefore they have no choice but to hunker down and fight back.”
What changed in the late 1980s? The Politburo chose a leader, Gorbachev, who actually cared about international legitimacy — in part because Reagan had so successfully denied it to the Kremlin — and who was willing to gamble that a bit more political freedom would rejuvenate a dying system. (He lost that bet, spectacularly.)
As the crisis of the Soviet state deepened, Gorbachev became so desperate for Western economic and diplomatic backing that his government made previously unthinkable political concessions — to the point of asking U.S. diplomats whether there were specific political prisoners the State Department would like to see released. In these very favorable circumstances, American pressure — coupled with quiet and surprisingly subtle engagement by Reagan — worked wonders.
There are some encouraging parallels today. For moral reasons alone, the U.S. should try to dissuade Putin from doing away with Navalny, as he has allegedly done with other internal challengers. Moreover, the repressiveness and illegitimacy of Putin’s regime are weaknesses worth targeting.
Supporting Navalny and other dissidents, as imperfect as they always are — Navalny has a history of links to extreme nationalist groups — is thus a way of imposing political and diplomatic costs on the Russian regime by keeping its ugly, murderous impulses in focus. And if U.S.-Russia relations are to improve in the future, it may follow a certain liberalization of Russian politics — all the more reason to stick up for those trying to change the system from within.
But let’s keep our expectations in check. During the Cold War, it took sustained effort over two presidencies to begin actually ameliorating the plight of Soviet dissidents. Today, the task may be even harder. Putin cares less for international opinion than Gorbachev did; he seems to welcome Western hostility. The Russian economy is hardly thriving, but Putin is nowhere near as desperate as Gorbachev became in the late 1980s.
There are good reasons, moral and prudential, for the U.S. to advocate for Navalny and others seeking a freer, less corrupt Russia. That’s one lesson Cold War history teaches clearly. Another, however, is that even sharp outside pressure won’t cause significant changes in Russian politics — or make life much easier for Putin’s opponents — in the near future.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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