Human Rights Issues in Russia May Offer U.S. Leverage

Workers paint over graffiti depicting jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg, Russia, April 28, 2021 Photo by Anton Vaganov/Reuters

he 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us of how much human rights diplomacy has reshaped and enriched international relations. Inspired by this, Washington might pursue more proactive human rights diplomacy with Moscow. The United States could shine a harsher light on human rights abuses in Russia, as it has done on Russian atrocities and abuses in Ukraine.

If the United States takes this path, how might it proceed?

U.S. ambassador to Russia, Lynne Tracy, has shown the way. In Russia, she has stated, there is “no space for dissent.” She went on to call the 25-year prison sentence imposed on dissident Vladimir Kara-Muza “another terrible sign” of Russian repression. In recent years, however, the highest levels of the U.S. government have been less consistently vocal.

Human rights violations in Russia abound. In a prominent case, in 2020 Putin rival Alexei Navalny almost died of poisoning by Novichok, a nerve agent. Another poisoning this year left him in critical condition. Navalny survived but faces decades behind bars.

Human rights first became a more prominent issue in Moscow under President Jimmy Carter. His 1977 letter to legendary dissident Andrei Sakharov caused Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to dismiss the normalization of relations with the United States as “unthinkable.” Carter doubled down by inviting the noted dissident author Vladimir Bukovsky to the White House.

President Ronald Reagan, too, elevated these issues. Soviet leaders, he said, reserved “the right to commit any crime.” Reagan accused the USSR of “denying” its citizens freedoms and called the USSR an “evil empire (PDF).” In Moscow for a summit, Reagan met with 96 political dissidents and Jews who had been denied exit visas.

Subsequent presidents have varied in their human rights strategies. Human Rights Watch said President Barack Obama’s major human rights decisions showed a mixed record. Unlike top European leaders, President Donald Trump declined to condemn Navalny’s 2020 poisoning.

President Joe Biden has lauded the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Putin, applauded the removal of Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council, and warned Putin of “devastating” consequences if Navalny died in prison.

Sadly, Russia is now more repressive than at any time in its over three decades of modern independence. Abuses seem likely to persist. If the United States opts to heighten pressure on the Kremlin to respect human rights, how might it do so?

  • Speak out robustly. Like Reagan, presidents could sharply criticize Russian human rights violations. The United States could add more funding for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to improve the use of its existing internet programming, which reaches large audiences in Russia, to inform listeners about rising repression at home and Russian cruelties in Ukraine.
  • Be more proactive. A letter from a bipartisan group of 50 U.S. senators (PDF) urging that the United States declare Kara-Muza to be “wrongfully detained” was a positive step in the right direction. So was the Nobel Committee’s awarding of the 2021 Peace Prize to independent Russian editor Dmitry Muratov. Like Carter, U.S. government officials could do more to reach out to dissidents and independent organizations.
  • Presidents can host human rights victims. This could be controversial. It was in 1986 when Reagan declined to meet with Sakharov’s courageous wife, Elena Bonner, even though earlier Reagan criticized President Gerald Ford for not meeting with Nobel laureate dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In fairness, Washington has multiple interests with Moscow, including nuclear security, and so at times presidential priorities vary.
  • Increase investment in secure open-source technologies and open data platforms. These resources can help independent voices connect and collaborate securely in private forums and global social media. Human rights activists, bloggers and others in Russia can use these tools to share experiences and upgrade capabilities. The U.S.-sponsored Open Technology Fund advances internet freedom by backing projects that counter censorship and surveillance. Open technologies might make available valuable archives from Memorial, a Russian civil society group that preserved historical memory of Stalin’s terror and other abuses. Despite its forced closure two years ago, Memorial was a corecipient of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Seek creative ways to encourage opposition voices. In the 1980s to support the independent Polish trade union Solidarity, the United States ramped up public diplomacy. It even produced a high-profile documentary movie, “Let Poland Be Poland,” starring Charlton Heston. Although nothing like Solidarity is allowed to exist in Russia, organized demonstrations have taken place. In 2021, street protests broke out in nearly 90 Russian cities calling for Navalny to be freed from prison. Since then, the regime has become even more repressive. Informal networks likely exist but work sub rosa. Networks and dissidents might benefit from quiet help to sustain their connectivity and energies.

The United States has plenty of options if it wishes to enhance human rights diplomacy with its principal adversary in Europe. This could help weaken acceptance in some quarters of Russia’s repression at home and aggression abroad.

William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia.

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