Winter Games Start Early for Russia

A chill wind is blowing through Russia’s relations with the USA (again), with references aplenty to Cold War thinking. Listen to most mainstream media coverage (and Twitter) and you would think that President Obama’s decision today to cancel his one to one with President Putin was all about Russia’s decision to offer Snowden asylum. That decision though is really about tipping points, as the White House itself made clear. Snowden has been dominating the media headlines but there has been plenty else going on in the relationship that Russian watchers have been talking about and today’s decision should really not have come as a surprise to anyone. Quite why so many were so slow in joining up the (oh so many) dots is a mystery.

What will happen now though is open to far more speculation. There is a window of opportunity for a range of international actors to come together. Whether they will or not is another matter. One group has come out very strongly against Russia in recent days, in protest at the anti-gay laws now in force in Russia. The LGBT lobby in the USA has resulted in bar owners vowing to stop selling Russian vodka. Stephen Fry, is leading the fray for the UK LGBT community, calling for a boycott on the 2014 Winter Olympics, due to be held in Sochi. A quick electronic riffle through any search engine will show how successful those moves have been already in publicising the abuse and the cause.

It is good to see Russia and the Kremlin coming under so much scrutiny. However, what is needed is joined-up thinking on this. It is strange that some continue to laud Snowden when his decision to go to and accept asylum in Russia is extraordinary to say the least, undermining everything he says he stands for. I can’t say why any better than Roman Dobrokhotov who wrote a gem of a letter to Snowden which is perhaps best characterised as an attempt to manage Snowden’s expectations about life in Russia and which gives a brief but powerful insight into wider human rights abuses that have been going on in Russia. Those abuses affect not only the gay community in Russia but journalists, political reformists, businessmen, ordinary citizens exercising what should be their democratic right to protest, NGOs and those who benefit from their work. And the list could go on. Snowden’s decision to accept anything from the Kremlin is an insult and weakens all he has done so far in the name of freedom. All actors who claim to be acting for ordinary people need to begin standing together on this. I’d like to see the LGBT community coming out in solidarity with Russian journalists, for instance. There is a reason we talk about dividing and conquering, after all.

The big international actors have a role to play, of course. I have felt an awful lot of ambivalence to US foreign policy towards Russia for a long time now. It is difficult to hear the USA preaching to Russia about human rights (no matter how right they might be – and usually are) when it does not fully occupy the moral high ground on that issue itself (think Guantanamo; think the death penalty, think prison conditions). There is the added point that the West needs Russia on side – Syria has shown what happens when the big international players can’t come to some kind of accommodation over human rights crises like that one. But I think now really is the time for the USA and its fellow-thinkers to stand up and deliver a strong and unified message to Russia. Apart from anything else, we have evidence now that there is a significant (enough) body of people within Russia itself who want political reform and want to see more concerted and sustainable moves towards a democratic society that operates on the basis of true rule of law. Those people deserve, surely, the support of all of us outside looking in? And this is my problem with the idea of an Olympics boycott. Huge amounts of money have already been spent, undoubtedly there have been high levels of corruption. But we know that sanctions of that kind will affect ordinary Russians most of all, the political and economic elites traditionally just walk away from such situations, they have more than enough to fall back on. The time to act on that front has long gone, I fear.

What it is time for is for the member states of the EU to use their excellent knowledge and understanding of Russia (and for some their influence), in order to form a single and uncompromising voice. And then they need to work with other western allies, including but far from restricted to the USA, to drive that message home. Our political leaders need to be realistic about Russia’s options: Russia needs the West. Russia’s pivot eastwards is not a serious threat: China, after all, represents far more of a threat to Russian interests than any western state. And domestically, Putin’s vulnerability has been there for all to see for nearly a year now. With evidence in place that Russians need and want a change, a hardening of our position is justified in the hope that this will weaken Putin’s foundations further. There are risks, of course. Russia has its fair share of nationalist and extremist voices and it is not beyond the realms of belief to say that someone worse than Putin might emerge. If the West is going to harden its stance, it will need to stand firm for a possibly protracted period of time. It will need to be canny about where and when it exerts its leverage, i.e. to avoid hurting ordinary Russians who may then turn against the West itself. The spotlight needs to remain firmly trained on Russia in order to hit it where it will most hurt: Russia’s international standing. It will take commitment to a people who are not ‘us’. I am not optimistic.