Note: This story originally appeared in Stanford News.
When it comes to President Biden’s response to recent events in Russia, the new administration has been swift to act.
In less than a week in office, the Biden administration has demanded that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny be released from prison and condemned the “harsh tactics” used against his supporters. It has also called for an investigation into the Russia-linked cyberattack on U.S. businesses and federal agencies, sought an extension to the New START nuclear treaty and declared the United States’ support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.
What do these actions reveal about the new direction the Biden administration is taking with Russia?
Here, in the first of a two-part Q&A, Stanford scholar Kathryn Stoner talks with Stanford News Service about what to expect from U.S.-Russia diplomacy moving forward and what the Biden administration can do to advance global security abroad. Stoner also discusses how the recent protests in Russia differ from previous demonstrations and how this is an opportunity for President Biden to engage with a part of the Russian population that seeks trust and accountability from their government.
Stoner has authored many articles and books about contemporary Russia, including the forthcoming book Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order (Oxford University Press, 2021), which examines Russia’s international reach and influence. Stoner is the deputy director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and is a senior fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and the Center on International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with the arrest of Alexei Navalny. What does he represent to Putin and his government, but also to the Russian people?
Yes, it’s an interesting question as to why Vladimir Putin finds Navalny, a man banned from Russian airwaves and television, and who does not head any kind of large, official political opposition movement, so threatening to his regime. Indeed, Putin so detests Navalny that neither he, nor his spokesman, will even utter his name in public! His poisoning, evidently state sponsored, and then his re-arrest upon returning to Moscow from Germany has made him more prominent within Russia than he was before. That’s probably not the outcome the regime had intended!
I think Navalny has returned with an even deeper commitment to exposing the corruption and cravenness of Vladimir Putin’s regime. As he was hauled off to jail for 30 days, his office released a new video called A Palace For Putin, exposing a billion-dollar compound of 17,691 square meters (190,424 square feet) in southern Russia with over-the-top accoutrements like its own movie theater, gym, two-story swimming pool, pub complete with a pole dancing stage for exotic dancers and a subterranean hockey rink – purportedly all built for the enjoyment of the Russian president using money stolen from the Russian taxpayer. This video, as well as Navalny’s arrest, helped bring people out on the streets by the thousands demanding Putin’s ouster and Navalny’s freedom.
Since 2011, Navalny has led peaceful demonstrations – some large, and many small – against Putin’s corrupt regime. Navalny’s tools of protest have been Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms. Through access to their ubiquitous cellphones and the still relatively open domestic internet, young Russians in particular have begun to question official versions of the rosy Russian reality presented by state-controlled television. This is why his activities are so problematic for Putin’s regime. Even for an electoral autocracy such as Putin’s, the appearance of legitimacy and stability depends to some degree, even superficially, on societal acceptance or at least compliance. In the last few years, however, there have been stirrings of disapproval.
How are the most recent Russian protests different from previous public action? What makes them particularly significant?
A few things: They took place across Russia, not just in big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg. People were incredibly determined to protest too – some braved minus-60F-degree weather to show their anger at Putin’s corruption and they turned out even when they were told explicitly by the government not to do so. These protests were also huge – hundreds of thousands of people took part and they were led by young people. This is a new demographic of protester and they represent Russia’s future.
Why is the Biden administration interested in these recent demonstrations?
I think they point out that there is some fragility in Russian domestic politics, despite the perception of Putin as in complete control. This is an opportunity for the United States to appreciate the difference between the regime under Putin and a segment of the Russian population that wants honesty and accountability in government. It suggests that we find ways to reengage with Russian society, including making it easier for younger Russians to study in the United States and Europe.
How is President Biden’s response to these recent events in Russia different than that under former President Donald Trump?
American policy on Russia was largely frozen during the Trump administration, while Mr. Putin has pushed Russian interests forward globally. President Biden is stuck with Putin for the foreseeable future and Russia’s resurrection as a truly global power. Washington must, therefore, find a way to cooperate with Putin’s regime where it can and constrain it globally where it must.
I think we are seeing a pretty quick change to a policy that is more traditional and far more favorable to American security interests and values when it comes to Russia. On Tuesday of this week, Biden spoke to Putin directly for the first time as U.S. president, but it wasn’t to establish some sort of personal “friendship” that Trump pursued and that got us nothing in return. Biden immediately discussed extending the New START arms control agreement and its really important verification scheme. Calling out the Navalny poisoning and calling for his release from prison currently is also a major departure from the Trump policy of saying nothing critical to Putin.
As a scholar of Russian politics and international relations, what do you think needs to happen with U.S.-Russia diplomacy moving forward?
Beyond arms control and the extension of New START, Biden’s administration must move quickly to reestablish strong relations with our European allies and to work with them and with Russia to find a replacement for the JCPOA agreement with Iran. Russia is pivotal there – it has established a pretty strong relationship with Iran’s leadership over the last five or so years, and we won’t get an agreement without Russia’s strong backing and involvement.
Other less obvious areas of potential U.S.-Russian collaboration are equally urgent – areas like climate change, where Putin has recently expressed grave concern, especially for the Arctic, and also global public health, where Russia has become increasingly active and in some areas quite capable. Regulating and limiting the further militarization of space is another avenue for pressing cooperation. Reforming U.S. immigration laws that make it easier for talented young Russians to immigrate to the United States would be beneficial for us while detrimental to Putin’s regime. Russians are well educated and immensely talented – witness the success of Russian emigres here in Silicon Valley.
Finally, and particularly vital, we must find a solution to the Ukraine conflict with Russia. This means more than attempting to restore Crimea to Ukraine – at best, a long-term goal – but restoring the security of Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia. Beyond this, making Ukraine a success developmentally could demonstrate to an increasingly restive Russian society that democracy can work and that they too would be better off under a more liberal regime.