It shouldn’t exactly come as a shock that I strongly disagree with David Kramer, the head of Freedom House, one of the highest-profile proponents of the Magnitsky bill, and a staunch advocate of "morality” in foreign policy. Kramer recently contributed to a debate run by The American Interest, where he said the following:
Furthermore, Graham assumes that Russian policy is driven by national interests when in reality it is more often—albeit not always—driven by the narrow and even personal interests of a ruling clique that is losing influence and is increasingly viewed as illegitimate by segments of Russian society. The Russian regime’s top priority is preservation of power with the objective of perpetuating Putin’s position. This makes "strategic dialogue” with the Kremlin virtually impossible, since American policy is, by contrast, driven by an attempt to implement priorities backed by a substantial part of the U.S. electorate and tested in the light of public criticism…when Putin and his clique obstruct international efforts to uphold democratic standards and human rights or prevent atrocities (as in Syria), they make themselves marginal players on the world stage.
This is an argument that you almost always encounter among the most outspoken democratists, that the real reason we have foreign policy disagreements with Russia is not because the United States and Russia have inherently different interests but because Russia is run by a particularly nasty and selfish gang of people who have hijacked the ship of state for their own selfish ends. Although made by Serious people, in Serious publications, writing in sober academic tones, this is actually a remarkably bold, indeed radical, argument. Considering the different positions occupied in the international system by the United States in Russia, considering their different geography, economics, culture, history, and religion, it would be nothing less than a miracle if their interests actually coincided to the degree that Kramer is suggesting. But I digress.
The problem is that, when you look at opinion polls, Russians don’t seem terribly upset with the foreign policy of their "ruling clique,” nor do they seem particularly excited that it is pursuing its "narrow and even personal interests” at the expense of their country’s true interests. Let’s take Syria which Kramer uses as evidence that Putin is a "marginal player.” In fact, Kramer has repeatedly and forcefully argued that Russian support for Syria "comes from the Kremlin, not Russia writ large, and certainly not from the Russian opposition or Russian civil society. It is critical to draw such a distinction.”
First of all, before proceeding further, it is important to draw a distinction between two things that Kramer bizarrely lumps together "Russia wrought large” and "the Russian opposition.” These are very clearly not the same thing. The Russian opposition is growing, but it is still a small minority of Russian society, around 30% judging by recent polling (depending on how you define "opposition” it’s probably even smaller than that) . There is no reason whatsoever to expect that the Russian opposition’s views on Syria (whatever they are) are representative of Russian society’s, or that such views would triumph in a more democratic context. What’s important is what the majority thinks, and when proposing democracy as the solution to the Kremlin’s Syria policy it’s worth considering what the majority Russian view on Syria actually is.
The simple truth is that Russian’s really do not care about Syria. At all. In a town like Washington, where everyone is focused on concepts like "leadership” and where every unfriendly country is just begging for an armed intervention, this might sound bizarre. Nonetheless, 52% of Russiansgenerally are not interested in what’s going on there and 57% aren’t sympathetic to either side in the struggle. Another poll found that, amid the same pervasive indifference, those Russians who were paying attention actually supported their own government’s position by a margin of 25% to 4%. Other polls have found very much the same thing: that the Kremlin’s position isn’t some sort of strange outlier in need of an explanation but is actually in line with a broad societal consensus on the need to stay disengaged.
Kramer never addresses the obvious point that Russians genuinely do not care about Syria. It’s deeply confusing to me how someone who gets so agitated about the concept of "democracy” is so completely disinterested in what Russians themselves actually think. Based on all of the evidence and polling, a more democratic Russian government would take pretty much the same position on Syria as Putin’s dreadful autocracy. This is because most Russians don’t care about Syria, and among those that do care about Syria most are supportive of Assad and want to see the rebels defeated. It’s entirely possible, I suppose, that a new non-Putin-led Russian government would ignore public opinion to support an American intervention in Syria. But it’s not clear why the anti-majoritarian moves of a potential future Russian government would be a good thing, nor is it clear why ignoring strongly held public opinion would be indicative of an improvement in Russia‘s degree of democracy.
There are, of course, areas in which a more representative and democratic Russian government would take positions greatly different from Putin’s. Those areas, however, are primarily in the economic and social spheres and the sorts of changes that would result (higher taxes on the wealthy, higher spending on social services) would make most people in the West go batty. It’s possible that, in the future, Russians will come to despise Putin’s foreign policy, and there is nothing sacred or untouchable about it. But, at the moment, there simply isn’t any evidence that Russia‘s foreign policy is being systematically manipulated by a small clique of siloviks for their own selfish personal ends. When you ask Russians what they think, most are perfectly content, even with a Syria policy that, to Western eyes, is borderline criminal.
It’s not exactly shocking, or at least it shouldn’t be, that Russians and Americans see the world very differently, but it’s something to keep in mind the next time someone like Kramer tries to explain all of the "bad” parts of Russian foreign policy by pointing to the personal malevolence of Vladimir Putin.