Preparing for a Less Stable Russia

The Snowden affair has thrown Russia into the limelight, but longer-term issues deserve more attention -- the country's swerve toward authoritarian rule and diminishing political stability. The West should distance itself from President Vladimir Putin, support democrats, and prepare for a more unpredictable Russia.

Expanding abuse of the judicial system to sideline opponents shows a flailing Kremlin, desperate to stem discontent. On July 18, a Russian court sentenced Putin's main adversary, anti-corruption activist and liberal nationalist Alexei Navalny, to five years in a labor camp on trumped-up charges. Thousands quickly took to the streets, and in an about face Navalny was freed on bail pending an appeal, enabling him to resume campaigning for mayor of Moscow in a September election. Navalny's labeling of Putin's United Russia party as one of "crooks and thieves" has gone viral in Russia.

The Kremlin's next target seems to be the elected, popular mayor of Yaroslavl, Yevgeny Urlashov. The only opposition big-city mayor, on July 5 he was jailed on dubious extortion and bribery charges pending trial. On July 16, three thousand people rallied in his support. Legal manipulation is not new for Putin. In May 2005 a court convicted Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a rich oligarch who had backed the opposition, of embezzlement and money laundering. Putin tolerates other oligarchs who have amassed wealth through shady dealings but have not challenged him. Khodorkovsky, although widely considered to have been framed, languishes in a Siberian prison.

A rigged parliamentary election in December 2011 spawned large street protests, the first since the Soviet collapse in 1991. Putin blamed the outpouring on a "signal" from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A raft of new laws aims to stifle independent civil society and intimidate Russians from dealing with foreigners. In June, Russia's only independent election monitoring group, Golos, was suspended from operating for six months.

Last December the Magnitsky Act became U.S. law. It denies visas and U.S. banking access for Russian officials implicated in the agonizing prison death of whistleblower lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. In a heartless response, the Kremlin ended adoption by Americans of Russian children, many with special needs.

Russia may appear to be politically stable. In May the independent Levada polling center found that 63 percent of Russians continue to approve of Putin's performance. As well, the opposition lacks unity, and many Russians are preoccupied with their private lives.

Yet, the intermittent public protests are a sign of unease. The economy has slowed, needed structural reforms are wanting, and corruption and wasteful state enterprises sap confidence. In June, the central bank chief said that capital flight abroad remained rampant. In July more than 50 distinguished law professors and other legal experts warned in an unusual open letter that constitutional protections had become an "empty declaration."

Another recent poll found that 35 percent of respondents saw the influx of people of "other ethnicities" as a "very real" threat, more so even than terrorism. Seeking to exploit these sentiments, Putin is stoking xenophobic nationalism. This tactic risks alienating non-Russians, who comprise one-fifth of the population, as well as some educated Russian elites.

Putin's crackdown is pushing the limits of Russia's social contract. Opposition could increase from at least two directions. In 1991 protests by disillusioned educated and urbanized elites hastened the Soviet collapse, and now Putin is losing their support. In July the Center for Strategic Research, a Moscow think tank, said new polling showed that Putin may also face a greater risk of protests from less educated and less wealthy people in the outlying regions. From whatever direction, Russia may be vulnerable to greater unrest or a "color" revolution. A spark could emerge from another stolen election, economic frustration, or the violence-wracked North Caucasus.

With Russia becoming less stable, the West should alter its policy.

First, Western leaders should distance themselves from Putin and step up criticism of his repression. President Obama should not withdraw from the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg in September, but rightly seems likely to decline a separate summit with Putin in Moscow. Discussions on issues of great mutual concern like counter-terrorism, arms control, missile defense, and Syria can be handled at the cabinet level. Puzzlingly, Putin seems to think the United States is in decline. In fact, he is overplaying his own weakening hand by brazenly criminalizing political opponents, and granting asylum to Snowden.

Second, the West should strengthen ties with independent voices in Russia, and offer more training abroad to promising democratic leaders and election monitors. The enduring value of people-to-people exchanges is often underestimated. Navalny, for example, was a Yale World Fellow in 2010.

Third, if unrest or a popular revolution breaks out, the Russians will have to find their own way, but the West can encourage peaceful, democratic change. Two decades ago the West did this as the USSR collapsed amid economic ruin. Among the lessons relevant today: keep faith with democratic forces, avoid triumphalism, provide humanitarian aid as needed, encourage rule-of-law and economic reforms, and oppose corruption, including by nominally democratic forces. For now, Putin can suppress dissent and freedoms, but time is not on his side. The West has an interest in a freer Russia and should act on it.

William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, and special assistant to the president for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. Michael Haltzel, senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, was staff director for Europe at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.