20 years under Putin: a timeline

Although the economy has without question emerged as a central theme of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, foreign policy – particularly policy towards Russia – was a prominent subject at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Presidential nominee Mitt Romney spoke about Russia in his acceptance speech, the GOP Platform features a section devoted to Russia, and an expert conference during the Convention explored the future of U.S.-Russia relations under a Republican administration.


Left: Ambassador Richard S. Williamson; right: IMR president Pavel Khodorkovsky


“The Future of U.S.-Russia Relations”, a roundtable discussion held at the University Club of Tampa on August 28, was co-hosted by the Institute of Modern Russia and the Foreign Policy Initiative, a Washington-based think tank. The principal question debated on the panel – what Russia policy a Romney administration should pursue – was tackled by the GOP nominee’s foreign policy advisers, Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper (former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large on War Crimes Issues) and Ambassador Richard Williamson (former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State), Pavel Khodorkovsky, president of the Institute of Modern Russia and the son of Russia’s best-known political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky,and Vladimir V. Kara-Murza, a leader of the Republican Party of Russia–People’s Freedom Party. Guests at the event included Convention delegates, Congressional staffers, European diplomats, representatives of international organizations, political analysts, and journalists.

“American foreign policy should be grounded on support of democratic values in Russia,” Pavel Khodorkovsky said in his remarks. “The Republican Party needs to embrace the opposition to Putin that is growing in numbers, as more and more individuals become dissatisfied with his oppressive regime. Never before in modern history have the values of Russian society been further away from those of its government.” Khodorkovsky stressed that, “simply ‘resetting’ relations with Russia will no longer mitigate the situation, as long as Russia’s current leadership remains in power”, and urged the next occupant of the White House “to call on Putin to let my father out of prison, to compel Putin to end his support of the world’s rogue regimes, and to allow free elections to take place”

Vladimir Kara-Murza reminded the audience that on March 5th, as thousands of Muscovites gathered on Pushkin Square to protest Putin’s “victory” in a fraudulent election, the U.S. State Department announced that, “the United States “congratulates the Russian people on the completion of the Presidential elections,” and a few days later President Barack Obama personally called Putin to congratulate him on his “victory.” Not only did President Obama mention nothing about the electoral violations, but  he also failed to mention anything related to democracy in Russia. “This is not the first time a U.S. administration – of either party – has choosen to close its eyes on the ‘inconvenient’ issues of democracy and human rights in Russia, Kara-Murza said. “With regard to Putin though, such a stance is not only immoral, but impractical.”


Vladimir V. Kara-Murza, journalist and one of the leaders of Russia's pro-democratic movement


He noted that tens of thousands of Russian citizens have been going into the streets to demand free elections and democratic reforms and that, according to recent polls by the Levada Center, 42 percent of Russians support the pro-democracy protesters. Putin’s own favorability rating in turn has fallen from 80 percent in 2008 to 48 percent today. The prospects for Putin’s regime are thus far from clear. “Bringing about change and restoring democracy in Russia is a task for Russians, not for any outside players,” emphasized Kara-Murza, “but the U.S. can show that it is serious about its declared commitment to the values of democracy, rule of law, and human rights.” In Kara-Murza’s view, the best proof of such seriousness wouldbe the passage of the Magnitsky Act, which imposes targeted U.S. visa and financial sanctions on Russian officials implicated in corruption and human rights violations. He added that, “Russia’s opposition supports lifting the outdated Jackson-Vanik Amendment and passing the Magnitsky Act. That is, replacing sanctions against an entire country with targeted sanctions against specific officials who engage in human rights violations.”

“We cannot underestimate the concept of promoting democracy”, asserted Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper. “Governor Romney has a clear understanding of the nature of the current Russian government. We should not be shy to speak about democracy and human rights.” Calling the Obama administration’s “reset” policy “naïve,” Prosper suggested that it did not bring any positive results for the U.S. “If a nation is not true to its own people, how can it be true to others?”, asked the former Ambassador-at-Large. Prosper made a point of saying that when the Romney team speaks about Russia, “we mean the regime, not the people,” and stressed that it was “encouraging” to see mass protests in Russia after the flawed 2011-2012 parliamentary and presidential elections.


Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper


Former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Williamson focused on the foreign policy aspects of the “failed reset,” noting that despite concessions from the White House, “Russia is still occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia, using energy as a political tool against neighboring countries, helping Iran with its nuclear program, not being helpful on North Korea, opposing the U.S. on missile defense, and propping up the Assad regime in Syria.” “Russia is important for U.S. national security, but a free pass has not helped on any of those issues,” he continued. “It is time for a change.”

That U.S. policy toward the Kremlin will change after a Romney victory was made clear by the nominee himself in his acceptance speech – the most important speech (so far) of his political career. “President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus even as he has relaxed sanctions on Castro’s Cuba”, declared Romney. “He abandoned our friends in Poland by walking away from missile defense commitments, But he's eager to give Russia's President Putinthe flexibility he desires after the election. Under my presidency our friends will see more loyalty, and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility andmore backbone.” The Republican nominee also promised to return to “the bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan,” and to “honor America's democratic ideals.”

The 2012 GOP Platform, adopted by delegates in Tampa, includes a section on Russia. “Russia should be granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations, but not without sanctions on Russian officials who have used the government to violate human rights”, the platform reads. “We support enactment of the [Sergei] Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act as a condition of expanded trade relations with Russia.” Answering critics who accuse them of longing for a new “cold war” with Moscow, the Republicans emphasized that the United States should strive toward good relations with Russia,  but not at the expense of fundamental democratic principles. “We do have common imperatives: ending terrorism, combating nuclear proliferation, promoting trade, and more. To advance those causes, we urge the leaders of their government to reconsider the path they have been following suppression of opposition parties, the press, and institutions of civil society… The Russian people deserve better - as we look to their full participation in the ranks of modern democracies.”