20 years under Putin: a timeline

During the foreign policy debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney on October 22nd, there were ten references to Russia, but most of them were only in passing. The Republican nominee did criticize the current administration’s “reset” with Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime – but only once. According to IMR Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza, if the Romney campaign wants to get an edge in foreign policy, it should draw more attention to the candidates’ differing approaches to Russia.



The mention of Vladimir Putin’s name came eleven minutes into the final 2012 presidential debate which was (or, at least, was supposed to be) entirely devoted to foreign policy. “I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin,” affirmed the Republican nominee, Governor Mitt Romney, in criticizing President Barack Obama’s policy of “resetting” relations with the Kremlin, “And I'm certainly not going to say to him, ‘I'll give you more flexibility after the election.’ After the election, he'll get more backbone.” The latter was a reference to an off-microphone remark by President Obama to then-President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia, promising post-election “flexibility” on missile defense.

The attitude toward Russia’s current leadership offers perhaps the greatest foreign policy contrast between the two presidential candidates. The Obama administration’s “reset” policy has had the effect of giving the Kremlin a free pass on issues of human rights and democracy which were sacrificed for the sake of “cooperation.” A corrupt repressive regime was courted as a partner on the world stage. Medvedev, Putin’s powerless placeholder, was championed as a bona fide reformist leader, giving credence to the Kremlin’s ruse. Above all, the “reset” gave Putin international legitimacy at a time when he needed it most. On March 5th, as thousands of Muscovites rallied on Pushkin Square to denounce Putin’s “victory” in a vote marked by the removal of genuine competitors, skewed media coverage, and ballot-stuffing, the State Department declared that “the United States congratulates the Russian people on the completion of the Presidential elections, and looks forward to working with the President-elect.” That same week, Obama called Putin to offer his own congratulations; the official readout of their discussion makes no mention of election fraud, or anything related to democracy in general.

The attitude toward Russia’s current leadership offers perhaps the greatest foreign policy contrast between the two presidential candidates.

For the sake of the “reset”, the administration has strongly opposed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, a bill that was named for an anticorruption lawyer who was tortured and died in a Moscow prison and that provides for a targeted U.S. visa ban and asset freeze for Russian officials engaged in corruption and responsible for “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” including the rights to freedom of assembly, a fair trial, and democratic elections. The Magnitsky Act, tied to granting Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, is perhaps the most bipartisan legislation in years, having been cosponsored by dozens of Democrats and Republicans in both houses. In the Senate, its cosponsors include both party whips. The bill has been backed by Russia’s opposition and civil society leaders as an important measure of accountability for those who continue to violate the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens.

The White House disagrees, opposing, in particular, the publication of the abusers’ names, the asset freeze, and the expansion of the visa ban to include human rights violations beyond the Magnitsky case. Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, who had eloquently (and rightly) criticized President George W. Bush for being “indifferent” to Putin’s attacks on democracy, has publicly stated that the administration opposes any link between trade and human rights with regard to Russia.


Despite their political differences, Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic President Barack Obama have shared an affection for Russian leader Vladimir Putin.


When, during the debate, President Obama asserted (in a non-Russian context) that “we have stood on the side of democracy,” he offered Governor Romney a perfect opportunity to bring up the “reset” – one that the governor did not seize. (The incumbent, needless to say, did not insist on returning to the subject). The Republican nominee would have benefited from shining the spotlight on an issue that is, on its merits, a win for his position. In contrast to current White House policy, the GOP platform adopted in Tampa explicitly backs the “enactment of the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act as a condition of expanded trade relations with Russia” and criticizes the Kremlin for the “suppression of opposition parties, the press, and institutions of civil society.” Romney’s campaign has reiterated that he would only support PNTR on the condition of passing the Magnitsky Act. The same contrast that was made in the debate between the administration’s “flexibility” and his own promised “backbone” had been drawn in Romney’s acceptance speech at the convention. As for Putin’s “election victory”, the Republican nominee is on the record describing it as “a mockery of the democratic process.” Had the “reset” with the Kremlin been brought up more and in greater detail, the public reception of the debate, which President Obama won by 8 points – according to a CNN poll – might well have been different.

The GOP platform explicitly backs the “enactment of the Magnitsky Act as a condition of expanded trade relations with Russia”.

Human rights issues in relations with Moscow have featured in U.S. presidential campaigns before – and on one occasion have arguably proven decisive. In 1975, Republican President Gerald R. Ford, unwilling to jeopardize his “détente” with the Kremlin, refused to meet with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The issue was brought up at the 1976 presidential debate by Ford’s Democratic challenger, former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, who accused the incumbent of “weakness:” “The Soviet Union…put pressure on Mr. Ford, and he refused to see a symbol of human freedom recognized around the world – Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” Carter also ridiculed Ford for claiming that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” The Ford administration’s policy vis-à-vis Moscow was so poorly regarded that William Buckley’s National Review, a bastion of American conservatism, actually considered endorsing Carter. In a symbolic break with the Ford administration’s policy, exiled Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky was invited to the White House by President Carter just weeks after his inauguration.


U.S. President Jimmy Carter (center) and Vice President Walter Mondale (right) met with the recently exiled Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky at the White House on March 1st, 1977.


Criticism of U.S. policy toward Russia was featured in every one of the three most recent presidential debate cycles: in 2000, 2004, and 2008. In 2004, it was the Democrats who criticized the Republican administration for being too close to Putin and for turning a blind eye to his assault on democracy: George W. Bush had famously looked into Putin’s eyes and claimed to have gotten a “sense of his soul”; and even in the debate he boasted of his “good relations with Vladimir.”

Foreign policy – let alone policy toward Russia – will not be the issue that decides the 2012 presidential election. But the Romney campaign would do well to highlight an area where it holds the high ground. The Republican nominee and his advisors still have ten days to do it. Should they win on November 6th, they will have four years to demonstrate the “backbone” they had promised, and to put their words into practice.