by Janusz Bugajski
November 16, 2021
If President Joe Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy on Dec. 9-10 is to be a serious endeavor, then it needs to spotlight the threat from Russia.
Moscow methodically undermines democratic development by attacking the independence of its neighbors and subverting the United States and its allies. Current Kremlin offensives threaten to seize more Ukrainian territory, manufacture conflict between Poland and Belarus over the refugee standoff, and encourage conflict between Serbia and its neighbors in the Balkans.
For democracy to prevail, each state’s national security and independence must be assured by directly challenging the foundations of the Putinist autocracy. A passive U.S. democracy policy with noble phrases and verbal admonitions is inadequate. Focusing on easy targets such as Hungary, Georgia, or Poland for their democratic shortcomings is ultimately distracting. Russia is the leading practitioner and purveyor of anti-democracy, and China will follow in its footsteps as it expands its economic reach.
Enhancing Western military, economic, and cyber defenses is insufficient to stem Russia’s assault. The long-term solution is either to help transform the Russian state or enable it to dismantle itself like its previous Soviet iteration. The Summit can help launch such an initiative by not only inviting Russia’s democratic centralists and civic liberals well-known in the West but also regionalists, federalists, and representatives of various ethnic groups supporting democracy and authentic autonomy. Some of them are in exile and can be plugged into the virtual event.
A strategic approach that ties democracy closely with security needs to have a specific objective: to reverse Russia’s neo-imperialism by helping its citizens transform the state into a genuine federation that accepts its neighbors as equals. This is not simply a question of Moscow tolerating a handful of political parties, civic groups, and media outlets. The aim would be political devolution and self-determination among Russia’s diverse regions and republics. Washington can openly endorse pluralism, federalism, ethnic rights, and regional autonomy inside the Russian Federation as part of its campaign for global democracy.
The U.S. can itself be highlighted as a successful federation in which states’ rights develop local economies and give citizens a major stake in politics. The EU can also play a constructive role by emphasizing its support for regional development and interregional cooperation across state borders. This can help provide concrete examples to Russia’s citizens that administrative decentralization and involvement in local politics promote economic growth and beneficial international cooperation. Proponents of Russian
federalism have been prevented from communicating their ideas to the public and the Summit can help in this informational endeavor.
Russia’s federalization is not only essential for democracy but also for reducing Moscow’s security threats to the U.S. It is in Washington’s national interest to help Russia decentralize and federalize. Among other policy steps, Washington should cease to recognize Russia’s fraudulent national, regional, and local elections. It can condemn the Kremlin’s unilateral appointment of local governors, the absence of any democratic choice, and stifling central control over local resources and economies. And it must demonstrate to Russia’s citizens how Moscow economically exploits the wealthier regions to fuel its anti-Western offensives while its political elites profit from corruption built into the centralized system.
If genuine federalism fails to materialize because of Kremlin resistance then the separatist option will gain traction and culminate in Russia’s rupture. Separation and the formation of new states are processes visible throughout history when loyalty to the existing state dissipates and new forms of sovereignty are widely supported. There are ethnic regions that cannot be integrated into Russian identity as well as predominantly Russian regions that will benefit from independence just like the English-speaking Americans who rejected the British empire.
The West will need to establish links with Russia’s diverse regions and support efforts for a peaceful transition toward statehood. The challenges of transforming occupied republics from communism to democracy 30 years ago can be replicated over the coming decade by transforming Russia’s repressed regions into viable states. Although the Kremlin publicly dismisses Western democracies as obsolete, in reality, it views them as geopolitical threats to its international ambitions and domestic controls. In its struggle for democracy, the U.S. can checkmate Russia’s neo-imperialism by helping citizens to dismantle the autocratic pillars of the Putinist state.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His recent book, Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks , is co-authored with Margarita Assenova. His upcoming book is titled Failed State: Planning for Russia’s Rupture.