The speed of democratic backsliding in Russia has never been more apparent than it has been in the last several months. In the summer of 2020, a pair of ominous events demonstrated the lengths to which Vladimir Putin is prepared to go in order to consolidate his power and eliminate political opposition. In July, an ostensibly fraudulent referendum paved the way for sweeping changes to Russia’s constitution, including a provision that could allow Putin to remain in power until 2036. The next month, the popular opposition leader and Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny was poisoned and nearly killed, after which he was detained and imprisoned for over two years. The overwhelming consensus in the international community is that the poisoning was orchestrated by Russia’s Federal Security Service, acting on Putin’s orders. The targeting of dissidents in Russia has a long history, but the Navalny incident strikes a graver chord because of his prominence and influence as an activist.
As the world watched these developments with deep concern, it was disheartening to see the lukewarm response of the West. Apart from a handful of sanctions levied against Russian officials, the assassination attempt against Navalny failed to generate significant outrage in many democratic nations. To be fair, many of the same countries were struggling with their own issues concerning the defence of democracy, so it is not entirely surprising that the incident barely registered on the radar. However, if anything is clear from studying the history of authoritarianism, it is of supreme importance that the attack on Navalny should not be swept under the rug and that those responsible be brought to justice. It certainly will not be an easy task. As many who have experienced the Russian political system firsthand have stated, including Navalny himself, corruption in the country is not merely an aberration; it is institutionalized.
At a time when the Kremlin is taking increasingly bold steps to secure energy independence and nurture its blossoming relationship with China, perhaps it is time to reimagine the tried-and-true tactic of economic warfare as a means of keeping Russia in check. With construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russian and Germany in full swing, the latter country can send a powerful signal to Putin if the project is halted or cancelled entirely. If Angela Merkel and her successor are true guardians of democracy, they should be prepared to take drastic steps like this, even if means sacrificing part of Germany’s economic growth. It is also crucial that states within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, like Ukraine, resist the urge to cooperate with Moscow and instead forge deeper relations with the democratic West.
As far as others in the West are concerned, the recent protests in Russia over Navalny’s detainment and subsequent imprisonment have presented another opportunity to challenge Putin and voice support for the demonstrators. Just this week, three brave diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden took to the streets in Moscow to join thousands of other Russians protesting Navalny’s sentencing. Although the diplomats were promptly expelled from the country, they set an example for the type of actions that are becoming increasingly necessary to confront autocrats and preserve democracy. Their actions should serve as a rallying cry for other politicians and officials to make tangible sacrifices, instead of resorting to the usual diplomatic cliches and niceties. With any luck, a sustained campaign of street protests and more robust economic sanctions will force Putin’s hand and embolden Navalny’s allies to confront corruption more seriously.
As 2021 continues, the Kremlin is showing no signs of halting its assault on democracy. They also have little hesitation in supporting other states who have demonstrated a similar disdain for these sacred ideals. It is often difficult to ascertain the moment at which a country has crossed the threshold to become a rogue state. However, it should be abundantly clear to international observers that Putin’s Russia has, indeed achieved this status and should be treated as such. The notion that a country with extraordinary influence and power can bypass international law with such ease and little resistance should shake us all to the core. If the concerned parties fail to act with sufficient desperation, not only will the future of democracy in Russia be exceedingly grim, it will also be threatened worldwide.