The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny will soon appear in court for a hearing that will determine his fate. In the run-up to this pivotal decision, Western capitals have tried to show support for Navalny and for his anticorruption, pro-democracy cause. But they should beware a trap that the Kremlin is likely to set. Like Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev before him, Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to coax the United States and European governments into helping him neutralize his most problematic critic.
Putin is no doubt aware of the parallels between his current circumstances and those of the Kremlin in the first decade under Brezhnev. By the end of the 1960s, declining living standards and falling economic growth had punctured the Soviet regime’s claims to infallibility. The 1968 Prague Spring showed that the Warsaw Pact depended for its survival on violent repression. Most irritating of all, brilliant and world-famous dissidents, such as the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov, inspired millions with their principled opposition to Soviet rule. Brezhnev’s power appeared to be slipping, but he feared that if he moderated the regime’s claims to absolute authority—or instituted internal reform—he would risk losing it altogether.
To tighten his grip on power, Brezhnev turned instead to the international scene. He calculated that if he could get the United States and its allies to publicly acknowledge the legitimacy of the Soviet government, he could diminish the influence of its eloquent dissidents. Brezhnev was willing to make extraordinary concessions to secure this international reinforcement. After negotiating with Washington and other NATO member states for several years, Brezhnev accepted the permanence of U.S. military forces in Europe, concluded two arms control agreements, and signed the 1975 Helsinki Accords, recognizing “the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” In exchange for this relaxation of relations, known as détente, the Western bloc eased demands for the kind of internal Soviet transformation that figures like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov sought.
Putin currently holds many of the same cards that Brezhnev did in the early 1970s, and there are already signs that he will pursue a similar strategy. To deflate Navalny’s domestic support and international standing, Putin may open prolonged talks with Western governments on a number of festering problems, underscoring his interlocutors’ acceptance of the current Kremlin as the sole legitimate source of Russian authority.
Like U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, President Joe Biden enters office eager to settle certain security priorities with Moscow, and so his administration may be receptive to overtures for cooperation. There is the Treaty on Open Skies, which allowed the United States and Russia to send military reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory until both countries recently withdrew; New START, a nuclear arms control treaty for which Biden and Putin have already agreed to a five-year extension; the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the Russian government has violated by using military-grade nerve agents against political opponents abroad; and, not least, the Russian hacking of U.S. federal agencies at the end of 2020. A more expansive view of possible cooperation might also encompass P5+1 talks with Iran, six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, and even multilateral talks on the environment, which climate czar John Kerry, who sits on the National Security Council, might welcome with enthusiasm. With crucial midterm elections only two years away, Putin may wonder just how many foreign policy victories the new White House and Congress will be willing to sacrifice at the altar of Navalny’s cause.
Putin’s efforts are likely to meet even less resistance in Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron and the French diplomatic establishment appear undeterred in their desire for rapprochement with Moscow, and with many of Macron’s foreign policy plans foundering, Putin could throw him a lifeline. German Chancellor Angela Merkel—who has worked tirelessly to save Nord Stream 2, Germany’s pipeline with Gazprom—is not likely to spend her final eight months in office creating new problems with the Kremlin. Armin Laschet, the recently elected head of Merkel’s party and probable next chancellor, is more dovish on Russia than Merkel has been. Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, is determined not to let the Navalny storm rain on his upcoming trip to Moscow. If Putin enters into constructive talks on anything from energy supplies to Libya to Nagorno-Karabakh, then Paris, Berlin, and Brussels will be hard pressed to simultaneously support the man who wants to (peacefully) topple him.
In public, both the United States and Europe will almost certainly refuse to accept a “choice” between standing up for Navalny and working constructively with Putin. But in practice, the Kremlin will not willingly let them have it both ways. Throwing real support behind Navalny’s freedom and movement while disciplining Russian behavior in the international arena would be an almost inconceivable feat of Western diplomacy.
For many of the Cold Warriors and pre-Trump “restorationists” who will dominate foreign policymaking in Washington for the foreseeable future, that reality may prove too harsh to accept. Some of them took the lesson from the Cold War that the United States can have it both ways—that reducing the threat of conflict with an authoritarian regime, championing the cause of its democratic dissidents, and demanding certain types of internal reform all go hand in hand. The failure of détente, in their view, was that by separating morality from security, the United States ceded undue legitimacy to the Soviet regime and helped delay its inevitable collapse.
But the Cold War never would have ended the way it did if Brezhnev had not eventually been succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev, whose determination that the Soviets “can’t go on living like this” allowed Washington to realign its security strategy with its moral principles. And while Navalny certainly looks like his generation’s version of Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov, this generation’s Gorbachev is nowhere in sight. Before glasnost, there was the Brezhnev Doctrine: more than a decade of intensifying repression and control.
In his return to Krakow in 1979, Pope John Paul II urged millions of Poles to “not be afraid” of defending their rights as free people, even under communist rule. When Navalny made his fearless return to Moscow on January 17, five months after authorities tried to assassinate him, the moment recalled the pope’s iconic speech. “I am not afraid of anything,” he told reporters, minutes before he was arrested again. “And I encourage you all not to fear anything.”
It was a historic and heart-rending moment, and those who claimed that it revealed Putin’s deepest anxieties are surely correct. But insecure regimes are often the most ruthless, and if Navalny is made a surrogate for the return of American democracy promotion, the Kremlin is not likely to exhibit restraint. For the Biden administration, stabilizing relations with Moscow while supporting Navalny’s cause might seem like a strategy that sacrifices neither the United States’ security interests nor its core values. But such an option may not exist. When Americans decline to accept painful tradeoffs between their interests and values, they commonly end up sacrificing both.