Toward a Strategy for Engaging a Resurgent Russia on Democracy, Human Rights, and Religious Liberty: Part II

by vaughn_admin  //  

August 15, 2016

By: Karrie Koesel and Christopher Marsh

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is adapted in part from a feature-length article that originally appeared in a special open-access issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs on June 20, 2016. It has been edited with the authors’ permission. Part I is available here.

When the regime you are engaging has invaded the territorial sovereignty of its neighbor (Ukraine, a U.S. ally), and is also on the brink of war with another one of your alliance members (Turkey) over the shooting down of one of its aircraft, it seems that the promotion of religious, civil, and political liberties is hardly a primary concern. Part I ended by asking the million-ruble question: How does the international community promote basic human rights in Russia? We first detailed the nature of religious freedom in contemporary Russia, how it has transformed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and identified the challenges facing religious communities at risk. Next we lay out several strategies of engagement, some cautious and some more ambitious.

We are in a political moment where U.S.-Russia relations are at a new low. The U.S. appears to have little leverage over Vladimir Putin, and attention is primarily focused on military aggression and economic sanctions. Yet, this is not the moment to simply shelve the cause of democracy, human rights, and religious liberty in Russia. Within the contemporary geopolitical context, we suggest there are a number of practical strategies to promote positive change within these arenas. First, the U.S. must pursue a multiple actor, multiple channel, and long-term approach. Within the U.S. government there should be greater coordination around issues of democracy, human rights, and religious freedom. In some policy-making circles, democracy and human rights are seen as distinctive from religious freedom. We would suggest that these freedoms are bundled together. Religious liberty does not and cannot operate in a vacuum, but is deeply dependent on civil liberties, including freedom of association, assembly, and speech. If these areas continue to be understood as separate priorities within policy-making circles, their actual promotion falls into question.

Second, given the combative nature of Putin’s Russia, any tough talk, moral condemnation, and forceful action are likely to result in a backlash from all levels of Russian citizens. Thus, the U.S. must rely upon a combination of diplomatic and track-two channels of engagements. Within diplomatic circles, the U.S. should articulate the political, economic, and security interests at stake and find common ground. The reality is that Russian leaders have few incentives to address quiet forms of discrimination facing religious minorities unless there is evidence how it is advantageous to their rule. Here, diplomats would be wise to draw on scholarship that demonstrates the security costs of religious restrictions as well as the potential benefits of religious liberty. There is evidence that restrictions on religious groups contribute to violence, instability, and terrorism from several scholars, including Brian Grim, Roger Finke, Chris Seiple, and Dennis Hoover. Moreover, research demonstrates that religious freedom is positively linked to economic flourishing, good business practices, and investment opportunities.

Third, track-two engagement should also focus on pragmatism. This is because the foreign agents law and position of the Orthodox Church means that the overtures of Western NGOs and religious organizations may do more harm than good. Practitioners should be careful to demonstrate solidarity for these marginalized members of Russian society, but not be interpreted as attempts at regime change. Although we argue that practitioners are careful in how they engage Russian civil society, we believe they have the potential to play a vital role building symbolic bridges, such as the recent meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill. One of the outcomes of this historic meeting was a joint declaration calling for the protection of those at risk in the Middle East and North Africa. U.S.-Russian diplomatic channels should follow this lead. Despite disagreement over the situation in eastern Ukraine and Syria, there is enough common ground for our two nations to cooperate for mutual advantage, not the least of which is the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and counterterrorism.

However, success will not happen overnight. Any strategy of engaging a resurgent Russia must be understood as a long-term project. If history teaches us anything it is that the protection of liberty is a slow and gradual process. Across administrations we must continue to be creative in our support for Russian civil society where and how we can, and strive to keep open channels of communication and find common growth, both with the Russian government and non-state actors. To be sure, this will not be easy, but it moves us closer to a sustainable strategy of engagement with Russia for today and the future. 

Karrie J. Koesel is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and an associate scholar with the Berkley Center’s Religious Freedom Project.


Christopher Marsh is professor of National Security and Strategic Studies at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies and the president of the Special Operations Research Association and editor of its professional journal, Special Operations Journal

**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**