Where U.S. Sees Democracy Promotion, Russia Sees Regime Change

File Photo of U.S. Embassy Moscow, with Russian Foreign Ministry Building in Distance

(Russia Matters – russiamatters.org – Benjamin Denison – July 29, 2020)

Benjamin Denison is the assistant director of the Notre Dame International Security Center, where he is also a senior research associate. He previously was a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

In the aftermath of the revelation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected those claims and accused the U.S. of interfering in Russian elections instead. Notably, he claimed that the U.S. helped aid protests against the 2011 Duma elections and in 2012 against his re-election as president. As evidence, he cited pronouncements by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that there should be an investigation into electoral irregularities. He also pointed to then-U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul’s meetings with civil society groups and opposition political parties at the U.S. Embassy during his first week in Moscow, which led Russian state-controlled television to claim McFaul was sent “to Moscow to orchestrate a revolution against the Russian regime.”

While the allegations against McFaul were mainly for domestic political consumption in Russia, this disagreement over what constitutes assisting in regime change and what is legitimate democracy promotion and election monitoring remains a contentious issue between the U.S. and Russia. Among American policymakers, there is an inability to understand that America’s record of previous regime change makes members of the Russian elite believe that the U.S. is seeking to remove Putin and his retinue from power or even to “dismember” Russia. While American policymakers see military interventions in the Middle East and democracy promotion efforts in Eastern Europe as distinct policy portfolios, to Russian eyes, when undertaken at the same time, they appear to be part of one overarching strategy meant to displace governments that do not toe Washington’s line.

The failure to critically assess the track record of American regime change, unfortunately, contributes to an unhelpful view that Russian statements against American democracy promotion are merely domestic propaganda, rather than legitimate expressions of anxiety about regime security. Only once American policymakers recognize this can they take steps to erase the link between democracy promotion and regime change in foreign minds. This will open the door for more considerable efforts to reduce tensions with Russia, help reduce the perceived benefits of Russia interfering in elections abroad and give the U.S. a greater ability to support civil society.

American Democracy Promotion in Russia and its Near Abroad

American efforts at democracy promotion and Russian allegations of American interference in Russian domestic politics are not new.

During the 1990s and 2000s, American support included providing USAID funding to help the Russian economy, providing training for political parties and civil activists and even providing support for the 1996 re-election campaign of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Similar democracy promotion investments occurred in Russia’s neighborhood during the 2000s in the so-called color revolutions in Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere. During the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, American support and funding through the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) Act and various organizations helped create civil society organizations capable of carrying out dedicated election monitoring to promote fair elections. Similar dedicated funding helped create a pro-democracy civil society in Georgia, leading to the Rose Revolution in 2003. Further aiding the protests were statements from the State Department accusing the Shevardnadze regime of manipulating the poll results, which helped mobilize popular protest.

More recently, USAID and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) funded Golos, a civil society organization that engaged in extensive electoral monitoring to expose fraud during the 2011 Duma elections in Russia. This included a $51,477 grant for voter education and a $49,945 grant to mobilize election monitoring, which led to roughly 3,000 election monitors being trained to operate in 30 regions throughout Russia. These revelations were instrumental in helping mobilize the large protests against Putin in 2011 and 2012, and contributed to what Putin interpreted as encouragement for the protests against the electoral results by Secretary Clinton.

It was U.S. support for democracy in Ukraine, however, that, in my view, cemented the link between American democracy promotion efforts and regime security fears for Putin and Russia. Since 1991, the U.S. had spent an estimated $5 billion dollars in democracy promotion aid in Ukraine to help achieve what the head of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) Carl Gershman called “the biggest prize.” The fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime in 2014 was then applauded in the West as a victory for democracy that changed Ukraine forever. In Putin’s view, however, it was all part of a U.S. plan to manipulate the Ukrainian opposition and oust an elected leader who was friendly to Russia.

In each of these cases, American support through public pronouncements, funding and democracy promotion helped at least in a small way to overthrow the pre-existing Russia-leaning regimes for more democratic, and in some cases, more pro-American governments. Except for the Bulldozer Revolution in Yugoslavia, there is no evidence of any covert aid from the CIA or elsewhere being used to help prompt regime change in these cases. Instead, overt democracy promotion aid and civil society training were the only forms of support received, but it likely does not seem much different for the deposed leaders.

The Link Between Democracy Promotion and Regime Change

While these tools of democracy promotion grew in prominence in Russia and its near abroad during the 1990s and 2000s, the U.S. also showed its interest in spreading democracy at gunpoint in Haiti, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. In particular, the regime change mission in Libya demonstrated that initial support for protestors against Moammar Gaddafi led to a U.N.-supported mission to protect opposition groups from government killing, which led to support for a regime change military mission that led to the ouster and death of Gaddafi. This created a problematic association between domestic protest, American support and eventual fears of American escalation to regime change when a government attempts to repress the protests.

As Russians look at the pattern of color revolutions, democracy promotion and American regime change interventions, they view these actions not as different arms of American foreign policy, but as different tools of a unified American policy that seeks to change various countries around the globe to better suit their interests. Thus, in the eyes of Russian leaders, democracy promotion and hard military-backed regime change become variations on the same American policy continuum rather than different organizations and tools used for different discrete policies. The idea that democracy promotion and NGO-support is the first step toward full regime change makes all foreign support for Russian NGOs or opposition parties become almost an existential threat to the regime. In particular, hardline members of the Russian elite have viewed efforts to promote democracy in their country by such organizations as the National Democratic Institute (NDI), International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), all of which are NGOs, as part of the aforementioned strategy. In their view, these organizations are all instruments of the U.S. government because they receive funding through grants originating from the U.S. Congress, USAID and the U.S. State Department.

Unfortunately, even though USAID, NDI, IRI, NED and other NGO funding is most often not coordinated in any substantial manner with overt and covert American regime change efforts, the track record of American regime change makes them appear linked in the eyes of the Russian leaders.

The past inability of the U.S. to resist engaging in regime change elsewhere means that the Putin regime cannot risk assuming the U.S. is not pursuing regime change in Moscow. And with continued calls in Washington circles and op-ed pages to pursue regime change in Russia, fears for regime security are merited and continue the perception that regime change and democracy promotion are two of America’s tools for pursuing the same goal. Thus, while there is domestic utility in claiming that opposition movements are American plants orchestrating regime change, the fact that this feasibly could be true creates problems for these democracy promotion organizations and for American policy.

The Problem With Russian Regime Insecurity

With Russia believing that all tools of American foreign policy are centrally coordinated and can work against the regime security Putin currently enjoys, it creates major problems for American policy in the post-Soviet region. When legitimate fears for regime survival exist, efforts to prevent attempts at regime change become essential, causing leaders to view all efforts of potential cooperation and conflict through the lens of regime security. Sadly, this prospective anxiety only helps to inspire aggressive Russian behavior both domestically and internationally in order to remove potential weak points against the regime. It also creates incentives for Russia to similarly interfere abroad in other countries’ domestic politics to cause disunity and dampen efforts they see as targeting Russian regime security. While Russia was already predisposed to attempting interference in foreign elections and the domestic politics of other states, fears of potential American regime change incentivize redoubling these efforts.

To be clear, there is also a purely domestic benefit to labeling different Russian civil society activists as tools of the West. But the U.S. track record of regime change makes it seem like a covertly funded operation in Moscow could theoretically occur. Unfortunately, this belief only harms local activists and civil society groups that receive U.S.-linked funding to carry out their own local goals. For instance, Russia targeted these groups and activists with the 2012 foreign agent NGO act and other laws banning American-funded civil society organizations. While this also helps ensure support and control for the Putin regime in Russia, the ability to make a credible claim that the U.S. might be using these tools for regime change purposes makes it easier to claim that opposition leaders are simply American agents rather than legitimate alternatives.

Cracking down on these American-funded democracy promotion efforts, then, inspires more calls against the regime in Washington and starts the cycle afresh where there are new calls against the regime in Moscow. This does little to promote American interests and leads to competing claims about interference rather than producing the limited cooperation necessary to achieve policy gains. When most forms of American foreign policy are viewed through the lens of regime security, the ability to cooperate on policies of mutual interest is harmed and U.S.-Russian relations, as well as local activists and NGOs, suffer most.

What to Do?

As Russia continues to see regime change lurking behind democracy promotion efforts and other tools of American statecraft, I believe that the best way for the U.S. to move forward is to try to change the perception that it is uniquely interested in overthrowing the current regime in Moscow. Instead, the U.S. must focus on countering Russia’s external behavior rather than focusing on changing the regime itself. This will be difficult given the number of statements against Putin that policymakers and commentators routinely make. But finding ways to make credible commitments against using regime change, not only in Russia but around the globe, is crucial. This must include committing not to threaten military intervention to overthrow even nefarious regimes, in places such as Venezuela and Iran, as has occurred recently, to illustrate that the U.S. is focused on external rather than internal behavior. Of course, this will not stop columnists and commentators from calling for regime change in various media outlets. But making commitments to not act on these calls will be a first step to reducing regime security anxieties.

Importantly, though, this does not mean that the U.S. should give up supporting civil society programs and abandon democracy promotion, especially in Russia. It does mean that the U.S. needs to support these programs in a way that does not raise regime security fears that bring the specter of regime change to the forefront. In addition, providing more significant asylum support would be a better way to aid dissident movements to organize in the U.S. rather than trying to force activists to appear linked to American funding and possible covert support in the country. This is true for Venezuela, Iran and elsewhere where the U.S. has threatened regime change. While this will not allay fears in Russia that the U.S. is still interested in regime change, trying to show that the U.S. no longer will use armed force to support opposition movements to oust leaders is essential to a future sustainable relationship with Russia.

Notably, this will not change the Russian regime or its perceptions of U.S. interests. However, in the long term, it will place the U.S. in the best position to deal with the external threats emanating from Russia and work with allies to achieve its goals. Continuing to create fears of Russian regime insecurity will only encourage greater aggression and create greater incentives to target American funded NGOs for repression. For the benefit of both U.S.-Russian relations and the future of democracy promotion, the link between these forms of aid programs and regime change needs to be severed by restraining American regime change ambitions globally.


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