During the past two years, Russia's image has reverted to one of an exceptionally controlled polity, similar to how the international community once viewed the Soviet Union. Despite opening borders in 1991, Russia gradually became isolated from the international community, a low point arriving with the invasion of Crimea in early 2014.
As the leaders in the West contemplate joining Russia in a strategy to defeat the Islamic State, the world needs to understand the deeper reasons for Russian behavior as much as Russia needs to modify its strategies and reintegrate with the world.
A hard line on Russian foreign policy is mirrored by demolition of domestic legal protections. For purposes at home and abroad, Russian leaders swiftly change laws to suit policies for immediate quiet and control. The effect is to further isolate Russia from global norms.
Most Russians want to be responsible members of the global community. While the country is more interconnected, the benefits of globalization after 1991 were distributed unevenly. A small portion of Russians have ties with the West with salaries depending on outside markets. Few Russians have been exposed to other forms of governance, and problems arising from international business relationships, educational exchanges in some cases contribute to resentment. A poll by the Levada Center released in October shows that 71 percent of Russians see the US role in international affairs as entirely negative.
Most Russians want stability and expect their government to wield influence over neighboring countries, and there is fervent support for interventions in Ukraine.
Ukraine and Russia share more centuries of history as one country than two, and Russian ties with Eastern Ukraine are strong. Those living in Eastern Ukraine speak the Russian language, trade with Russia and self-identify as pro-Russian — all giving the Russian government authority to say that intervention protects its own people. Russians accuse the West of double standards in applying sanctions, asking why the United Sates supports some rebellions but not others. Russians question why sanctions imposed by its government violate World Trade Organization rules, while US and Europe sanctions don't. The international community condemned Russian soldiers for their role in shooting down Malaysian airline MH17 and killing 298, and Russia responds by pointing out US refusal to apologize for its navy shooting down another civilian plane, civilian Iranian flight 655, taking lives of 290 people. Russia television repeatedly plans George H.W. Bush's 1988 retort: "I will never apologize for the United States of America, I don't care what the facts are."
Military action is not only judged, but punished — what else are sanctions if not a show of West's authority over a sovereign state? Russian society questions the justification of many military campaigns by the United States, such as by asking if there were chemical weapons in Iraq in 2003.
The list goes on. Most Russians understand that their government has violated international laws. They also question selective outrage by the international community. Such deviations from international norms may not legitimize Russian actions, but they give the government plenty of propaganda material.
Russians' support for their government's foreign policy leads to support of other decisions including human rights violations and de facto censorship on anything that might be oppose or critique the power in the country.
Unfortunately, Russia's legal system provides few protections and little recourse for repairing an abused system. International human rights groups claim Russia now displays among the worst human rights abuses of the post-Soviet era.
The legal system is problematic for a number of reasons.
Government policy can influence the law fast and crucially, and uncertainty has become an instrument for achieving political agenda. Russian courts confronting uncertainty give the benefit of doubt to government agencies and companies and individuals with government connections.
The governmental influence can be legal and direct, with the State Duma and Federal Council of Russia under absolute control of the president, passing any law as needed, as well as indirect pressure on judges and prosecutors. An example of direct pressure is passage of the 2012 federal Dima Yakovlev Law, also known as the Anti-Magnitsky Act, which defines sanctions against US citizens for violating human rights and freedoms of Russian citizens. The law established a list of people banned from entering Russia, allowing the government to freeze their assets and investments; suspends activity of politically active non-profit organizations receiving money from US citizens or organizations; and bans US citizens from adopting Russian children. Procedures for the law's passage were legal, but disrupted children's rights, as enshrined in the Constitution of the Russian Federation and international treaties. In 2013 four US families in the process of adopting Russian children filed with the European Court of Human Rights, claiming the law violates their right for private and family life and contradicted prohibitions on torture and discrimination.
A lack of clarity in so much legal writing allows authorities to interpret laws as they please. Such misapplication of law can be seen in the Pussy Riot judgment. Five members of the punk-rock band performed a provocative "prayer" in a Moscow Orthodox cathedral in 2012, denouncing Vladimir Putin's return to the Russian presidency. The court decision relied on analogy to convict three band members for "premeditated hooliganism performed by an organized group motivated by religious hatred or hostility" — although Article 3 of the Russian Federation's Criminal Code prohibits using analogy in criminal law. Recognizing the violation of law, the Russian Parliament passed a special bill called the "anti-extremist law," which can be used by courts to prosecute any trying to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of speech.
Another law, prohibiting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender "propaganda" to minors, enacted in 2013, has created an atmosphere in which any LGBT news or mention of support on the internet can be ruled a violation because minors have access to the internet. Surveillance tools allow for easy discovery and conviction of alleged "offenders."
Fast passage of laws to suit the government and broad, vague language are just two examples of systematic demolition of separation of powers in Russia, an alarming phenomenon.
The demolition unfolds in the midst of financial crisis. Economic sanctions hurt Russia, and anti-sanctions add more pain. For months, the government denied that sanctions had any impact on country's economy, arguing that both sanctions and anti-sanctions hurt the West more so than Russia. The president urged Russians to endure sanctions for two years, promising that all would be better than before. Most Russians have endured harder times and do not question this course of action.
The nation's pride is at stake, and Russia's position in the international arena as a strong opponent to United States is the priority. The United States and the European Union must find diplomatic ways to appeal to Russian pride and not punish citizens for leaders' decisions.
Dismantling economic sanctions that hurt citizens, instead putting more pressure on power-players and those in Putin's inner circle is one method. First, this would quell discourse of the "evil-West" guilty of causing Russia's economic crisis. Second, more conservatives in Russia should be invited to international forums to discuss global challenges and internal problems for Russia. Ensuring that everyone's voice is heard — not only those who are liberal and "in opposition" to the government — could present a chance of reaching the voter base that supports the current government.
The time is right. Russians would respond. Combining external pressures with a new diplomatic approach, could help Russia move forward before regional and parliamentary elections in September 2016.
Ashkhen Kazaryan is a 2013-2014 Fox Fellow at Yale University and studying at Yale Law School. Rights:Copyright © 2015 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center at Yale