There are two big stories for the coming week: diplomatic conversations with Russia and the passage of voting rights legislation in America. The two are related.
In the last several months, Russia has massed nearly 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine, and its president, Vladimir Putin, has threatened to invade the independent country again, as Russian troops did in 2014. Ukraine amended its constitution in 2019 to enable the country to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), through which Europe joined together to oppose first the USSR, and then the rising threat of Russia.
Putin insists that Ukraine’s interest in joining NATO threatens Russia’s security. He is demanding that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO, that no European country house missiles that could reach Russia, and that no former Soviet satellite country that has joined NATO house weapons or troops that could threaten Russia. This would essentially dismantle the security structure Europeans built after the fall of the USSR.
The U.S. and its allies in Europe and in NATO reject those demands, noting that the main threats to Europe for the past twenty years have come from Russia and its allies, who have invaded and occupied their neighbors, interfered in elections (including our own), assassinated opponents, and violated arms treaties.
This week, members of the Biden administration will meet with their Russian counterparts in Geneva, Switzerland, to try to deescalate the situation, although the U.S. has made it crystal clear that these talks are exploratory only and that they will not be making any firm commitments.
Today, on two talk shows—CNN’s State of the Union with Jake Tapper, and ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos—Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out the principles on which the Biden administration is acting. International peace and security relies on “the principle that one country can’t change the borders of another by force, the principle that one country can’t dictate to another its foreign policy and…its choices including with whom it will associate, the principle that one country can’t exert a sphere of influence to subjugate its neighbors.”
The State Department and the Biden administration have worked hard to rebuild the alliances that frayed under Trump, and now NATO is standing so strong that non-NATO countries like Finland and Sweden are discussing whether they might like to join the coalition. Blinken emphasized that the U.S. will not act unilaterally; it is standing with its allies to push back against Russian aggression.
That coalition will exert pressure on Russia through the economic strength of the U.S. and its allies. “The G7, the leading democratic economies in the world, made clear there would be massive consequences for renewed Russian aggression,” Blinken said, “So has the European Union, so has NATO.”
While he declined to identify exactly what he meant by “economic, financial, other measures,” he said that “Russia has a pretty good idea of the kinds of things it would face if it renews its aggression.” Observers speculate that Blinken is alluding to shutting Russia out of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or SWIFT, which facilitates international banking transfers.
Blinken and President Joe Biden have made it clear since the beginning of Biden‘s term that they see the defense of democracy as being global as well as local. Blinken has said that in our era, “distinctions between domestic and foreign policy have simply fallen away. Our domestic renewal and our strength in the world are completely entwined.”
The weakening of democracy stems in part from the shifts caused by the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, almost exactly 30 years ago, after the leaders of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine announced they were creating a new Commonwealth of Independent States. When almost all the other Soviet republics announced that they were joining the new alliance, the leader of the USSR, president Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down, handing power to the president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin.
The new republics quickly fell under the control of oligarchs who looted the formerly communist countries and laundered their illicit money in the U.S. and the U.K., which were deregulating their financial systems under the conviction that the ideology of free enterprise had bested that of communism, and releasing it from all constraints would only strengthen the winners of the Cold War.
In the 1990s, Vladimir Putin was consolidating power in Russia, and by the 2000s, Ukrainian interest in joining NATO and working with Europe worried him. In 2010 a Russian-backed politician, Viktor Yanukovych, won the Ukraine presidency (with the help of Paul Manafort—honestly, if you wrote this story as a spy novel, no one would believe it) on a platform of rejecting NATO.
Immediately, Yanukovych turned Ukraine toward Russia. In November 2013, he pulled Ukraine out of the process of joining the European Union, sparking popular protests that threw him from power in 2014. He fled to Russia.
Shortly after Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and annexed it, prompting the United States and the European Union to impose economic sanctions on Russia itself and also on specific Russian businesses and oligarchs, prohibiting them from doing business in United States territories. These sanctions froze the assets of key Russian oligarchs. Manafort went to work for candidate Donald Trump in 2016, apparently working with Russian operatives to get Trump elected and get rid of the sanctions.
Biden’s election changed the international equation. Concerned by the erosion of democracy at home and abroad, Biden vowed to rebuild democratic alliances and to fight the corruption that has strengthened oligarchs overseas and permitted their money to corrupt American politics. He has pulled democratic countries together to crack down on money laundering, used sanctions to paralyze those trafficking in illicit money, and beefed up enforcement mechanisms.
This crackdown on money laundering and illicit funds threatens to destabilize oligarchies that rest on great wealth, while it also strengthens American democracy internally by slowing the flow of illicit money into our political system.
And our democracy remains unstable.
This morning, Hugo Lowell of The Guardian reported that the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol is looking into whether Trump was the head of a criminal conspiracy to stop Congress from declaring Biden the president. They are looking not just at his communications with lawmakers, but also at whether he was part of an effort to coordinate the attack on the Capitol with the counting of the certified ballots.
Later today, Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) rejected the request of the January 6 committee to cooperate with its investigation, regurgitating right-wing talking points and calling the investigation a “partisan witch hunt.” Jordan has acknowledged that he spoke with Trump a number of times on January 6, although says he cannot remember exactly when. As Just Security has outlined, Jordan more than any other Republican member of Congress backed the Big Lie and sought to overturn the election.
On CBS News’s Face the Nation this morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) urged the Senate to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will push in the next two weeks. “What the Republicans are doing across the country is really a legislative continuation of what they did on January 6, which is to undermine our democracy, to undermine the integrity of our elections, to undermine the voting power, which is the essence of a democracy,” she said.