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How America’s Flaws Become Russia’s Opportunity

America’s flaws are once again being exploited by Russia. Vladimir Putin’s regime directly threatens the flourishing of democracy in developing countries by highlighting the problems facing today. As a result, many of these countries find liberal democracy unappealing and may understandably turn to Russia instead. While the United States experiences a wave of protests against systemic racism and policy brutality following the death of George Floyd, Putin has stepped up Russia’s foothold across the international system. This is not a new Russian strategy, however, but one that’s been used over the past century. Exploiting America’s racism and perceived hypocrisies further allows Putin to create a Russian sphere of influence by building allies and forging new ties.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic

To achieve this, Putin disaggregates Russian foreign policy through what he calls a “near” and “far” abroad. The near abroad refers to former Soviet states in Eurasia while the far abroad covers the rest of the world. Putin hopes to assert privileged influence over its near abroad and achieve key inroads in the far abroad. This policy creates the image of a resurgent Russia and muddles the future of American and European-style democracies, straying states from democratization.

Moldova and the Central African Republic (CAR) best highlight the reach of Russian foreign policy over the past few years. Russia considers Moldova, an Eastern European state, as part of its sphere of influence, so it militarily coerces Moldova in hopes of shifting its political orientation towards Moscow and away from the European Union (E.U.). The CAR, in contrast, recently drafted key diplomatic and security ties with Russia. This growing relationship could grant Russia a foothold in Central Africa that the United States currently lacks, granting Russia strategic advantage in controlling shipments of metals and other resources exported to the U.S.

Today, Russia’s influence on Moldova has strayed it from the E.U. and made Russia one of Moldova’s key benefactors, leading Moldova’s President to openly embrace Moscow. Russia has been involved in Moldova since the fall of the Soviet Union, slowly making connections that distanced Moldova from Europe and the United States as the United States involved itself in other regions. Russian forces in eastern Moldova prolong post-Soviet conflicts and damage Moldova’s European integration prospects, trapping Moldova in Russia’s sphere of influence. In 1991, Transnistria, a breakaway eastern region, declared its independence from Moldova. The following year, Russia established a Joint Control Commission (JCC) of Ukrainian, Transnistrian, Moldovan, and Russian troops along a “Security Zone” which separates greater Moldova from Transnistria. The JCC allows the Russian military to lead peace-talk initiatives. Separate from the JCC, Russia has an entirely separate military presence numbering about 1,500 troops in the region.

The Transnistrian conflict casts a shadow over Moldovan politics and the absence of a formal peace agreement makes Moldova an unlikely candidate for EU membership. Democratic reform and E.U. association seems unlikely for Moldova in the near future. Moldovan President Igor Dodon currently practices a form of authoritarian populism that brings his state closer to Russia and promises no integration with the E.U. for the next decade.

Russia’s far abroad presents an area of opportunity to expand influence in areas of fledgling U.S. and European influence to present states with an alternative model to liberal democracy. In Africa, for example, protests over racism recently made America a less appealing state for diplomacy. Meanwhile, Russia’s gradual development of military ties and exploitation of the Central African Republic’s economy could grant Putin a key foothold in the region. This new presence in developing regions with little U.S. presence muddles democratic prospects in developing countries such as the CAR.

The CAR, Russia’s strongest ally in Central Africa, is presided by the repressive regime of President Faustin Touadera. The CAR’s relationship with Russia centers on security partnerships that allow Touadera to maintain power in exchange for granting Russia several mining concessions. Essentially, Russia’s presence in the CAR prevents any democratization efforts and upholds Touadera’s authoritarian government. In 2018, Russia sent 175 military and civilian instructors to the CAR to train Touadera’s forces after a United Nations’ arms embargo was lifted. In addition, the CAR’s national security advisor, Valery Zakharov, is a Russian national with ties to the Kremlin. This relationship represents a Russian commitment to develop its allies’ defense capabilities and establish a key presence beyond Eurasia. However, the CAR’s ongoing civil war does not seem to come to an end. Instead, the people of the CAR long for peace while President Touadera allows Russian companies to exploit the CAR’s diamond trade.

America’s domestic issues create Russian opportunities abroad. States established in the 20th century, like Moldova and the CAR, are barred from any democratic reform because of Russia. As Putin heavily invests in Moldova and demonstrates to the CAR that western powers are hypocritical and regularly undermine their own liberal democratic values, it becomes more difficult for the United States to uphold its international prestige. All the while, it grants a diplomatic advantage for more authoritarian states like Russia to exploit. Overall, Putin could present these states with an alternative model to the American model of democracy, tipping the balance of power against the United States. Putin’s Russia presents a direct threat to these developing states, their people, and the future of liberal democracy. It’s high time we address American problems at home to hinder the spread of authoritarianism abroad.

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Daniel Sixto

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