Since Russian President Vladimir Putin passed anti-gay legislation, the free world has responded with outrage. Organizations such as Pride House International have demanded boycotting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and restaurants and nightclubs owners have poured Russian vodka down the drain in solidarity with the LGBT community. Meanwhile, US-Russian relations have sunk to their worst levels since the relationship between Kennedy and Khrushchev, which culminated in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Recently Obama announced he may not attend the next major summit with Russia. Though this mainly theatrical move is designed to protest Russia granting America’s most sought after spy, Edward Snowden, temporary asylum, it also addresses a series of cold winds blowing in from Moscow, the incarceration of female punk trio Pussy Riot, Putin arming Syrian rebels and the anti-LGBT law among them.
Obama may have miscalculated. Despite America’s own deficiencies upholding LGBT rights, the US represents the most powerful state partner of LGBT communities. Severing dialogue with Russia will not resolve the issues.
Russia is a global superpower. Its government operates with near impunity, is heavy-handed in subverting dissent from its citizens and censoring and suppressing free media. This perpetuates Russia’s tyranny indefinitely. Therefore, without US dialogue, there is no negotiation or solution. Russia’s LGBT community would be voiceless.
Unless the world boycotts the Sochi games (no country has done so officially yet), asking individual athletes to sacrifice their place to compete would be asking them to sacrifice the prime of their youths. Like governments ending diplomacy, individual athletes not appearing at the games to protest would end the conversation. Olympic coverage of the issue would drift or be silenced, like Tibet’s protests at Beijing 2011.
Economic sanctions and cutting US tourism to Russia is also insufficient. Though Russia’s economy is export-based, many countries rely on its iron umbrella to support their own illiberal regimes and even Ukraine, its staunch Soviet-era opponent, depends on Russian oil.
Putin would have also anticipated lost tourism revenues from Americans due to the LGBT ban. However, China is expected to surpass America in global travelers and is likely to boost Russia’s tourism industry. Xi Jinping’s first foreign visit as China’s new leader was to Russia, renewing relations between former Cold War allies.
The US will need to negotiate with Russia if it truly stands behind LGBT rights. For this to happen, Obama’s LGBT base will need to apply pressure on a presidency in its last term.
Since both Russia and the US remain on frosty terms, mediation between the two giants could work with a neutral third party acting as a buffer. A UN mediator either from a neutral state or the private sector could facilitate talks. The US and Russia could even send representatives instead of Obama and Putin themselves.
Canada, with its longer history of LGBT rights and the US’ closest ally, historically and geographically, could be an influential middleman. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Obama’s relations are lukewarm. This would have to change by whatever legal means necessary.
Ultimately, to safeguard Russia’s LGBT community, the US must give in to Putin in some areas. Unless the global community boycotts and ceases economic trade with Russia completely, the talks will have a secondary effect, perhaps one affecting the Syrian rebels.
If this doesn’t work, Obama’s reputation as the Lincoln of LGBT civil rights movement will be tarnished. Even worse, Russia’s LGBT community will suffer through its longest winter yet.