The Russian Reset: A Eulogy

1st Apr 2011

Last April in Prague, President Barack Obama met his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, to sign the Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. Known colloquially as New START, the treaty is the latest in a series of agreements between the United States and Russia aimed at reducing the countries’ nuclear stockpiles, a process that has been pursued by Democratic and Republican presidents for decades. Over the course of seven years, New START commits the two sides to lowering the limit on deployed strategic warheads by 30 percent and nuclear launchers by half. Most important, the treaty renews the mutual-inspection regime of nuclear facilities, pithily articulated by Ronald Reagan’s maxim, “Trust but verify.”

New START has been hailed by the White House and its supporters as the most significant of Obama’s foreign-policy achievements, which says something about the administration’s record thus far. Contrary to the grand claims of advocates, who argued that reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia were vital in preventing nuclear proliferation, New START is no panacea. Over the past 30 years—especially during the administration of George W. Bush—both countries have dramatically lowered stockpiles, while nations like North Korea and Pakistan attained nuclear arsenals and Iran jump-started its own program.

However, the totemic importance bestowed on the treaty makes sense when one recognizes the role it has been assigned in the Obama administration’s attempt at a larger diplomatic rapprochement with Russia. Termed the “reset,” this policy has sought to repair relations with the erstwhile superpower, relations that had reached a low point toward the end of the Bush administration. Though the passage of New START has been trumpeted as a milestone in renewed Russo-American cooperation, the “reset” of which it is only a part serves, at best, to prettify a stagnant relationship and, at worst, to give a revanchist, anti-democratic regime broader license to aggress. Indeed, by broadcasting an outwardly positive and respectful tone, the Obama administration has already elevated Russia, a decaying, failing state, into a major international player.

This is a policy with some history. For two decades, the popular understanding of Russo-American relations has been dominated by a false narrative that places the blame for tensions on the United States. The U.S. supposedly foiled an exceptional opportunity after the fall of the Soviet Union to midwife a democratic Russian state by “humiliating” Russia and not paying enough obeisance to its wounded pride as a once (and, at least in its own eyes, future) great power. NATO expansion, a policy with widespread support among Democrats and Republicans, has been blamed for making Russia feel “encircled.” The succession of former Soviet satellite states to the Atlantic Alliance, in the words of Anatole Kaletsky of the London Times, “contributes to a territorial encirclement very similar to what Napoleon and Hitler failed to achieve by cruder means.” Former American ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock has said that “if this process is not stopped, we’re going to see a NATO that is no longer capable of pursuing the purposes for which it was created because it will be preoccupied watching its own navel and its expanding waistline.” And no less a figure than George Kennan, architect of the Cold War policy of containment, referred to NATO enlargement as “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.”

The facts tell a different story. Since 1992, the United States has provided $9 billion of assistance to Russia and has regularly consulted it on NATO expansion via the NATO–Russia Council. The common critique also fails to appreciate the plain fact that NATO is a defensive alliance, with no offensive designs on Russia whatsoever.

That some sectors of the Russian nomenklatura continue to harbor paranoid thoughts about the West and its intentions is not something that should force the United States and its allies to alter their policies or compromise their fundamental values. Still, the call for an American alteration or compromise is hardly new. It has been adopted, at least rhetorically, in some form or another by every presidential administration since the end of the Cold War. Take, for instance, the joint statement issued by George W. Bush and then-President Vladimir Putin on April 8, 2008:

[W]e reaffirm that the era in which the United States and Russia considered one another an enemy or strategic threat has ended. . . . Rather, we are dedicated to working together and with other nations to address the global challenges of the 21st century, moving the U.S.-Russia relationship from one of strategic competition to strategic partnership. . . . We will strive to identify areas of positive cooperation where our interests coincide . . . while minimizing the strain on our partnership where our interests diverge. Going forward, we intend to deepen our cooperation wherever possible, while taking further, even more far reaching steps, to demonstrate our joint leadership in addressing new challenges to global peace and security. . . .

The declaration is indistinguishable from the various communiqués, speeches, and press releases issued by the Obama administration, which are in turn remarkably similar to the statements issued by the Clinton administration and the first Bush administration before that. The common feature of these pronouncements is the admission that while Russia and the United States have differences on some issues, they share strategic interests and the differences should not overshadow the agreements that exist in more numerous and significant areas. A common feature of the declarations is their imperviousness to reality; the rosy view above was offered eight years into the Putin era. Four months after it was issued, Russia invaded Georgia.

Four months after that, another American pledge to heal the relationship was announced. The “reset” was first articulated by then-President-elect Obama in December 2008 and later elaborated by Vice President Joe Biden in a speech to the Munich Security Conference the following February. Biden cited a “dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our Alliance” and called for Russo-American cooperation on the three issues that have come to form the crux of the reset policy: stabilizing Afghanistan, New START, and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

There were well-intentioned rationales underlying this framework. Among them was the idea that the U.S. and Russia share a “mutual interest in Afghanistan’s stable and peaceful development,” as asserted in a recent statement by eight former ambassadors to Moscow and Washington. This claim has been bolstered by Moscow’s 2009 decision to grant NATO the right to fly planes over Russian territory and its much-heralded offer last year of a handful of helicopters and military trainers to the Afghan army. To be sure, Russia does not want to see the Taliban regain control of the country, as such an outcome would embolden militant Islamists throughout Central Asia and within Russia’s own North Caucasus region. But that does not necessarily mean that it wants the United States and its NATO allies to succeed in completely wiping them out, thus ensuring a Western security presence in its backyard for the foreseeable future. It is more likely that the Kremlin desires to see the United States and its allies bleed in a protracted Afghanistan stalemate for years to come. It is for this reason that the Russian government has put enormous pressure on the former Soviet Central Asian states—which have played a crucial role as hosts for the Afghan supply chain—to desist cooperation with the United States. If the convergence of American and Russian goals in Afghanistan is so apparent, why did Moscow wait until the war was eight years old before deciding to cooperate with NATO?

There are also those who envision a costly but valuable U.S.-Russian alignment on Iran. In what was widely seen as a quid pro quo for Russian cooperation on sanctions against the regime in Tehran, the U.S. announced in September 2009 that it would scrap its intention to construct long-planned missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. The news came as a shock to the governments of those two countries, steadfast allies of the United States and rightly concerned about Russian hegemony in what Moscow considers its “near-abroad.” The Kremlin had long opposed the plans, claiming that the missile-defense system—designed to defend against an attack from Iran, not Russia—was aimed at undermining its own deterrent. Rather than confront the dishonesty behind this argument, the administration buckled to Russian demands.

It is certainly true that Russia does not want Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, and Tehran’s role in promoting Islamic extremism could further destabilize the region. But Russia is not nearly as alarmed by the prospect of a nuclear Iran as is the United States or its Western allies. The major reason is economic: Russian exports to Iran have increased from $250 million in 1995 to more than $3 billion in 2008. Also, as Russia is a major producer of oil and gas, the possibility of a sharp rise in energy prices (a probable consequence of Iranian nuclear capacity) does not keep Putin awake at night. “Iran is a mania with the Americans; it’s not our problem,” a Putin adviser reportedly said in 2009. Just as Moscow relishes the sight of America getting bogged down in the Afghan morass, it does not look forward to the warming of relations that would arise between the U.S. and a post-revolutionary Iranian government.

In September, Medvedev signed a decree banning the sale to the Islamic Republic of S-300 air-defense systems and other weapons that Russia had agreed to supply in 2006. And, yes, this was a significant foreign-policy achievement for the White House for which the administration should be given credit. But with the S-300 deal, Moscow created a diversion from the many ways in which Russian policy on Iran has been problematic. For one, the announcement declaring the ban includes a clause allowing Moscow to rescind it at any point. Moreover, Russia still sells other types of weapons to Iran, and its state energy conglomerates continue to do heavy business in the Iranian gas and oil sectors. Russia is still assisting Iran in the construction of its Bushehr nuclear reactor, which is operated by the Revolutionary Guards Corps.

No less concerning is that the Russian regime has been increasingly aggressive on its borders and more authoritarian at home. Last June, a week before Medvedev visited Washington, Russian Newsweek, a since-folded publication often critical of Kremlin authoritarianism, published an 18,000-word “leaked” Russian foreign-policy document. Combined with a military doctrine that was formally released last February, a picture emerges of a Kremlin apparatus that continues to view the world through a Cold War prism. For all the recent talk about NATO-Russia cooperation and shared objectives, the Kremlin views the defensive Western alliance as its “main external military danger.” The military document attacks NATO for attempting to arrogate to itself “global functions carried out in violation of the norms of international law.” Meanwhile, the foreign-policy document seeks the imposition of the European Security Treaty, a Medvedev initiative that would override NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as a collective security instrument, thus achieving the “containment of NATO’s expansionist activities.” Seeing that U.S. policy supports the rights of states to choose their own alliances, and that Russia opposes NATO expansion (its war on Georgia serving as a warning to its former satellites), it is difficult to characterize this “disagreement” over collective defense as anything but irreconcilable.

Russia is attempting to weaken NATO in other ways; its meager offer of assistance in Afghanistan came as part of a package of extraordinary demands. Moscow has made specific stipulations regarding NATO force posture, insisting that the allliance not deploy forces larger than a brigade or station more than 24 aircraft for more than six weeks a year on the territories of post-Soviet NATO members. Russia is also demanding a veto within the NATO–Russia Council over future NATO deployments, which would strike at the founding purpose of the alliance. The Kremlin does not believe it needs to offer anything in return for these concessions because, according to Russian diplomats quoted in Russia’s Kommersant newspaper, “it is NATO that is expanding and threatening Russia and not the opposite.” Meanwhile, news emerged in November that Russia had staged a military exercise simulating a nuclear war against NATO member Poland.

Predating the reset, the conflict in Georgia changed the rules of post–Cold War Europe. For the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia had invaded a neighbor. A 2007 diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi describing a series of Russian attacks on Georgian targets concluded that the “cumulative weight of the evidence of the last few years suggests that the Russians are aggressively playing a high-stakes, covert game, and they consider few if any holds barred.” To this day, Russia stands in violation of the European Union cease-fire it signed, as it continues to station troops on sovereign Georgian territory and recognizes the “independence” of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in contravention of international law. It has strengthened its military position in both provinces, deploying a battery of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Abkhazia last August. With the fragile reset in play, the Obama administration has been hesitant to pressure Russia to the extent that it could.

This has meant American reticence in the face of Russia’s deteriorating human-rights situation—a near strategic reversal of the national posture that led the U.S. to Cold War victory. As more independent journalists are assaulted or murdered and peaceful protests are violently dispersed, the rule of law is being displaced by what Medvedev himself has characterized as “legal nihilism.” Russia’s Kafkaesque justice system was put on full display in the seven-year odyssey of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, who ran afoul of Putin by funding liberal opposition politicians. Khodorkovsky’s show trial ended in December when a judge convicted him of embezzlement and money laundering. According to a recent study by the Russian Association of Lawyers for Human Rights, corruption may account for a full half of Russia’s GDP, and Transparency International ranked Russia 154th out of 178 countries, behind Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Less than two weeks after the Senate ratified New START, the Russian FSB (internal security service) broke up demonstrations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, arresting 130 people, including leading opposition figure Boris Nemstov.

What has imperiled the march of liberty has been good for Moscow. “Haven’t you noticed? We’re gradually turning into allies,” the Kremlin’s human-rights ombudsman told Time magazine following a meeting with U.S. officials over the summer. “Since there was no criticism towards us, we didn’t criticize them.”

What has the United States actually gained from the reset policy? The most the administration can claim is a collection of atmospheric achievements: in 2009, the NATO–Russia Council, a consultative instrument founded in 2002, held its first meeting since the Georgia war. Last May, NATO troops joined Russian ones for a march in Red Square to commemorate the Allied victory in World War II. And in November, Russia participated in NATO’s annual summit in Lisbon, Portugal.

With little more than that to its credit, the administration has been content to declare the reset an unmitigated success. Indeed, Obama said as much while dining with Medvedev over hamburgers and fries at a Washington-area fast-food restaurant last June. And in the interests of promoting this rosy narrative, a spy scandal involving 10 Russian operatives, uncovered by the FBI just a week after Medvedev’s departure, was summarily swept under the rug by both countries. In this juxtaposition of circumstances lays the folly of the reset. Its successes, such as they are, are as ephemeral as a fast-food photo opportunity, while its shortcomings are rooted in a Russian national character more enduring than Washington is ready to publicly acknowledge.

This is not to say that the administration no longer understands the character of the Russian regime. According to the collection of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks late last year, Russia, in the words of American embassy officials in Moscow, is ruled by a “modern brand of authoritarianism” and is a place where “Stalin’s ghost still haunts the metro.” The Russian Defense Ministry “has not changed its modus operandi for information exchange nor routine dialoguing since the end of the Cold War.” The cables reveal that NATO has devised specific war plans for the defense of the Baltic states against possible Russian attack, news that “bewildered” Moscow.

It now remains for the administration to reassess its view of Russia on the world stage. For even if the Russian leadership were inclined to play a more constructive role in the various initiatives proposed by Washington, it’s unclear just how useful its cooperation would be. The country—as measured by its shrinking population, internal political and ethnic disunity, and failure to modernize or diversify its hydrocarbon-dependent economy—is in decline. Over the past five years, Russia dropped from 57th to 65th on the United Nations Human Development Index, and the most recent World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranks it near the very bottom with regard to the strength of state institutions and protection of private-property rights. American policy should be oriented toward the management of this decline, marked by a return to a Cold War–era posture of containment. For all the fears about its ability to pressure Europe via the cutoff of gas and oil (a weapon it has not hesitated to use), Russia depends far more on its European consumers than vice versa; the Continent accounts for 67 percent of its gas exports and 69 percent of its oil exports. Russia cannot survive without its European export market, and its threats to cut off oil and gas should be understood within this context.

In terms of specific policies, this means being more assertive with Moscow when it comes to the explication of our interests and values and not backing down so easily in the face of Kremlin demands and threats. It could start with the resumption of defensive weaponry sales to Georgia that were halted following the 2008 war. As the French are going to sell Moscow precisely the sorts of ships the Russians say they need to seize Georgia’s Black Sea coast, there is no good reason why the United States ought not to sell defensive armaments to an ally and prospective NATO member. There has not been nearly enough debate about Russia’s membership bid to join the World Trade Organization, something which it desperately seeks to do, while it continues to violate so many of the provisions of the international organizations to which it is already member, like the OSCE and the Council of Europe. And the United States could impose visa bans on Russian officials implicated in human-rights abuses, as has been proposed in bipartisan Senate legislation. Doing any of the above will certainly make for less-sunny bilateral public relations, but it will also deliver the benefit of advancing American interests.

The experimental phase in extending American goodwill to Moscow has come about specifically because the U.S. is a secure enough country to take such a chance. It has failed because Russia is at once too unstable and too blustering, and, more crucially, does not see that it in its interests to reciprocate. The administration would do well to keep that in mind as it moves to adopt a harder line with Medvedev and Putin. Until such time that Moscow finds itself in a position to press the button, any genuine reset will remain on indefinite hold.

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