Obama's Russia 'Reset': Another Lost Opportunity?
The political failings of the reset may be transitory, but the fundamental fallacies of Obama’s Russia policy derive from the winner-take-all triumphalism of the 1990s. One is the enduring conceit of “selective cooperation,” or seeking Moscow’s support for America’s vital interests while disregarding Russia’s. Even though this approach had been pursued repeatedly since the 1990s, by Presidents Clinton and Bush, resulting only in failure and mounting Russian resentments, the Obama White House sought one-way concessions as the basis of the reset. As the National Security Council adviser on Russia, and reportedly the next US Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul explained, “We’re going to see if there are ways we can have Russia cooperate on those things that we define as our national interests, but we don’t want to trade with them.”
Obama did gain Kremlin cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran without yielding on the two US policies most resented by Moscow—locating missile defense sites close to Russia and continuing NATO expansion in the same direction—but at a high political cost. The disparity further undermined Medvedev’s position as well as general support for the reset in Moscow, where it now bears his political “brand.” Thus, Putin, who usually leaves the US relationship to his protégé, remarked publicly, “So, where is this reset?”
Indeed, missile defense is a time bomb embedded in the New START treaty and therefore in the reset itself. During the negotiations, Moscow believed the Obama administration had agreed to respect Russian objections to putting antimissile sites in Eastern Europe. But in December 2010, Obama, seeking Senate ratification, personally promised that the agreement “places no limitations on the development or deployment of our missile defense programs,” which he pledged to pursue fully “regardless of Russia’s actions.” In its resolution of ratification, the Senate went further, spelling out this intention in detail. Remembering previous violated agreements, Moscow reacted with such suspicion that Medvedev felt the need to vouch for Obama as a president who “keeps his word.”
More generally, the unresolved conflict over missile defense exemplifies the futility of “selective cooperation.” Medvedev’s announcement, in November 2010, that Russia might participate in a NATO version of the project was heralded as another success of the reset. But both he and Putin quickly emphasized that “Russia will participate only on an absolutely equal basis…or we will not participate at all.” No one on either side believes, of course, that the US-led alliance will give the Kremlin “equal” control over its antimissile system.
In pursuing the one-way concessions implicit in “selective cooperation,” Obama, like Clinton and Bush before him, seems unable or unwilling to connect the strategic dots of mutual security the way Reagan and Gorbachev did in the late 1980s. In effect, Obama is asking Moscow to substantially reduce its long-range nuclear weapons while Russia is being surrounded by NATO bases with their superior conventional forces and with an antimissile system potentially capable of neutralizing Russia’s reduced retaliatory capability. In that crucial respect, the new arms-reduction treaty is inherently unstable. If nothing else, Obama is undermining his own hope of also negotiating a major reduction of Russia’s enormous advantage in short-range tactical nuclear weapons, which Moscow increasingly considers vital for its national defense. Instead, as Medvedev also warned, unless the missile defense conflict is resolved, there will be “another escalation of the arms race” that would, he added on May 18, “throw us back into the cold war era.”
The twenty-year-long notion that Moscow will make unreciprocated concessions for the sake of partnership with the United States derives from the same illusion: that post-Soviet Russia, diminished and enfeebled by having “lost the cold war,” can play the role of a great power only on American terms. In the real world, when Obama took office, everything Russia supposedly needed from the United States, including in order to modernize, it could obtain from other partners. Today, two of its bilateral relationships—with Beijing and Berlin, and increasingly with Paris—are already much more important to Moscow, politically, economically and even militarily, than its barren relations with a Washington that for two decades has seemed chronically unreliable, even duplicitous.
Behind that perception lies a more fundamental weakness of the reset: conflicting American and Russian understandings of why it was needed. Each side continues to blame the other for the deterioration of relations after 1991. Neither Obama nor the Clinton-era officials advising him have conceded there were any mistakes in US policy toward post-Soviet Russia. Instead, virtually the entire US political class persists in blaming Russia and in particular Putin, even though he came to power only in 2000. In effect, this exculpatory history deletes the historic opportunities lost in Washington in the 1990s and later. It also means that the success or failure of the reset is “up to the Russians” and that “Moscow’s thinking must change,” not Washington’s.
American policy-makers and pundits may care little about history, but it is no arcane matter for their Russian counterparts. For them, the reset was necessary because Washington rejected Gorbachev’s proposal for a “new model of guaranteeing security” in favor of a “Pax Americana” and because there was a “new US semi-cold war against Russia in 1991-2008.” Putin and Medvedev are personally no less adamant about the prehistory of the reset and who was to blame. Before Obama became president, both Russian leaders repeatedly accused Washington of having constantly deceived Moscow. That acute sense of betrayal remains on their minds. Less than a year ago, Putin admitted having been slow to understand the pattern of US duplicity: “I was simply unable to comprehend its depth…. But in reality it is all very simple…. They told us one thing, and they did something completely different. They duped us, in the full sense of this word.”
Medvedev agreed: “Relations soured because of the previous US administration’s plans.” He even said what is widely believed but rarely spoken publicly by Russian officials, that Washington had not just armed and trained the Georgian military but had known in advance, perhaps encouraged, Saakashvili’s surprise attack on South Ossetian civilians and Russian peacekeepers, which began the August 2008 war: “Personally,” Medvedev complained, “I found it very surprising that it all began after the US secretary of state [Condoleezza Rice] paid a visit to Georgia. Before that…Mr. Saakashvili was planning to come see me in Sochi, but he did not come.”
Not surprisingly, the Russian leadership entered into the reset in 2009 with expectations diametrically opposed to the unilateral concessions expected by the Obama administration. As an unnamed Kremlin aide bluntly told a Washington Post columnist, “America owes Russia, and it owes a lot, and it has to pay its debt.” A year later, when the head of NATO assured the international media that the reset would “bury the ghosts of the past,” it was another example of how little the US-led alliance understands or cares about history.
The “ghost” barring a truly fundamental change in relations is, of course, the twelve-year expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders—the first and most fateful broken American promise. Despite assurances of a “NATO-Russian friendship,” the Obama administration has not disavowed more NATO expansion and instead reaffirmed US support for eventual membership for the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia, Moscow’s declared “red lines.” No state that feels encircled and threatened by an encroaching military alliance—an anxiety repeatedly expressed by Moscow, most recently by Putin in April—will, of course, ever feel itself an equal or secure partner of that alliance.
Still more, expanding NATO eastward has institutionalized a new and even larger geopolitical conflict with Russia. Moscow’s protests and countersteps against NATO encroachment, especially Medvedev’s statement in 2008 that Russia is entitled to a “sphere of strategic interests” in the former Soviet republics, have been indignantly denounced by American officials and commentators as “Russia’s determination to re-establish a sphere of influence in neighboring countries.” Thus, Biden stated in Moscow in March, “We will not recognize any state having a sphere of influence.”
But what is NATO’s eastward movement other than a vast expansion of America’s sphere of influence—military, political and economic—into what had previously been Russia’s? No US official or mainstream commentator will admit as much, but Saakashvili, the Georgian leader bent on joining the alliance, feels no such constraint. In 2010, he welcomed the growth of “NATO’s presence in the region” because it enables the United States and its allies to “expand their sphere of influence.” Of all the several double standards in US policy-making—“hypocrisy,” Moscow charges—none has done more to prevent an American-Russian partnership and to provoke a new cold war.
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Given that the new NATO states cannot now be deprived of membership, there is only one way to resolve, or at least reduce, this profound geopolitical conflict between the US and Russia: in return for Moscow’s reaffirmation of the sovereignty of all the former Soviet republics, Washington and its allies should honor retroactively another broken promise—that Western military forces would not be based in any new NATO country east of Germany. Though anathema to the US policy establishment and weapons industries, this would, in effect, demilitarize NATO’s expansion since 1999. Without diminishing the alliance’s guarantee of collective security for all of its members, such a grand accommodation would make possible a real partnership with post-Soviet Russia.
First, and crucially, it would redeem one of America’s broken promises to Russia. Second, it would recognize that Moscow is entitled to at least one “strategic interest”—the absence of a potential military threat on its borders. (Washington has long claimed this privilege for itself, defending it to the brink of nuclear war in Cuba in 1962.) Third, the demilitarization of NATO’s expansion would alleviate Russia’s historical fear of military encirclement while bolstering its trust in Western partners. And fourth, this would reduce the Kremlin’s concerns about missile defense sites in Eastern Europe, making it more willing to contribute what may be Russia’s necessary resources to the still unproven project.
Much else of essential importance both to America and Russia could then follow, from far greater reductions in all of their weapons of mass destruction to full cooperation against the looming dangers of nuclear proliferation and international terrorism. The result would be, that is, another chance to regain the historic opportunity lost in the 1990s.