Obama's Russia 'Reset': Another Lost Opportunity?
In 2009, Russia’s pro-Western modernizers hoped that Obama’s proposed reset meant Washington finally understood the necessity of partnership with Moscow. Two years later, however, Medvedev was still worried that “alternatives await us” in US-Russian relations. A leading pro-Western member of the Russian parliament was more explicit: “In Moscow and in Washington, people have been known to lose opportunities…. We have to hope that this time we won’t lose the opportunity.”
That both Obama and Medvedev, who personify the reset, are under attack in their own countries for “traitorous” policies is an ominous sign. Nonetheless, the political prospects are actually better in Moscow in one important respect: a significant part of the Russian policy class at least understands that the two countries have come not only to another turning point but possibly to the last chance for a post–cold war relationship. Pro-Western Russians can no longer find comfort in their customary association of major policy alternatives with a successor generation of leaders; the youthful Obama and Medvedev are that generation.
No such urgency or even awareness is evident today in the American establishment. Instead, the possibility of greater cooperation with Moscow has accelerated the tendency to equate “the crimes and abuses of this Russian government,” in the words of Senator John McCain, with those of Communist Russia. In the same vein, US cold war–era themes have become more pronounced. Moscow’s initiatives are again presented by media commentators like Charles Krauthammer as “brazen Russian provocations.” (Even Putin’s historic acknowledgment of the 1940 Soviet murder of thousands of Polish officers in Katyn Forest was dismissed by The Weekly Standard as a “trivial gesture” designed to “manipulate” foreign opinion.) Dire warnings by Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation and others that Moscow is trying “to play off…the European allies against the United States” have reappeared along with demands that Washington deploy military power to “roll back the Kremlin’s growing regional influence.”
Obama’s proposed reset has also brought more extreme views to the fore. Present-day Russia, Ariel Cohen warns, is even more dangerous than its Soviet predecessor: “This is not your father’s Russia…. Today’s Russian leadership is younger and tougher.” Earlier a Wall Street Journal editor published an even more startling revelation: “Russia has become, in the precise sense of the word, a fascist state.” Previously a fringe notion, it has since been taken up by an established American scholar, Rutgers professor Alexander J. Motyl, in the journal of a leading university center of Russian studies.
Lost in this reckless (and uninformed) commentary are the multiple threats to America’s national security lurking in Russia—not only its vast, questionably secure stockpiles of lethal nuclear, biological and chemical materials but also its crumbling infrastructures and growing extremist movements—as well as the flickering chance for cooperation with Moscow to avert them. Veteran pundits in leading American newspapers assure readers that “nuclear war between Russia and America has become inconceivable”; indeed, that the danger of any US-Russian war is “minuscule,” despite the near miss in Georgia in August 2008, when the Bush White House considered sending military forces to support its client state; and that in general “what was needed was not the chimera of arms control” but a “renewal of the arms race.”
Such myopia has inspired an even more reckless view: the worse the situation inside Russia, the better for America. Thus, Washington Post columnist George Will, deriding the new nuclear-reductions treaty, reported with satisfaction on the “emaciated Russian bear.” And a former Bush official, writing in the same newspaper, urged the Obama administration to “refuse to help Russian leaders with economic modernization,” even though modernizing that country’s infrastructures is essential for securing its devices of mass destruction. Motyl went further, hoping for “a destabilized Russia,” deaf to warnings from Moscow that this would be “catastrophic” in a country laden with nuclear weapons and eleven Chernobyl-style reactors.
Political and media myopia, the familiar triumph of ideology over reality, abetted another unwise Washington decision. Despite the Kremlin’s uncertain grip on its own nuclear materials—indeed, despite alarm that uncontrolled wildfires in August 2010 might reach fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl reactor explosion, or even nuclear weapons facilities—the US Senate voted four months later to ship massive quantities of spent fuel from American-built reactors to Russia for safekeeping and disposal. While Russian environmentalists protested this would turn their country into “an international radioactive waste dump,” and a Moscow military expert warned that no Russian region was “truly safe,” the Obama administration hailed the decision as a victory for its “reset.”
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A fundamental transformation of US-Russian relations, from what was essentially a state of cold war to a strategic partnership, requires bold, resolute leadership based on a full rethinking of the entire post-Soviet relationship, especially Washington’s triumphalist attitudes. Given the citadels of vested institutional, professional and personal interests in the failed policies since 1991, centered in Washington but with ample support throughout the nation’s media and educational system, nothing less will result in a full “reset.”
Several factors probably explain why President Obama has not provided any of these essentials. One is his own irresolute nature, also displayed in his domestic policies. (To be fair, the first black US president may be reluctant to assault too many American citadels or orthodoxies.) Nor has President Obama turned out to be a new thinker about security as were Gorbachev and Reagan when they achieved their breakthrough to partnership. Having surrounded himself with advisers tied to the failed Russia policies of the Clinton years, Obama has no one in his inner circle to propose fundamentally different approaches, still less heretical ones, or even much rethinking. As a result, Obama’s reset has been cast in the same fallacies that made it necessary.
But the president is not solely, or even mainly, to blame. The larger failure is that of the entire American policy establishment, including its legions of media opinion-makers, think-tank experts and academic intellectuals. Leaders who had previously enacted major improvements in US-Russian relations, most recently Gorbachev and Reagan, were influenced by unorthodox ideas advocated over time by dissenting thinkers inside or near the political establishment, however few in number and however much in disfavor, even in danger, they often were.
No such nonconformist American thinking about Russia was in circulation when Obama took office. Nor has it been since, no lessons having been learned from the failures of the last two decades. The triumphalist orthodoxy still monopolizes the political spectrum, from right-wing and neoconservatives to Russia specialists at the “progressive” Center for American Progress, in effect unchallenged in the parties, mainstream media, policy institutes or universities. Even though the United States is mired in three wars and a corrosive economic crisis, while Moscow has regained crucial positions in its own region, from Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan, and developed flourishing partnerships from China to Western Europe, “experts” still insist that, as Clifford Kupchan of the Eurasia Group declared, “the road where Russia needs to go leads through Washington.”
Still worse, in addition to triumphalist fallacies about the end of the cold war, three new tenets of neo–cold war US policy have become axiomatic. First, that present-day Russia is as brutally antidemocratic as its Soviet predecessor. Evidence cited usually includes the Kremlin’s alleged radioactive poisoning of a KGB defector, Alexander Litvinenko, in London, in 2006, and its ongoing persecution of the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on whom the New York Times and Washington Post have bestowed the mantle of the great Soviet-era dissenters Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov. Second, that Russia’s nature makes it a growing threat abroad, especially to former Soviet republics, as demonstrated by its “invasion and occupation of Georgia” in August 2008. And third, that more NATO expansion is therefore necessary to protect both Georgia and Ukraine.
All of these assertions are far from the full truth and should be challenged in a critical policy debate, yet there is none. Moreover, one involves another Washington double standard. Moscow’s military defense of Georgia’s secessionist provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and recognition of their independence were more justifiable, historically and politically, than was the US-led NATO bombing of Russia’s ally Serbia in 1999, which turned the Serbian province of Kosovo into an independent (and highly criminalized) state. If nothing else, Washington set the precedent for military intervention in conflicts in multiethnic states and for redrawing national boundaries.
The Obama administration has done nothing to discourage such anti-Russian axioms and too much to encourage them. Revising the reset to include so-called democracy-promotion policies—intrusions into Russia’s domestic politics that offended the Kremlin for years while doing more to undermine democratic prospects than to promote them—has only rearmed US opponents of the reset and further demoralized its Moscow supporters. In January, for example, Obama personally deplored the (brief) jailing of the new US-anointed Russian “democratic leader,” Boris Nemtsov, a former high-level Yeltsin-era official; and in March, Biden instructed his audience at Moscow State University, “Get your system right.” Not surprisingly, Russian officials who had hoped Obama’s policy would exclude such interference in their internal affairs concluded that “those hopes were unfounded.”
Obama’s re-endorsement of Georgian leader Saakashvili, whose ambitions to join NATO contributed to the proxy American-Russian war in 2008, also challenges Moscow’s understanding of the reset, reaffirming the widespread Russian view that the United States thinks it is “the only country in the world with national interests.” Moreover, Washington’s Georgian project is still dangerous. The Kremlin demonstrated that if provoked it will strike hard at a US-client regime on the wrong side of its “red lines,” especially in the North Caucasus region where Islamic terrorism and social turbulence are threatening Russian statehood. Visiting Tbilisi last fall, even an analyst from the reliably deferential Council on Foreign Relations, Walter Russell Mead, found Saakashvili’s “hotheaded” leadership “unpredictable and impulsive.” Nonetheless, the Obama administration continues to train Saakashvili’s military, even staging demonstrative NATO-Georgian exercises, while remaining silent about the regime’s brutal repression of street demonstrations in Tbilisi in late May.
Obama’s recapitulations of failed American policies, along with his declared intention to pursue missile defense in Eastern Europe—plans to put interceptor missiles in Romania and related weapons in Poland have already been announced—can only severely limit his détente with Moscow, and possibly destroy it. Given Russia’s overriding importance for vital US interests, the president seems to have no national security priorities. Even the wanton NATO air attacks on Libya are eroding support for the reset in Moscow, where lessons are being drawn that “Russia was essentially deceived” (again) and Obama’s partner Medvedev was “naïve” in trusting the US-backed UN resolution on a “no-fly zone”; that nations without formidable nuclear weapons—first Serbia, then Iraq and now Libya (Muammar el-Qaddafi relinquished his nuclear materials in 2004) risk becoming targets of such attacks; and that NATO’s slouching toward Russia is even more menacing than previously thought.
Obama has already made clear that in his re-election campaign the “successful” reset of relations with Russia will be touted (along with the killing of Osama bin Laden) as his great foreign-policy achievement. As 2012 approaches, it is therefore possible he will finally pursue the kind of real transformation in the relationship carried out by Gorbachev and Reagan twenty-five years ago. To do so, however, will require the serious rethinking and determined leadership Obama has failed to provide thus far. We may continue to hope, but the adage of Russians who have experienced so many lost opportunities in their own politics seems more apt: “An optimist is an uninformed pessimist.”