Obama's Russia 'Reset': Another Lost Opportunity?
This article is adapted from the new epilogue for the paperback edition of Stephen F. Cohen’s book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, which will be published by Columbia University Press in July.
An enduring existential reality has been lost in Washington’s post–cold war illusions and the fog of subsequent US wars: the road to American national security still runs through Moscow.
Despite the Soviet breakup twenty years ago, only Russia still possesses devices of mass destruction capable of destroying the United States and tempting international terrorists for years to come. Russia also remains the world’s largest territorial country, a crucial Eurasian frontline in the conflict between Western and Islamic civilizations, with a vastly disproportionate share of the planet’s essential resources including oil, natural gas, iron ore, nickel, gold, timber, fertile land and fresh water. In addition, Moscow’s military and diplomatic reach can still thwart, or abet, vital US interests around the globe, from Afghanistan, Iran, China and North Korea to Europe and Latin America. In short, without an expansive cooperative relationship with Russia, there can be no real US national security.
And yet, when President Obama took office in January 2009, relations between Washington and Moscow were so bad that some close observers, myself included, characterized them as a new cold war. Almost all cooperation, even decades-long agreements regulating nuclear weapons, had been displaced by increasingly acrimonious conflicts. Indeed, the relationship had led to a military confrontation potentially as dangerous as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The Georgian-Russian War of August 2008 was also a proxy American-Russian war, the Georgian forces having been supplied and trained by Washington.
What happened to the “strategic partnership and friendship” between post-Soviet Moscow and Washington promised by leaders on both sides after 1991? For more than a decade, the American political and media establishments have maintained that such a relationship was achieved by President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s but destroyed by the “antidemocratic and neo-imperialist agenda” of Vladimir Putin, who succeeded Yeltsin in 2000.
In reality, the historic opportunity for a post–cold war partnership was lost in Washington, not Moscow, when the Clinton administration, in the early 1990s, adopted an approach based on the false premise that Russia, having “lost” the cold war, could be treated as a defeated nation. (The cold war actually ended through negotiations sometime between 1988 and 1990, well before the end of Soviet Russia in December 1991, as all the leading participants—Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush—agreed.)
The result was the Clinton administration’s triumphalist, winner-take-all approach, including an intrusive crusade to dictate Russia’s internal political and economic development; broken strategic promises, most importantly Bush’s assurance to Gorbachev in 1990 that NATO would not expand eastward beyond a reunited Germany; and double-standard policies impinging on Russia (along with sermons) that presumed Moscow no longer had any legitimate security concerns abroad apart from those of the United States, even in its own neighborhood. The backlash came with Putin, but it would have come with any Kremlin leader more self-confident, more sober and less reliant on Washington than was Yeltsin.
Nor did Washington’s triumphalism end with Clinton or Yeltsin. Following the events of September 11, 2001, to take the most ramifying example, Putin’s Kremlin gave the George W. Bush administration more assistance in its anti-Taliban war in Afghanistan, including in intelligence and combat, than did any NATO ally. In return, Putin expected the long-denied US-Russian partnership. Instead, the Bush White House soon expanded NATO all the way to Russia’s borders and withdrew unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Moscow regarded as the bedrock of its nuclear security. Those “deceptions” have not been forgotten in Moscow.
Now Russia’s political class, alarmed by the deterioration of the country’s essential infrastructures since 1991, is locked in a struggle over the nation’s future—one with profound consequences for its foreign policies. One side, associated with Putin’s handpicked successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, is calling for a “democratic” transformation that would rely on “modernizing alliances with the West.” The other side, which includes ultra-nationalists and neo-Stalinists, insists that only Russia’s traditional state-imposed methods, or “modernization without Westernization,” are possible. As evidence, they point to NATO’s encirclement of Russia and other US “perfidies.”
The choice of “modernizing alternatives” will be made in Moscow, not, as US policy-makers once thought, in Washington, but American policy will be a crucial factor. In the centuries-long struggle between reform and reaction in Russia, anti-authoritarian forces have had a political chance only when relations with the West were improving. In this regard, Washington still plays the leading Western role, for better or worse.
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When President Obama made “resetting” relations with Moscow a foreign-policy priority, he seemed to understand that a chance for a necessary partnership with post-Soviet Russia had been lost and might still be retrieved. The meaning of “reset” was, of course, what used to be called détente. And since détente had always meant replacing cold war conflicts with cooperation, the president’s initiative also suggested an understanding that he had inherited something akin to a new cold war.
The long, episodic history of détente, which began in 1933 when President Franklin Roosevelt established diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia after fifteen years of non-recognition, tells us something important about Obama’s reset. Each episode was opposed by powerful ideological, elite and institutional forces in Washington and Moscow; each required strong leadership to sustain the process of cooperation; and each, after a period of success, dissipated or collapsed in a resurgence of cold war conflicts, as did even the historic détente initiated by Gorbachev and Reagan in 1985 that promised to abolish cold war altogether.
Many commentators, like the Russia specialist Thomas E. Graham of Kissinger Associates and Peter Baker of the New York Times, believe that Obama’s reset, a term also adopted by the Kremlin, has been “remarkably successful” and already achieved a “new partnership.” Discourse between Washington and Moscow is more conciliatory. Both Obama and President Medvedev, who have met frequently, have declared the revamped relationship a success, citing their personal friendship as evidence. There are also tangible signs. Moscow is cooperating on two top US priorities: the war in Afghanistan and curbing Iran’s nuclear-weapons aspirations. In addition, in 2010, a treaty, New START, was negotiated that is designed to reduce US and Russian long-range nuclear arsenals by almost a third.
Nonetheless, Obama’s reset remains limited and inherently unstable. This is due in part to political circumstances over which he has had little control. Opposition in both capitals is fierce and unrelenting. Drawing on a traditional Russophobia that attributes sinister motives to every Moscow initiative, American neo–cold warriors have assailed Obama’s reset as “capitulation,” a “dangerous bargain” and a policy of “seeing no evil.” One even likened it to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. Without a countervailing pro-Russia lobby or a significant US-Russian economic relationship to buffer the reset, it is highly vulnerable to such attacks.
In Moscow, equally harsh attacks are being directed at Obama’s designated partner, President Medvedev. According to the leading Russian ultranationalist ideologue, Aleksandr Dugin, “The West stands behind Medvedev…. No one stands behind Medvedev except enemies of Russia.” More ominously, in July 2009 a prominent general accused Medvedev of “treason,” a charge reiterated in several quarters since March when Medvedev was also accused of “a betrayal of Russia’s interests” for not using its seat on the United Nations Security Council to veto authorization of NATO’s air attacks on Libya.
Still worse, both Obama and Medvedev are relatively weak leaders. Obama’s authority has been diminished, of course, by his declining popularity and by Democratic Party losses in the 2010 Congressional elections. (By then, he had already yielded to demands for a “reset of the reset,” restoring democracy-promotion to his agenda and embracing the Georgian leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, who brought America and Russia close to war in August 2008.) Medvedev’s authority remains limited by Prime Minister Putin’s continuing pre-eminence and the possibility he might reclaim the Russian presidency in the election scheduled for March 2012. Whatever the explanation, neither Obama nor Medvedev is able or willing to aggressively defend their reset or even prevent apparent attempts to disrupt it by members of their own administrations, as even Vice President Joseph Biden seems to have done more than once.
Obama’s decision to base his Russia policy on a partnership with the presumed “liberal” Medvedev, in the hope of promoting his political fortunes over Putin’s, has further limited support for the reset in Moscow. (Like the US media, Obama and his advisers continue to denigrate Putin as a leader with “one foot in the old ways” and even one who, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once remarked, “doesn’t have a soul.”) This political wager on Medvedev repeats the longstanding White House practice of mistaking a personal friend in the Kremlin—“my friend Dmitri,” Obama calls Medvedev—for broad support in the Russian policy class. Indeed, openly backing Medvedev for the Russian presidency in 2012, as Biden did so improperly while in Moscow in March, has revived the Russian elite’s resentment over US interference in its internal affairs and reinforced the view that only Putin can be trusted not to “sell out Russia to the West.”