For the American political and media establishment, US-Russian relations always begin yesterday—without the pre-history of the relationship and thus without its essential political context. Of this we now have a new and increasingly dangerous example.
As Washington and Moscow sink deeper into another familiar cold war–like conflict, this time over Syria, American policy-makers and commentators, Democrats and Republicans alike, declare that President Obama’s “reset” of relations with Moscow has failed. With equal unanimity, they blame only Moscow, in particular President Vladimir Putin, while entirely deleting Washington’s longstanding role in the deteriorating relationship, as they have done for more than a decade.
But as I pointed out in this Nation article a year ago, Obama’s reset was all but doomed from inception because it was based on the same bipartisan, winner-take-all triumphalism that had guided US policy toward post-Soviet Russia since the 1990s. As before, Obama’s “new” policy meant “selective cooperation”—that is, concessions from Moscow without US reciprocity.
Until the US-Russian conflict over Syria erupted this year, the Obama White House wanted three major concessions from the Kremlin as part of the reset: support in the US confrontation with Iran (new negotiations are under way in Moscow this week); assistance in supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan; and then withholding Russia’s veto of a UN Security Council resolution for a “no-fly zone” over Libya. The Obama administration got all three concessions. In return, Moscow wanted a compromise on the administration’s plan to place missile defense installations near Russia’s borders; an end to NATO expansion in the direction of Ukraine and Georgia; and a curtailment of US interference, known as “democracy promotion,” in Russia’s internal politics. The Kremlin got none of these.
In short, another chance for expansive cooperation in US-Russian relations, even the partnership possible after the Soviet Union ended in 1991, has again been squandered in Washington, not in Moscow.
That the historical and political analyses set out in my 2011 article, as well as the concerns expressed there, have been amply justified by events gives me no satisfaction. Nor to add that a year later, things have only gotten worse. The three US policies to which Moscow reasonably objected before the reset have become more aggressive, and indeed, in the Kremlin’s view, have been supplemented by Washington’s policy of selective military “regime change” in the Middle East. In response, as I also warned, anti-American forces in Russian politics have continued to grow, along with the possibility of “another escalation of the arms race,” about which both Putin and former Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, on whom Obama unwisely based the reset, warned.
Meanwhile, Obama’s challenger for the presidency, Mitt Romney, has declared that Russia is again America’s “number-one geopolitical foe,” thereby confirming my worst concern—that we are on the verge of, or already in, a new cold war.