Issue #30, Fall 2013

Winter Has Come

The “reset” with Russia worked, until Putin sabotaged it. Now the relationship is in tatters. Here’s how to save it—if we even want to bother.

When President Barack Obama makes a truncated visit to Russia for the G-20 meeting in early September, the contrast with his previous visit in July 2009 will be hard to miss. Last time around, Obama delivered a commencement address at Moscow’s New Economic School, a prestigious private graduate school and the alma mater of several top Russian officials. His remarks highlighted a “reset” policy toward Russia that was still in its infancy. Obama even put in an appearance at a U.S.-Russia civil-society summit in front of hundreds of activists and NGO representatives at a posh hotel near the Kremlin.

Today, U.S.-Russian relations are in deep crisis due to the Kremlin’s welcome mat for National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and a lengthening list of disagreements. Sergei Guriev, the New Economic School’s former rector and one of Russia’s most prominent public intellectuals, has decamped to Paris over fears that he might be jailed amid roving criminal investigations into ties to jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and upstart politician and blogger Alexei Navalny (whose own politically motivated prosecution has become a global cause célèbre). Meanwhile, the guest list at the 2009 civil society summit reads like a who’s who of the groups that are today bearing the brunt of the Kremlin’s recent crackdown.

On major issues of the day like Syria, U.S.-Russian differences are hard to paper over or wish away. Prospects appear to be fading for an agreement on deeper strategic arms reductions—the President’s reason for wanting to travel to Russia in the first place—before Obama leaves office. Putin and other Russian officials were summarily dismissive of Obama’s June speech in Berlin, which called for further reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. They were equally tepid about the recent cancellation of planned U.S. missile-defense deployments in Europe.

Frustration with the relationship in U.S. political circles is mounting. A growing number of politicians from both parties as well as editorial page editors and experts are coming to a similar conclusion: It is well past time to get tough with Putin.

So what went wrong? To some well-placed observers, the answer is simple. Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May 2012 killed off a remarkably productive phase in relations. Putin’s anti-American posturing and anger over alleged U.S. political interference in Russia’s domestic affairs—including Congress’s passage last year of legislation to punish Russian officials responsible for a young lawyer’s death in a Moscow prison—will make it almost impossible for Obama to turn things around. Others point to the Russian leadership’s resentment of U.S. unilateralism and ingrained habit of ignoring Moscow’s views. Complicating matters further is a deep-seated Russian conviction that American power is in irreversible decline in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria.

Both assessments deserve to be taken seriously, but they raise as many questions as they answer. For example, what does it say about the relative importance of the U.S.-Russian relationship to the Russian leadership that Putin was willing to torpedo it almost on a whim? Does Putin truly believe that U.S. foreign policy is based primarily on promoting regime change for governments it doesn’t like, including his own? Likewise, has the U.S. foreign policy establishment fully absorbed the implications of Russia’s eagerness to demonstrate its independence on the world stage, often in direct competition with Washington? It is precisely these types of issues that will determine the durability of the Obama Administration’s Russia policy during the remainder of the President’s second term.

Misreading Russia

Before addressing these questions, some humility is in order. Any diagnosis of what ails the U.S.-Russian relationship must first reckon with the West’s painfully uneven track record of interpreting, let alone navigating, developments during the Putin era. After all, no one predicted that an undistinguished, midlevel former intelligence operative would end up completely dominating Russian politics and society, let alone emerge as one of Europe’s most powerful, longest-serving, and, reportedly, wealthiest heads of state.

Following the economic free fall of the 1990s, hardly anyone forecast that average Russians would soon reap the benefits of a newfound prosperity and consumerism made possible by steady GDP growth and double-digit annual increases in real disposable income for most of the 2000s. Today, Russia has practically no sovereign debt and one of the world’s largest hard currency reserves, totaling more than $500 billion. The Russian elite has become fabulously wealthy and worldly, with nearly as many billionaires in Moscow as in New York City. Money, materialism, and consumption have become the dominant values across nearly all strata of Russian society.

Amid a generally negative portrayal in Western media of life in Putin’s Russia, many outsiders would be surprised at how much freedom the average Russian enjoys. Today the majority of Russians take for granted the ability to travel abroad, own property, build businesses, read what they want on the Internet, and, basically, be left alone by the state. These are tremendous changes on a scale that previous generations scarcely could have imagined. They also help explain the deep reservoir of support for Putin from a generally depoliticized population with no interest in returning to the deprivations and upheaval of the 1990s.

Similarly, no Western observer anticipated the wave of angry street protests in Moscow and other cities, set off by widespread allegations of electoral fraud in late 2011. Russia’s affluent urbanites showed, briefly at least, their skills at political organizing via social media and savagely mocking the country’s notoriously thin-skinned political leadership. The protesters’ powerfully simple demands for dignity, respect, and a voice in determining their own future have been echoed in more recent demonstrations by disenchanted middle-class citizens in Turkey, Brazil, and Bulgaria.

Last but not least, it’s worth pointing out that no one predicted the initial success of President Obama’s Russia policy. At the time of Obama’s inauguration, U.S.-Russian relations were at the lowest point of the post-Cold War era. Few foreign-policy experts suggested at the time that Obama would invest considerable effort in reinvigorating the relationship, let alone seize the opportunity to make progress across a broad array of issues.

Why the Reset Worked

Why did the reset succeed? Two factors stand out—Obama’s willingness to take risks in support of the Administration’s other foreign policy priorities, and Putin’s ability to act pragmatically toward the United States when he felt that doing so advanced Russian national interests.

From Washington’s perspective, Russia was critically important to its policies on Iran, global nuclear dangers, and the war effort in Afghanistan. Obama increased international pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program by getting Russia to support two hard-fought sanctions resolutions in the UN Security Council and to cancel the sale of the S-300 air-defense system to Tehran. When the unreliability of supply lines through Pakistan threatened the success of the surge in Afghanistan, the Obama team persuaded the Russian leadership to create important alternative routes through Russia and other former Soviet republics. After a long pause in the bilateral arms control process thanks to the ideological rigidity of the Bush Administration, U.S. and Russian negotiators helped reinvigorate global nonproliferation efforts and successfully concluded the New START Treaty. During the Libya crisis in March 2011, intensive diplomatic efforts led by Susan Rice secured a crucial Russian abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized establishment of a no-fly zone and the use of force to protect Libyan civilians.

For Putin, the reset also paid off. It helped reverse the effects of the disastrously shortsighted war with Georgia. (On the first anniversary of that war, only Nicaragua had endorsed the Kremlin’s ham-fisted recognition of the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.) Following Medvedev’s carefully stage-managed rise to the presidency in the spring of 2008, the Kremlin’s new occupant found that he had plenty of flexibility to forge cordial relationships with Obama and other Western leaders. While there was never any doubt that Putin remained the decider on all major issues behind the scenes, Medvedev’s zeal for his role in Russian foreign policy gave his longtime friend and mentor an opening to improve relations with the United States and other leading powers. Even more importantly, Putin could achieve this goal without leaving any fingerprints or suffering the embarrassment of a public climb-down.

The Obama Administration rightly viewed these accomplishments as the product of a pragmatic (albeit decidedly transactional) approach. In the interest of securing what it termed win-win objectives, the White House removed artificial linkages between unrelated issues. For example, the Obama Administration revived an agreement on nuclear cooperation that had been shelved by the Bush Administration over the Georgia war. Bush-era missile defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic, which had needlessly antagonized the Russian military establishment, were reconfigured. The Administration’s economics team championed Russia’s 18-year effort to join the World Trade Organization—but on terms overwhelmingly favorable to U.S. businesses. Without much public acknowledgement, the Obama team dialed back customary harangues over Russian domestic political developments and downplayed democracy promotion efforts associated with the previous Administration. It also avoided the Bush-era mistake of overpromising when it came to the distant prospect of NATO membership for countries like Ukraine and Georgia.

The personal rapport between Obama and Medvedev clearly played an important role. For both men, pride in the risks they took to bring relations back from the brink seemed genuine. Still, many critics have insisted that the Obama team put too much faith in Medvedev and clumsily favored him over Putin. That charge conveniently ignored the reality of how difficult it was to engage Putin in the aftermath of the 2008 collapse in U.S.-Russian relations. From the very beginning of Obama’s time in office, he repeatedly tried to build channels to Putin but with little success even after Putin returned to the Kremlin in spring 2012.

Unfortunately for Obama, the reset became, by virtue of its high profile, a victim of its success—and a tempting target for partisan attacks. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney claimed that Russia was “without question our number one geopolitical foe.” The Obama team quickly pounced on Romney’s misstep and painted him as out of touch. That made it practically impossible for other Obama Administration officials to recalibrate expectations about the reset, to acknowledge that much of the low-hanging fruit had already been picked, or to brace key constituencies for the possibility that Putin’s return to the Kremlin might lead to the unraveling of arrangements hammered out with Medvedev.

Of course, cycles of euphoria and disappointment in relations between the White House and Kremlin have been a fact of life since the perestroika era. For example, a dramatic surge in cooperation after 9/11 disintegrated after the Bush Administration’s rush to war in Iraq. Under President Bush, Russian anger was routinely stoked by the Administration’s predilection for unilateral action and gratuitous moves to belittle Russia’s role on the world stage. The Bush team’s behavior confirmed what was probably already in Putin’s mind: a belief that America’s real long-term agenda was little more than a CIA-led plot to undermine Russia, an effort that could be traced through the disastrous Western-backed reforms of the Yeltsin era, the enlargement of NATO to Central Europe and the Baltic states, and U.S.-backed “color revolutions” in Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia in the 2000s. This narrative formed the basis of an angry, hour-long monologue from Putin at his first meeting with Obama in July 2009.

Negative sentiment toward the reset inside Russian officialdom hardly helped matters. Long before Putin publicly humiliated his successor by abruptly deciding to return to the presidency, Medvedev struck a rather unusual profile by Russian standards, thanks to his fondness for American values like government transparency and accountability as well as his conspicuous use of iPhones and Twitter. That quickly set him apart from Putin and a secretive inner circle with much longer memories of the humiliation they believe Russia has suffered at the hands of the United States. According to the dominant Russian view, Obama’s reset policy was merely the initiative of a superpower in decline. It required no meaningful changes in Russian policy since everything Obama was doing amounted to a welcome course correction after the excesses of George W. Bush.

Russian officials also tried to relegate oversight for the relationship to both countries’ foreign ministries. The move was revealing in itself—top priority foreign-policy issues are usually managed out of the Kremlin. In the Russian system, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), unlike its American counterpart at Foggy Bottom, is largely an implementing agency far from the locus of actual power and decision-making. Either way, the effectiveness of the State-MFA channel was short-lived. Russia’s top diplomats, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and UN Representative Vitaly Churkin, reveled in antagonizing Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice on issues large and small. Clinton and Lavrov presided over a binational commission that consumed time and bandwidth within both countries’ bureaucracies yet produced few concrete results. The entire experience proved once again that the direction of U.S.-Russian relations in the post-Cold War era depends almost exclusively on the direct involvement of the two heads of state, not the institutionalization of ties between bureaucracies.

The Corrosive Effects of the Arab Spring

The wave of unrest across the Middle East and North Africa beginning in December 2010 took an unexpectedly large toll on U.S.-Russian relations. To be fair, both governments were thrown off balance by the Arab Spring, but their views of a region in turmoil increasingly shaped how they viewed each other. While leaders in both countries initially focused on a now-familiar list of factors behind the Arab Spring (e.g., the aspirations of a bulging youth population, Arab citizens’ desire for dignity and individual rights, grinding poverty, and the rise of social media and pan-Arab satellite television), Russian officials soon started grousing about the Obama Administration’s alleged naiveté about the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups and reluctance to prop up longtime allies like Hosni Mubarak.

Issue #30, Fall 2013

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