Evaluating Russian 'reset'
Critics of Obama's reset policy argue that Obama has given up too much and gotten too little from Russia. A case in point is the crackdown on Russian dissidents in the wake of START ratification. Eli Lake reports:
Russian authorities detained one of the country's leading opposition figures less than two weeks after the U.S. Senate ratified a key arms-control treaty that the White House promised would help reset ties with Moscow.
Over the weekend, members of Russia's FSB internal security service disrupted demonstrations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, arresting nearly 130 pro-democracy activists and reversing a policy of tolerating political protests once every 60 days by a coalition of democratic opposition figures in the country.
Jamie Fly of the Foreign Policy Initiative explained earlier this year that on Iran, for example, we've gotten less than advertised:
To get Russian support for new sanctions, the Obama administration paid a steep price - removing U.S. sanctions against five Russian entities, and resubmitting a nuclear cooperation agreement that was previously frozen after Russia's invasion of Georgia. Despite administration denials, many observers wonder whether President Obama's cancellation of missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic in September 2009 also were part of a package deal with Moscow. . . .Despite U.S. efforts to placate Russia in return for support on Iran, Russia has done little more than it did during the Bush administration to halt Tehran's march toward a nuclear weapon.
And, of course, with Russian help, Iran was able to open the Bushehr nuclear reactor.
On Afghanistan, Fly also contends the number of supply routes opened by Russia have been limited.
Others are more generous in their assessment but nevertheless argue that we have failed to alter the underlying nature of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Leon Aron, a Russian scholar at AEI, in a telephone interview describes the administration as "fairly successful in achieving very limited objectives" such as the rescinding of the S-300 missile deal with Iran, agreement on sanctions (albeit watered down) against the Iranian regime, and some success on opening flights into Afghanistan. He, however, cautions "that on larger things Russia is going in the opposite direction" than we would like.
He notes specifically the long sentence handed down against Mikhail Khodorkovsky gives us insight into what is going on. "Almost as in the Soviet system, Russia is largely a black box," he says. "But every now and then something comes out that it is a fairly good indicator." The lesson of the Khodorkovsky verdict, he contends, is that "we better start thinking about living with an increasingly authoritarian Russia." This suggests that Vladimir Putin is "determined to reassert the state in politics and the economy." He fully expects Putin to come back as president in 2012.
That domestic oppression, Aron suggests, bodes ill for cooperation with Russia on external matters. He contends that not unlike Soviet times, the greater the internal oppression, the more "detrimental repercussions" there will be for Russian-U.S. relations. He says, "It is my sense that we are going in that direction."
What can we do, as Putin reasserts himself and Russia's international behavior continues to unsettle its neighbors such as Georgia and Ukraine? Aron urges that we press Russia on its domestic behavior while we seek to check its international conduct. He cautions that "past experience suggests we don't achieve much by soft-pedaling criticism" of Russia's internal behavior. He remarks, "We might as well tell the truth. The soft-shoe and the sparing their feelings routine. . . these things simply don't work."
The reality is that the Bush administration grossly misjudged Putin and was no more successful than the Obama team in curbing Russian authoritarianism at home and aggression against its neighbors. However, to its credit, the Bush administration avoided the temptation to undermine allies and throw human rights under the bus in order to curry favor with Russia. The Obama administration would be well advised to give up the fantasy that we share common values and interests with Russia and instead recognize the Russian leadership for what it is -- a thuggish regime that seeks to re-establish the Soviet-era notion of a "sphere of influence."
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