It Takes Two to Reset

The Obama administration's efforts to reach out to Russia won't work as long as Russians don't take them seriously.

With Russian President Dmitry Medvedev due to visit Washington next week, Barack Obama's administration is seemingly anxious to tout improved U.S. relations with Russia as one of its primary foreign-policy achievements. The two countries have "made significant strides in resetting relations" said the White House statement announcing the visit, a reference to the widely touted "reset button" policy announced last year. "President Obama and President Medvedev have collaborated closely to enhance the security and well-being of the American and Russian people," the statement continued.

The U.S. line on the reset is that agreement between the two sides on issues of mutual concern will help build the confidence needed for the United States to be able to make progress on other priorities. The American side apparently hopes that the reset will help Medvedev, who, unlike his predecessor, seems genuinely interested in rapprochement with the United States, consolidate his power. In light of all this, it would not be prudent to irritate Moscow with attempts to remodel Russia.

On the surface, the U.S. administration would seem to have every reason to consider this policy a success. Compared with the open hostility of 2008, U.S.-Russian relations have warmed up considerably. The two countries are now working together in areas of vital importance for the United States, including containing Iran and working to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, and the concessions made to Moscow seem minor. In short, the pragmatic line followed by Obama's team looks to be effective.

The problem is that neither Kremlin politicians and analysts nor opposition Russian liberals see it this way. Many view arms control and nuclear proliferation as U.S. concerns with little political salience within Russia. As Sergei Markov, a Duma member and Kremlin mouthpiece, has argued, the reset is "not just about an agreement on START, but about the status of the Russian Federation and whether Russia is a great power or not."

The Kremlin is willing to help Obama try to earn his Nobel Peace Prize as long as he's aware that the reset is possible only on Russian terms: Don't meddle in Moscow's affairs; recognize its spheres of interest; and help with its economic modernization. The United States has fulfilled the first two conditions so far, but help on the third is not yet in sight. Moscow therefore must take a firmer line in bargaining with Washington: All concessions must be prepaid.

The statements from Russian leaders are hardly subtle. "I will not say we are opponents [of the United States], but we are not friends either," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said shortly before the signing of the new START nuclear treaty in March. Lavrov has also suggested that Russia might pull out of the treaty if the United Statespresses forward with its missile-defense plans in Eastern Europe.

Gleb Pavlovsky, an influential political analyst closely linked to the Kremlin elite, was even more blunt. "Let's not kid ourselves," he said last summer in a magazine interview. "Obama is no ally of ours. Remember, Obama has no support and is on the brink of an abyss. ... He needs us more than we need him."

We are dealing with two completely different ways of thinking here. Where U.S. officials see dialogue, compromises, and concessions as a means of embracing and winning over the other side, the Russian elite consider dialogue, not to mention concessions, to be a sign of weakness.

Is mutual trust possible when the two sides have such different perceptions of reality? I don't think that U.S. officials are naive. But if they are aware of the Russian government's guiding mentality, they should see the obvious problems with the strategy they have been following.

First of all, a return to the arms talks, and therefore a return to the mechanisms of the Cold War, is not exactly the best way to build trust.

There's also little reason to think that the reset will strengthen the hand of the allegedly reformist Medvedev. Kremlin insiders don't consider the reset's deliverables so far to be anything worth celebrating, and if the Kremlin fails to obtain U.S. agreement on any one of its conditions -- not exactly outside the realm of possibility -- the reset will be considered a failure and will only make Medvedev's situation more difficult. No wonder Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has distanced himself from the reset project -- he'll have an easy scapegoat if things go south.

Even Medvedev has taken steps to assure the public that he is no pro-American softie. Speaking in Argentina shortly after the signing of the new START treaty, he told a local audience that "if somebody is bothered" in America by Moscow's seeking a greater role in Latin America, "we want to spit on that." His "spit on that" remark led the Russian television news for days.

If the Americans do understand Moscow's motives and are aware of the above-mentioned paradoxes, then they are taking part in a flimsy facsimile of engagement. Partnerships in which the two sides willfully ignore each other's motives don't have a great track record. Obama need only ask his predecessor how the Bush administration's early efforts to engage Putin went.

But what if the Obama team sincerely believes in the Kremlin's positive evolution, Medvedev's commitment to rapprochement, and the possibility that simply working with the Russian regime will change it for the better? In that case, Russian leaders will likely continue to offer concessions on issues they don't really care about while taking advantage of Washington's lenience to bolster their anti-liberal and anti-Western political regime.

Washington may have won tactical victories with new the START and Iran sanctions, but it has created a new strategic challenge by helping to legitimize the obsolete Russian political system and convincing it that it can win any concession from Washington in the name of keeping dialogue going.

Let's hope that the United States has a "Plan B" up its sleeve to effect a real Russian transformation when it turns out the reset has not only failed, but has even had exactly the opposite effect of what was intended.

Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images


There's No One Under the Bus

The charge that U.S. allies have been betrayed by the Russian reset is simply false.

Critics of the Obama administration's "reset" with Russia have created a narrative that they repeat with striking consistency. In order to garner concessions from the Kremlin, they claim the administration has "neglect[ed] and even abandon[ed] other countries in region." What's more, President Barack Obama got practically nothing in return for these alleged betrayals. Perhaps his most-hyped accomplishment with Moscow, Russia's vote for tougher Iran sanctions, is comparable to a used rug.

The omnipresence of this narrative is matched by its complete disconnect from reality. In fact, the reset has provided a laundry list of deliverables, from an agreement that allows U.S. planes to fly over Russian territory on their way to Afghanistan, to Iran sanctions that are significantly more stringent than the prior three (if it's a used rug, then it must be a pricey Persian antique).

But the first charge -- that the improvement in U.S.-Russia relations has entailed throwing the United States' Eastern European NATO allies (Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states) and other partners in the region (read: Georgia and Ukraine) "under the bus" -- is equally if not more spurious.

The argument, advanced most prominently by Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan, goes as follows: The Obama administration, in its rush to address global challenges that require Moscow's participation, has sacrificed its relationships with Russia's vulnerable neighbors, who did nothing to deserve it. Further, by doing deals with those evildoers in Moscow, Obama has given Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his henchmen the green light to implement their grand strategy of regional domination. You can almost hear the thud of the bus passing over the lifeless bodies of the presidents and prime ministers of various countries as a smug-faced Putin sits behind the wheel. Although it makes for compelling imagery (not to mention op-eds), this narrative is patently false.

It was not a surprise that the administration's stated intent to improve the moribund U.S. relationship with Russia occasioned some initial anxiety in the region. Elites there had grown accustomed to a zero-sum equation between the quality of U.S. ties with Russia and Washington's commitment to their countries. After all, George W. Bush had championed "New Europe" and pushed hard for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, while leading an administration that featured outspoken Russia critics.

The most visible sign of this anxiety was last July's open letter to Obama signed by several former politicians and other prominent figures from Eastern and Central Europe, including former presidents and anti-communist icons Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. The letter essentially represents a plea not to be forgotten by the administration.

The administration has also made a number of mistakes that have that reinforced this initial anxiety. Most notoriously, U.S. officials gave the Polish and Czech governments just a few hours notice before rolling out their new missile-defense policy, which eliminated the Bush administration's plans to station elements in both countries. They also inadvertently chose the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland to make the announcement, which didn't help matters. To a certain extent, this tone-deafness continues with Obama signing a letter to Congress last month that stated "the situation in Georgia need no longer be considered an obstacle to proceeding with" a civilian nuclear agreement with Russia.

Yet despite the administration's penchant for bungling its messaging, most officials in these countries have become significantly less worried about the reset with Russia in the last six months. They are adapting to the reality that the administration's top priorities require a working relationship with Moscow and that Washington no longer showers them with highly public displays of devotion. They have also grasped something that the reset-bashers haven't: There have been no grand bargains or quid pro quos with Moscow that affect their relations with the United States. In fact, the administration is delivering for them on the ground, including in ways their supposed champions in the Bush administration never did. Put a different way, there is no bus.

Just two weeks ago, Obama followed up on an agreement signed by Bush and began the rotating deployment of a surface-to-air Patriot missile battery on a training mission in Poland, accompanied by 100 U.S. military personnel. There was no cowering in Washington when the almost ritualistic (not to mention absurd, because the battery is not armed) howling from Moscow began. The deployment is hugely symbolic for Poland, which has long complained that after more than a decade of NATO membership, the alliance's presence on the ground is often lacking.

In another example, 500 Marines and two F-15s, led by the commander of U.S. Air Force in Europe, arrived in Tallinn, Estonia, on June 7 for a NATO exercise. In the fall, more than 2,000 personnel from the three Baltic states and the United States will conduct another exercise in Latvia -- the largest in the region since the three countries joined the alliance in 2004.

Following Obama's little-noticed call in his April 2009 Prague speech and a subsequent behind the scenes push by the administration, the Baltic states  got the most concrete security commitment from NATO they could ask for: contingency plans within the alliance against an external attack. A similar proposal by the Bush administration had been shot down by Germany and France just a year earlier.

And despite the incessant claims that Obama's missile-defense plan is both a sop to the Russians and an abandonment of Eastern Europe, his "phased, adaptive approach" is a system that is both proven and designed to protect all of Europe from medium-range missiles from Iran -- a threat the Pentagon believes to be quite real. Compare that with the previous system, which was unproven, did not actually protect the European continent, and was intended to counteract what the U.S. military says is a nonexistent threat: the Iranians' launching an ICBM. It's hard to see how the new plan could be interpreted as anything but a boost to the security of Russia's neighbors.

In Ukraine, critics say the administration has "shrugged off" President Viktor Yanukovych's string of recent decisions, including a proposed law that would rule out NATO membership and a deal to extend the Russian Black Sea Fleet's presence on Ukrainian territory. Certainly, Yanukovych's decisions have pleased Moscow and aren't what many in Washington would have wanted from the new president. But the administration is clearly reaching out -- witness last week's announcement that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be spending July 4 in Kiev -- and it seems clear that publicly decrying the foreign-policy choices of Ukraine's democratically elected leader would foreclose opportunities to influence them.

Of all the countries supposedly now "under the bus," none gets more attention than Georgia, with words like "betrayal" and "sellout" bandied about as if Obama had signed over the lease to the presidential palace in Tbilisi the last time he was in Moscow. But the fact is that the Obama administration's commitment to Georgia is extensive. The majority of the massive $1 billion aid package pledged to Georgia following the August 2008 war was delivered after January 2009. The administration has fully implemented the U.S.-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership, signed in the waning months of the Bush presidency, with at least four working-group meetings in Georgia that brought interagency delegations led by assistant secretaries. (Other recent high-profile visitors to Georgia include Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Vice President Joe Biden, who, based on White House press releases, seems to chat with President Mikheil Saakashvili at least once a month.)

However, the Georgians (and their boosters in Washington) are not satisfied. Their demands are very concrete: military hardware, particularly of the anti-tank and anti-aircraft variety. And they are deeply unhappy that the administration has continued the de facto embargo on U.S. arms sales that was imposed after the August 2008 war, which they say is denying them the capacity to defend themselves.

The reset-bashing crowd claims that this embargo is a clear sign of a quid pro quo: Obama wouldn't dare risk the ire of his pals in Moscow by selling arms to the Georgians. If only there were facts to back up this assertion. In fact, the (unspoken) policy is a result of the lessons learned about the Georgian military from the war itself. As Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow put it in testimony to Congress: "In practically all areas, [Georgian] defense institutions, strategies, doctrine, and professional military education were found to be seriously lacking." Moreover, an EU-commissioned report on the war showed that the country's highly centralized decision-making processes were a major factor leading to the outbreak of violence. It would make little sense to authorize weapons sales under these conditions.

Instead, the administration is spending almost double what was spent in 2008 on bilateral defense cooperation. The focus is on building institutions, doctrines, force structures, and other components of a capable, modern military. If Georgia's armed forces had met these standards, the strategic and humanitarian catastrophe of August 2008 might have been avoided.

In short, there is little evidence to suggest that the "throwing our friends under the bus" narrative is anything but fictitious. Yet it is hard to imagine that the reset-bashers aren't aware of this. Perhaps these critics have yet to shake off their Cold War hangovers and what angers them is the improving U.S.-Russia relationship itself, which they apparently consider a form of "selling out" regardless of the impact on the neighborhood. A less generous explanation is that the betrayal narrative is a convenient club to whack Obama with in an election year. In either case, political elites in the region should realize that they are being used.

But the implications for the United States are more disturbing. To address practically all the significant global challenges the country faces, from Afghanistan to nuclear proliferation to climate change, a functioning relationship with Russia is crucial. But thanks to the reset-bashers, maintaining such a relationship is becoming a political liability, even at a time when it is providing crucial security benefits. And Obama has yet to shove an unsuspecting Eastern European colleague in the path of Putin's GolAZ-5291.