Last week's G-20 summit was the first time U.S. President Barack Obama had seen his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, since 2009. An account of their long, loveless meeting on the sidelines of the conference, along with photographs of their unhappy tête-a-tête, was splashed on the front page of the New York Times. The real story belonged in the obituary section: The "reset," Obama's attempt to mend relations with Putin's Russia, is dead. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killed it.
But the two countries' fundamental disagreement about what to do about Assad, the dictator whose bloody attempts to suppress a popular revolt has resulted in the deaths of 14,000 Syrians, was only the last straw for a policy that has been on life support since its inception. On a vast array of issues -- ranging from human rights to Iran to the territorial integrity of the post-Soviet states -- Russian behavior has consistently been a thorn in the side of the United States and its allies. The reset only provided Obama with a justification to cover his retreat in the face of Russia's advance.
Let's start with Syria, where Moscow has vetoed two attempts to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime. In the case of the May 25 Houla massacre, where over 100 civilians were murdered in cold blood, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that "both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people." This injected moral equivalence where none existed, since U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said that pro-regime shabbiha militias were likely responsible.
And yet, the Obama administration continues to try to woo the Kremlin. The White House's latest dead-letter hope is that a "Yemen model" of political transition in Syria, referring to the negotiated departure of former Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, might find favor in the Kremlin. It will not. The Kremlin is joined at the hip with the Assad regime: Lavrov, for instance, told Ekho Moskvy radio last week that asking Assad to step down is "infeasible" because the latter simply will not do so.
Perversely, while Putin blames foreign actors for undermining special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan by facilitating the Syrian opposition, his state-owned arms dealer Rosoboronexport has continued to run weaponry to Assad. Most recently, it attempted to ship MiG-25 attack helicopters to Syria -- the transport vessel was turned around in the North Sea only after London, acting at Washington's request, got the vessel's British insurer to revoke its insurance. Instead of expressing embarrassment, Lavrov blamed the "unreliability of the British insurance system." Meanwhile, the Moscow-based think tank CAST anticipates that, in addition to those repaired copters, Russia will also eventually deliver MiG-29 fighter jets and even more advanced air-defense systems to Syria.
The hard truth is that the reset was doomed from the beginning by Russia's increasingly autocratic political system. The White House's outreach was founded on two phantom premises -- first, that former President Dmitry Medvedev was actually running the country rather than keeping the seat warm for Putin; and second, that Medvedev was the liberal modernizer that he claimed to be.
The men and women who have paid the price for Obama's gullibility on these points are the beaten-down Russian dissidents, whose fate used to matter to the United States. Even as they have begun the hard work of constructing a domestic opposition movement, they have been denied even token support by the White House. "I can't name any real changes in [U.S.] policy that were good for democracy and human rights in Russia over the past several years," Oleg Kozlovsky, a veteran activist with the anti-Kremlin Solidarity movement, told me.
"We have been hit heavily in the last couple of months with brutal detentions during protests, arrests, and searches and would have liked a firm reaction from the U.S.," said anti-corruption activist Natalia Pelevine. "We have not seen it. This is especially humorous in view of the much-promoted idea in Russia that the opposition is paid by the U.S. State Department."