Whoever wins the U.S.
presidency, Washington's Russia policy needs a reassessment and a rethink. The
"reset" has run its course. The Obama administration's vaunted policy of
engaging with Moscow did away with the irritants of the previous administration
and allowed a modicum of cooperation on issues such as Afghanistan supply
routes. It has failed to give America's Russia policy a strategic depth, but
this was never the intention. But Mitt Romney's portrayal of Russia as "our
number one geopolitical foe" and promising to be tough on Putin is not a policy
either. Rhetoric has its uses on the campaign trail, but its value greatly
diminishes when the challenger becomes the incumbent. The real choice for the
new administration lies between keeping Russia on the periphery of the U.S.
foreign policy, which means essentially taking a tactical approach, and
treating Russia as an asset in America's global strategy.
Frankly, the former
approach appears much more likely. As the United States struggles with the
plethora of issues in the Middle East, Iran, and Afghanistan, and focuses more
on China and Asia, Russia will be seen as a marginal or irrelevant factor. In
some cases, as in Afghanistan, Moscow will continue to provide valuable logistical
support; in others, such as Iran's nuclear program, it might be considered
useful, but only up to a point; in still other cases, like Syria, it will be
regarded as a spoiler due to its consistent opposition to the U.S. effort to
topple the Assad regime. As regards China and East Asia, the United States will
continue to ignore Russia, whose resources and role are believed to be
negligible in that part of the world. Tellingly, Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton's seminal "pivot" article in Foreign
Policy did not care to mention Russia at all.
cooperation on foreign policy is deemed to matter little, and its opposition
regarded as little more than nuisance, Moscow's interests and concerns are
unlikely to be taken seriously in Washington. Reaching a deal on missile
defense with the Russians and selling that deal in Washington may prove too
much for the new Obama administration; a Romney White House would probably not
bother to reach out to the Kremlin at all, even as it goes ahead with NATO
deployments in Europe. That NATO's further enlargement to the east would likely
continue to stall would have more to do with the political realities in Ukraine
and Georgia, however, than with any restraint in Washington.
constituencies in the United States might take a more proactive attitude with
regard to the domestic developments in Russia. Nearly a year after the
beginning of large-scale protests following the flawed parliamentary elections
last December, the Russia's domestic socio-political crisis has deepened. The
Russian Awakening is on the way -- but the situation is complex, and the
outcome wide open. A temptation arises to assist in the process by putting
pressure on those in power (e.g., by means of the Magnitsky Bill, soon to become
law) while simultaneously encouraging those who sail with the winds of change.
This has already made
Washington a factor in Russian domestic politics. Even as the protesters deride
the notion of being on the payroll of the United States, the Kremlin has been
seeking to brand the opposition as "foreign agents" and to present itself as
the fulcrum of Russian patriotism and defender of the national interest. In
this logic, verbal attacks on Putin from the outside world benefit him. (And
Romney's remarks help a lot.) Taking the cue from the authors of the Magnitsky
Bill, the Kremlin is considering ordering Russian officials to repatriate their
assets. If the elites' resistance could be overcome, this move would kill two
birds with one stone: make Moscow less vulnerable to outside pressure, and
increase the Kremlin's control over those who serve it. Meanwhile, the Kremlin
has made several steps toward reducing U.S. influence in the country -- passing
new restrictions on NGOs, expanding the definition of high treason, and ending
USAID and Nunn-Lugar programs in Russia.
There is no way to
insulate Russian domestic politics from the relationship with Washington. A few
things, however, need to be taken into account. One, domestic changes in Russia
will come, but they will come as a result of internal dynamics. Outside
interference, even of marginal utility, can backfire badly. Two, the likely
changes in Russia will not necessarily make it closer to the United States
politically. As it transforms further, Russia will probably swing to the socialist
left and at the same time become more nationalistic.
Three, whatever happens in the country internally, Russia will be determined to
remain an independent strategic player.
With all this in mind,
should and can the United States develop a strategic approach to Russia or just
continue to approach it tactically? The next administration must do the former.
Russia has a view about the global order
which prioritizes sovereignty and non-interference in countries' internal
affairs. Coupled with Moscow's blocking
power at the U.N. Security Council, going around Russia has real costs for the
United States. Russia has more relevance than any other country -- except for
the United States itself -- on the whole range of nuclear weapons issues, from
arms control and strategic stability to WMD proliferation and talks with Iran
and North Korea. Russia also has an intimate if complex relationship with
China, from coordinating policies that frustrate Washington at the U.N. level
to over 2,700 miles of common border to cooperation-cum-competition in the arms
problem facing U.S. policymakers is that present-day Russia is neither an ally
to be led nor a serious threat to be contained. This problem needs to be
addressed if U.S. foreign policy is to be more than a fire brigade rushing from
one conflict to another (be that Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or Syria) or a power
engaged in successive confrontations -- with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union,
and, as some believe, possibly with China. The starting point for escaping that
pattern is thinking through the implications of the fundamental geopolitical,
economic, demographic, technological changes in the international system. At
the moment, the United States seems to be too much obsessed with the rise of
China and over-preoccupied with the developments in the Arab world. By
contrast, Europe, Africa, India, Latin America, and Russia are all getting
scant attention. For a truly global policy, there has to be a better balance.
As to the Russia
policy proper, three strategic goals would make sense. First is achieving
practical cooperation with Moscow through coordinated missile defenses in
Europe, which would not only make the Euro-Atlantic a zone of stable peace, but
also ensure that Russia will not be on the wrong side of the United States in
the evolving global balance. Second is promoting economic cooperation in the
North Pacific, where the United States and Russia are near neighbors. A joint
project, also involving Canada, Japan, and other countries such as Australia
can both help Russia develop its Siberian and Pacific provinces, and contribute
to overall stability in the region. Third is the joint economic, transport, and
infrastructure development of the Arctic, where Russia has the longest
shoreline of the five littoral countries.
Can the United States
focus on those issues or will it instead continue to treat Russia as
near-irrelevant in global terms but still dangerous to its smaller neighbors
which require U.S. protection and support? Obama would probably be a better
manager of the relationship than Romney, but even for him Russia comes as an
afterthought, an accessory to more important issues such as Afghanistan.
Romney's foreign policy is an open question, and finding a place for Russia in
it will be even more challenging. Can the next administration strike the right
balance between American interests and values when it comes to Moscow, or will
they allow themselves to be used by the various forces within Russia, where
serious political struggle is just beginning? If the next U.S. administration
does not rise above the, frankly, very mediocre general level of the post-Cold
War U.S.-Russia policy, Washington will continue losing opportunities and
limiting its options. A reset is not enough, and it cannot be repeated anyway.
It is time for a re-think.
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images