FPI Bulletin: Reassessing U.S.-Russia Relations as President Putin Returns

May 9, 2012

From FPI Executive Director Jamie M. Fly

The return this week of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency provides an opportunity to assess the status of U.S.-Russian relations.  The Obama administration’s so-called “reset” of relations with Moscow is one of the few foreign policy successes the President and his allies cite from the last three years.
The administration claims that by establishing a new tone in the relationship, visible achievements have been made including a new nuclear arms control agreement, increased transit routes into and out of Afghanistan, and enhanced Russian cooperation on Iran and other international challenges.
The reality is somewhat mixed.  The New START agreement may not even require significant Russian reductions in their nuclear arsenal.  The Russians have a significant economic incentive to work with the United States on Afghanistan, and Russia’s role in increasing pressure on Iran has been rather limited. 
As events in recent days surrounding Putin’s elaborate inauguration ceremony in Moscow also suggest, the administration’s rosy portrayal of U.S.-Russian relations overlooks a tectonic shift underway on the ground in Russia. 
For the first time in decades, the Russian people are taking to the streets to show their indignation with the current occupants of the Kremlin.  In protests on Sunday, the day before Putin’s inauguration, 400 protesters including several prominent opposition figures were arrested in a brutal police crackdown.  On the day of the ceremony, another 300 were jailed.
The Obama administration’s response to all of this was characteristically underwhelming, exemplifying what former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt called Europe and America’s policy of “polite appeasement” toward Russia.  This, not oversold strategic gains, has been the greatest failure of the “reset.”  It is one thing to attempt to improve relations with a country with which we share many concerns.  It is another entirely to subjugate America’s interest in seeing freedom of expression, fundamental human rights, and the rule of law respected in the name of questionable progress on other issues.

Instead of seeing Russia’s leadership for what it is, the Obama administration tried to convince itself that President Medvedev offered a modernizing alternative to Putin’s Cold-War mentality.  We were told that Medvedev was trying to assert his authority.  Vice President Biden went so far as to speculate that the “reset” would strengthen Medvedev.  This, as we now see, was pure fantasy as yesterday Medvedev became Putin’s Prime Minister, finalizing the swap and finally putting to rest the hope that he represented a different set of policies and priorities for Russia.
The Russian people are now in for another six years of the same failed domestic policies perhaps without the ruminations of a Russian Silicon Valley and sympathetic noises on human rights and rule of law.  In Russia’s external policies, we are likely to see a return of xenophobic and threatening rhetoric favored by the security establishment.  Russia’s neighbors allied with the United States can only hope that this remains rhetoric and does not result in another action like Russia’s 2008 invasion and subsequent occupation of Georgian territory. 
Many Russians appear frustrated and unwilling to accept the status quo.  We shouldn’t either. 
As Vice President Biden said on Sunday with regards to our China policy, caring about human rights is “part of our DNA” as Americans going back to our forefathers who fled oppression to make their way to America’s shores. 
Biden is correct, but under President Obama’s watch, it has not been part of our Russia policy.  This needs to change and to change quickly.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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