For all its many faults, the Obama administration has scored one notable success: It has done significantly better than its recent Republican and Democratic predecessors in normalizing relations with Russia. Washington’s visceral antagonism toward Moscow needed to be replaced by a more pragmatic, mutually beneficial relationship. The “Reset” has been imperfectly applied, but its conceptual basis is sound.
For almost two decades following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, U.S. policy had three focal points: a steady eastward expansion of NATO, support for the Russophobic political options in the “near abroad” (notably in Ukraine and Georgia), and an oblique yet clear encouragement of centrifugal tendencies within Russia herself, as manifested in the White House’s ambivalent attitude regarding the conflict in Chechnya. The implicit strategic assumption was clear: Russia’s loss was America’s gain.
In practice, this meant that Moscow was deemed to have no legitimate interests in any neighboring countries, while its domestic policies were subjected to relentless scrutiny. In the meantime, Washington pretended not to notice Latvian SS veterans parading through the streets of Riga, or Estonia’s blatantly discriminatory treatment of the large Russian minority, while Mikheil Saakashvili was not discouraged from plotting a military attack on South Ossetia using U.S. and Israeli weapons.
The hypocrisy and double standards of the Clinton-Bush era gave way, under Obama, to a more nuanced approach—to the relief of France, Germany, and Italy, which had never understood or condoned Washington’s earlier belligerence. The benefits of the Reset were particularly visible in the “Northern Supply Route” through Russia for American equipment going to Afghanistan. Established in 2009, the overland and air corridor became critical to the continued viability of the Afghan operation at a time when the security situation in Pakistan was rapidly deteriorating.
In recent weeks, and particularly following the September 23 announcement that, in the election next March, Vladimir Putin would again run for the presidency, there came a strong push from various Republican quarters to return to the unprofitable policies of the previous decade. On October 25, for example, the Heritage Foundation held a day-long conference entirely dedicated to Obama’s allegedly failing Reset policy. House Speaker John Boehner (R–OH) called on the Obama administration to “show its teeth” to Moscow. He asserted that the Russian leadership sees Obama’s outreach policy as a sign of weakness, and he is worried by Vladimir Putin’s likely return to the Kremlin because Putin wants to “restore the former power and influence of the Soviet Union.” Several GOP congressmen insisted that trade relations between Russia and the United States cannot be normalized and that Russia must not be admitted into the World Trade Organization as long as Russian troops continue to “occupy” Georgian sovereign territory—meaning the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Putin’s pending return has prompted similar responses among GOP presidential hopefuls looking for a cheap way to sound firm on foreign policy. One cannot help but recall former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s warning that “Putin rears his head” in the general vicinity of Alaska—a comment, no doubt, reflective of the work of a Saakashvili lobbyist who was serving as Palin’s foreign-policy advisor at that time. Mitt Romney is convinced that Putin dreams of “rebuilding the Russian empire . . . annexing populations as they did in Georgia,” and using gas and oil resources to throw their weight around in Europe. “It has to end,” he says emphatically of Reset. “We have to show strength.” It is noteworthy that Mr. Romney’s leading foreign-policy advisor is Soviet émigré Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute, who is also the author of an adoring biography of Boris Yeltsin.
The GOP contenders—with the exception of Ron Paul—do not understand the art of foreign-policy realism, and take their cues from various handlers with links to the Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard. For them, Putin’s return amounts to a reincarnation of Stalin himself. Accusing the White House of appeasement, John Boehner ended his speech at Heritage with a demand that “democracy and human rights” be at the forefront of Washington’s Russia policy.
For most GOP leading lights, the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism served not as a cautionary tale about the hubris of empire and the folly of millenarian ideology, but the opportunity to supplant the Soviet Union as the end-of-history purveyor of “progressive” values. To the extent that Putin equals a strong Russia, his return is unacceptable to the neo Cold Warriors. He is an affront to the Beltway-elite article of faith that no power or combination of powers has any right to reserve its own Monroe Doctrine-like sphere of influence, or even to exercise sovereignty over its own affairs.
The effusion of anti-Putin rhetoric will serve as a reminder that the last thing the U.S. electorate will have on offer in November 2012 is an American Putin. Depressingly, whether it is Obama or those lining up to challenge him, no prospective president is prepared to make our country once again strong, respected, and self-sufficient.
In reality, nothing much will change in Russia’s external posture with the return of Putin. Soon-to-be-former President Medvedev is aware of Russia’s need to modernize, diversify her economy, and streamline her bureaucracy. When he returns to premiership he will be well equipped to continue his earlier efforts in that direction. On the other hand, Putin is primarily focused on Russia’s need to preserve and enhance her identity as a great power and a Christian nation. He knows that Russia’s first-order priorities are, on the one hand, to recover her relative political, economic, and military standing in the global system and revive the national sense of purpose, and, on the other, to resist Western pressures to entwine modernization with suicidal multiculturalism.
The former is the job of a pragmatic prime minister and his team of handpicked managers; the latter is the task of a president with the ambition to be remembered as a statesman. Modernization, devoid of the guiding hand of statesmanship, is self-defeating. But a strong insistence on rootedness, cultural identity, and tradition, however healthy in itself, may hamper a state’s ability to maintain the dynamics of its autochthonous existence if it is not accompanied by long-overdue reforms.
An imploding Russia would be detrimental to the American interest. The lure of Siberia and the Caucasus being up for grabs would be bound to whet the appetite of the Islamic world and China—the former, an existential foe, and the latter, an increasingly formidable rival of the United States. Putin’s return to the helm is a precondition for Russia to preserve her internal cohesion and external security while Medvedev proceeds with his modernization projects. Since our neoliberals, neoconservatives, and their European equivalents are equally antipathetic to any internally cohesive and externally secure Russia, it is no surprise that they are unhappy with the “undemocratic” arrangement about to manifest in Moscow, and the country’s alleged return to autocracy, corruption, and stagnation. For as long as the Western bien-pensants repeat the mantra, Russia is on the right track. Any praise from Washington, New York, London, or Brussels—such as that heaped on Yeltsin, Kozyrev & Co. two decades ago—would be a cause for alarm.
Putin understands that North America, Europe, and Russia share the same civilizational genes and belong to the same cultural sphere. As Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, noted almost three years ago, “If the northern civilization wants to protect itself, it must be united: America, the European Union, and Russia. If they are not together, they will be defeated one by one.” Medvedev, by contrast, has displayed occasional symptoms of the propensity of Russian reformers ever since Peter the Great to look at “the West” with some awe, or else with a naive hope that Moscow’s constant assurances of “cooperation” and “integration” may erode the antipathy of the Western elite class toward Russia. That disdain is based on the accurate recognition that Russia is the last bastion of faith and identity, which those people have done their best to destroy in their countries.
In Washington the duopoly denies that any common Euro-Russo-American civilization exists, let alone that it is worth preserving or jointly defending. To them Russia is still steeped in her barbarian blood-and-soil premodernity, contrary to the propositional credo of the United States, which transcends the shackles of ethnicity, race, culture, and faith. They also see Russia as potentially “democratic” only after she becomes subservient—domestically and externally—to U.S. and E.U. demands. British “conservatives” and their neocon ilk across the pond have not an inch of space from George Soros when he claims “a strong central government in Russia cannot be democratic” by definition. For both the quasileft and the quasiright in today’s Western world, “democracy” depends on an actor’s status in the ideological pecking order, not on his popular support. (Oddly, this jibes with the Leninist dictum that the moral value of any action is determined by its contribution to the march of history.) To wit, Putin’s current approval rating of over 60 percent is now cited in the West as further evidence of his populist demagoguery.
GOP candidates and the Republican Party would be well advised to discard the mind-set and language of a bygone era—the one that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Barack Obama is vulnerable on a host of economic, social, and cultural issues, and he deserves to be attacked accordingly. It is not in the American interest, however, to assail him over the Reset with Russia.
If Republicans hope to present a credible alternative to this failing administration, they need to devise subtler, more creative foreign-policy options. At a time when America’s global decline and domestic financial and moral weakness make the continuation of her full-spectrum dominance impossible, it is essential for the United States to maintain a constructive policy toward Russia. There are no divergent core interests between the two nations, and there is a common enemy who assigns us equally to the Dar-al-Harb.