Commentary Magazine


Why the Chill in U.S.-Russia Relations Matters

One of the most common mistakes made by American “realist” analysts with regard to Russia is, in the words of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia Shevtsova, that they have too often “accepted the Kremlin interpretation of Russia’s national interests.” It is not Vladimir Putin, she said, but the Russian society he disregards that shares values and interests with the West. Russians want openness, an independent judiciary, and cultural ties to the West: “That in turn requires America and the West as a whole to take a values-based approach to Russia.”

Shevtsova was commenting after the Obama administration announced its “reset” and specifically on the report of a commission on the “right direction” for U.S.-Russia policy, co-chaired by Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel, the latter going through his confirmation hearings for defense secretary today. The disparity between Putin’s interests and those of the Russian people is in part why Putin has pulled back on so many forms of mutual cooperation. It is easy–and partially accurate–to see Putin’s adoption ban as retaliation for the American human rights legislation, the Magnitsky Act. But the adoption ban was preceded by Putin’s decision to expel USAID and end cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, and it was followed by the expansion of the Guantanamo list banning about 70 Americans from Russia and ending a joint U.S.-Russian project on crime prevention.

The disparity is also why respected economists and analysts like Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer have advocated strong civil society cooperation and communication between the U.S. and the pro-democracy and pro-modernization members of the Russian public–something the administration may set back by pulling out of one such group in response to Putin’s actions–and why it matters that U.S.-Russia cooperation is at a post-Cold War low. In their study of 35 hybrid regimes between the end of the Cold War and 2008, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way conclude:

Where linkage to the West was high, competitive authoritarian regimes democratized. Where linkage was low, regime outcomes hinged on incumbents’ organizational power. Where state and governing party structure were well organized and cohesive, regimes remained stable and authoritarian; where they were underdeveloped or lacked cohesion, regimes were unstable, although they rarely democratized.

All of which makes the Obama administration’s decision, as reported by Josh Rogin, to focus its attempt to reset the “reset” on reducing nuclear stockpiles–a replay of the early stages of the first failed reset–all the more baffling. Russian nukes aren’t being aimed with a finger on the trigger at the U.S.; they are a relic of a bygone era and a symbol of great power status.

Additionally, why follow a failed game plan? New START was supposed to be a largely symbolic opening to more advantageous U.S.-Russia cooperation on real threats to nuclear nonproliferation, such as Iran, that never materialized. Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad and his crackdown on pro-democracy activists and protesters are just more evidence that “reset” skeptics like Shevtsova, who wrote “that we must tie foreign policy to Russia’s domestic development, not untie it,” were right on the mark.

There are nations whose existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons remain of great concern, like Pakistan and North Korea. There are rising would-be great powers expanding their existing nuclear forces, like China. And there are unstable or violent, anti-Western regimes seeking to join the nuclear club, like Iran and Syria. The focus on Russia’s weapons seems like a distraction. More importantly, the one benefit to President Obama’s obsession with offering unrequited concessions and a carrot-only engagement strategy was that when it failed he would have the credibility to change direction. The president may count these symbolic agreements as accomplishments, but they will more likely stand as a testament to his missed opportunities.