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Why the Russian “Reset” Failed

Today’s New York Times eulogy of the Russian “reset” is a worthwhile read, as would be expected from veteran reporter and Russia watcher Peter Baker. The piece tells the story of the ill-fated reset from start to finish, though the two points arguably occurred simultaneously. That is, the reset never really got off the ground, because Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin had no interest.

It wasn’t so much that Putin found President Obama to be unlikeable or offensive. It’s that he seems to have viewed Obama’s Kumbaya quest much the way the rest of the world viewed it–and, it’s worth adding, the way it deserved to be viewed. It was both utterly meaningless and quite literally a waste of time. Putin never understood why exactly he was supposed to invest time and energy in pretending to care that Obama pretended to like him.

Putin’s impatience was bottled up during the administration of Dmitry Medvedev, when the Kremlin pretended Putin wasn’t in charge. But that bottle was uncorked the moment Putin retook the throne. Baker’s piece begins with a story about how, days before Putin was to formally resume his presidency in 2012, Obama’s national security hand Tom Donilon was dispatched to Moscow for a face-to-face meeting with him. Putin opened the discussion with a question: “When are you going to start bombing Syria?”

Baker was savvy enough to lead off his piece with this incident presumably because he understands the degree to which that one sentence sums up the rocky relationship between Obama and Putin. The two leaders have at least one personality trait in common: they both devote an inordinate amount of attention to appearances. But it’s this shared concern that sabotages the bilateral ties. Obama wants to present the appearance of a man who prioritizes thoughtful engagement and cross-cultural understanding. Putin wants you to know he just shot this Siberian tiger.

The Obama White House was naïve; to their credit, some in the administration are willing to admit this, even if anonymously–though you have to wait to the end of the article for it:

But Obama aides say they oversold the reset, both to the public and maybe even to themselves; it was never meant to transform Russia into an American-style democracy or eliminate all areas of friction. “We probably overestimated the shared-interest angle,” said one official.

The goal now is to keep it from sliding much further. “I don’t think it’s going to get any better any time soon,” said a former administration official. “In fact, I think the potential for something worse is pretty high.”

In their attempt to fool the public they fooled themselves instead, though they never fooled Putin for a moment. Elsewhere, Baker writes: “The arrival of [Edward] Snowden in Moscow, coming on top of anger over a new Russian law against pro-gay ‘propaganda,’ was nothing more than a final death blow to the reset.” The reset had been dead a while, but apparently the president was the last to know.

Being nicer to the Kremlin in public didn’t win Obama any good will from Putin because Putin doesn’t believe in notions like good will having any place in international affairs. Do you have something he wants? Does he have something you want? Those are questions he has time for. Anything else is nonsense. Putin is nobody’s therapist and he’s nobody’s pen pal. He has a state to run, human rights to violate, and a major asset in the Middle East that is embroiled in a nasty civil war. By the way, that reminds him: when are you going to bomb Syria?

This doesn’t mean that Putin is a realist–he is an authoritarian thug. But neither is Obama a realist–the reset was plainly and transparently a fantasy. White House aides in the story talk up the “successes” of the reset, the latest START treaty foremost among them. But START was a bland distraction from the real nuclear proliferation-related issues and thus a waste of political capital. In Obama’s limited defense, though, it’s clear his lack of experience and nonexistent relationship with Congress meant he had no idea he’d have to spend political capital on it in the first place. As Baker reports:

The highest-profile victory was their treaty called New Start, paring the legal ceilings for deployed strategic warheads by a third and launchers by half. But it proved to be more of a slog than Mr. Obama and his team expected. “We thought Start was going to be easy, we really did,” said a former official. “And it turned out to be very, very hard.”

This also raises the question of how much credit the reset can take for even modest, debatable “successes.” Here is the lasting legacy of the reset, from the administration’s point of view:

Obama advisers argue it worked in a way by restoring relations after the rift over the Georgia war. There are areas of cooperation even now. Moscow has not reneged on the New Start treaty or the Afghanistan supply route.

This is when defending the reset begins to veer from naïve to delusional. If you think Moscow cooperated on Afghanistan because Obama was nice to Putin and not because it meant having coalition forces bear the responsibility for containing the Afghan tribal wars and drug trade, you haven’t paid much attention to Putin’s policy in Central Asia.

And perhaps neither had Obama, but that appears to have changed. Administration advisors–named and anonymous, current and former–may argue over the details, but no one seems to be making the case that the reset is still in play. Baker’s article represents the administration’s acknowledgement of reality, a welcome shift in perspective–though it remains to be seen if it also heralds a change in policy.

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