Commentary Magazine

The Eternal Russian Reset

AP Photo/Benny Snyder

It was inevitable that the allegation Russian intelligence meddled in the American presidential election would become a partisan football. The claims that Moscow’s cyber intelligence assets infiltrated independent and private American political operatives’ computer networks to disrupt and undermine U.S. political culture have become secondary to whether that fact hurts or helps President-elect Donald Trump. Few seem interested in the broader point, which is that the incoming president’s education in Russia’s uncompromising conduct of foreign affairs has already begun. Since the advent of Vladimir Putin, American presidents have consciously sought warmer relations with Moscow, and each of them failed. It wasn’t a lack of noble intentions by intractable geopolitical realities that seems to force Moscow and Washington into perennial conflict.

Vice President Mike Pence was right to contend (as he did repeatedly in the campaign) that the “evidence” available to American lawmakers indicated that Russian intelligence operatives hacked private Democratic officials’ emails and provided that information to WikiLeaks, which used it to disrupt the news cycle. He was also right to warn of “serious consequences” for such brazen interference. This is not a partisan issue; an alleged attack by a foreign power on private U.S. interests never is. Republicans would, however, be well-served to welcome an investigation into this issue if only to prepare the American public for the next embarrassing, Russian-linked document dump.

If U.S. intelligence agencies and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul are right and the Republican National Committee was also hacked by Russian-linked sources (something RNC officials deny), they might be the Russian hacking collective’s next targets. Donald Trump would not be the first American president to enter office married to the ideal of a grand rapprochement with Moscow only to find that idea dashed against the stubborn realities of the Russo-American dynamic.

“Nation building” wasn’t the only aspect of America’s foreign policy under Bill Clinton that George W. Bush found counterproductive. Bush actually  accused Clinton of being “locked in a Cold War mentality” on the campaign trail in 2000. He pledged to negotiate bilateral cuts to Russian and American nuclear arsenals deeper than those called for under the START II accord. Bush promised not to concede to Moscow a “veto” over NATO expansion, but also considered American peacekeeping missions in the Balkans wasteful and needlessly antagonistic. He and his administration initially favored outsourcing the job of peacekeeping in Europe to the European organizations. George W. Bush also considered Vladimir Putin a core U.S. ally in the war against radical Islamist terrorism, particularly after 9/11.

Reality soon disabused President Bush of these internationalist notions. Spiking oil prices in the mid-to late-2000s led Russia to adopt a resurgent posture—one that was resented American influence in former Soviet Republics and Warsaw Pact states. American unilateralism under George W. Bush, the deployment of anti-ballistic missile technology, and Washington’s worsening relationship with Russian allies—those in the so-called Axis of Evil—led to falling out. Moscow’s assertion of state control over private industry and communications firms and the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a well-liked figure within Bush’s circles, poisoned the once warm relationship between Bush and Putin.

By the time Russia invaded and carved up neighboring Georgia, the Bush administration no longer had any illusions about Putin or his objectives. Incoming President Barack Obama harbored a few, though.

Practically, the Russian “reset”—an effort to rehabilitate Russia just months after the siege of Tbilisi—was designed to win Moscow’s support for a deal to freeze and roll back the Iranian nuclear program. In theory, though, the “reset” was heralded by Obama allies in politics and the press as a necessary correction from the heedlessly hawkish Bush administration’s approach. To that end, Obama withdrew a Bush-era pledge to erect anti-missile and radar installations in Europe and worked to speed Russia’s ascension into the World Trade Organization. He made an early trip to Moscow in the summer of 2009 where he famously declared that “the days when empires could treat other sovereign states as pieces on a chess board are over.” The naiveté of this statement was revealed in 2014 when Russia became the first power since the Second World War to invade and annex sovereign territory in Europe.

Americans seem predisposed toward a Gene Roddenberry-esque vision of the future in which the U.S. and Russia have put aside the competitions and animosities of the past and work instead toward a mutually beneficial tomorrow. Both Bush and Obama entered office wedded to those ideals, though while also favoring distinct practical outcomes from that kind of engagement and reconciliation. Both were thwarted not by their own missteps but by the intractable nature of American and Russian conflicts. Moscow and Washington clash because they define their interests in opposition to one another. Donald Trump may soon discover that the institutional pressures on an American leader are immense. Reorienting America’s alliances is much easier said than done.

Wide-eyed idealists in Washington predisposed toward détente with Moscow often find their vision interrupted by events. Donald Trump will likely be no different. For Georgia and Ukraine, the cost of the American president’s meandering education in Russian objectives was steep. Regrettably for the former Soviet Republics, it seems the United States is determined to make the same mistake again.

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