For the last three years, the United States has pursued a policy of “reset” with a Russian regime that, according to the State Department’s own reporting, runs a “mafia state.” Now, the people of Moscow are denouncing that government. The danger, however, is that they will turn against the United States as well.
The “reset” policy, launched, appropriately enough, with a mistranslation of the word for reset in Russian, was absurd from the beginning. It assumed that a regime that sanctioned the nuclear poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, invaded Georgia, and aided the nuclear development of Iran was incorrigible not because of its moral corruption but because of the actions of former president George W. Bush.
In the service of reset, the Obama administration toned down support for human rights, security nuclear parity for Russia through an arms-reduction agreement that neglected Russia’s arsenal of tactical nuclear missiles, and canceled plans for an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic. In return, the United States got permission to transit materials for NATO forces in Afghanistan through Russian territory — an important step but one that is in Russia’s vital national interest — and, for President Obama, the right to be photographed eating hamburgers with Russian president Dmitri Medvedev in an Arlington restaurant.
There were hopes, of course, that reset would work wonders. The United States faces a threat from Iran, and Russia had been providing Iran with diplomatic cover — not to mention black-market assistance in developing its nuclear arsenal. It was thought that in the new post-Bush atmosphere of mutual understanding Russia’s behavior might change. But, despite the expressions of goodwill, Russia continued to water down sanctions against Iran in the United Nations, ensuring that their effect would be negligible. In November, after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that it found credible evidence that Iran had been working on a bomb since 2003, Russia refused to be impressed, and said that the IAEA report was being used to undercut efforts to reach a diplomatic solution.
For years, the excuse for engaging a corrupt regime instead of facing its transgressions honestly was that Vladimir Putin enjoyed the support of the Russian people. It is true that the Russian economy expanded under Putin, and he managed to take much of the credit more truthfully owed to high oil and gas prices. But the support for Putin was never as great as it seemed. It was conditioned on his ability to deliver economic growth, and when the boom came to an end in 2008, the population’s commitment to Putin collapsed with it. All it took was the latest manifestation of electoral fraud to bring people out into the streets.
The United States now faces a choice in its policy toward Russia. It can continue trying to engage the Russian leaders, or it can begin to do what it should have done in the first place: base U.S. responses on U.S. principles and react to Russian behavior realistically. The authors of “reset” will be inclined to defend their brainchild, but the Obama administration should bear in mind that Russia is not only the Putin-Medvedev tandem. The people of Russia have stepped out onto the stage as well.