There’s a tendency to emphasize the obvious when critiquing President Obama’s foreign policy. Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons continues unchecked. The Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to finding a solution that would ensure Israel’s security and establish a functional, responsible Palestinian state. Meanwhile, a complete U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq has unleashed sectarian tensions, perhaps bringing into question Iraq’s viability as a unified state, and creating the conditions for an expansion of Iranian influence.
But Obama’s Russia policy — the so-called “reset” — has gone largely unnoted. This is especially surprising given that the administration advertises the Russian reset as one of its principal foreign-policy triumphs. Most casual observers don’t seem to be aware that if the president were asked to rank his achievements in the realm of foreign relations, he would probably list an “improvement” in U.S.–Russia relations behind only Osama bin Laden’s death and perhaps the jumbled Libya operation.
Obama has boasted of a number of successes in the context of the reset. First among those is the New START nuclear-arms-reduction treaty, which caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arms at 1,550 warheads and limits each side’s deployed and nondeployed delivery vehicles. In Moscow, Obama negotiated an expansion of Russian supply routes to Afghanistan for nonlethal matériel. Moreover, since Obama announced the reset, Russia has agreed to an additional round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Tehran and canceled a sale of its advanced S-300 air-defense system to Iran.
However, most of the reset’s supposed achievements are much less substantive than Obama claims, in some cases simply don’t exist, and, taken as a whole, represent nothing more than a well-devised marketing ploy to mask a scarcity of foreign-policy triumphs elsewhere. Unless unilateral U.S. disarmament is the underlying objective, New START should not be seen as an accomplishment. Russia was already below the new ceilings in both strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles when the treaty came into force. The U.S. has had to reduce its stockpile as Russia increases its own.
Supply routes to Afghanistan via Russian territory — the northern portion of the Northern Distribution Network — have become increasingly important since Islamabad shut down transit corridors through Pakistan in late November. U.S. relations with Pakistan are arguably at a post-9/11 nadir.
Still, there are a few problems with the Russian option. First, Russia limits NATO to nonlethal equipment and only allows the alliance to ship supplies from the West to Afghanistan, not in the reverse direction. Second, the Kremlin may prove to be no less erratic than Pakistan. Moscow’s ambassador to NATO recently threatened to cut off Russian transit routes to Afghanistan unless the U.S. agrees to scale back its missile-defense plans in Europe. Finally, an expansion of the Russian route makes the U.S. even more reliant on the Kremlin, which may use its leverage to extract concessions in unrelated areas. In addition to missile defense, Russia’s demands could include reduced U.S. engagement with the countries of the former Soviet Union — Moscow’s “sphere of privileged interests” — and a diminution in U.S. criticism of what can mildly be called the Putin regime’s democratic shortcomings.
Moreover, to suggest that the Kremlin is cooperating over Afghanistan because of the reset is patently wrong. Perhaps more than any other country in the world save the U.S., Russia fears the return of the Taliban and the further diffusion of Islamic fundamentalism into Central Asia, which threatens its southern periphery. In the words of Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Moscow assists the U.S. in Afghanistan because “it serves our security interests.”