Our Russia Experts

by Victor Davis Hanson

One of the more depressing things in watching Vladimir Putin is the manner in which Russian “experts” at home have for years now all but cheered him on. In the latest Nation magazine, Stephen Cohen has written one of the most embarrassing apologies of Putin’s imperialistic misadventures imaginable. A Russian state public-relations official could not have offered a shakier contextualization of Russian expansionism.

In the last few years someone named Mark Adomanis (who identifies himself as “I specialize in Russian economics and demographics”) has perhaps offered the most unfortunate apologies for Putin’s Russia and the serially excused reset as proof of a strong Obama foreign policy (“Perhaps I am a deeply unserious person, but I think it is not only possible to ‘seriously’ argue that 2012 Russia is more reasonable towards the United States but that it is quite easy to do so”.) He routinely chastised skeptics (me in particular in often ad hominem style) for suggesting that reset with Russia would only empower Putin’s authoritarianism, weaken our Eastern European allies, and project a dangerous sense of U.S. indecision and vulnerability. At the time (2012) Adomanis ridiculed any suggestion that reset was counterproductive. In a 2012 piece that unfortunately bragged “One does not need to be a proselytizer for “the reset” to note that American-Russian relations are better now than they were when Obama first took office,” he argued,

I’m very familiar with conservative critiques of Obama’s Russia policy, and the most frequent criticism is that improved relations with Russia weren’t worth the cost: coddling up to a thug like Putin was simply too high a price to pay for the relatively paltry returns. But Hanson is making a far more radical argument. He’s arguing both that our attempts to improve relations with Russia angered our NATO allies like Poland and the Baltics and that attempts to improve relations with Russia actually worsened relations with Russia. I suppose it’s possible to imagine a foreign policy initiative that is so horrifically planned and executed that it worsens relations with everyone, but while I have been critical of the reset since its inception it seems very hard to argue that it has backfired so catastrophically.

In reality, Obama’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Russia has failed not due to its cowering weakness and accommodation, but due to its significant overlap with the previous administration’s bullheaded and illogical insistence on pursuing ballistic missile defense in Eastern Europe. That’s a criticism I would love to hear made, but it’s one that Hanson is incapable of making because it would require that he recognize Obama as a persistent and forceful advocate of American power. (emphasis added)

I do plead guilty that I could not and do not yet quite sense the supposedly forceful Obama advocacy of American power, and also to arguing for the last few years that attempts to improve relations with Russia actually worsened relations with Russia.” But I think most shared that conclusion; it seemed obvious from that the way that Secretary Clinton promoted reset that it would lead to worsening relations by undercutting Russians who had legitimate complaints about Putin’s thuggery and thereby would only further encourage his absolutism, by our acquiescence green-lighting more Russian adventurism that could only in the future destabilize the former Soviet republics and lead to increased tensions with the U.S. and Europe, and by inflating Putin’s stature that was not otherwise earned by the Russian economy, political system, military, or morality and that might in other regions run counter to U.S. interests.