It was a bad week for Russian president Vladimir Putin.
First, there was the crash of the Russian-made airliner in Indonesia that killed 45 people and wrecked whatever’s left of the reputation of Russia’s struggling aerospace industry. Second, there was the news about terrorists planning to bomb the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are supposed to be held in the Russian city of Sochi.
Finally, last Monday was Putin’s third swearing-in as president. What should have been a day of triumph was instead punctuated by demonstrations and riots around the country as Putin’s corrupt, brutal, and increasingly ineffectual regime approaches collapse.
Fortunately for Putin, he still has one person who seems prepared to do whatever he asks: President Obama. Fortunately for us, in November we may elect a new president, one who will bring some sanity and balance to our recent dealings with Russia.
Since taking office, the Obama administration has made a big deal about cozying up to the ex-KGB agent, in hopes of getting Putin’s support on a number of fronts, not least Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even handed Russia’s foreign minister a large button marked “RESET,” intended to symbolize a fresh new start in American-Russian relations.
Three years later, we see what “RESET” really meant.
It meant cravenly abandoning our allies Poland and the Czech Republic on missile defense for Eastern Europe, in order to get a nuclear-arms-reduction treaty that reduced our nuclear arsenal while leaving lots of loopholes for Russia. It meant handing over nuclear secrets belonging to our ally Great Britain and offering Moscow top-secret information about our own missile-defense technologies.
It meant saying nothing while Putin helped Syrian dictator Bashar Assad murder his own people. He still stymies sanctions that will halt Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, not simply drag it out.
Finally, it meant an American president secretly offering Putin’s crony Dmitri Medvedev even more “flexibility” in shutting down our nuclear arsenal once he’s been reelected — a candid moment caught on an inadvertently live mike.
So far, American-Russian relations have been a one-way thoroughfare, with terrible results for our allies, ordinary Russians, and our own national security.
Fortunately, Mitt Romney’s principal Russian policy adviser, Pierre Prosper, gets it. He has publicly stated that Russia is an example “where we give and get nothing in return.” He and Romney seem to grasp that good relations with a Russian leader don’t necessarily mean healthy relations with that leader’s country.
Two other American presidents thought they could win Russia over with charm and open arms. Franklin Roosevelt believed he and Josef Stalin could “talk like men and brothers” and together build a secure post–World War II global order. What we got instead was the Iron Curtain and the Cold War.
Bill Clinton saw Boris Yeltsin as just the good ol’ boy to ease Russia’s transition from a broken Soviet Union to a modern democracy. What we got instead was chaos, and then Vladimir Putin.
As president, Mitt Romney would need to build his policy toward Russia around three core principles.
The first is that our real friends in the region aren’t in the Kremlin, but in the democracies of Eastern Europe.
The second is that missile defense is an issue vital to the security of this country and its allies. It can’t be compromised, either in treaties or in secret deals.
The third is that we need to start thinking about the shape of a post-Putin Russia. His regime is weak, corrupt, and deeply unpopular; Russians have woken up to the fact that he and his cronies have pocketed almost 15 percent of the nation’s economy while the rest of the country slides into recession.
Many Russian experts doubt Putin will finish his third term. America needs to reach out to dissident and democratic opposition groups that can shape a post-Putin regime that’s both friendlier to the West and more caring toward its own people.
Alexis de Tocqueville famously predicted that Russia and the United States would one day dominate the world. He didn’t predict we would become friends doing it. But anyone can see our current policy is only making the world a more dangerous place.
— Arthur Herman is author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II.