Politics & Policy

Rethinking the Reset Policy

Obama’s policy toward Russia is not working.

According to the administration, its defenders in the media, and the Washington punditocracy, Obama’s “reset” policy toward Russia is an indisputable success, and as a result of it, geopolitical rivalry with Russia in Eurasia is subsiding. However, the facts contradict this story.

While the atmosphere surrounding East-West relations has improved, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has said that this is the case largely because of his personal relationship with President Obama. Also, even before the midterm elections, the main fruit of that relationship, the New START treaty, was in serious trouble in the Senate — and now it’s in even more trouble, in both the U.S. and Russia. The Senate will become less supportive after the current lame-duck session, and the foreign-affairs committee of Russia’s Duma has already announced that it will not recommend ratification.

Even apart from the treaty, the reset policy rests upon very dubious foundations. For example, the policy’s advocates argue that we and our allies need Russian help in Afghanistan and against Iran, and that extending our hand has helped to win their cooperation. But in fact, Russia’s self-interest alone explains its behavior in these areas. Moscow needs a NATO victory in Afghanistan at least as much as NATO does, and would not support a nuclear Iran regardless of our policies. Also, our extended hand notwithstanding, Moscow is happy to discuss selling non-nuclear weapons to Iran, and has signed major energy deals with Iran despite U.N. Security Council resolutions that forbid them (and that Russia supported).

However, the main test of East-West relations is in Europe and Eurasia, and here it is clear that the administration’s assumptions are unjustified. Moscow is making exorbitant demands of NATO in return for a variety of favors — selling NATO several dozen MiG-17 helicopters (a sale that was very useful to NATO in Afghanistan, but also highly profitable to the Russian state elites who pocketed huge sums); training Afghan and NATO pilots; increasing assistance to the Afghan army; and increasing cooperation on counter-narcotics and border security.

Specifically, Moscow demands that NATO not deploy any forces larger than a brigade (3,000 men, 41 tanks, 188 armored vehicles, and 90 guns), or permanently station more than 24 aircraft for more than six weeks a year, throughout the territories of NATO members who joined after 1989. In an emergency, new forces could be stationed only with Russia’s agreement. Moscow also has proposed that NATO give Russia a veto within the NATO–Russia Council over any Western deployments. Russia will commit to nothing in return, “since it is NATO that is expanding and threatening Russia and not the opposite.”

Clearly, Moscow cannot accept the sovereignty of the post–Soviet bloc states, or their right to defend themselves. Russian leaders have repeatedly said as much. In the wake of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war — and ceaseless Russian efforts to threaten the Baltic states and subvert every East European and post-Soviet state — the demands that these countries be left undefended and that Russia have veto power over NATO carry a most sinister implication. They underscore that while we may not regard Russia as an enemy, Moscow certainly regards the U.S. and NATO as enemies. Indeed, Russian defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov recently said he could not bring himself to see NATO as a partner. Despite his country’s purchasing arms from NATO members and a common cause in Afghanistan, he would say only that in the near future he will see it as a partner.

Also, these demands show that Moscow is contemptuous of NATO’s political intelligence, resolution, and cohesion — and believes NATO, the U.S., and Europe all to be in decline. Russia thinks we need it more than it needs the West.

It is very likely that Moscow made similar proposals to France and Germany at the recent Deauville summit and received a significant putdown. Nonetheless, at Deauville, French president Nicolas Sarkozy — who still cannot realize that in the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia outwitted him in his misconceived negotiations on behalf of the EU — again stated, presumably at Medvedev’s request, that Georgia should not become a member of NATO. This demand exemplifies Moscow’s unceasing efforts to split the alliance and the EU.

Further, the demands underscore Moscow’s belief, as stated by many Russian commentators, that the reset policy represents America’s admission of culpability for the deterioration of relations after 2001 — and an acknowledgment of Russia’s right to an exclusive sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Although NATO will almost certainly reject this Russian gambit, the fact that Russia was bold enough to try undermines any pretense that it sees the West as its partner, or that geopolitical rivalry with it in Eurasia has subsided.

Russia’s power grab should also heighten the alarm of every post-Soviet state from the Baltic to Armenia — in particular, states that seek partnership with Washington to defend their sovereignty and integrity (such as Azerbaijan), that face unremitting Russian pressures (such as Georgia and the Baltic states), or that are drifting into Russia’s orbit (such as Ukraine).

While U.S. interests dictate a robust dialogue with Moscow, the assumptions under which the present policy is being conducted — not to mention Moscow’s belief that Washington has given it a virtual carte blanche in Eurasia — indicate the need to rethink the reset.

— Stephen Blank is a professor of Russian-national-security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. 


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