'Reset' With Russia Has Complications

'Reset' With Russia Has Complications

By Cathy Young - April 9, 2009

Barack Obama's meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the G-20 summit in London has been hailed by many as a first step toward repairing the damage in the relationship between the United States and Russia, after several years of escalation toward a "new Cold War." Back in February, at an international security conference in Munich, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke of the need to "push the reset button" in U.S.-Russian relations. But many questions remain. "Reset" to what? In which areas can there be genuine cooperation? Can it exist without meaningful change in the Russian government?

Should we seek a "reset" to 1985 - the first meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and the beginning of the end of the real Cold War? The world today is a vastly different place in which the state Gorbachev headed no longer exists. Even the disarmament tango, which Obama and Medvedev have attempted to revive, no longer has its Cold War-era urgency because no one seriously believes that Russia and the United States could lob missiles at each other; nuclear anxieties today focus mostly on Iran, North Korea, or nukes in the hands of terrorists. Moreover, in 1985, the Soviet Union was on the threshold of reforms that would ultimately bring down the Communist system. The Russian government today is a neo-authoritarian regime that, so far, clings to power.

Or should the "reset button" take us to 1991, when a new democratic Russia was born from the Soviet Union's ruins, with aspirations toward full integration into the West and partnership with the United States? But Russia's political establishment of today sees that brief period of genuine Russian-American friendship as a moment when a weakened and humiliated Russia was reduced to being a mere lackey of the West, and of Uncle Sam in particular.

For most of this decade, Vladimir Putin's regime in Russia - and its continuation, the Putin-Medvedev "tandem" - has promoted the view that Russia's strength and national dignity lies in rivalry rather than partnership with the West. The Kremlin treats pro-Western governments and politicians in former Soviet republics as presumptively anti-Russian and tends to view any increase in Western and especially American influence in the region as a weakening of Russian power. (Russia's pressure on Kyrgyzstan to kick out a U.S. air base that plays a vital role in American operations in Afghanistan is a stark example of this zero-sum mentality.)

The Kremlin has also used virulent anti-American propaganda as a weapon of domestic political control. This propaganda machine remains intact. Just a few days before the Obama-Medvedev meeting, prominent pro-government talk show host Maksim Shevchenko told a radio audience that American forces in Afghanistan were "perfectly positioned to strike at our Urals, our Central Asia, our Southern Siberia." More recently, the state TV channel Rossiya aired charges that the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan was being used for spying on Russia.

Obama and Medvedev have discussed the possibility of U.S.-Russian cooperation on missile defense. That could be a productive area of partnership. But unless the Russian regime drops anti-Americanism from its political tool set, it will probably see a far greater advantage in portraying missile defense as a nefarious American plot against Russia.

There is also a widespread belief that a cooperative Russia could help solve the Iranian nuclear problem. Yet Russia's friendly relationship with Iran in the past few years has been rooted mainly in a common interest in riling Uncle Sam. If a U.S.-friendly Russia tried to pressure Iran to scuttle its nuclear program, it would likely have little if any leverage. The Russians could stop providing Iran with helpful the technology, but there are always alternatives, particularly with North Korea around.

American foreign policy "realists" argue that we focus on opportunities for economic and political cooperation instead of pushing Russia too hard on democracy and human rights. This is the view expressed in the recent report of the Commission on U.S. Policy toward Russia, a non-governmental group co-chaired by Sen. Chuck Hagel (Republican of Nebraska) and former Democratic Senator Gary Hart. Yet the report acknowledges that lack of genuine democracy in Russia makes a good relationship difficult even from a pragmatic point of view - for instance, because "Russia's lack of Western-style checks and balances weakens internal mechanisms for critical scrutiny of government decision making."

That's not the only complication. Due to the peculiar nature of Russian "democracy," Obama cannot be sure that his Russian counterpart is the real leader of the country rather than a junior partner if not a puppet of Prime Minister Putin. If Medvedev is a champion of liberalization, his influence so far remains very limited. In Moscow, the Russian courts seem well on their way to railroading former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a blatantly political case. In the southern town of Sochi, the authorities are confiscating the campaign materials of liberal mayoral candidate Boris Nemtsov and denying him access to the media.

One may debate whether "democracy promotion" in other countries should be a part of U.S. policy. But experience shows that in Russia, contempt for freedom and human rights goes hand in hand with confrontational attitudes toward the West. As the Obama administration seeks to improve its relationship with Moscow, it should remember this simple fact.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at

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