A Russian 'frenemy'


Russia's President Vladimir Putin listens during talks with France's President Francois Hollande in Moscow's Kremlin February 28, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • The White House is trying to revive the "reset" with Vladimir Putin's Russia. It is likely to be a wasted effort

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  • US & Russia have reached limits of accommodation

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  • Syria has been a stark demonstration of the diversion in guiding values and objectives between US & Russia

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The White House is trying to revive the "reset" with Vladimir Putin's Russia. It is likely to be a wasted effort. The reset is dead not because of someone's ill will or mistakes. It is because Washington and Moscow have reached the limit of accommodation that neither could overstep without compromising the central elements and moral content of their foreign and domestic policies. The Obama administration's effort would be far better spent on devising a more realistic strategy that at least stabilizes the relationship, albeit on a lower level of interaction.

Two sets of factors are mostly responsible for the growing disjunction between the United States and Russia: the diminution of Russia's geo-strategic relevance for some key U.S. objectives, and the increasing prominence and role that Kremlin domestic behavior plays in U.S.-Russian relations.

In Afghanistan, the rapid drawdown of U.S. troops obviates much of the need for personnel and materiel transportation through Russia after 2014. With regard to Iran, another key U.S. concern, Russia has unambiguously signaled the end of its support for even watered-down resolutions that it previously voted for at the U.N. Security Council.

Syria has been an even starker demonstration of the diversion in guiding values and objectives. Russia thrice vetoed U.S.-supported Security Council resolutions calling for sanctions against the murderous Assad regime. The last of the vetoes was cast in July, despite President Obama's appeal to President Putin in an hourlong telephone conversation. Throughout the conflict, Russia has continued to sell weapons and technology to Assad.

On Russia's domestic front, following Putin's reelection in March 2012, the Kremlin has undertaken a concerted and consistent effort to repress, intimidate, marginalize and stigmatize not just the political opposition but also citizens participating in peaceful protests and members of nonpolitical, independent civil movements and groups. Since the run-up to the Duma election in the second half of 2011, from Putin on down, the regime has been using alleged subversion by external enemies to justify the crackdown.

The heart of this campaign is anti-Americanism. "Moscow is entering a period when its domestic policies will have a greater impact on foreign policy than before," wrote Fyodor Lukyanov, one of Russia's preeminent independent foreign policy experts. "The anti-liberal spirit of domestic policy will almost inevitably dictate the necessity of counterpoising Russia to the U.S.A. as the symbol and foundation of the world liberal system."

After Putin accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of inciting the opposition's demonstrations in 2011, the widely watched NTV national television channel aired a series of "documentaries." One of them purported to depict the U.S. support for the protest movement, complete with the distribution of free "cookies and cash" from the U.S. State Department to the protesters. Another of these so-called documentaries portrayed the then-new U.S. ambassador, Michael McFaul, as an agent dispatched by the U.S. government to foment a "color revolution."

The anti-American campaign's highest (or lowest) point was during Putin's traditional end-of-year press conference. The Russian president, who had boycotted the G-8 summit at Camp David last May, portrayed the United States as a country that has "legalized torture" and that "does not react" to the "crimes committed against the adopted Russian children," even when these children are "beaten to death."

The increased bearing of Russia's domestic behavior on bilateral relations is epitomized by the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, passed by Congress in December. The law, which bars Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses and corruption from entering the United States and freezes their U.S. assets, is named for a Russian lawyer and whistle-blower who died in custody in Moscow in 2009. It became yet another major irritant in the bilateral relations. A month later, the U.S. pulled out of the bilateral working group on civil society within the "Obama-Medvedev" commission.

In this context, another strategic arms reduction, although consistent with Obama's ideological commitment to what he called "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," might prove too weak a reed to bear the entire weight of even a truncated reset. The price the Kremlin is almost certain to extract for signing off on the New START arms deal may well be incompatible with other U.S. objectives, such as missile defense and promotion of democracy.

There is, however, an alternative to unrealistic expectations. Let's call this option a strategic pause. Such entr'actes could provide the opportunity to define (or redefine) priorities in the relationship and the price each is prepared to pay for achieving these goals.

A pause does not mean no action. With respect to the most pressing and most divisive issues, the lines of communication with Moscow should to be kept open. We need to protect existing equity — that is, the areas where interests still coincide: continuing cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, the support in the supply of the residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and policy coordination in thwarting the threat of militant Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia.

Most important, such a pause should not be seen as an excuse for disengaging from Russia's burgeoning civil society, which appears to be increasingly able and willing to take on power at every level. The challenge for the U.S. is to find the middle ground between hubris — thinking we can shape and guide Russia's domestic evolution — and resignation — thinking we can't do anything "from the outside." From the presidential bully pulpit down to the bowels of the State Department, the message should be loud and clear: A free, democratic, stable and prosperous Russian state, at peace with its own people and the world, would be an immense geo-strategic boon to the United States, and America would be deeply gratified to welcome it as a friend and ally.

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About the Author


  • Leon Aron is Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of three books and over 300 articles and essays. Since 1999, he has written Russian Outlook, a quarterly essay on economic, political, social and cultural aspects of Russia’s post-Soviet transition, published by the Institute. He is the author of the first full-scale scholarly biography of Boris Yeltsin, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2000); Russia’s Revolution: Essays 1989-2006 (AEI Press, 2007); and, most recently, Roads to the Temple: Memory, Truth, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 (Yale University Press, 2012).

    Dr. Aron earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University, has taught a graduate seminar at Georgetown University, and was awarded the Peace Fellowship at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He has co-edited and contributed the opening chapter to The Emergence of Russian Foreign Policy, published by the U.S. Institute of Peace in 1994 and contributed an opening chapter to The New Russian Foreign Policy (Council on Foreign Relations, 1998).

    Dr. Aron has contributed numerous essays and articles to newspapers andmagazines, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, theWall Street Journal Foreign Policy, The NewRepublic, Weekly Standard, Commentary, New York Times Book Review, the TimesLiterary Supplement. A frequent guest of television and radio talkshows, he has commented on Russian affairs for, among others, 60 Minutes,The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Charlie Rose, CNN International,C-Span, and National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and “Talk of theNation.”

    From 1990 to 2004, he was a permanent discussant at the Voice of America’s radio and television show Gliadya iz Ameriki (“Looking from America”), which was broadcast to Russia every week.

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