Am I wrong on Obama’s Russia policy?

Article Highlights

  • Obama administration exaggerates accomplishments of its #Russia policy

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  • There is a disparity between rhetoric and the reality of US relationship with #Russia

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  • The current administration should not excuse the Kremlin's policies and accept them as 'more of the same'

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Over at Forbes, Mark Adomanis offers a critique of my recent NRO article “Why the GOP Candidates Should Talk about Russia.” He says he’s “genuinely unsure” what my “actual criticism is.” Allow me to clarify.

As much as I’d like to lay claim to a uniquely sophisticated argument that only an expert Russia watcher could possibly understand, it’s actually pretty straightforward: The Obama administration exaggerates the accomplishments of its Russia policy to offset a shortage of foreign-policy achievements in other areas. (I state this verbatim on several occasions in the article.) Basically, the piece was intended to highlight the disparity between the administration’s rhetoric and the reality of our relationship with, not Russia necessarily, but the current occupants of the Kremlin.

Adomanis seems to take issue with that. In response to my mention of the qualified nature of Moscow’s support for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, he explains that Russia doesn’t want to end up with a permanent NATO presence in Central Asia, which the Kremlin sees as part of its “sphere of influence.” Russia will offer “sufficient assistance to ensure the Taliban cannot win,” he says, but won’t help us transform Afghanistan into an “American satrapy,” especially after the U.S. “fomented ‘colored revolutions’ all throughout the post-Soviet space.”

More broadly, he accuses me of laying “a number of inconvenient and undesirable Russian policies at the feet of ‘the reset’ despite the fact that many of the policies in question actually predate the Obama administration.” I don’t really follow this. In my view, the fact that the Kremlin displayed similar intransigence during past U.S. administrations doesn’t mean that we should simply accept Russia’s current policies as more of the same. Such consistency doesn’t excuse Russian misconduct, which should preclude Moscow from being treated as a genuine partner.

There are two basic problems with Adomanis’s approach. First, he equates the perceptions and interests of the Kremlin with those of Russia as a whole. When he writes about “the Russians,” he’s really referring to Putin & Co. It isn’t average Russians who fear the consolidation of liberal democracy in neighboring countries, NATO’s presence in Central Asia, or the fall of the Assad regime in Syria; it’s Russia’s existing political elites. Adomanis accepts this. I don’t.

Second, he essentially says that when it comes to issues where the U.S. can’t effect immediate change — “internal politics” such as democracy and human rights, I imagine — it should keep its mouth shut. Apparently words don’t matter. For those skeptical about the importance of U.S. rhetorical support in Russia (and other authoritarian countries), I would encourage them to chat with activist Yevgeniya Chirikova or the mother of Sergei Magnitsky.

Finally, Adomanis concludes, “If the reset is replaced, as Vajdic suggests, by a more hectoring and confrontational policy, then relations will swiftly worsen.” I never said that the reset should be replaced. How, exactly, do you replace something that substantively doesn’t exist? With the exception of some very notable U.S. concessions, the reset is more fiction than fact. It’s a marketing gimmick intended to give the illusion of success where there’s been none. I think my article — and reality — make that more than clear.

Daniel Vajdic is a research assistant at AEI

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