When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Munich in March she presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a gift intended to symbolize the Obama administration’s desire to “push the reset button” on U.S. relations with Moscow. Problem is, the lettering on the little red button said “overload” (peregruzka), not “reset” (perezagruzka). This high level gaffe is just about the perfect symbol for how Obama’s Russian relation relaunch has gone.
White House wordsmiths seem to also have forgotten that if you push the reset button, old software bugs get reloaded. When it comes to Russia’s visceral suspicion of America, that’s exactly what happened.
President Obama biggest non-symbolic mistake came when sacrificed his ace card, the Bush era missile defense plan against Iran, which was supposed to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic. Warsaw and Prague are still fuming about Washington’s lack of reliability, but in the new Obama foreign policy era, adversaries often get kid glove treatment while allies are taken for granted.
In the meantime, the Kremlin pocketed the concessions and asked for more. While Obama expected the Russians to reciprocate by getting on board the US Iran policy bandwagon, Russia’s leaders, from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin down, reiterated that they will not support robust sanctions against Teheran. Without strong sanctions, such as cutting off the gasoline supply, the mullahs will continue playing for time, a game-changing nuclear missile being their desired goal.
Russia can now just sit and wait until Iran intimidates and cows the US allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Importantly, Russia has never recognized Iranian proxies, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, as terrorist organizations. More tensions in the Middle East are better for business: Russia is a high cost producer, and as the largest oil and gas exporter and producer in the world, it benefits from high energy prices.
The Obama Administration also rushed into START treaty negotiations, which it is trying to sign before the treaty’s December 5 expiration date. The Administration should not pursue an overambitious arms control strategy and deadlines, but instead negotiate a verification and transparency protocol under an existing treaty.
Other issues on the bilateral agenda are even more difficult. Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Ukraine and Georgia two weeks after Obama’s trip to Moscow did little to reassure these two nations of America’s support of their NATO aspirations. Russia in the meantime is building five military bases in occupied Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the White House remains mum.
To be fair, the Administration also has had some achievements. It secured transit arrangements to ship supplies to our troops in Afghanistan via Russia and Central Asia, and managed to keep an air force resupply base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, in the heart of Central Asia. Yet, one should remember that the defeat of the Taliban is in Russia’s strategic interests, and similar arrangements took place even in World War II when the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was in charge.
Let’s hope that in the second year the Administration’s Russia apprenticeship will be over and US-Russian relations will bring more tangible results for the American people.