President Barack Obama’s Russia policy is defined by the Administration’s view that America is overstretched globally, and that without assistance from a major power, such as Russia or China, Washington cannot achieve its goals. Some in the Administration believe that America is in decline and their job is to manage it. The policy of “outstretched hand” toward Russia (as well as other unfriendly powers) follows from this notion. So far, President Obama has failed to achieve any impressive results.
The Administration did not succeed in gaining Russian concessions on issues of U.S. top priority, such as Russian support of Iran sanctions, START negotiations and U.S. missile defense in Europe. In addition, the implementation of a tentative agreement with Moscow to support NATO and the United States on Afghanistan expeditionary force resupply is excruciatingly slow.
The Obama White House and State Department are very shy when it comes to Russian designs against Georgia, relations with Ukraine, pipeline politics in Eurasia, violations of human rights, and the rule of law. While some senior officials recognize the importance of these topics, others view them as irritants.
Russian officials told this blogger that the Obama Administration listens better [than that of George W. Bush], but “did not offer anything substantive.” Others compared Obama with Gorbachev – in terms of presiding over a great power in decline and referring to his naïveté. A senior Russian official half-jokingly said the U.S. concessions were “birthday presents for President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin.”
Sure, the Kremlin will pocket the U.S. concessions and ask for more. It was blatantly clear to this blogger as early as September 2009, (after spending ten days with the leading Russian foreign policy experts), that the Obama Administration did not – and will not — receive any quid-pro-quo for the significant concessions it provided to Russia as a part of its “reset button” policy.
Another systemic problem Obama faced in Russia is the duopoly of power. Obama spent many hours talking to Medvedev, whereas the real decision making lies with Putin. Talking to the wrong guy is a bad negotiating strategy.
Let’s examine the track record of Obama’s Russia policy. The mis-labled “reset button” (mistranslated as “overload” by someone at State) said it all. The decision to abandon a permanent ballistic missile defense (“the third site”) in Poland and Czech Republic was aimed to placate Russia and gain its support for UN sanctions against Iran. Instead, that decision signaled U.S. weakness and encouraged Russian intransigence. It failed to generate Moscow’s good will or support in the UN Security Council on robust sanctions against Teheran.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations were hailed as the centerpiece of U.S. Russia policy, but they are stuck in the muck. The Obama administration has failed to complete the negotiation of the START follow-on treaty by Dec. 5. The two superpowers are now in unchartered waters. The Russians already kicked-out U.S. inspectors, thus scrapping a key provision of the now-dead treaty.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin upped the ante, linking U.S. missile defenses with the treaty signature. Speaking in Vladivostok later that week, Mr. Putin warned against U.S. “aggressiveness” and disruption of the nuclear balance in case the Obama administration deploys missile defenses. The United States rejected such linkage. But Putin will not relent: he now demands to terminate poultry imports from the United States, despite the fact that it will boost the price of chicken in every pot in Mother Russia.
The Obama Administration misplaced its hopes on Russian assistance with U.S. efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear program. However, a review of Russian policy on Iran since the mid-1990s under Presidents Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev demonstrates that Russia’s interests in Iran fundamentally diverge from the U.S. agenda.
Powerful Russian special interests — security, nuclear, oil and gas, and the military-industrial complex — are vehemently opposed to any significant reversal of Russian policy toward Iran. Therefore, it is naïve, if not dangerous, to hope that Moscow will provide decisive assistance in the U.N. Security Council or bilaterally vis-à-vis Iran. The Obama Administration and Congress should recognize this inconvenient truth.
The Administration ignored Russia’s growing military deployment in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and it indefinitely delayed a push for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. Obama also downgraded relations with Ukraine and Georgia. He sent Vice President Joe Biden to Kyiv and Tbilisi two weeks after Obama’a trip to Moscow. This diluted a key message which Washington consistently beamed at Moscow since the Clinton Administration: that Russia should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors.
It is too expansive to have a U.S. president learning on the job. Misreading Russia’s great power agenda, overestimation of one’s own negotiating capabilities, misplaced and idealistic faith in the merits of arms control, and dialogue at all costs all this brought Barack Obama’s Russia policy into dangerous shoals. One hopes that the President will learn his lessons and that his second year in office will benefit the United States in the Administration’s dealings with Putin & Co.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at the Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Policy at The Heritage Foundation.