Shadow Government

After the Reset Button questions linger

Supporters of the Obama administration’s "reset" policy toward Russia tout the New START Treaty, Russian support for sanctions against Iran, transit for Afghanistan across Russian territory, and cooperation in dealing with North Korea and non-proliferation more broadly as the fruits of its success. National Security Advisor Jim Jones cites the reset as one of the ...

YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Supporters of the Obama administration’s "reset" policy toward Russia tout the New START Treaty, Russian support for sanctions against Iran, transit for Afghanistan across Russian territory, and cooperation in dealing with North Korea and non-proliferation more broadly as the fruits of its success. National Security Advisor Jim Jones cites the reset as one of the main successes in the administration’s foreign policy (that, to some, says a lot about its overall foreign policy). There is no denying the vastly improved tone and rapport between the American and Russian presidents compared to the end of the Bush-Putin days. But before people get too carried away, let’s focus on two recent developments that remind us of the challenges we face in dealing with Russia. 

On May 31, Russian authorities brutally broke up opposition protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg and arrested more than 100 people. A journalist participating in the protest suffered a severely broken arm at the hands of the police. The U.S. National Security Council spokesman issued a statement expressing "regret" at the detention of peaceful protestors ("condemn" would have been a more appropriate verb — we "regret," for example, the recent death of Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky). While violent suppression of demonstrations is nothing new for Russian authorities, what makes this latest example noteworthy is that it happened just days after an American delegation went to Russia for the second round of the Civil Society Working Group co-chaired by NSC Senior Director Mike McFaul and Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration Vladislav Surkov. 

When this working group was first announced last July during President Obama’s visit to Moscow, I argued that having Surkov as the chair was comparable to putting Chechnya’s brutal leader Ramzan Kadyrov in charge of a working group on stabilizing the North Caucasus. The choice of Surkov, the brains behind "sovereign democracy" (the concept that justifies the regime’s crackdown on political opponents) was widely condemned by Russian human rights activists who wrote to Medvedev urging that he be removed from this working group.  The U.S. side argued that it had no veto authority over the choice of Russian co-chairs of the various bilateral working groups, but in this case, it would have been better to have nixed the civil society working group than to have had Surkov leading it. 

Late last month, in their second meeting with their Russian counterparts, the American side visited a prison in Vladimir, 100 miles east of Moscow. McFaul has a long and distinguished career devoted to promoting democracy and human rights and raised concerns beyond Russia’s prison system with his Russian counterparts. But according to TIME magazine, the Russians weren’t interested in a real dialogue on human rights issues.  The Kremlin’s human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, as quoted in TIME, said, "Haven’t you noticed? We’re gradually turning into allies. … Since there was no criticism towards us, we didn’t criticize them." Days after the Americans left Russia having concluded the second meeting of the civil society working group, security goons cracked the heads of those protesting against the regime. As an editorial in today’s Washington Post noted, there are other reasons to be concerned about the internal situation in Russia as well. 

The second development worth keeping an eye on is the Russia-Iran relationship. As Bob Kagan argued in the Washington Post two weeks ago, the administration has oversold Russia’s support for a very watered-down sanctions resolution against Iran. Three times before during the Bush administration, Russia supported equally feckless resolutions.  Meanwhile, just this week, Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s state nuclear entity, affirmed that the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor will come on line this summer and will be run as a joint Russian-Iranian venture. 

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in Istanbul for a regional summit, reaffirmed the timetable for Bushehr and said before today’s vote at the U.N., "I hold the opinion that this resolution should not be excessive, should not put Iran’s leadership or the Iranian people in a tricky situation that creates barriers in the way of developing Iran’s peaceful nuclear energy." And the resolution itself has a grandfather clause that would permit Russia’s transfer of advanced S-300 missiles to Iran, a deal the Russian government has refused to rule out but which could also start a war, as Israel may be tempted to attack Iran before those missiles would become operational. Putin also planned to meet with Iranian leader Ahmadinejad while in Istanbul.   

Such language and action from Putin  — along with votes against the resolution in New York from Brazil and Turkey — undermine the united international position the Obama administration hoped to present Iran. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev will be in Washington in two weeks to meet with President Obama.  Growing concerns about these two issues — the deteriorating human rights situation inside Russia and Russia’s relationship with Iran — to say nothing of Russian arms sales to countries like Syria and Venezuela, should temper any celebratory mood during Medvedev’s visit.   

David J. Kramer is a senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Green School of International and Public Affairs and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.

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