Reset’s Road Test

The Obama administration’s "reset" policy towards Russia is in full swing with today’s visit to Washington by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. It is a repudiation of what Obama foreign policy hands dub the Great Game mentality of recent U.S.-Russia relations, but it is also an echo of an early Clinton administration debate on Russia policy. ...

Martin H. Simon/Pool/Getty Images
Martin H. Simon/Pool/Getty Images
Martin H. Simon/Pool/Getty Images

The Obama administration's "reset" policy towards Russia is in full swing with today's visit to Washington by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. It is a repudiation of what Obama foreign policy hands dub the Great Game mentality of recent U.S.-Russia relations, but it is also an echo of an early Clinton administration debate on Russia policy.

In those days, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott's belief was that Boris Yeltsin's Russia was ripe for western-style reform -- democracy, an open market, and so on -- and that the United States should do everything possible to make sure that that transformation took place. Talbott's critics derided his strategy as "Russia First," saying it left former Soviet colonies such as Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan badly exposed. In the end, Talbott changed his mind, and the Clinton administration launched into a full embrace of the eight republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

With the current reset, Talbott's original ideas get the road test that they never really had. But it won't be an easy one. The current flare-up in Kyrgyzstan is a case in point.

The Obama administration’s "reset" policy towards Russia is in full swing with today’s visit to Washington by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. It is a repudiation of what Obama foreign policy hands dub the Great Game mentality of recent U.S.-Russia relations, but it is also an echo of an early Clinton administration debate on Russia policy.

In those days, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott’s belief was that Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was ripe for western-style reform — democracy, an open market, and so on — and that the United States should do everything possible to make sure that that transformation took place. Talbott’s critics derided his strategy as "Russia First," saying it left former Soviet colonies such as Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan badly exposed. In the end, Talbott changed his mind, and the Clinton administration launched into a full embrace of the eight republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

With the current reset, Talbott’s original ideas get the road test that they never really had. But it won’t be an easy one. The current flare-up in Kyrgyzstan is a case in point.

About two weeks ago, hundreds of people, mostly Uzbeks, were killed in inter-ethnic attacks in southern Kyrgyzstan, which the government blames on ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva, asserting that Kyrgyz troops aren’t capable of controlling the upheaval, pleaded for foreign peacekeepers — first for U.S. troops, then Russian troops. Both requests were unsuccessful. Now she is asking for a police force organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Throughout, the Obama administration has said that it has been in intense discussions with both Russia and the Kyrgyz government about resolving Kyrgyzstan’s crisis. Today, President Barack Obama said the U.S. and Russia are coordinating humanitarian aid to the country. But in the meantime, no one has managed to organize a deployment of even a few hundred international military observers or peacekeepers, such as the eastern Europeans who were dispatched by the OSCE to help keep the peace in Azerbaijan’s disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region during the 1990s.

In the Moscow Times, James Lough argues that reactions to the Kyrgyzstan conflict may reflect an acknowledgement of a division of labor in the region: From the Russian side, an acceptance of the U.S.-controlled Manas Air Base; from the U.S. side, respect for Russian leadership’s ability to resolve key issues.

But in the Caucasus and Central Asia, it’s seen by some nervous officials and experts as relegation of the region to a vacuum into which Russia is stepping after a decade and a half of Washington’s East-West strategy. They say the United States now has no tangible policy in the region. "Georgia can’t be part of a grand western strategy, because there is no grand western strategy," said Ghia Nodia, a Georgian professor and political analyst whom I’ve known for more than 15 years, who was speaking at a conference today on the Caspian Sea region at the Center for Security and International Studies in Washington. "Georgia needs to rely on itself for its security."

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

More from Foreign Policy

A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Great Leap Backward

Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.

A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.
A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.

Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores

“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.

The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.