The Oil and the Glory

Reset, rethought

Some Russia specialists in the Obama Administration and leading think tanks are upset with Bush-era U.S. policy towards Moscow, and are trying to correct this misguided past. Case in point: “Reset,” the National Security Council-led Russian policy which has smoothed relations and produced some serious achievements, among them a new arms treaty (if it can ...

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

Some Russia specialists in the Obama Administration and leading think tanks are upset with Bush-era U.S. policy towards Moscow, and are trying to correct this misguided past. Case in point: “Reset,” the National Security Council-led Russian policy which has smoothed relations and produced some serious achievements, among them a new arms treaty (if it can survive Washington’s poisonous political atmosphere) and Russian realignment on Iran strategy.

I have differed with the Reset group when it comes to the Near Abroad, as the Russians prefer to call their former Soviet colonies. The main reason is its revised understanding of the history. Prior thinkers found grounds to push back at what they regarded as Russian excesses, but the Reset group rejects this as “Great Game” brinksmanship; Russia was somehow boxed into a corner, mislabeled, manhandled, and generally misunderstood.

What brings this to mind at the moment is a recent conference championing the Reset thinking at the Center for American Progress, which plays the same intellectual promotional role for the Obama Administration as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation did for Republican presidents. The conference was led by two active purveyors of this new thinking, Samuel Charap and Alexandros Petersen, the authors of a Foreign Affairs piece outlining their views.

Charap and Petersen say Central Asia and the Caucasus were treated as mere objects of U.S.-Russian rivalry over the last decade, and deplore the “New Great Game” as played by the Bush Administration. As a primary example, they cite “freedom and democracy” speeches by Dick Cheney in Vilnius and Almaty in 2006; these speeches, along with U.S. support for Georgia, angered Moscow. Moscow’s war with Georgia in 2008 was the climax to this Great Gamesmanship, the pair argues.

Conference moderator Fred Hiatt, editorial-page editor of the Washington Post, and William Courtney, former U.S. ambassador to both Georgia and Kazakhstan, used measured retorts, observations, and corrections to pull Charap and Petersen back from rash judgments about Russia’s trustworthiness and the notion of a republic-by-republic strategic assessment of the region. (In Foreign Policy last summer, Charap disputed critics who said Reset abandoned small neighbors like Georgia; not only was Georgia not being thrown under the bus, as critics charged, “there is no bus,” he wrote. At the CAP conference, however, his co-author Petersen explicitly suggested throwing both Georgia and Kyrgyzstan under the bus while seeking good relations with resource-rich nations Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.) At one point, Hiatt called the Charap-Petersen thesis “problematic” because it pretends that there is not a sizeable part of the Russian power structure that itself seeks Great Game, zero-sum power in the Near Abroad. Elsewhere, Hiatt objected to the implicit argument that the United States has no strategic interest in promoting democracy. Courtney, meanwhile, was troubled that the pair ignored Russia’s capacity to make trouble:

Let’s stand back. When this group chides prior foreign policy, and the old hands who related differently to Russia and perceive the country differently, what precisely is it angry about? When I was researching Putin’s Labyrinth in 2007 — the apex of this prickliness — I spent time talking to advisers to Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, and asked what most irritated them about Washington. There was the usual “You don’t respect us” and “We are surrounded” mantras that one has heard from Moscow since Ivan the Terrible, but also this specific laundry list:

1) You are threatening Russia by fomenting color revolutions, specifically in Ukraine;

2) You should not have bombed Serbia (that was Clinton, but gripe registered);

3) More specifically, you are coddling — and certainly should not recognize — Kosovo;

4) You should stop enlarging NATO.

So which of these policies would the Reset group handle differently? Presumably NATO expansion — there is a general consensus that absorbing Georgia and Ukraine was a bridge too far. But should the United States not have acted forcibly against Serbia, or in Kosovo? Should it not have recognized Kosovo? Washington did not foment nor execute the color revolutions, contrary to Russian conclusions, but should the United States not have applauded the uprisings and supported non-governmental groups in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine? In my view, the answer to these questions is no.

In other words, the United States acted on principle in all these cases, and in all of them did seek to explain its actions to Moscow. However, Putin would not be mollified.

Additionally, the Reset group says the rationale behind pipeline politics was over by 2000, and that the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors was assured. This is contrary to events – oil through the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which severed the Russian monopoly on oil exports from the region, began being loaded on tankers only in 2006; meanwhile, Russia was having serious friction with Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine.

The Reset group can remain upset that Russia became upset, but there simply isn’t much to it — those were, and to a strong underlying degree remain, the politics.

Reset has had its successes, but its weakness is in presuming that it is a self-contained policy. Instead, Reset is more definable as an attitude, as in, Hey guys, let’s try to get along, okay? But the same underlying frictions remain. Russia remains a largely “What’s in it for me?” nation that must receive a shoulder-and-ego massage in order to adopt sensible policies on arms sales to Iran. It sees no upside to reining in an officially sanctioned underworld that kills and beats senseless those with the temerity to challenge its impunity. And its idea of regional security is leaving teetering Kyrgyzstan to its own devices.

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