An expert's point of view on a current event.

Putin’s Got America Right Where He Wants It

And that's bad news for Obama.


Last week's G-20 summit was the first time U.S. President Barack Obama had seen his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, since 2009. An account of their long, loveless meeting on the sidelines of the conference, along with photographs of their unhappy tête-a-tête, was splashed on the front page of the New York Times. The real story belonged in the obituary section: The "reset," Obama's attempt to mend relations with Putin's Russia, is dead. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killed it.

Last week’s G-20 summit was the first time U.S. President Barack Obama had seen his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, since 2009. An account of their long, loveless meeting on the sidelines of the conference, along with photographs of their unhappy tête-a-tête, was splashed on the front page of the New York Times. The real story belonged in the obituary section: The "reset," Obama’s attempt to mend relations with Putin’s Russia, is dead. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killed it.

But the two countries’ fundamental disagreement about what to do about Assad, the dictator whose bloody attempts to suppress a popular revolt has resulted in the deaths of 14,000 Syrians, was only the last straw for a policy that has been on life support since its inception. On a vast array of issues — ranging from human rights to Iran to the territorial integrity of the post-Soviet states — Russian behavior has consistently been a thorn in the side of the United States and its allies. The reset only provided Obama with a justification to cover his retreat in the face of Russia’s advance.

Let’s start with Syria, where Moscow has vetoed two attempts to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime. In the case of the May 25 Houla massacre, where over 100 civilians were murdered in cold blood, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that "both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people." This injected moral equivalence where none existed, since U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said that pro-regime shabbiha militias were likely responsible.

And yet, the Obama administration continues to try to woo the Kremlin. The White House’s latest dead-letter hope is that a "Yemen model" of political transition in Syria, referring to the negotiated departure of former Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, might find favor in the Kremlin. It will not. The Kremlin is joined at the hip with the Assad regime: Lavrov, for instance, told Ekho Moskvy radio last week that asking Assad to step down is "infeasible" because the latter simply will not do so.

Perversely, while Putin blames foreign actors for undermining special envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan by facilitating the Syrian opposition, his state-owned arms dealer Rosoboronexport has continued to run weaponry to Assad. Most recently, it attempted to ship MiG-25 attack helicopters to Syria — the transport vessel was turned around in the North Sea only after London, acting at Washington’s request, got the vessel’s British insurer to revoke its insurance. Instead of expressing embarrassment, Lavrov blamed the "unreliability of the British insurance system." Meanwhile, the Moscow-based think tank CAST anticipates that, in addition to those repaired copters, Russia will also eventually deliver MiG-29 fighter jets and even more advanced air-defense systems to Syria.

The hard truth is that the reset was doomed from the beginning by Russia’s increasingly autocratic political system. The White House’s outreach was founded on two phantom premises — first, that former President Dmitry Medvedev was actually running the country rather than keeping the seat warm for Putin; and second, that Medvedev was the liberal modernizer that he claimed to be.

The men and women who have paid the price for Obama’s gullibility on these points are the beaten-down Russian dissidents, whose fate used to matter to the United States. Even as they have begun the hard work of constructing a domestic opposition movement, they have been denied even token support by the White House. "I can’t name any real changes in [U.S.] policy that were good for democracy and human rights in Russia over the past several years," Oleg Kozlovsky, a veteran activist with the anti-Kremlin Solidarity movement, told me.

"We have been hit heavily in the last couple of months with brutal detentions during protests, arrests, and searches and would have liked a firm reaction from the U.S.," said anti-corruption activist Natalia Pelevine. "We have not seen it. This is especially humorous in view of the much-promoted idea in Russia that the opposition is paid by the U.S. State Department."

Even the architect of the reset policy has learned the hard way how the Kremlin deals with the mildest criticism. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, in a recent interview with Foreign Policy, expressed shock at how badly he’s been harangued since his arrival in Moscow. "What I did not anticipate, honestly was the … relentless anti-Americanism that we’re seeing right now," he said.

McFaul seemed confused by the personal attacks: State television labeled him an agent provocateur set on fomenting a revolution in Russia, while a pro-Kremlin youth group compared him to a convicted child molester. He shouldn’t have been. His predecessor, John Beyrle, vividly documented the scale and the intensity of state-directed anti-Americanism that he experienced as America’s man in Moscow in a WikiLeaked cable written in November 2009, only a few months after the reset took hold. Although bilateral relations had improved, Beyrle wrote, a "cold war mentality" persisted in the minds of Russia’s siloviki, the heads of the elite security and intelligence establishments. They are "ideologically and materially" threatened by the reset and have convinced themselves that the West is guilty of fomenting democratic regime change in Russia’s neighbors.

In this atmosphere, is it really possible to pursue a genuine rapprochement? Beyrle warned of what McFaul now professes to find so remarkable: The FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, harasses U.S. Embassy personnel, the ex-ambassador wrote, slanders them in state-controlled media outlets and — more insidiously — traumatizes their spouses by suggesting that they have met with accidental deaths. U.S. government employees’ homes were also routinely invaded and searched.

It might have been possible to justify a Faustian deal with Putin if the Russian leader had delivered on one of the most important international efforts of the day — orchestrating international pressure on Iran to convince the mullahs to abandon their nuclear weapons program. In fact, Russia used its American-dealt hand on this issue to play a clever game of offering minimal concessions in exchange for maximum benefit.

Although Putin has helped build Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr and offered repeatedly to enrich its uranium in Russia, reset champions will say that securing his backing of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, which imposed new sanctions on the Islamic Republic and banned the sale of certain weaponry to it, was an indicator of his sincere commitment to ensure that the mullahs never get the bomb.

Yet the price of getting Russia and China on board meant that the resolution was watered down and never included a full arms embargo. The expert panel set up to keep track of the sanctions, moreover, is not allowed to publish its reports, a precondition Moscow negotiated that effectively hobbles the U.N. enforcement mechanism.

Russian obstructionism should come as little surprise, as the status quo of minimal sanctions and persistent international tensions over the Iranian nuclear problem keeps oil prices high  — an economic boon for Moscow. And as European banks end their dealings with Tehran, little-known institutions such as the First Czech-Russian Bank have done a brisk trade, charging more than six percent per transaction.

Moscow has also served as Iran’s arms dealer — selling more than $5 billion in military equipment to Tehran in the past decade. Reset advocates declared victory in 2010 when the Kremlin cancelled its sale of S-300 anti-aircraft system to Tehran, which could be used to shoot down American or Israeli jets. By why would Putin ever would agree to sell such sophisticated missiles to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism in the first place? Because his preferred style is to create a minor problem, then solve it and take a disproportionately long bow.

This is even true when it comes to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) in Afghanistan. Since September 2009, NATO has been able to transport non-lethal supplies and equipment to Afghanistan through Russia. And since November 2011, when Pakistan closed the supply routes that ran through its territory — payback for a U.S. drone strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers that year — the NDN has grown even more crucial to the international war effort in Afghanistan.

But even Russia’s professed support for the NATO mission — a product of the Kremlin’s own self-interest — hasn’t stopped it from making life difficult for the United States. Key Central Asian states’ commitment to allowing the traffic to continue is in doubt — largely because of Russian pressure. One cause for the latest bout of Russian attacks on McFaul is that the put-upon ambassador made the mistake of telling the truth during a recent lecture: Russia, he said, had "bribed" the Kyrgyz government in an attempt to close the U.S. military base at Manas, through which critical materiel is flown into Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan’s pro-Russian president has furthermore demanded that the United States leave Manas when its lease expires in 2014.

If the Kremlin’s policies toward Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan suggest that it hasn’t abandoned its Cold War aspirations of competing for global influence with the West, its attempts to exert influence in what it considers its "near abroad" should shatter any doubts. Russia has treated with contempt its 2008 ceasefire agreement with Georgia, which was meant to conclude the summer war between the two countries. Despite a clear demand that Russian forces withdraw from Georgian territory, Russia has actually upped its military presence in the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Nevertheless, the United States pressured Tiblisi not to block Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

Such accommodation hasn’t helped rid Putin of the idea that Georgia belongs within Russia’s imperial demesne. As the Economist‘s Edward Lucas notes in his new book Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today, the GRU, Russian military intelligence, is tasked with waging destabilization operations in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia — not the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. For Putin, this is a domestic dispute, and the objectives are to weaken Georgia’s defenses, keep it out of NATO, counteract its pro-European tilt, and establish a Russian "fifth column" inside the country. According to Lucas, the GRU has been credibly linked by U.S. and Georgian intelligence to at least a dozen successful or abortive terrorist attacks in Georgia, including one near the U.S. Embassy and NATO liaison office in Tiblisi.

Even though Georgia’s accession to NATO is a remote prospect, that hasn’t stopped Russian officials from suggesting it would be willing to spark a global war to prevent such an eventuality. Just last month, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, Russia’s military chief of staff, said that Moscow might well resort to launching a "pre-emptive strike" on any NATO installation at Russia’s doorstep. Talk like that hasn’t been heard since before glasnost.

The Obama administration’s response to these provocations has been rank appeasement, framed as adherence to the reset. The White House’s campaign against the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act is the best-documented example of its ham-handed attempts at realpolitik. The act is named for a Russian attorney who was framed, arrested, and tortured to death — during the reset — for uncovering a $230 million tax fraud perpetrated by officials with ties to the Kremlin.

This legislation would not only impose travel bans and asset freezes against the 60 Russian officials implicated in Magnitsky case, but carries a universal clause that applies to gross human rights violators in any foreign country. This is why an ever-growing number of Russians supports the bill and Putin wholeheartedly opposes it. Remarkably, the White House sided with Putin.

The real letdown for Russians is that the attempt to quash the Magnitsky Act has revealed the true motivation of the reset. It wasn’t about improving bilateral relations — it was about flattering a mafia state into some measure of compromise, then kidding ourselves into thinking that the mafia state had changed its ways.

"The biggest problem of this administration’s policy was their attempt to separate different issues," Kozlovsky, the opposition activist, put it to me. "They said that you could cooperate on, say, nonproliferation and disagree on human rights, and it’s OK. It didn’t work because Moscow doesn’t think or act this way — and also because all these things are connected."

But perhaps this assessment of the reset is too harsh. It has, after all, resulted in one undisputed achievement — the disillusionment of the liberal intelligentsia, the one Russian group traditionally a stalwart American ally. Lilia Shevtsova, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center argued in a recent essay in the American Interest that today’s equivalent of the Soviet dissident isn’t looking to Washington for moral or intellectual support anymore. Shevtsova expanded on her thesis to me via email. The new orientation, she wrote, "is not anti-Americanism in its traditional form. This is criticism of connivance regarding the Kremlin and rejection of the normative dimension in dealing with Putin. This attitude is becoming very popular among the liberals."

In other words, the reset has achieved the worst of all possible outcomes: It has made a renewed enemy of Putin, and it’s alienated the best and brightest of our would-be allies too.

Michael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss. Twitter: @michaeldweiss

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