No More Resets With Russia
Washington should not talk itself into accepting Moscow’s aggression—again.
Most critics say U.S. President Donald Trump is too soft on Russia and unwilling to criticize it or Russian President Vladimir Putin—for example, on election interference, placing a bounty on the killing of U.S. soldiers, or continuing aggression in Ukraine. It is striking, therefore, to see a large number of experienced and respected U.S. foreign-policy experts criticize the administration’s approach to Russia as too hard-line, calling instead in an open letter for a “rethink” of U.S.-Russia policy.
The argument for rethinking Russia policy arises with surprising regularity. U.S. President George W. Bush took office in 2001 seeking to build a fresh relationship with the newly elected Putin, famously saying he got “a sense of his soul” during a meeting in Ljubljana, Slovenia. By the end of Bush’s tenure in January 2009, however, his understanding of Putin had changed. The year before, Putin had orchestrated a sham role-swap with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in order to stay in power. That came after a long list of other troubling activities, including, among other things, selling radars to Iraq as the United States was ramping up pressure on Saddam Hussein, recklessly murdering the Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in London, driving a wedge between NATO allies over missile defense, supporting Iran’s supposedly civilian nuclear program, and stopping implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. In August 2008, Russia invaded neighboring Georgia. In response, NATO suspended the NATO-Russia Council, which Russia had long stopped taking seriously anyway.
Despite that record, President Barack Obama came into office hoping for a “reset” with Russia, to the dismay of Georgia, whose territory remained occupied, as well as U.S. allies in the Baltic states, Poland, and the Czech Republic, who feared further Russian aggression. The administration’s decision on Sept. 17, 2009—the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939—to seek greater cooperation with Russia by rewriting U.S. missile defense plans further shocked Polish and Czech allies.
The result? By 2014, Russia had illegally seized Crimea from Ukraine, started a war in eastern Ukraine, and supported Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attacks on his own people. Moscow later fudged a pledge to oversee the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, increased spying on the United States, attempted a coup in Montenegro, buzzed U.S. naval ships with fighter aircraft, interfered in U.S. elections, and attempted to murder the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal with a chemical weapon in the United Kingdom. The Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia beginning in 2014. So much for a reset.
Like his predecessors, and despite Russia’s behavior, Trump has also sought to keep a hand outstretched to the country. Even at the risk of appearing to support accusations of collusion with Russia, Trump has attempted to convey that the United States is prepared for a better relationship if and when Russian behavior improves. But in contrast to its predecessors, the administration has also pushed back hard on Russia from the beginning—for example, through additional sanctions; lethal arms assistance to Ukraine; cuts to Russia’s diplomatic presence in the United States to reduce opportunities for Russian espionage; increased military exercises and training with Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltic states; calling out Russia’s violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and the forward-positioning of some U.S. forces in Poland and Romania.
But Russian behavior has still not changed. In 2020, Russia’s war in Ukraine continues. The country still occupies part of Georgia, has continued confrontations with the United States over Venezuela and Syria, reportedly paid the Taliban to kill American soldiers, and continues to try to interfere in elections in the United States and Europe. Domestically, Putin has cracked down on opposition and the media, and paved the way to extend his rule until at least 2036.
Against this history of Russian aggression and despite multiple attempts by U.S. administrations to work together, it is therefore stunning that, as the United States enters another presidential election, arguments are again surfacing for yet another reset with Russia, be it in a second Trump term or a first term for Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
The fundamental fallacy in such an argument is to believe that U.S. policies drive Putin’s actions. They don’t.
Authors of the open letter argue that we must deal with Russia “as it is.” Indeed we must. Russia “as it is” is an increasingly authoritarian state determined to act aggressively against its neighbors, extend its disruptive influence in the Middle East and Asia, and strategically weaken and divide Europe and NATO.
By the end of each of the last few U.S. administrations, the presidents became convinced that pushing back against Russia was essential. Rather than rethinking that stance at the start of a new presidential term, it is time to recognize that Russia is aggressive for its own reasons. Instead of a reset, the West needs the patience to apply consistent and steady pressure against Russian aggression, and to support those in Russia and in neighboring states who seek freedom, democracy, and security. For once, it is time for Russia, not the West, to rethink its policy.
Kurt Volker served as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations from July 2017 to September 2019. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2008 to 2009.