America’s Russia Problem

August 19, 2013

On a recent Sunday talk show, New York Times columnist David Brooks giddily cheered America’s “smack down” of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  It is understandable that, after reaching out to Mr. Putin in his first term, President Obama sent a stern message of disappointment that Russia granted NSA leaker Edward Snowden temporary asylum.  However, the cancelation of the upcoming presidential meeting represents a fundamental breakdown in one of America’s most vital strategic relationships – and plays right into Mr. Putin’s hands.

Russia has, in the past two decades, made major gains when it worked closely with the West – for example, by being cooperative on NATO enlargement, Russia gained G-8 membership when it did not merit it based on its economic standing at the time. To his credit, President Obama pursued a “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations, and Mr. Putin failed to use this opening as an opportunity to advance his country’s position.

Over the longer term, however, the United States has consistently removed incentives for Russia to cooperate.  Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has sought to dictate the Russia’s own interests to them, while expanding NATO into Russia’s
“near abroad”  and embraced missile defense systems that Russia sees as  undermining its security.  To be clear, this view is mistaken, but we must realize that they hold this view, if we are to understand the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Russia today feels that the United States has betrayed the trust that helped to end the Cold War. In the last days of the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan embraced realist restraint, signaling to Mikhail Gorbachev that America would not take advantage of his country’s weakness and would reward reform.  Similarly, George H.W. Bush skillfully applied realist restraint as he brought a united Germany into NATO, but did not seek to enlarge NATO further.  President Reagan negotiated deep cuts in European nuclear weapons and George H.W. Bush negotiated major cuts in strategic nuclear weapons and conventional forces.

President Bill Clinton, however, did not continue the realist approach that had worked so well. Rather, cheered on by liberal internationalists and neoconservatives alike, Clinton pushed further NATO enlargement and adopted a moralistic policy of using American power to spread democracy.  President Clinton used NATO to wage war against Yugoslavia after his representatives repeatedly told Russia that NATO was purely defensive and would not attack anyone.

President George W. Bush continued the push for NATO enlargement, even making a sweepingly unrealistic promise to eventually include Georgia and Ukraine.  President Bush then insisted on a ballistic missile defense plan based in Poland and the Czech Republic that was bound to provoke Russia. That such a system would not work from a technical standpoint appeared less important than showing the Russians that we could move freely in their backyard.  Rather than address Russian concerns about the impact of the technology on their confidence in nuclear deterrence (which included Russian suggestions they would respond with their own missile deployments to counter-balance American plans) former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Moscow’s rhetoric “pathetic,” and said Russia’s views “bordered on the bizarre.”  Yet it was the United States that was acting somewhat bizarrely, by pursuing unrealistic and unworkable policy goals that yielded only negative returns.

President Barack Obama has wisely resisted calls to further dilute NATO by adding additional members. Moreover, he has realigned the European missile defense to reflect actual threats and working technology.  These were important moves that reflected American interests.  The fact that they also benefited Russia was secondary – and that Putin failed to take advantage of these new openings is entirely his fault.  Still, the United States cannot afford to ignore the reality of how its policies have been viewed in Russia, and used by leaders in Moscow to stir nationalism, thereby consolidating their power.

Contrary to those who artificially assign to Russia a world power status, the U.S.-Russia relationship is not, in fact, a symmetrical one.  America is the only world superpower – Russia is a medium power with regional influence.  Its only claim to world power status is its nuclear arsenal and the safety of nuclear materials there – something we should be paying closer attention to.  On the regional level, however, Russia has a say over a wide range of issues that the U.S. requires their cooperation on: energy supplies in Europe, Iran sanctions, counter-terrorism, North Korean diplomacy, transit routes out of Afghanistan, and climate change.  On the other hand, there is little that Mr. Putin seems to need from us – aside from a further excuse to tighten his grip on the Russian people.

Senator John McCain says we must now “fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia,” while Senator Lindsey Graham says that we must now expand NATO membership to Georgia and restore previous plans on ballistic missile defense.  This hyperbolic reaction might make sense if the tables were turned and we were the weak one in the relationship.  We are not, and it is bewildering that Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham want to elevate Vladimir Putin into something more than he is or can be.  Russia is powerful regionally, however, and that gives Putin leverage over the United States.  Elevating his position even further only undermines America’s ability to pursue vital interests like deepening sanctions in Iran.

Having cancelled the Obama-Putin summit planned for next month, we have now transformed the U.S.-Russia relationship into one based on bravado and domestic political posturing.  How do we walk this back?  What happens when, as will eventually be the case, President Obama finds he needs Russian help on something major – like Iran’s nuclear program?  Does the president not pursue the national interest, remaining locked in political protest until Mr. Snowden is returned?  What happens if Russia says, “sure, we’ll give you Snowden back, but you have to do A, B, or C?”  And then, if President Obama seeks to rebuild the relationship with Putin in pursuit of important national objectives, has he now set himself up to be accused of appeasement?  Perhaps Obama thinks that if we just ignore the Russia problem, it will go away, and the Russians will just continue to accommodate us when we tell them to.  If that is the case, then realism suggests we are in for continued rude surprises.

So, who wins in this geopolitical “smack down,” to borrow a phrase from David Brooks?  It is hard to see how American interests are served. And isolating ourselves from high-level engagement cedes Russian public opinion to Mr. Putin.  It was clearly a mistake for Russia to grant Mr. Snowden temporary asylum.  However, for Putin, it was probably less about intelligence and more about showing that he could poke America in the eye and provoke a response, helping him to consolidate his position at home.  Worse, Putin might now have broader international appeal if he is seen as having stood up to what many around the world see as American double standards of lecturing others on freedom while keeping open Guantanamo Bay and embracing the means to conduct mass surveillance on its own people.

In cancelling the summit with Mr. Putin, President Obama did not show tough leadership.  Tough leadership would have meant explaining vital interests to the American public and explaining the benefits of freedom to the Russian public.  Russia is currently at risk of major self-imposed international isolation, for example, over its treatment of gays and lesbians, which borders on state-sponsored abuse.  For Obama to have stood next to Putin and articulated why the West benefits from inclusion, tolerance, and the embrace of liberty would have been a powerful moment of leading by example.  Instead, the president opted for a temporarily satisfying but ultimately unproductive “smack down.”  It is striking that, after 20 years of getting almost everything we wanted out of Russia while advising them not to make a peep about it, when it pushes back even a little, we pick up the ball and go home.  Instead of reflecting on what might be done to rebuild this relationship to advance our interests and our values in foreign policy, we opted for chest-thumping that accomplishes nothing.

Ironically, in a way, Senator McCain is right: we do need to fundamentally reassess our relationship with Russia – but not in the way he suggests. We have, in fact, done it McCain’s way for 20 years now, and it has been a failure.  While the United States continues to embrace a foreign policy driven by liberal interventionism and neoconservative triumphalism rather than realism, Russia is actually acting the way realists would expect.  As Stanford University’s Kori Schake writes:  “The reason President Obama’s Russia policy is on the rocks is that the White House pretends to be realist but acts like a liberal.  It hesitates to acknowledge the legitimacy of Russian interests, perseveres in policies that are not achieving results, and refrains from using power to deter or punish actions contrary to U.S. interests.  All the while it earnestly explains why what it wants is what Russia should do, when Moscow clearly believes that preventing Washington from achieving its aims is a central goal.”

America still needs to reset its relations with Russia – in a way that focuses on a realist approach to our interests vis-à-vis Moscow and how to achieve them.  Such an approach begins with the realization that opting not to talk to Russia at the highest level, as distasteful as Putin is, was a self-defeating mistake.


Sean Kay, Ph.D. is Director of the Arneson Institute for Practical Politics and Public Affairs, and also Robson Professor of Politics and International Studies Chair at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the author of Global Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace.