It's time for a reset for U.S. policy toward Russia. The original Obama reset has now run its course, and President Vladimir Putin has thoroughly dashed all hope of Russia emerging as a partner of the United States and a constructive contributor to a liberal international order. The armed takeover and annexation of Crimea and the threat of further military incursion into eastern Ukraine have established beyond doubt that the United States needs to approach Russia first and foremost as a security challenge.
The Obama reset was, in my view, worth a try, whether one was optimistic about the prospects for Russia as a responsible member of the international community, as were most Obama administration officials, or pessimistic, as were most internationally minded Republicans. The reset really was as clear a test of Russian intentions as one could imagine. If, indeed, it was the case that relations between the United States and Russia had turned sour as a result of unnecessarily antagonistic Bush administration policy or rhetoric, the reset provided an opportunity to put hard feelings aside and get down to constructive business.
Another useful element of the reset was the educational effect it was going to have, one way or the other. Had it gone well, and had Russia become the partner the Obama administration wanted in coping with such pressing matters as Iran’s nuclear program, the reconstruction of the Balkans, and the war in Afghanistan, Republicans would have had to concede that maladroit diplomacy and the lingering (if diminishing) unilateralism of the Bush administration had indeed taken a toll. On the other hand, an unsuccessful reset would seem to require an admission from Democrats that the primary source of America’s troubles in the world was not Bush’s policies but the troubles of the world.
Well, Putin has cleared matters up for us rather decisively. Here is the remarkable assessment of my friend and Hoover Institution colleague Michael McFaul, who served in the Obama White House as one of the architects of the reset and subsequently as Obama’s ambassador to Moscow (a post he left just after the Sochi Olympics and before Putin’s takeover of Crimea):
I am very depressed today. For those of us, Russians and Americans alike, who have believed in the possibility of a strong, prosperous, democratic Russia fully integrated into the international system and as a close partner of the United States, Putin’s recent decisions represent a giant step backwards. Tragically, we are entering a new period with some important differences, but many similarities to the Cold War. The ideological struggle between autocracy and democracy is resurgent. Protection of European countries from Russian aggression is paramount again. Shoring up vulnerable states, including first and foremost Ukraine, must become a top priority again for the United States and Europe. And doing business with Russian companies will once again become politicized. Most tragically, in seeking to isolate the Russian regime, many Russians with no connection to the government will also suffer the effects of isolation. My only hope is that this dark period will not last as long as the last Cold War.
McFaul, who has been a tireless champion of democracy and liberal reform in the post-Cold War era, is right that, whether we like it or not, we are engaged in a strategic competition with Russia grounded in a contest of hard power. We have awakened to this fact as a result of Russia’s insertion of thousands of special forces in unmarked uniforms into Crimea at the same time we have been winding down our wars, diminishing our military footprint abroad, and severely reducing our defense budget. We must acknowledge that Russia has stolen a march into this new era, for which we were unprepared.
Much rethinking will be necessary in the weeks and months ahead. We could probably do worse than to start by reassessing Russia’s recent claims and grievances about the international system in light of Putin’s willingness to use force to redraw national borders and to do so in flagrant disregard of a century’s worth of treaty and customary international law on the conduct of military operations.
We should give no quarter to any Russian claims about the legitimacy of its annexation of Ukrainian territory. Russian officials like to talk about the supposed risk to ethnic Russians in Ukraine as a result of the ouster of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych, who had become Russia’s man and whose government opened fire on demonstrators in Kiev’s Maidan Square. It’s a mistake to engage Russia on the substance of these claims, for the simple reason that Russia proffered them in an entirely unserious fashion.