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‘The Russians Are in This for the Long Run’

Talking to Angela E. Stent about her new book on U.S. Russian relations.

1:15 PM, Feb 27, 2014 • By LEE SMITH
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The Clinton reset was much more ambitious, based on the overly optimistic belief that Russia could be transformed in a very short period. This reset included work not only on the nuclear issue, but also democracy assistance programs, and the economy as well, with support for economic liberalizers, as well a push for a rapid transition to a market economy—what came to be called “shock therapy.” That reset ended poorly for foreign policy reasons, especially regarding the war in Kosovo—Russia supported NATO actions in Bosnia, but not the bombing of Serbia.

The third reset was initiated by Putin, who initially appeared interested in integration with the West. The problem with this reset was that Putin hoped for an “equal partnership of unequals.” He wanted the respect he thought Russia deserved and for the United States to understand and accept Russia’s special interests in the post-Soviet space. This reset began to sour with the Iraq war, the Freedom Agenda, then the color revolutions, then NATO enlargement to the Baltic states, and it ended after Russia invaded Georgia.

The successes of Obama’s reset—like Russia’s acceding to tougher sanctions on Iran, and then maintaining the northern transport route to and from Afghanistan—were very much driven by personal relations between Obama and Medvedev. Even though people understood that Putin was wielding power behind the scenes, the hope was that Medvedev would become the de facto as well as the de jure head. When Putin announced he and Medvedev were switching jobs, then relations started to go down hill. Putin blamed Secretary Clinton for paying anti-Putin demonstrators, Congress passed legislation against Russia, and Moscow passed legislation preventing Americans from adopting Russian orphans.

There’s also the current disagreement over gay rights. Historically both the Soviets and the Russians have preferred to deal with Republicans, because they tend to focus on strategic relations rather than on domestic issues, like Gay rights today. Since the collapse of communism, the Orthodox Church has come back to fill an ideological and spiritual vacuum. If you look at public opinion, the majority supports Putin’s policies on Gays and Lesbians, which he’s made as part of his appeal, part of traditional Christian values, as well as traditional Muslim values. This is part of Russia’s bid to say we represent different values, an alternative model, and every bit good as the American model.

But regarding Putin and Obama’s relations, the low point, so far, is Putin’s granting asylum to Edward Snowden. And it’s a wonderful PR opportunity for Putin. With Snowden, he’s telling his domestic critics, you complain about us, but look at what the United States does to its citizens, and we are harboring someone who defends the rights of U.S. citizens. Also, he can say to the Europeans, look, your ally is spying on you.

What about Putin’s maneuvers in the Middle East? It seems like he’s playing to block the Obama White House, or worse diminish American influence in the region.

Regarding Iran, Russia has an interest in talks over the nuclear weapons program succeeding, since that would increase its economic ties with Iran. The other thing is that if there’s an agreement with Iran, the Russians can say, why does Washington need missile defense deployments in Russia’s neighborhood? Washington says they’re to defend against an Iranian or North Korean attack, but the Russians focus on deployments around them. Their point is, if there’s a deal with Tehran and therefore Iran isn’t a threat, then why are their missile deployments in Europe?

Then there’s Syria. The Russians want strong secular regimes in the Middle East, partly because of their own problems with their restive Moslem population. They have argued all along that the Syrian opposition is dominated by extremist elements, and they are concerned about what happens if Assad goes, so they’ve blocked even humanitarian efforts to relieve suffering. They’re fixated on stability and strong leaders and preventing the rise of Sunni extremists. For them the Sunnis are the problem, not Shiite Islamists like Hezbollah, because most Muslims in Russia are Sunnis not Shiites.

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