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.
If Russia had legitimate concerns about ethnic Russians in Ukraine, it could have taken them to the Security Council to see if they could be addressed there. Under the U.N. Charter, the Security Council has “primary responsibility” for maintaining international peace and security, and Russia is a permanent member with a veto. Russia chose instead to bypass the Security Council and act unilaterally.
Nor was this the first time. In 2008, Russia moved militarily against Georgia, citing as a pretext a need to protect ethnic Russians in two Georgian provinces. If Russia harbored serious concerns, as opposed to naked territorial ambitions as well as Putin’s personal loathing of then-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, the Security Council would have been the proper venue for raising them. (It’s now also necessary to see Georgia 2008 as a prologue to Ukraine 2014, not the aberration the Obama reset effectively treated it as.)
Everything Russia says about Ukraine has to be evaluated in the context of its unwillingness to present and discuss the matter even in a forum where it is a privileged member. And of course the Security Council voted 13-1, with China abstaining and Russia exercising its veto, on a resolution condemning the bogus referendum Russia staged as a pretext to annex Crimea.
Similarly, Russia deserves no quarter from the United States or its allies on Russian claims of hypocrisy. It’s true that the United States has taken military action without the explicit authorization of the Security Council. But the United States has always gone to the Security Council first, before taking action. The United States tried to get the ethnic cleansing and imminent slaughter in Kosovo addressed at the Security Council in 1998-99, but Russia balked. Only then did the United States and its allies take military action. There were numerous Security Council resolutions demanding Saddam Hussein’s compliance and threatening consequences in the runup to the 2003 war. But Russia did nothing to engage the Security Council on Ukraine before taking military action.
What is more, Russia now stands condemned over Crimea by numerous governments, such as in Germany and France, that opposed the U.S.-led military action against Iraq in 2003. Russia has acted on its own and has garnered no international support for its actions beyond a tiny number of autocratic governments beholden to it, whereas the condemnation of its actions has been widespread and consistent with international law.
The United States also needs to reassess the failure of the Security Council to address the civil war in Syria in light of Russia’s move into Crimea. It’s unclear whether the United States was ever serious about doing anything to protect Syrian civilians from Bashar al-Assad. But in blocking action at the Security Council, Russia was not acting out of the offense it took over the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi under cover of a Security Council resolution to protect Libyan civilians. Rather, Russia was using all means at its disposal to prop up its Syrian ally. The United States must not straitjacket itself in a forum Russia is using solely to advance a power-politics agenda.
We have no Russian partner in Syria. Putin’s intervention at the 11th hour with a proposal for Assad to give up his chemical weapons rather than suffer a U.S. military strike for using them on his people served to relieve the Obama administration of a burden it did not want to bear. But it also bound the United States, Russia, and Syria together as partners in a disarmament process. Russia understood the implications of this—freezing U.S. options in Syria while the disarmament process was under way—even if the United States did not. Under the circumstances, the United States must punish Assad militarily for any noncompliance with his chemical disarmament obligations, including noncompliance related to timetables.
We should also recognize that we have no Russian partner in Iran. In fact, the administration’s Iran policy is in serious trouble, not because Russia was ever going to be helpful enough to get Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program, but because Iran has seen what is happening in Ukraine, which returned its Soviet-era nuclear weapons to Russia in exchange for paper guarantees of security. Iran’s determined pursuit of a nuclear weapon is a position Putin likely respects.
Meanwhile, we have NATO allies to reassure about the seriousness of our commitment to their defense and two decades’ worth of rhetoric and policy in pursuit of “Europe whole, free and at peace” to uphold against what has become a serious Russian challenge. Sen. Richard Lugar once said that in the post-Cold War era, NATO would either go “out of area or out of business.” Now it’s time for NATO to get back to basics and back in business.
Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.