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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Resetting the ‘Russian reset’

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks during Navy Day celebrations in the Baltic Sea port of Baltiisk, Russia, Sunday, July 31, 2011. Photo: AP/RIA Novosti, Vladimir Rodionov, Presidential Press Service

There is a growing movement in right-wing foreign policy circles to resurrect Russia as America’s biggest rival. Last Tuesday, Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Times that describes some intemperate remarks by Russian officials as “Soviet-like.” Cohen is only the most recent to sound the alarm over Russia’s not-always-warm relations with the U.S. — the drumbeat of anti-Russian commentary began in the aftermath of Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, and has only grown more strident ever since.

The concern over Russia has a legitimate basis. Well before the war with Georgia, President Bush lamented a “growing rift” with Russia over issues like democratization and missile defense. Moscow has made some astoundingly poor decisions, like a bombing campaign in Georgia that may have targeted the American embassy, or the mysterious death of corporate lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The government of Russia can behave erratically, and is often unpredictably hostile.

However, Russia has also shown itself to be a valuable partner in recent years. They recently reversed their position on Libya, choosing to side with NATO in calling for the removal of Gaddhafi from Tripoli. This week, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev issued harsh words for Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad. While his remarks stopped short of calling for regime change, and while Russia joined China in stonewalling what they felt was another Libya-style intervention, the public reversal of support for Damascus is still significant.

Painting Russia only as the enemy, then, misrepresents what it really is: a large, complex and ascendant power seeking to flex its muscles.  That is why, when the Department of State blacklisted some 64 Russian officials over the Magnitsky case, Russia responded by blacklisting several dozen Americans as well. It is why Russia, like Georgia, hires expensive U.S. lobbying firms to push its case in domestic news and policy circles. Russia plays both good cop and bad cop, and can be both accommodating and antagonistic depending on its own self interests.

In a lot of ways, Russia’s foreign policy is just as confusing and aggravating as America’s. In his aforementioned Op-Ed, Cohen’s lodges  a complaint against Dmitry Rogozin, the irascible Russian diplomat, known for his intemperate remarks and alliances with unsavory regimes. At the same time, the United States also sent a famously irascible diplomat, John Bolton, also known for intemperate remarks, to the U.N. And the U.S. government maintains its alliances with abusive and dangerous governments in Riyadh, Islamabad and elsewhere. And lest we forget, the U.S. actually threatened the government of Italy last year when an Italian court chose to prosecute two dozen CIA agents over a botched extraordinary rendition.

In other words, there is a great deal of similarity in how Russia and the United States conduct themselves abroad, which is probably why the two governments get so annoyed with each other. We see in Russia’s actions what we like the least in our own, and thus find it easy to identify and judge.

Yet, President Obama made an enormous mistake when he chose to “reset” American relations with Russia. In doing so he discarded all the progress President Bush made with President Putin to advance U.S.-Russian relations, which is shortsighted and mistaken. In a 2000 article for Foreign Affairs, future National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice wrote that “The United States needs to recognize that Russia is a great power, and that we will always have interests that conflict as well as coincide.” Eight years later, she wrote another article in FA that argued the U.S.-Russian relationship is “complex and characterized simultaneously by competition and cooperation.”

Despite his infamous remark about looking into Putin’s soul, President Bush was neither a starry-eyed idealist nor a blustering antagonist when it came to Russia. The 2005 Bratislava Initiatives established U.S.-Russian collaboration on a wide range of security and economic issues. Yet, in 2008, President Bush was unequivocal in his condemnation of Russia’s illegal occupation of Georgia.

While the give-and-take relationship between the U.S. and Russia has continued into President Obama’s term, the language to describe it has not. Like any two militarily and economically ambitious countries, America and Russia agree on some things and disagree on others. The U.S. actively sided against Russia in its 2008 invasion of Georgia, for example, and Russia continues to treat Americans in Georgia in a very unfriendly way. This is normal great power politics, and shouldn’t be the cause of such apocalyptic language in the commentariat.

At the same time, Russia is not above acting thuggishly both within and outside their own borders — as evidenced by their obsession with murdering  dissidents or their insistence on punishing smaller states that dare to disagree with them. Russia’s record is fraught with inexplicably hostile decisions, like its constant harassment of Ukraine over energy prices, or its decision to occupy Georgian cities after removing the Georgian invaders of South Ossetia, or even its reticence to investigate the many faceless murderers of Russia’s dissident writers and politicians.

However, these transgressions don’t make this country the enemy. Condoleeza Rice was onto something when she wrote that our relationship is a complex one, with agreements and disagreements. Despite President Obama’s unfortunate phrasing, the “reset,” seen as a call for closer cooperation, is not undone by those disagreements. Rather, it makes overcoming them all the more important.

We would do well to tone down the overheated rhetoric regarding Russia. Just as the left seems to think cooperation automatically precludes disagreement, the right seems to think competition is synonymous with conflict. Both are wrong.


  • Paul Mullan

    Me and my right wing self belief are very long time Russia’s
    returning to its Soviet ways I’m not nearly as well read as you are and in the
    weeds with it which obviously puts me at a disadvantage but I truly believe
    this goes well beyond just the past years and much of it comes from Russia
    itself not just Americans projecting, I would much prefer if Russia continued
    its push towards a democratic state but that obviously is not going to happen
    the likes of Putin

    I think my comments make it clear without a”full disclosure”  statement that I think the leadership of Russia
    wants to return to the actual Soviet Union.