Rethinking Reset:: Re-Examining the Obama Administration Russia Policy

By Cohen, Ariel | Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, October 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Reset:: Re-Examining the Obama Administration Russia Policy


Cohen, Ariel, Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly


Dr. Ariel Cohen is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He presented these views as testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 7, 2011.

For the past two years, the Obama Administration has touted its Russia "reset policy" as one of its great diplomatic achievements. In March 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, with a red button symbolizing a new "reset" policy with the Russian Federation. Symbolically, as the result of incompetent translation, the inscription on the button read "overload" instead of "reset." Ever since, President Obama has spent an inordinate amount of time cultivating Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and making him his principal diplomatic interlocutor despite the fact that Medvedev is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's appointed protege, with no political base of his own. The grave error made in assessing who was in charge led to a chain of strategic miscalculations in relations with Moscow. While grooming Medvedev, the Administration agreed to cut U.S. strategic nuclear forces under the New START, abandoned the original program of missile defense deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, engaged Russia in futile missile defense talks, pursued a policy of geopolitical neglect in the former Soviet Union, and toned down criticism of the violation of political freedom in Russia. However, the reality remains that Medvedev has only limited capacity to deliver and looks increasingly unlikely to continue in office. Putin still is Russia's "national leader" and the real power behind and on the throne. Even with Medvedev as President, Russia is still willing to use force to achieve its geo- economic goals as well. Control of energy corridors from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea and beyond was an objective of the Russian military operation against Georgia in August 2008. This year, Gazprom opens the Nord Stream pipeline from Russia to Germany, with spurs to other European countries, increasing their dependence on Russian energy. This has been clearly confirmed by incidents over the last two decades involving delays in energy supplies to Azerbaijan, as well as the Baltic States, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Georgia, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine and other countries. From the American perspective, Russia's energy nationalism and continued collusion with anti-American regimes in Iran, Syria and Venezuela are troubling long-term geopolitical trends and should be sources of frustration in Washington. In the last two and a half years of "reset", despite the rhetoric about needed improvements in the rule of law, Russian whistleblowers died in jail or were severely beaten; Russian courts continued to sentence political opponents to lengthy prison terms for crimes they had not committed; peaceful demonstrators were beaten and incarcerated; and the state refused registration to democratic political parties. And things are likely to get worse. Based on the "reset" record, top White House and State Department officials now privately recognize that they bet on the wrong horse, as it is unlikely that Medvedev will wield any real power beyond the spring of 2012 even if he nominally remains in office. However, the Administration cannot publicly admit its mistake, as this would undermine the very notion of this over- personalized "reset" policy.

Obama's "Reset": Neglecting American Values and Interests

The "reset" announced by the Obama Administration in February 2009 was part of the White House's broader "new realism" in U.S. foreign policy, a bizarre hybrid that combined reluctance to defend human rights in Russia, China, and Iran with apologies for alleged "crimes" caused by American exceptionalism. The Administration revised down the scope of American priorities in Russia and Eurasia; de-facto allowing Russia to build what President Medvedev called "a zone of privileged interests" in the former Soviet Union, effectively denying these countries a democratic path of development and close relations with the Euro-Atlantic zone. …

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