December 7, 2011 | Commentary on Russia, United States Of America

The Only Way to Get U.S.-Russia Relations Back on Track

Is pushing the “reset” with Russia further is the only way to protect U.S. national interests? So claims a recent report on U.S.-Russia relations titled “Russia and U.S. National Interests: Why should Americans Care?” by Graham Allison, Robert D. Blackwill and Dimitri Simes.

The report advocates far-reaching compromises and warns about dangers of failure to secure an amiable relationship with Russia. The authors appear to suggest a continued policy of concessions to Russia to pile over President Obama’s failing “reset.”

These self-described foreign policy jeddis’ contributions to U.S. defense and security are commendable. 

However, they should listen to their Realpolitik peer, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who famously called Russia “an oligarchy run by security services.” He is seconded by Jose Grinda Gonzalez, Spain’s Special Prosecutor for Corruption and Organized Crime, who in a WikiLeaks cable called Russia a “mafia state” where “one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and OC [organized crime] groups.”

Russia’s leaders are determined to enrich themselves and eliminate any domestic political opposition. That’s why Mikhail Khodorkovsky rots in a labor camp, and why Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov were denied permission to run in next month’s Duma elections.

“No one denies that Russia is a dangerous, difficult, often disappointing state to do business with,” Allison et al. correctly state in their related Politico article. “We should not overlook its many human rights and legal failures.” However, their prescriptions suggest the opposite. They adopt a narrow definition of U.S. national interest while discounting the costs of the “reset.”
Their five “vital national interests” are: nuclear nonproliferation, stability in Europe and Asia with continued U.S. presence, counter-terrorist efforts, stability of energy supply, and international economic stability.

Any other considerations are declared secondary and worth sacrificing to achieve cooperation in these few areas. Forget human rights and democracy; forget assistance to U.S. friends and allies that neighbor Russia.

“U.S. government continues to have no alternative but to work with undemocratic governments when important national interests are at stake,” the report reads. While this was the case during the Cold War and beyond, this deliberately downplays traditional American values for the sake of “vital national interests.” This call sounds like the vintage Nixonian Realpolitik and smacks of the Vietnam-era decline-ism.

Prominent American politicians beg to differ with Allison and his co-authors, however. In his recent Washington Post’s Right Turn interview, Mitt Romney warned that Vladimir Putin dreams of “rebuilding the Russian empire”, excoriated the use of energy as a geopolitical weapon, questioned the wisdom of letting Moscow into WTO if it “intends to cheat”, and called for a “show of strength.”

In a recent speech at The Heritage Foundation, House Speaker John Boehner hit the nail on the head: “I’ve read that the second phase of the Reset…will deal with democracy and human rights… [S]houldn’t these values be at the forefront?”

The Speaker is right, of course, but Allison et al. suggest that the U.S. should ignore those Russians striving for democracy and allow Moscow to build a sphere of influence in the former Soviet area – just when Vladimir Putin advocates in his “Eurasian Union” concept. Surely, Ronald Reagan, who supported Andrey Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Vaclav Havel and Lech Walensa, would not approve.

The Allison-Blackwill-Simes report fails to realize that American foreign policy has moved on since Jimmy Carter’s famous 1979 kiss with Leonid Brezhnev. Every American administration since then, Republican and Democrat, has made its views on human rights clear to Moscow.

Giving undemocratic regimes a free pass on the rule of law, democracy, including freedom of the press, faith, and assembly, actually actively endangers U.S. security and business interests. As we at The Heritage Foundation have written, these are key concerns that should be at the forefront of relations with Russia.

Now consider what sacrificing these values would achieve -- for one, not preventing Iran from going nuclear. Russia seems rather comfortable with a nuclear Iran battering American allies and interests in the Middle East, and is becoming increasingly bold, given the lack of pressure from the U.S. on the issue. Moscow has made clear that it will not support further sanctions against Iran, and continues to fly diplomatic cover for the Ayatollahs’ regime.

Equally disturbing, Russia has threatened to close the cargo and materiel transit route for the NATO troops in Afghanistan in response to the Sergey Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which fingers corrupt and criminal Russian officials.

As for the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, Russia encourages separatism on the borders Georgia and Azerbaijan, and puts those countries at risk from North Caucasian extremists. Moscow also consistently blames the U.S. for the Islamist rebellion, making it a key topic of official anti-American propaganda.

The outcome is quite clear. The proposed Reset 2.0 makes U.S. interests hostage to Russian interests, while the Kremlin demands continued – and ever-increasing – appeasement. Historically, this is a prescription for failure.

The Obama administration needs to face the unpleasant reality: Russia views the U.S. through the lens of geopolitical competition. It declares the U.S. an enemy of Russia by using numerous anti-American propaganda channels. It infiltrates secret agents, known as “illegals,” to get closer to Hillary Clinton and other U.S. policymakers. It pulls reluctant neighbors into a new quasi-imperial orbit. It kills or throws to jail political opponents or simply businesspeople whose assets high officials or well connected oligarchs desire.

As in Reagan’s times, only a tough diplomacy, which focuses on real U.S. national interests and values, and combines cooperation where possible with countermeasures when necessary, can put U.S.-Russia relations back on track.

Ariel Cohen is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Russia, United States Of America

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