Speaker of the House John Boehner (R–OH) recently delivered a blistering critique of President Obama’s Russia “reset” strategy.
“Over the last two and a half years,” he said, Russia “has been the beneficiary of American outreach and engagement. [Yet it] has continued to expand its physical, political, and economic presence…under the guise of…a ‘sphere of influence.’
“Within Russia, control is the order of the day, with key industries nationalized, the independent media repressed, and the loyal opposition beaten and jailed. Russia uses natural resources as a political weapon. And it plays ball with unstable and dangerous regimes.”
Why hasn’t the “reset” produced better results? After all, President Obama canceled key missile defenses in Europe after Russia complained, so you’d expect more than Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s dismissive remark that those measures simply “corrected mistakes that the Bush Administration made.”
The problem is that Obama expected more from the Russians than they are willing to give under any circumstance. They have their reasons for rejecting Obama’s overtures, yet the Administration continues to project its mistaken hopes and expectations on them regardless of the outcomes.
The reset policy fails because it is based on flawed premises. For one thing, it assumes that Russia’s leaders share our interests. But Vladimir Putin, the self-proclaimed “National Leader” of Russia, looks at the world very differently than we do. Putin’s main goal is to maximize the financial benefits for his party and friends. He sits on a vast natural resource and financial empire and, through his close associates, controls major oil companies, some of which devoured formerly publicly held and more transparent corporations like YUKOS. Putin’s network also controls a large part of the oil trade, including giants Gazprom and Transneft, ports, and pipelines.
Putin’s political power is the guarantor of this empire. He knows he and his friends could lose their wealth along with the ability to protect it from political enemies if he falls from power.
Russian foreign policy has been crafted around this interest. It meant securing transit of Russian gas to Europe through Ukraine and Belarus, hiring former German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder to assure smooth construction of the Nordstream pipeline, playing Armenia against Azerbaijan to ensure control over energy transit from the Caspian, and changing the rules of the political and legal systems so investigations of wrongdoing never take place.
It is a thoroughly cynical view of the world. Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev feel no need to reciprocate Obama’s reset gestures because they are beside the point. If your primary motive is to amass hundreds of billions of dollars and protect it indefinitely, then appeals for your cooperation on larger purposes fall on deaf ears.
There is another huge difference with the American worldview: Putin and his friends have a zero-sum view of international relations. Everyone else’s gain—particularly America’s—is potentially Russia’s loss. That’s why the Russians embrace negotiations with the U.S. that assume a potential conflict, like over nuclear arms control. Potential conflict gives them leverage to extract concessions, particularly if Washington fears bad relations more than Russia and if the U.S. thinks Russia keeps nuclear weapons only because America does. Sure, Russia masterfully plays the international diplomatic game at the United Nations and elsewhere, but this is mainly a public relations strategy to defuse international opposition.
At the end of the day, Russia looks around the world and sees enemies, potential rivals, and clients. That’s why it mistreats neighbors and why so many of them distrust it. That’s why it desperately needs America to pay homage to it with concessions in arms control negotiations and cancelled missile defense programs. Its attitude toward the U.S. belies a calculated set of self-interested moves to gain financial and geopolitical advantage over other nations.
All of this is a curious game of mirror-imaging. Obama and his team look at Russia and see themselves—a more or less responsible government, perhaps not ideally democratic but still sensible and responsive to normal overtures of cooperation.
Putin looks and sees an America seemingly the same but actually the reverse of his reality. He knows Russia is not like America (Russia’s $2 trillion in GDP cannot compete with America’s $14 trillion), yet he insists that Russia be treated with equal respect. The pretense is that Russia is as morally deserving of respect as America is; in reality, it is respected only because of its size, energy resources, and nuclear weapons. In other words, it is “respected” because of what it can provide or threaten, not what it is—and it is not a trusted democracy like America.
This produces a very odd psychology, one that goes to the heart of why the reset policy is failing. No amount of appeasing, pandering, or friendship can force Putin and his regime to give up this essentially conflict-oriented policy. Tension with the U.S. gives Putin self-respect and shows enemies within and rivals abroad that he must be taken seriously.
Russia cooperates in areas that suit its self-interest, but it always asks for something big in return. Surely it is in Russia’s interest that Iran not acquire a nuclear weapon or that the Taliban not prevail in Afghanistan. Yet the price for its support is concessions such as on New START. The game it plays is mainly about power and near-term financial gain, not international peace and stability and certainly not about freedom or democracy.
There is an underappreciated continuity between Russia’s domestic state and its foreign policy toward the West. Former chess grand champion and Russian democrat Garry Kasparov says Putin’s regime is more like a mafia organization than the state of the former Soviet Union. Putin, he argues, is “very good in creating the psychological playground where he could outwit Western leaders.” He knows he can’t resort to Stalin-type repression, Kasparov observes, because, “unlike Stalin, he and his cronies—they keep money in the West.”
This is a harsh appraisal, to be sure. But there is a larger point: U.S. policymakers should understand that Putin and his friends operate under different rules. Overlooking this fact is why their “reset” policy is in trouble.