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US-Russia Relations: Time for a Time Out

by | February 1st, 2013 | 11:09 am

Sometimes it is better to do nothing. Currently, that truth applies to US-Russia relations. Since the situation in Russia has changed in the last several months, so must US policy on Russia. The only rational US approach on Russia today is to do as little as possible. As the late Ambassador Max Kampelman wisely taught us in 2005 when reflecting on his lessons from negotiations with the Soviet Union, there are times when any goodwill gesture will be perceived as weakness.

US-Russia relations had a wonderful run from November 2008 until September 2011. President Barack Obama perceptively called that period a “reset” after the dismal US-Russia relations in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008. The Obama achievements were considerable. The United States and Russia concluded a substantial new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement, reducing their mutual strategic nuclear forces. Russia acceded to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in August 2012, and in December 2012 the US Congress relinquished the obsolete Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Code of 1974.

When Pakistan refused to accept allied transit to Afghanistan, Russia and the United States agreed on the Northern Delivery Network with huge deliveries to Afghanistan through the former Soviet Union. By ratifying the bilateral civilian nuclear agreement, the US Senate prepared the road for substantial mutual trade in nuclear materials. In March 2011 Russia went along with a no-fly zone over Libya, which allowed the United States and its European allies to help oust President Muammar Gaddafi.

These achievements were available because the previous conditions were so bad at the end of the Bush years. Both sides sensed that something had to be done and both countries had new presidents desiring improvement. President Obama took the initiative, and President Dmitri Medvedev was highly skilled in foreign policy. Moreover, there were many “low-hanging fruits,” potential agreements that were both important and relatively easy to conclude.

Today, all agree that US-Russian relations have fallen apart, but the Russian and American narratives of the causes differ. The official Russian view is that the cause is that the United States adopted the so-called Magnitsky Act, which calls for Russian officials who had committed human rights violations to be refused visas to the United States and have their financial assets frozen.

But the Act had little practical effect because such sanctions could already have been undertaken by the State Department under prior law. Nothing new was actually added, and the purpose of the act was to try to reinforce law and order in Russia. Furthermore, Russia belongs to the Council of Europe, to which Russia has already given far-reaching authority over its law enforcement. Each year the Council’s European Court of Human Rights passes hundreds of judgments on Russian matters that Russian courts are obliged to enforce. Finally, the Magnitsky Act was signed into law only in December 2012, while the Russian anti-American campaign started in late 2011 when the measure was still in the discussion stage.

In American eyes the deterioration in US-Russia relations started on September 24, 2011, when Vladimir Putin announced that he would return to the Russian presidency, switching chairs back again with Medvedev. The signal event was Russia’s stubborn support of the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, which was accompanied with Putin’s criticism of President Medvedev’s soft policy on Libya.

October and November 2011 were relatively quiet, but after the evidently rigged parliamentary elections on December 4, Putin and his United Russia party faced large-scale popular protests. Ever since, Putin has been running the election campaign that he lost, as Nikolai Petrov, formerly of the Carnegie Moscow Center, puts it. A key factor in his populist campaign has been anti-Americanism.

Admittedly, opinion polls have shown that anti-Americanism is one of the few potential sources of popular support of Putin. And to judge from Putin’s own statements, he actually believes that the United States intends to organize an Orange Revolution in Russia. The official Russian propaganda criticized Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her statements in favor of civil rights in Russia in December 2011. The Kremlin allegation was that the tens of thousands of demonstrators had been paid by the State Department. In January and February of 2012,the Putin regime even started personal harassment of the new US Ambassador to Russia, the author of the “reset,” Michael McFaul. McFaul had been a professor at Stanford who had long advocated the promotion of greater democracy in Russia.

Any experienced Russia hand would have hit hard in response, but the US administration barely protested against this propaganda campaign and even personal harassment of Ambassador McFaul. In this failure, it signaled to the Kremlin that it was open season on US interests. This mistake has cost the United States and US-Russia relations dearly.

Russian propaganda has reached a Soviet level of absurdity. The Gazprom-owned television company NTV presented a series of reports on US interference in Russian politics; propagandist Mikhail Leontiev is let free every evening on the first television channel after the main news; the anti-Americanists Alexei Pushkov and Vyacheslav Nikonov (grandson of Stalin’s Prime Minister Vyacheslav Molotov) have been appointed chairman and deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the State Duma; the aggressive nationalist Dmitri Rogozin has become Deputy Prime Minister for the Military-Industrial Complex.

In the summer and fall of 2012, Putin’s legislative machine got going on anti-Americanism. A number of laws have been adopted with the combined purpose of suffocating Russian civil society and prohibiting American interaction with it. One such measure has forced NGOs (non-governmental organizations) receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” In addition, the Kremlin kicked out the USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and ended the Nunn-Lugar nuclear disarmament program. But US protests were nearly absent.

On August 22, Russia finally became a member of the WTO, one of the greatest fruits of the US reset. The US business community lobbied extensively for Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for Russia, which the US Congress granted in December 2012, enabling the United States to take advantage of Russian accession to the trading system. Because of the international protest over the death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian anti-corruption fighter, establishing PNTR for Russia was not going to be possible without the simultaneous adoption of the Magnitsky Act.

Rather than appreciating PNTR and accepting the Magnitsky Act as a political necessity, the Kremlin ignored PNTR and orchestrated another anti-American campaign. It adopted a law with a triple response. The first part of this law corresponded to the Magnitsky Law: Any American official that had violated the human rights of a Russian would be subject to the same sanctions (nicknamed the Victor Bout law after the infamous arms trader extradited from Thailand, convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to prison in the United States). Second, no US citizen can be a member of a Russian human rights or political NGO (nicknamed the Liudmila Alexeeva law after the octogenarian chairwoman of the Russian Helsinki Committee). Third, no American citizens are allowed to adopt Russia children (called the Dima Yakovlev law after an adopted Russian child who died forgotten in a hot car in Virginia). The harshness of the Kremlin reaction aroused widespread surprise.

Since the relationship is so bad already, it is natural reaction for both sides to clean the tables from annoying matters. The United States has abolished the bilateral working group on civil society established in 2009, which was so useless as to be embarrassing in light of the Kremlin clamping down on civil society. On January 29, Russia annulled a decade-old agreement on anti-drug cooperation with the United States.

Now, the question is what the United States should do next.

First, we must understand “reset” correctly. Obama’s reset in US policy on Russia was no mistake, as evident from the substantial results. It was a strategy based on the assumption that Russia was ready for international integration and modernization. However, with Medvedev’s demise—he is now Prime Minister but with little power—Russia has largely ended such a policy, with its WTO accession as the main remnant.

Yet, at present the United States has little reason to go on a verbal offensive. Doing so would only be seen in Russia as justifying Putin’s campaign. At the same time, few concrete benefits of cooperation are likely at this time. The United States does not want much from Russia, except for cooperation on Syria and Iran, but Putin is not likely to give anything. Obama is famous for desiring deliverables from his endeavors, and no significant outcomes are in sight. Any US attempt at engaging with Putin would only result in unnecessary conflicts. The dynamic is obvious. Whatever issue the United States raises will probably arouse Russian opposition, and the discourse is unlikely to be constructive.

Obama’s primary interest is a further nuclear disarmament treaty, but if he were to propose that, Putin would start arguing about missile defense, particularly American plans for installations in Eastern Europe and raise demands unacceptable to the United States, only aggravating bilateral relations.

The most successful current US-Russia cooperation has been the transit of arms and equipment to Afghanistan through the former Soviet Union, but that issue might turn into a nightmare if the United States starts withdrawing hardware from Afghanistan in 2013–14 to as yet unknown places. The United States has no interest in initiating such a discussion.

In his second inauguration speech, Obama made clear that he stands by democratic principles abroad: “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.” Although he did not mention Russia, his challenge to Putin is obvious.

Also in the energy sphere, the United States is challenging Russia, as the US shale gas revolution is shaking the monopolistic rule of Gazprom in Central and Eastern Europe. In substance, it would have made sense to initiate negotiations about a bilateral investment treaty, but in the current political climate that would hardly make sense.

The United States spent most of 2012 trying to come to agreement with Putin over Syria, but to no benefit. Russia may be helpful on Iran and North Korea, but only if its own interests are served.

There is little incentive for the US administration to try to accommodate Putin, who even stayed away from the G-8 summit at Camp David in May 2012 without bothering to cite a reason. At the G-20 summit at Los Cabos in Mexico in June 2012, Putin kept Obama waiting. Their very faces on the photos from their two meetings reveal that no love is lost between them. Their future meetings are not likely to be fruitful.

It is better for the United States not to raise potentially beneficial topics and to downplay interaction with the Kremlin until it cools down its anti-American campaign. The Kremlin has caused the current conundrum, and if it wants to achieve any improvement it had better take the first steps.