Foreign Policy / Russia

The Return of Putin: A Failure of the Reset?

Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation an all-day event was held which featured several prominent officials, activists and scholars, most notably Speaker Boehner and chess grandmaster/leader of the dissident group “Other Russia,” Gary Kasparov.  Most speakers had been skeptical of the reset since its inception, seeing it as a negotiation from weakness and a consigning of Georgia and Ukraine to a Russian “sphere of influence.”

A consistent theme of the talks was the equation of the return of Putin with the failure of the reset, which was predicated on a notion of change through engagement.  Western leaders were duped, so they claimed, into placing their hopes in a westernizing Medvedev, who in the end was merely a Putin puppet.  Furthermore, it made the West look weak and uninformed, and may have emboldened Yanukovich into thinking he could imprison his rival Timoshenko with impunity.

But was it ever realistic to expect the US to have the sort of leverage needed to influence Russian presidential politics?  Did the Obama administration actually harbor these sorts of objectives when it inaugurated the new reset approach?  To be sure, the Obama administration spoke glowingly of Medvedev and unfavorably of Putin, with VP Biden publicly calling on Putin not to seek a return to the presidency.  While a third Putin term was obviously undesirable for the US administration, it was probably not on the list of realistic reset outcomes.  Andrew Kuchins of CSIS stated the probable objectives in his recent article “US-Russia Relations: Constraints of a Mismatched Outlook” as 1) help in managing Iran 2) aid with supplying our Afghan operations and 3) nuclear security.  In short, the aims of the reset were to restore what the US has always wanted from Russia: an alliance rooted in security issues.

If these were indeed the aims, then the reset must be judged a success.  The Northern Distribution Network has been crucial to the success of the Afghan war effort, allowing us to supply the troops via Central Asia and Siberia rather than the more hazardous Pakistan.  As for nuclear security, one of the first acts of the reset was the new START treaty.  Co-operation on Iran has been more problematic.  While supporting sanctions in 2006 and 2007, Russia does typically try to soften sanctions aimed against Iran.  We should continue to push for greater assistance on this important question, but we must also be careful not to overestimate Russia’s ability to influence Tehran, which, by most expert analyses, remains very limited.

Kasparov provided an excellent context for the proposed Magnitsky Bill, which many view as a threat to a continuing reset.  Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer who had accused senior police officials of stealing documents from his hedge fund in order for to commit fraud and receive millions in tax refunds.  Magnitsky was then arrested by these same police officials and held without trial for 11 months in squalid conditions without medical care, which (along with possible beatings) led to his death.  Magnitsky had many influential foreign friends who have taken up his cause here in North America and in Europe.  Russia tried to temper international outrage by going after the prison doctors who were involved, who were most likely ordered to deny care from above.  Refusal to go after the high level culprits in Russia has led to a growing international movement to take real action abroad.  The strongest support has come from Canada and the European Parliament, which passed resolutions banning entry to the implicated individuals as well as authorization to seize their assets held on their territory.  A similar measure was proposed by John McCain, who co-sponsored the “Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Bill.”  Last July, the State Department enacted a travel ban, but stopped short of seizing assets because of worries of spoiling the gains of the reset.

Kasparov’s analysis was insightful: Russia will not prosecute even those suspected of the most heinous crimes because the state structure is rooted in loyalty, not morality.  If Putin were to go after loyal henchmen for crimes then the foundational state principle would be compromised.  It is therefore incumbent on foreign states to provide moral oversight for Russia.  Precedent was the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment against the Soviet Union, according to which the US imposed trade restrictions on the Soviets for barring emigration of its Jewish population.  In order to get the measure rescinded, the U.S.S.R. began to facilitate Jewish emigration in a real way.  This is an important example of international economic pressure being used against a state for moral ends, which cannot be abandoned in the quest for warm relations.