National Review's Latest Attack On Obama's Russia Policy: Grasping at Straws

By Mark Adomanis

Writing in National Review, Daniel Vajdic of the American Enterprise Institute mounts a confused and almost incoherent attack on the Obama administration’s Russia policy. Having read Vajdic’s piece several times, I am genuinely unsure of what his actual substantive criticism is. He seems not to be presenting a structured critique of either the formulation or execution of the administration’s policy. Rather, he lays a number of inconvenient and undesirable Russian policies at the feet of “the reset” despite the fact that many of the policies in question actually predate the Obama administration (or even dear Barack’s election to the US senate).

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s take a closer look at a few of his criticisms.

Supply routes to Afghanistan via Russian territory — the northern portion of the Northern Distribution Network — have become increasingly important since Islamabad shut down transit corridors through Pakistan in late November. U.S. relations with Pakistan are arguably at a post-9/11 nadir.

Still, there are a few problems with the Russian option. First, Russia limits NATO to nonlethal equipment and only allows the alliance to ship supplies from the West to Afghanistan, not in the reverse direction. Second, the Kremlin may prove to be no less erratic than Pakistan. Moscow’s ambassador to NATO recently threatened to cut off Russian transit routes to Afghanistan unless the U.S. agrees to scale back its missile-defense plans in Europe. Finally, an expansion of the Russian route makes the U.S. even more reliant on the Kremlin, which may use its leverage to extract concessions in unrelated areas. In addition to missile defense, Russia’s demands could include reduced U.S. engagement with the countries of the former Soviet Union — Moscow’s “sphere of privileged interests” — and a diminution in U.S. criticism of what can mildly be called the Putin regime’s democratic shortcomings.

Moreover, to suggest that the Kremlin is cooperating over Afghanistan because of the reset is patently wrong. Perhaps more than any other country in the world save the U.S., Russia fears the return of the Taliban and the further diffusion of Islamic fundamentalism into Central Asia, which threatens its southern periphery. In the words of Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Moscow assists the U.S. in Afghanistan because “it serves our security interests.”

What is Vajdic’s actual criticism? That the Russians aren’t fighting shoulder to shoulder with us in Kandahar? That they’re not sufficiently engaged in part of some grand Western crusade against Islamic extremism? The Russian policy (helping NATO, but with restraint) makes perfect sense if you realize that, while the Russians certainly don’t want the Taliban to storm to victory, they also don’t want to have a permanent NATO presence in Central Asia.

Vajdic is clearly unimpressed with the Russian contribution to our war in Afghanistan, but how would he change this? Would he offer the Russians concessions in their “near abroad?” No, that’s off the table. That’s appeasement. Would he agree to tone down US criticism of the Russian government? No, that’s also appeasement. Would he just yell at them a lot? Say really nasty things to Vladimir Putin until he agreed to offer more fulsome assistance? Maybe we could tell Susan Rice to bang her shoe on the gavel at the UN.

The Russians, and Putin most of all, remember very clearly that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when they enthusiastically signed on to the US war on terror it got them precisely zilch. Putin’s support of the American campaign in Afghanistan, something which he took very significant political risks to deliver, didn’t get him anything: Bush still unilaterally abrogated the ABM treaty (less than a month after we had officially overthrown the Taliban government), imperiously dismissed any Russian concerns over missile defense as the mindless complaints of people still stuck in the Cold War, and, of course, fomented “colored revolutions” all throughout the post-Soviet space. So why would the Russians repeat their mistake? Why would they unreservedly support our campaign in Afghanistan when they have, in the very recent past, clearly seen that such a stance is foolish and self-defeating? Why would they give us something for nothing?

The Russians (very understandably!) will offer NATO assistance sufficient to ensure that the Taliban cannot win, but they will not help us so much that Afghanistan is transformed into an American satrapy. This concern about American power in Central Asia is not some strange and peculiar manifestation of Putin’s authoritarian malice, but a very basic geopolitical calculation. The Russians see Central Asia as part of their sphere of influence, and a permanent American military presence is obviously incompatible with that. The “democratic” Yeltsin administration had a very similar understanding of Russia’s role in Central Asia, that is a power broker that helped mediate disputes and which had to be consulted in all matters of importance, it was just too bankrupt and dysfunctional to pursue it.

Let’s move on from Afghanistan to several more of Vajdic’s criticisms:

In its categorical praise for the reset, the Obama administration also glosses over Russian threats to target U.S. missile-defense components in Europe, to station tactical ballistic missiles in its Kaliningrad exclave, and to develop new weaponry aimed at the U.S. and its allies. What’s more, Moscow has blocked sanctions against Syria and continues to sell arms to the Assad regime.

This is a very nice encapsulation of the article’s “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach. Russia’s “threats to target US missile-defense components in Europe” were not made because of “the reset” but because of the Obama administration’s broad continuity with the aggressive missile defense policies of the Bush administration. Don’t believe me? Look at this story from The Guardian. Or this story from The New York Times. Or this article from Reuters. The Russians have been pissed off about ABM for a long time, and will continue to be pissed off about ABM regardless of who is in the White House. Indeed the Russian threats back in 2007 and 2008 were even more hysterical than their recent ones, and a more aggressively anti-Russian policy will not make these threats magically disappear but will, instead, exacerbate them.

As for Russian arm sales to Syria, these have been going on for decades. How does “the reset” have any relevance to something the Russians have been doing since the height of the Cold War? And if a more aggressive policy could dissuade them from doing so, why did the Russians consider to sell arms to the Syrians throughout the Bush administration? Why, it’s almost as if the Russians will sell arms to Syria regardless of what Washington says or does!

Let’s move on to the conclusion:

For the first time in over a decade, Russia is on the verge of fundamental change, and the GOP candidates would be wise to voice support for the country’s burgeoning democratic movement. President Obama’s tendency to exaggerate and, in some cases, fabricate the reset’s achievements, and his refusal to acknowledge Russian misbehavior, shouldn’t be ignored in favor of criticizing the administration’s more obvious foreign-policy failures.

Russia is “on the verge of fundamental change” because of purely internal developments, developments which Washington has almost no influence over. How do I know this? Because this “fundamental change” has arrived precisely during a period in which American-Russian relations have become less frosty and confrontational. The Bush administration was second to none in its support for “burgeoning democratic movements” but Russia became increasingly authoritarian nonetheless. Washington can affect Russian internal politics only on the margins, and if it goes all in on aggressive anti-Russian policies (missile defense, regime change in Syria, war with Iran, “democracy promotion”) then the tentative political opening of the past several months will be weakened. The reset is not a magical success story, but it does explain the marginal improvements in Russian-American relations over the past two years. If the reset is replaced, as Vajdic suggests, by a more hectoring and confrontational policy, then relations will swiftly worsen. This is really not particular complicated, but it should be repeated: if you want to have good relations with a country make an effort to have good relations with a country. Threats, attempted blackmail, and lectures about the inherent rightness of the American position are usually not received very well.
The Forbes