Thoughts on the U.S.-Russian “Reset”

By Daniel Larison

It has been three years since the start of the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. The anniversary of the war’s beginning is a good occasion to reflect on how far U.S.-Russians relations fell during the Bush years, and how much they have been repaired in the last two and a half years. At present, inveterate opponents of the “reset” policy are doing their best to undermine this improved relationship. The “reset” was designed in no small part to undo much of the damage caused by Bush administration policy and the aftermath of the 2008 war, and in many respects it has been such an obvious success that its critics are usually reduced to whining about how it has failed to solve things it was never intended to fix. Russia still has a culture of “legal nihilism,” it is a one-party, illiberal authoritarian state that suppresses and criminalizes dissent, and real political opposition is not permitted. The “reset” has not changed any of this, but it was never supposed to, and there is no way that U.S. policy towards Russia can change this.

The “reset” has thawed relations between the two governments, and improved U.S.-Russian relations have contributed to the warming relations between Russia and several of its neighbors. It has taken a relationship that was at its post-Cold War nadir in late 2008 to one of its higher points in the last twenty years, and this has resulted in better Russian cooperation than the U.S. has enjoyed in more than a decade. It is common to dismiss Russian cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan as something that their government would have provided anyway, as The Washington Post does again today. The reality is that Russian help in supplying the war in Afghanistan has increased significantly. Nikolas Gvosdev explained last month:

Initially conceived as an alternative transit route for nonlethal supplies, the NDN has grown in importance over the past two years and now accounts for more than half of all U.S. military transit to Afghanistan. That is in part due to the unreliability of supply routes from the Pakistani port of Karachi, which are plagued by security concerns as well as temporary closures by the government in Islamabad. But it is also due to the Russian government’s decision to allow the transfer of military equipment as well as food and fuel across its territory. For the past year, Moscow has permitted U.S. planes to transit Russian airspace carrying troops and weaponry, with up to 4,500 flights authorized annually.

Civilian nuclear cooperation and arms control agreements have also been important products of “reset” policy. Most critics of the policy ignore the latter or take it as proof that the policy is misguided because they are reflexively opposed to continued arms reduction, negotiating with Russia, or both. More recently, the U.S. and Russia negotiated an agreement on adoption rules that will allow resumed adoptions from Russia by Americans, and there has been some progress on liberalizing travel requirements with the ultimate goal of visa-free travel between the two countries. Considering how poisoned the relationship had become by late 2008, it is remarkable how much improvement there has been.

When thinking about the “reset” policy, it is important to remember why it had become necessary and what the alternative to it was. This brings us back to the 2008 war. The 2008 war had several causes, but an important one was the push to bring Georgia into NATO. Washington’s displays of support for Georgia between 2003 and 2008 encouraged Saakashvili to believe that Georgian membership was only a matter of time, and this impression was further reinforced at the Bucharest summit in early 2008 despite significant European opposition to bringing Georgia into the alliance. Georgia’s evolution into a U.S. client state over those five years gave Saakashvili additional reasons to believe that the U.S. would be there to support him in confrontations with Russia, and it was this belief that led to his escalation of the conflict in South Ossetia that triggered massive Russian retaliation. Moscow had been hoping to goad Saakashvili into rash action, and he obliged. The disastrous results are there for all to see.

U.S. policy towards Russia and its “near abroad” in the last decade increased tensions in the Caucasus and eastern Europe, and at one point those tensions spilled over into war. The folly of pursuing NATO expansion was compounded by the embrace of anti-Russian nationalist governments on Russia’s borders. All of this encouraged Georgian confrontation with Russia, and needlessly antagonized Russia on many issues. Recognition of Kosovo’s independence over Russian objections was just one more provocation that later provided Russia with the pretext for its recognition of the separatist republics. Despite all the pro-Georgian rhetoric one hears from American critics of the “reset” (who were also supporters of the failed Bush-era Russia policy), one of the lasting legacies of Bush-era Russia policy was the harm done to Georgia. During and after the war, Georgia suffered greatly, ethnic Georgians were forcibly expelled from the separatist republics, and its chance of “reintegrating” those territories was most likely lost forever.

In all of this, U.S. interests were not being served. Indeed, they were nowhere to be found. The “reset” was a modest effort to repair a relationship with Russia that the previous administration had needlessly wrecked. Russian and American interests do not always converge, but when they do the “reset” has laid the foundations for a constructive relationship that is largely free of the old cycle of mistrust and recrimination. Whenever one hears overwrought criticism of the “reset,” just remember that the critic is really arguing that U.S.-Russian relations should sink back to the level where they were in Bush’s second term.
The American Conservative