Is the Putin-Obama Reset Dead?

August 12, 2013

To begin with, Barack Obama’s planned summit with Vladimir Putin next month in St. Petersburg, in advance of the upcoming Group of 20 confab in that city, was not really “cancelled,” as has been widely reported. It was “postponed,” a semantic distinction with a difference, even in the style of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger diplomacy which now characterizes U.S. foreign policy. That fine scholar of the post-Cold War order, Leon Aron, has noted that an iced summit accomplishes nothing under the rubric of something, while Obama’s boycott of the entire G20 might have actually had a measurable impact.

The American president’s medium is usually his message and here, too, it’s interesting to note where the overdue acknowledgement that Putin is presiding over an escalating dirty war on human rights finally occurred: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. “I have been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people’s basic freedoms, that whether you’re discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country.” Obama was referring to a recent law passed by the Duma that bans “homosexual propaganda,” an offense so nebulously defined as to be arbitrarily (and ominously) punishable. Already Dutch tourists have been arrested under this Draconian morality code and anti-gay pogromists, heeding the dog-whistle of state permissiveness, have set to work all throughout the country. One neo-Nazi group has even taken to luring gay men to rendezvous, then assaulting and humiliating them on camera. Despite reassurances from the Kremlin that such legalized bigotry will be put on hold during the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics, which is six months away, Russia’s Minister of Sports recently said that, actually, it’ll still be active then. If true, then this means that American and other foreign athletes will be subject to arrest. Raising this on a late-night talk show in Hollywood makes it seem frivolous.

I’d like to think that gay rights isn’t just a convenient cudgel with which a fed-up White House chooses to smash Edward Snowden’s new patrons over the head. But then, I’ve noticed that the one time White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had a good line – that Russia ought to indulge human rights organizations not just in the transit lounge of Sheremetyevo Airport – this, too, was uttered in relation to the NSA affair. Obama seems to loathe leakers more than he does stolen elections, murdered whistleblowers, show-tried oppositionists, the vicious harassment of the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, the expulsion of USAID, the raids of foreign-funded or “political” NGOs.

So it has been amusing to read all the latest eulogies for the reset, particularly in those grumpy precincts of foreign policy realism where Putin is always misunderstood and never quite accommodated enough. Gone now, thanks to the commander-in-chief’s prickliness, are those middling heights of term one: securing Russian cooperation on WMD de-escalation, the Afghan war effort, and Iran’s quest for a nuke. Never mind that cooperation on these issues was a Chekist psych-out from the moment Hillary showed up in Moscow with a button that read “overcharge.”

Obama’s college thesis was on Soviet disarmament. As far as U.S. presidents go, he is certainly the greatest activist the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament never had. And so it must have stung him mightily to watch Putin withdraw from the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program last October, a program that has been responsible for decommissioning nukes and disposing safely of chemical weapons in the Eastern Bloc for twenty years, mainly on the U.S. taxpayers’ dime. Why? Surely not because nukes and sarin gas are any less of a threat to geopolitical stability now than they were when the Wall came down but because, as George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it, Putin thinks Obama’s anti-proliferation policy is “a plot to take over the world with conventional weapons.” You quite literally cannot argue with that.

One place Putin wouldn’t mind America taking over in perpetuity is Afghanistan. Strange, then, the U.S. government is full of people who believe that a lieutenant colonel of the KGB needs convincing to allow American soldiers to fight and die to prevent the radical Islamists from overrunning Kabul again. The northern distribution network, a useful supply route from West to East via Russian territory, was always there for the taking, or rather for the same cost of seeing it derided and undermined in Moscow through not-so-subtle actions to force an increase in rent for the U.S.-leased airbase in Manas, Kyrgyzstan – an airbase now set to close permanently, thanks to Russian cajoling. We also know that Obama may adopt a “zero option” of maintaining no U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the 2014 withdrawal date. As my colleague Andrew Bowen has observed, so terrified is Putin of what will ensue with respect to heroin smuggling and cross-border terrorist attacks once the Taliban are resurgent that he has ordered the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a compact of post-Soviet states in Central Asia, to find “an effective algorithm of practical action should be developed to minimize possible risks for our countries.” Don’t be surprised if one day the effective algorithm is another Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

On Iran, the bilateral cooperation has been equally unimpressive though equally hyped. Russia has built the mullahs one nuclear power plant at Bushehr, and may be ready to build them another. It has also blocked additional U.N. Security Council sanctions (the one it passed, it also made sure to water down to the point of weak or non-existent enforceability), and denounced successive suites of stronger American sanctions. Georgy Mirsky, a Russian Middle East expert, told The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe a few months back that he once heard a Russian diplomat say, “I would rather have a nuclear Iran than a pro-American Iran.” Good thing Hasan Rouhani is in place to negotiate these problems away for us.

Russia doesn’t even care about the things it cares most about. One of its touted goals for a new dawn of international respectability was to join the World Trade Organization. That distinction was conferred upon it a year ago, thanks largely to U.S. lobbying. How’s Russian membership looking today? Here is the considered judgment of Global Counsel, a consultancy owned by Lord Peter Mandelson, the Labour party’s very own special representative to Putinist oligarchs in Britain: “The majority of Russian businesses have felt little or no change following Russian accession to the WTO in 2012.” (The Financial Times went slightly further and said that “several important sectors [of the Russian economy] are actually a lot worse off.”)

Yet so committed was the administration to helping open up Russian businesses to a supposedly eager Western market that it campaigned vigorously against the “linkage” of the passage of the Magnitsky Act, one true achievement in U.S.-Russian relations which blacklists and sanctions human rights-violating Russian officials, to the rescission of the outmoded Jackson-Vanik amendment, which had restricted U.S. trade with Moscow on the basis of human rights. (In fact, the White House only resorted to this tactic after its earlier one – trying to stop Congress’s passage of the Magnitsky Act altogether – failed.)

Russia’s response to Magnitsky was, as my friend Peter Pomerantsev calls it, a “nervous breakdown,” one that’s been mistakenly classified as tit-for-tat retaliation. The “tats” aren’t even disproportionate; they’re insane. First, the Kremlin abolished American adoptions of Russian orphans, which was both nasty and counterproductive given the state of Russian orphanages and the shortages of domestic adoptees. Then it adopted a “counter-Magnitsky” set of sanctions aimed primarily at U.S. law enforcement officials who helped convict one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers, Viktor Bout, a man with obvious ties to Russian intelligence.

Kremlin elite understand impunity very well; it’s why they manage to stay out of trouble but those who expose their systematic theft of public wealth always wind up in jail cells or graves. It’s also why they’ll ultimately get away with domiciling a fugitive American whose luggage contains sensitive state secrets. However, rumors of the demise of the reset aren’t so much greatly exaggerated as beside the point – the policy never really lived outside the imaginations of well-meaning but misguided U.S. policymakers. For all Obama’s passive-aggressive theatrics, it’s still business as usual behind-the-scenes and off page A1 of The New York Times. On Friday, for instance, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry met with their two counterpart Sergeis, Shoigu and Lavrov. Perhaps they discussed that other shelved summit, the one to save Syria, which Kerry and Lavrov announced to such anticlimactic fanfare back in May, surprising even the former’s subordinates in the State Department.

Syria, it’s true, caught the world by surprise, and therefore was never built into the original reset. But bad habits are clearly now a U.S. export to gullible allies. On Wednesday, Reuters reported that Saudi-Russian mini-reset was tabled, this one brokered on arms contracts and a Wahhabi promise not to interfere with Russian gas hegemony in Europe (is Riyadh even in any position to make such offers given its own vulnerability to North American shale revolution?). “During the meeting at the Kremlin, the Saudi official explained to his interlocutor that Riyadh is ready to help Moscow play a bigger role in the Middle East at a time when the United States is disengaging from the region,” is how one European diplomat explained it to Agence-France Presse, before saying that Russia flat-out rejected the deal. But now Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s presidential aide, has denied that any discussion of “military-technical cooperation” between the two countries ever took place. Whatever the case, the messaging here is simple: A major Gulf power is looking to the Kremlin rather than the White House for support.

Russians have an expression: horosho sidit. “He sits well,” in the sense of sitting pretty. Put that on a button and give it to Putin.