At a very basic level Taheri grievously overstates both America and Russia’s ability to influence the situation in the greater Middle East and the “near abroad” and severely understates the influence wielded by domestic actors in places like Iran and Iraq.
Taheri makes some other faulty assumptions. He takes for granted that almost everything that happens in former Soviet space can somehow be traced back to U.S. policies (in this case, the supposed failure of the “reset”), and he believes that giving up on unsustainable, overreaching policies in this part of the world is somehow bad for the U.S. Taheri has no proof that any of the events he mentions have resulted from the “reset.” That’s because they have no connection to it. The op-ed demonstrates remarkable ignorance of the politics and recent history of the countries Taheri discusses. Readers will come away from it with a poorer, less accurate understanding of the entire region than they had before they started.
Taheri exaggerates the importance of Russian military exercises with Central Asian governments, which the U.S. had also held this year. He fails to mention that Uzbekistan has announced its intention to withdraw from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). That represents a setback for Russian influence that doesn’t fit into a simple story of Russian “gains.” Even though Russia has recovered some lost influence in certain parts of the former Soviet Union, there isn’t any evidence that these “gains” for Russia are harmful or undesirable for U.S. interests.
I should add that the Georgian election can’t be counted as a direct result of U.S. policy. That was something that the Georgian opposition achieved despite the significant political support from members of Congress that Saakashvili continued to receive right up until the end. Improved U.S.-Russian relations might make it easier for the new Georgian government to reduce tensions with Russia, but the most important role that the U.S. had in the Georgian election was that it didn’t have much of one. Not taking sides was the best thing the U.S. could have done.
It’s silly to describe the last three and a half years in terms of U.S. “retreat” in some of these countries (e.g., Belarus, Armenia), since some of these are countries where U.S. influence has been non-existent or limited for twenty years. In others, what we’ve been seeing is a gradual return to something more like the “normal” state of affairs that prevailed in Central Asia and in other ex-Soviet republics before 9/11. To some extent, this is just the correction to a decade-long imbalance. Even so, it is very difficult to identify anything that has changed in these countries in the last few years that jeopardizes or undermines U.S. interests.
If Russian influence has increased in recent years in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, for instance, that is because harming relations between these countries and Russia was ultimately not in their respective national interests. It made no sense for them economically or politically to become U.S. satellites. Trying to drag Ukraine into NATO and make it into an anti-Russian front-line state for the West was unpopular and unsustainable. Close economic and political ties between Kyrgyzstan and Russia finally won out. Kyrgyzstan’s experience of years of U.S. mismanagement of the relationship thanks to Washington’s obsessive focus on access to Manas didn’t help. Add to that resentment over U.S. support for the Bakiyev dictatorship, whose overthrow helped usher in the current democratic government, and there was no chance that the U.S. would be able to retain the same influence in the country that it had a decade ago.
One place where this return to an earlier state of affairs isn’t happening is Georgia. Not only is the new Georgian government not a “pro-Moscow coalition,” but no such coalition could exist in Georgia today. It’s unfortunate that the impulses to continue shilling for Saakashvili and to attack the “reset” are blinding so many hawks to this reality. Unless a future U.S. administration makes a point of alienating a new Georgian government by treating it poorly on account of its desire to reduce tensions with Russia, Georgian relations with the U.S. should be stable and may even improve.