Samuel Charap reminds us that five years ago today relations between the U.S. and Russia were far, far worse:
The timing couldn’t have been more symbolic. It was five years ago today that the sporadic firefights in South Ossetia and political fireworks between Moscow and Tbilisi devolved into a full-blown war, marking the nadir of post-Cold War U.S.-Russia relations. During the conflict that August, the U.S. principals committee — which includes the president, vice president, and other senior decision makers — considered the possibility of using military force to prevent Russia from continuing its assault on Georgia. Bombardment of the tunnel that Russian troops used to move into South Ossetia and other “surgical strikes” were among the options that were discussed and subsequently rejected.
Contemplating a war that would likely have resulted in nuclear Armageddon — even if the option was rejected — puts Obama’s snub to Putin in perspective. Clearly, if the cancelation of a meeting represents the low point of relations in 2013, it also signals how far the two former Cold War adversaries have come since 2008.
There’s no question that relations with Russia have deteriorated over the last two years for a number of reasons, but as Charap points out they remain significantly better than they were at the tail of the Bush years. That is because there was a concerted effort to improve them since 2009. It’s fair to point out, as Paul Saunders does, that the administration hasn’t done a particularly good job of selling its Russia policy to Congress or the public. It’s also true that once the “reset” achieved its initial goals Obama didn’t seem to have many ideas for what to do next. Even so, the worsening of the U.S.-Russian relationship since 2011 seems like nothing when compared to the absolutely disastrous condition it was in by August 2008 the war between Russia and Georgia. Especially since U.S. actions were partly responsible for making that war happen, this is not a small thing.
That’s important to remember when we hear from the people that always wanted the “reset” to fail that the “reset” is now finished. After all, it was the confrontational and provocative Russia policy they preferred that made the “reset” necessary in the first place. As Charap says, the U.S. and Russia need to make “a serious joint effort to address the underlying pathologies in the relationship” that requires more sustained effort than the “reset” did. Unfortunately, as this latest episode suggests, there are very few in either country currently interested in making that effort.