Robert Kagan must think that no one will check the Bush administration’s record on Russia policy, or else he would not have written this column. Kagan focuses entirely on Russian support for watered-down Iran sanctions to make his argument that the “reset” has achieved absolutely nothing, which is what you would have to focus on to make this argument. As I have said many times, the administration was foolish to link Russian help on pressuring Iran to the other “reset” efforts, because that help would either not be forthcoming or would be so minimal as to be irrelevant. Having made Russian support for Iran sanctions into the measure of success for Obama’s Russia policy, the administration needlessly set themselves up for criticism just like Kagan’s.
Last year I had impatiently declared the “reset” to be empty and meaningless because it seemed that the administration was going to change nothing, but that was a bit of an overreaction. The administration later addressed Russian complaints about the proposed missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic and changed the missile defense plan to one that was somewhat less irritating to Moscow. Kagan noticeably fails to mention that the administration has been pursuing an alternative missile defense program elsewhere in Europe. The Prague treaty on arms reduction was another tangible result of a less openly confrontational policy against Russia. Russian support for supply lines for Afghanistan has been another. Naturally, both of these are nowhere to be found in Kagan’s column.
Then Kagan objects to things the administration has no power to stop or change:
Obama has officially declared that Russia’s continued illegal military occupation of Georgia is no “obstacle” to U.S.-Russian civilian nuclear cooperation. The recent deal between Russia and Ukraine granting Russia control of a Crimean naval base through 2042 was shrugged off by Obama officials, as have been Putin’s suggestions for merging Russian and Ukrainian industries in a blatant bid to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.
By “continued illegal military occupation of Georgia,” Kagan means the Russian military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that has been there in one form or another for almost twenty years. Of course, he skates by the reason why Russia’s military presence continues there and why it increased in the last two years, namely the Georgian-escalated war that targeted Tshkinvali and killed Russian soldiers stationed there. Kagan does not mention that both separatist republics want Russian protection and many of the inhabitants of the republics, especially South Ossetia, have taken Russian passports and may ultimately want to have their territories annexed to Russia. He ignores all of this because it would make the administration’s position seem reasonable and understandable.
How could the Russian presence in the separatist republics be an obstacle to civil nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and Russia? Is India’s control of Kashmir an obstacle to the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal? Is Turkey’s military presence in northern Cyprus an obstacle to U.S.-Turkish relations? Are we actually in the habit of linking such contentious political and territorial issues to other aspects of bilateral relations? What could the administration have realistically done in response to the Black Sea Fleet agreement or the natural gas deal between Ukraine and Russia? Is Washington going to start spouting the Ukrainian opposition line and try to be more concerned for Ukrainian sovereignty than Ukraine’s own government? That’s silly. When there is nothing that the U.S. can do, there is no purpose served in throwing a fit and denouncing agreements that both states have accepted and ratified. The natural gas deal might well be a horrible, corrupt rip-off of Ukrainian consumers, but what is Washington supposed to do about it?
So Kagan’s critique of the “reset” is hard to take seriously. His description of the current state of affairs is simply wrong. There is no “wave of insecurity” sweeping the region, and it is misleading to refer to “expansive Russia” as if it posed a threat to the territorial integrity of its neighbors. Instead of contentious relations between Russia and its neighbors that Washington was constantly stoking and trying to worsen with its encouragement of reckless, anti-Russian leaders, there is now relatively greater stability throughout the region and warmer Ukrainian-Russian relations, all of which serve the interests of all nations involved and the interests of Europe as a whole. At the same time, U.S.-Russian relations have slowly but genuinely improved, which was the main point of the “reset” all along.