Putin and the “Reset”
There have been many reactions to the news that Putin will return as president next year, and most of them have not been very interesting, but Tony Blankley‘s stands out for making the least sense:
Mr. Obama’s personally implemented, failed Medvedev-centric Russian policy has turned Mr. Putin – a George W. Bush friend – into a personal enemy and a lost strategic asset. Only a new American president can start repairing that vital Russian link in our China-containment policy.
It is fairly original to criticize the “reset” for its role in jeopardizing U.S.-Russian relations. Of course, had administration officials never criticized Putin, they would be accused of “cozying up” to him. After almost three years of trying to derail the “reset” at every turn and another decade of supporting policies that drove the relationship into a ditch, administration critics are suddenly very concerned that relations with Russia might be adversely affected by something.
Medvedev was always politically the weaker partner of the tandem, but it’s not clear how the administration was supposed to pursue the “reset” except to engage with the person currently serving as president. It’s true that the administration has sometimes made some weaker arguments that ratifying New START and supporting the “reset” would help Medvedev and disadvantage Putin, which was an unpersuasive way to mobilize some Americans’ dislike for Putin into support for more conciliatory policies, but the opponents of the “reset” (including Blankley) wanted no part of these policies no matter which Russian had the title of president.
If the “reset” has seemed “Medvedev-centric,” that’s because he was in office when the “reset” policy began, but it doesn’t follow that Putin has any interest in returning to a more antagonistic relationship. Policy differences between Medvedev and Putin have been exaggerated all along. One thing that could throw a wrench in the works is a new administration in Washington that believes it has to sabotage the relationship for political reasons. It is a fairly common habit of a newly-elected President in our country to repudiate certain foreign policy decisions of the previous administration to distinguish himself from it or to placate his party, and none of the likely Republican nominees has had anything good to say about the “reset.” If a Republican is elected next year, the odds are that U.S.-Russian relations will begin to sour, because the new administration will likely be intent on doing things to weaken those relations.
To call Putin a “friend” of Bush is grossly misleading, and it creates the impression that U.S.-Russian relations were better during Putin’s last term than they will be in his next one. Whatever personal rapport the two may have had at one point, Bush-era policies toward Russia and its neighbors were perceived in Moscow as a series of provocations, and the two “friends” presided over the worst state of relations between our two governments since the end of the Cold War. In fact, Putin was initially quite cooperative with the Bush administration, and in return he watched as the U.S. withdrew from the ABM Treaty, NATO was expanded into the Baltics, U.S. bases were set up throughout Central Asia, other ex-Soviet states were being put on a path to future NATO membership, the U.S. and our allies recognized Kosovo, and American officials berated Russia over its internal affairs. There is a real danger of making the same mistake that many Americans made during Putin’s earlier tenure, which was to make U.S.-Russian relations a matter of personalities that might be worsened or fixed when the head of state changes. Just as Medvedev did not herald any large or meaningful changes in Russian foreign policy, Putin’s return to office need not lead to any change in the improved relations that the U.S. and Russia have been building. As I wrote a while back:
The more we acknowledge that Russian policy is dictated by Russian perception of their national interests, rather than by the preferences of a particular leader, the better chance we have of recognizing where our interests are shared and where we can accommodate their objections.