Russia: Meaning of “Reset”

Booneville, Tennessee

A friend has called my attention to an article in the August 12 issue of the Washington Times. The article strikes me as more propaganda than analysis.  I’ll explain why as I quote the article, which follows:

Provocative moves irk U.S.
By Eli Lake, The Washington Times

As the Obama administration is touting the success of its “reset” in relations with Russia, America’s former Cold War rival is challenging key U.S. policies.

Comment: To call today’s Russia “America’s former Cold War rival” is a historical and factual absurdity. The Soviet Union was America’s Cold War rival.  The Cold War ended before Russia became independent of the Soviet Union and its elected leaders led the breakup of the Soviet Union. They offered an alliance in the 1990s which the U.S. rejected as “premature.” Also, as I will point out, the disputes this article hypes are hardly “key” to real U.S. interests.

On Wednesday, the Reuters news agency reported that Russia’s largest oil firm, Lukoil, had resumed selling refined petroleum to Iran, a direct challenge to U.S. efforts to apply economic pressure on the Islamic republic.

Comment: Whether it is a “direct challenge” or not depends on whether Russia agreed to cancel existing contracts or simply not to sign new ones. I suspect that the agreement was the latter, and if so these sales are not a “direct challenge” to what has been agreed.

Meanwhile, the Russian press reported that Moscow would be sending more of its S-300 air-defense systems to the disputed Georgian territory of Abkhazia. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month called the Russian troop presence in Abkhazia an “occupation.”

Comment: The status of Abkhazia is indeed “disputed,” but it is clear that Russia will not permit Georgia to retake it by force any more than the U.S. and NATO will permit Serbia to retake Kosovo by force. In Russian eyes (and in traditional international law) the two situations are analogous. Placing anti-aircraft weapons in Abkhazia does not alter the actual situation, which is that Georgia can solve its dispute with the current residents of Abkhazia only by peaceful negotiation, and not by threatening military action. It is in neither U.S. nor Georgian, nor Russian interest for there to be more conflict in this area, and if the presence of Russian anti-aircraft defenses in this area helps convince the Georgians of this fact, it can be helpful and should not be considered a “provocation.”

The new challenges to the U.S.–Russia relationship come as Moscow is cracking down on dissent and expanding the powers of its domestic security service known as the FSB. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of foreign policy analysts and human rights advocates, organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative, called on President Obama to personally condemn the crackdowns on Moscow demonstrations that led to the arrest of a former deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov.

Comment: This is unfortunate and not in Russia’s interest, but public criticism by the American government has about as much affect on Russian internal developments as Russian criticism would have on the American Supreme Court decision to allow political contributions by corporations.

“Maybe the administration feels they have developed a better relationship with Russia, and maybe they have, but there has not been an improvement in Russian behavior; in fact, it has gotten worse,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said in an interview Wednesday.
The senator expressed particular worry about Russia’s crackdown on human rights. He said a recent law passed by Russia’s Duma was “Stalinist” and would give the state the right to arrest “anyone who appears to pose a threat to security.”

Comment: Russian “behavior” is worse that it was when Bush II was president?  When, for example, they invaded Georgia?  Get real!

Mrs. Clinton on Wednesday said the centerpiece of the U.S. reset with Russia was the signing of the nuclear arms control treaty known as New START.
“Actually, I think we’ve had a remarkable year, not only in the reset of our relations with Russia, but in furthering the president’s policy towards nonproliferation and setting a very ambitious goal of moving toward a world without nuclear weapons, one that has been endorsed by leaders in our country on both sides of the aisle,” she said.
Mrs. Clinton pointed to not only the START agreement but also the “strategic dialogue” she chairs with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.

Comment: Are there long-term U.S. interests greater than reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons potentially aimed at us in a verifiable manner? (The Bush-Cheney administration eliminated the extensive verification Reagan and Bush I had negotiated.)Are there short-term interests, so long as we have troops in Afghanistan, greater than having supply bases in Central Asia when the routes through Pakistan are threatened? The “reset” has produced both of these.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley had no immediate response about the report that Lukoil was resuming gasoline sales to Iran.
Lukoil was one of several oil companies that announced in the spring that they were suspending business with Iran, following the U.N. sanctions vote against the Mideast country over its nuclear program.
Reuters reported that Lukoil’s trading arm, Litasco, delivered 250,000 barrels of oil to the Iranian port of Bandar-Abbas last week. The news agency also reported that another shipment was expected to be delivered next week.
A Lukoil spokesman told Reuters that “one-off deliveries [to Iran] took place within the frame of previously signed contracts.”

Comment: If this is true and it was agreed that previous contracts would be honored, then there is no valid story about Russia breaking a sanctions agreement.

In Georgia, the Russian press reported that Russia would be shipping new batteries of the mobile air-defense system known as the S-300 to the disputed territory of Abkhazia, one of two breakaway provinces recognized by Russia as independent countries, but considered by the United States to be Georgian territory.
The announcement of the S-300 sale comes after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Abkhazia on Sunday, marking the second anniversary of the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.
“There have been systems in Abkhazia for two years. We can’t confirm whether they have added to those systems or not,” the State Department’s Mr. Crowley said Wednesday. “So I – we will look into that. But just – this is, by itself, is not necessarily a new development.”

Comment: More Russian anti-aircraft weapons in Abkhazia, if in fact they are being deployed, does not change anything strategically.

Mr. McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that he had just completed a phone call with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.
“I am very worried about the continued violation of the cease-fire agreement negotiated by [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy,” he said. “I am extremely worried about the continued occupation of parts of Georgia that are in violation of the cease-fire lines. They continue to put military equipment into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and they continue to threaten Saakashvili.”
David Kramer, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia during the George W. Bush administration, said it was a mistake for the Obama administration to oversell the reset with Russia.
“My biggest problem with the administration’s policy is not the idea of the reset, but the administration’s overselling it,” he said. “The administration was all giddy about Russian support for the U.N. resolution in New York against Iran. But getting a resolution isn’t the end. It’s a means to the end.”

Comment: Given the sharp, damaging, unnecessary deterioration of relations with Russia when Kramer was a responsible official in the State Department, his belittling of the limited but very important improvements since then is, to put it mildly, lacking in taste. The more fundamental problem is the assumption that the most important element in the U.S. Russian relationship is enforcing sanctions against Iran.  I believe that is a seriously distorted view.  The fact is that sanctions may not deter Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability.  This is something the Russians understand but, apparently, the U.S. fails to grasp.

This article aside, my friend asked me whether the Russians were just being their bloody-minded selves, or whether they want Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.
My answer to those questions would be the following:

1. The Russians are looking after their interests as they see them.  Our behavior affects how they see their interests, and often they may misjudge what is in their interest, just as our government not infrequently misjudges what is in ours.

2. The Russians do not want Iran to get nuclear weapons but are skeptical that sanctions alone will prevent this.  They believe that U.S. and Israeli threats (explicit with Israel; implicit with the U.S.) are what drives the Iranian desire to develop a nuclear capability.

3. Although Iran is a traditional enemy of Russia, economic ties are very important.  For the U.S., they are negligible.  We are, therefore, pressing Russia to pay a tangible price for an outcome they desire but are not convinced that the tactics we are following will be successful.

4. If U.S. policy had been rational, the U.S. would have initiated a strategic dialogue with Iran in the 1990s, when there were possibilities, and certainly before attacking Iraq, when Iran had a moderate government. We didn’t do so. In fact we rejected Iranian overtures. Now we are pressing Russia to pay a heavy economic price in a probably futile effort to stop a program that does not in fact threaten either Russia or the U.S.  (It also does not really threaten Israel; Iran would be insane to attack Israel, and they know it!)

5. So far as Georgia and the Caucasus is concerned, current Russian policy is not in Russia’s long-term interest, but so long as Saakashvili follows all-out anti-Russian policies, they will do what they can to undermine him.  They are likely to have just about as much success as we have had undermning Castro.  I tend to discount Senator McCain’s comments on the subject since it seems that encouragement by either him or his closest advisers played a role in Saakashvili’s decision to attack Tskhinvali and thus provoke the Russian invasion two years ago.
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2 Responses to Russia: Meaning of “Reset”

  1. Brian Runyon says:

    Jack. I take umbridge at Republicans who have the nerve to stall this new Start treaty with Russia, when several democratic and Republican Secretaries of State and National Security Advisers have backed it. They have the gall to challenge Senator Lugar, who has been involved in foreign affairs for years.

  2. Jack says:

    They are not doing the country a service to turn foreign policy and security issues into petty politics.

    When I was working in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, the Democratic leaders worked closely with us on foreign policy issues.

    Things have changed and the nation is a risk as a result.

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