Good Cop, Bad Cop, Consistent US Interests

September 26, 2011

This weekend Russian Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin announced that he will once again seek the presidency, essentially guaranteeing him the position. He pledged, once president, to appoint the current president Dmitri Medvedev as prime minister. This is disappointing for Russian democracy but not unexpected, and should not necessarily entail a downturn in U.S.-Russian relations.

U.S.-Russian relations must be based on U.S. national interests, not personalities – and must aim at building on mutual goals where they exist, pushing back when Russian actions counter U.S. interests, and offering support to Russia’s civil society and democratic activists where we can. The policy of the “reset,” the foundation of the U.S.-Russia relationship under the Obama administration, has proven to be effective at delivering on American and allied interests in Afghanistan, Iran, arms control and elsewhere – and should be the foundation of the relationship going forward.

Interests, not personalities, should drive U.S.-Russia relations. America’s relations with Russia should not be based on trying to look into leaders’ souls, as George W. Bush said he did with Putin.  Walter Russell Read writes in the American Interest, “There seems to be some concern that when President Good Cop switches places with Prime Minister Bad Cop, something important could change in Russian foreign policy. Some feel that Prime Minister Putin’s decision to take off the Medvedev mask and assume direct personal responsibility for the policies that all along he has controlled undercut the case for the reset in US-Russia relations… American officials should stop sentimentalizing our relationship with Russia. Russia is what it is, the logic of international politics is what it is, and Washington’s job is to manage the situation in the light of American interests no matter what soundtrack the Kremlin is playing in any given month. We should cooperate with them where this makes sense – and keep a close eye on our chips.” As Professor Daniel Treisman explains, “the reality is that Putin’s return to the Kremlin will not, in itself, change much. For the last four years, he has made all key decisions, with Medvedev’s advice, and he will continue to do so.” [Walter Russell Mead, 9/26/11. Daniel Treisman, 9/26/11]

The “reset” policy has resulted in concrete gains for U.S. security – this is no time for a “pause.” Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations testified to Congress in July that, “Three years ago, many experts – in both countries — believed that Russian-American relations were in for a prolonged chill. In the wake of Russian aggression against Georgia, some Washington commentators feared that Moscow’s foreign policy might be entering a new phase of confrontation, even conquest. Russian forecasters claimed that the West was out to weaken (and more excitable ones said, to dismember) their country. These expectations have been almost entirely confounded. Russia and the United States have ratified and begun to implement a new treaty on strategic arms reductions. They have cooperated in support of NATO military operations in Afghanistan. They joined in passing a new round of sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council. They have collaborated in efforts to control the proliferation of fissile materials and to limit international narcotics trafficking.”

Sestanovich went on to explain that now is no time for a pause in the relationship and a rollback of progress.  “It does not serve American interests to put on hold the very real cooperation that has been developed over the past two-indeed, the past twenty – years, by presidents of both parties. Our troops in Afghanistan don’t want a ‘pause.’ Our New START treaty inspectors don’t want a ‘pause.’ The NATO ambassadors who traveled from Brussels to Sochi this week to meet with President Medvedev to discuss expanded cooperation also seem to think their work is worth continuing. We need to carry forward the ‘reset’ without pretending that Russia and the United States have attained a greater degree of mutual trust and respect than they have. The ‘reset’ was born of realism about the two sides’ interests and values alike. To keep this policy on a realistic footing in the future, we will have to develop relations step by step.” [Stephen Sestanovich, 7/7/11]

“Reset” is a tool for advancement of U.S. interests – and in the long term, Russian democracy – not appeasement. In a recent essay for Foreign Policy Magazine, Samuel Charap of the Center for American Progress explained the reset: “Let’s first be clear about what the reset is not. It is not a secret weapon to vaporize all those in the Russian security establishment who deeply distrust U.S. intentions and at times act on that mistrust. It is also not a reset of Russia’s political system, some sort of magic wand for effecting instantaneous democratization. What it was, and remains, is an effort to work with Russia on key national security priorities where U.S. and Russian interests overlap, while not hesitating to push back on disagreements with the Kremlin at the same time. The idea is that engagement, by opening up channels of communication and diminishing antagonism, should — over time — allow Washington to at least influence problematic Russian behavior and open up more space in Russia’s tightly orchestrated domestic politics… This diplomatic tactic is not new; it harks back to George Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, and his approach to the Soviet Union.” Charap adds that, “Some of the reset-bashers seem so blinded by their rage that they simply refuse to acknowledge its successes and have conveniently forgotten how disastrous the alternative — an antagonistic U.S.-Russia relationship — is for U.S. national interests and Russia’s own development.” [Samuel Charap, 8/12/11]

What We’re Reading

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia granted women the right to vote and run in future municipal elections.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said he is committed to handing over power to end months of protests against his rule.

Pakistan’s military will not take action against the Haqqani militant group that Washington blames for an attack against its embassy in Kabul.

An Afghan employee killed a U.S. citizen and wounded another before being shot dead at a compound believed to house a CIA station.

Libya’s interim rulers say they have found a mass grave believed to hold the remains of 1,270 inmates killed by Moammar Gaddafi’s security forces in a notorious 1996 massacre at Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison.

The United States launched a series of attacks by unmanned drones on the Somali Islamist group al Shabab, local residents say.

Thirteen suspected Islamist militants and two soldiers have been killed in a clash in the southern Philippines.

European leaders headed home from a weekend of meetings in Washington vowing bolder steps to address widening anxiety about the continent’s debt burden.

The French left claimed control of the Senate, the first time the indirectly elected upper house will not be controlled by the right since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

The two American hikers who were held in Iran on espionage charges arrived in New York City.

Commentary of the Day

Barbara Slavin writes that while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad maintains the conspiracy theories and fiery anti-American rhetoric, the Iranian president is a very diminished figure.

Noah Shachtman examines New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s claim that the NYPD has some means to take down a plane in the event of another terror attack.

Sarah Chayes warns how rampant corruption throughout the world can cause destabilizing effects and threaten the rule of law.

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